A tribute to pioneers of taiko movement in U.S., PJ and Roy Hirabayashi


HEADING INTO ‘RETIREMENT’ — Roy and PJ Hirabayashi, founders of one of the first taiko groups in the U.S., San Jose Taiko, pose next to an original taiko drum they made by hand. photo by Jessica Savage/ Nichi Bei Weekly

HEADING INTO ‘RETIREMENT’ — Roy and PJ Hirabayashi, founders of one of the first taiko groups in the U.S., San Jose Taiko, pose next to an original taiko drum they made by hand. photo by Jessica Savage/Nichi Bei Weekly

PALO ALTO, Calif. — A merry group of people enjoyed food, drinks and taiko while they reminisced with San Jose Taiko’s founders, PJ and Roy Hirabayashi, on a beautiful summer’s eve Aug. 21 at Stanford University. The party offered an opportunity for old and new friends to unwind after the 2011 North American Taiko Conference (which took place Aug. 18-21, also at the university).

It was one of four good luck parties held in the couple’s honor after they stepped down from the group in July.

“And of course, what would a taiko party be without taiko drums?” asked Roy, founder emeritus. Guests were invited to hold an open jam session on the patio where taiko drums had been arranged. The guests of honor themselves did not perform, however, as they had to make their rounds to everyone in attendance.

Displays decorated the room showing PJ and Roy’s past 38 years of dedication to their group, and included past costumes, drums and props. There was also a slideshow of photographs.

It has been quite a year for the couple, with both having just celebrated their 60th birthdays and being named 2011 NEA National Heritage Fellows.

They met in 1969 in a computer class at San Jose State University, and four years later founded San Jose Taiko in 1973. Now 38 years later, they reflected upon memories and looked ahead to future possibilities.

When the Hirabayashis founded San Jose Taiko, it was one of the first taiko groups in the United States; PJ and Roy are considered among the pioneers of the taiko movement in America.

Reiko Iwanaga, lead choreographer of the San Jose Bon Odori, said, “Since they were one of the first three taiko troupes, they’ve led the taiko movement.” Iwanaga added, their “artistic decisions to include diverse musical genres and instruments have certainly changed the standard definition of taiko. Additionally, they established an administrative and organizational order that is to be admired (as it’s often lacking in arts groups).”

Former San Jose Taiko member Toni Yagami (1988-1995) said, “Taiko would not be where it is without PJ and Roy Hirabayashi.”

Michelle Honda Phillips, the daughter of Rep. Michael Honda, was one of the original members of San Jose Junior Taiko. She performed with the group from 1985 to 1995. She recalls asking Roy for permission to attend a school dance more often than her father, because practice was usually on Friday nights. “With them they were never discriminating, anyone who felt with taiko in their hearts was welcomed,” said Honda Phillips.

PJ and Roy’s legacy extends beyond their influence with the group. Cheryl Fong, another former San Jose Taiko member (1983-1988) said, “It is not just a connection to the audience but to the community, and San Jose Taiko has and will continue to evolve because they kept it going for 40 years.” Fong said that the original members of San Jose Taiko were all a part of the community, and as a result, the group contributes to the community on many levels.

Iwanaga said, “PJ and Roy have established [a] precedent in generously offering the San Jose Taiko troupe to perform for many community events without a performance fee. Nothing brings more attention to an event than to have San Jose Taiko open it.” She added, “PJ’s choreographed number, “Ei Ja Nai Ka,” has become the signature dance that brings in all age groups and ethnicities as participants. We have even seen a collaboration of Chidori Band and San Jose Taiko on one number and that is the essence of cooperation and innovation that I appreciate.”

The Hirabayashis have also contributed to the Japanese American Museum of San Jose. Aggie Idemoto, the president of the museum, said, “[They] instilled [a] sense of community by performing at JAMsj’s groundbreaking and grand opening ceremonies. Japanese American Museum of San Jose considers San Jose Taiko ‘friends.’”

The Hirabayashis have even helped to shape the Japanese American identity through taiko. Kathy Sakamoto, a member of the Japantown Community Congress of San Jose, said, “Since both PJ and Roy were very involved in the early days of the Asian American Movement, their value system includes the history and culture of the USA and this has informed their actions and the way they’ve nurtured their students, volunteers and performers.”

Iwanaga added, “They have increased the awareness that the Japanese American personae are layered and varied. They demonstrate the American aspects of a Japanese heritage and do represent the Japanese American community most favorably.”

While PJ and Roy have retired, they continue to serve as a voice for the Japanese American community. Currently Roy is the president of the Japantown Community Congress of San Jose, involved in 1stACT Silicon Valley, an arts organization in San Jose and a part of the California Japanese American Community Leadership Council. PJ is active in many local groups while being a leader in creating new artistic works. Most recently she performed at the San Jose Jazz Festival with Brenda Wong Aoki and Mark Izu.

Iwanaga said, “Both bring a compassionate and spiritual conscience to all activities in the community.”

“It really looks like they may be even more involved than they have been!” added Sakamoto. “The future looks bright!”



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