PLAYING FOR COMMUNITY: San Jose Taiko founders P.J. and Roy Hirabayashi

Known both locally and internationally, P.J. and Roy Hirabayashi were among the latest inductees to the Hokka Nichibei Kai (Japanese American Association of Northern California) Bunka Hall of Fame during its annual New Year’s party Jan. 28, alongside fellow San Jose’s Japantown cultural arts icon Reiko Iwanaga (Reimichi Hanayagi). The Hirabayashis, founders of San Jose Taiko, were among the pioneering leaders of taiko performance groups in the United States, and are also leaders within San Jose’s Japantown community.

“I can cite the numerous awards that they have already received, but … it’s more important to speak about their character and values, especially those that have influenced San Jose Taiko,” said Wisa Uemura, the group’s executive director. “These values are: community building, perseverance, humility, respect, empowerment and gratitude. With these values, San Jose Taiko performers know that we are part of something larger than ourselves and personal interest.”

“They have been very active within the community,” judo legend Yoshihiro Uchida said. “Every time they have a Bon Odori or they have festivities, they were always out there — out front, helping out, volunteering their time, making the celebration … something people would enjoy.” Uchida, who nominated the Hirabayashis for the award, said they deserve the recognition because they also represent the ethnic enclave at a national level, traveling around the country to perform.

Roy Hirabayashi said he started organizing the group in 1973 out of San Jose State University. “As a Japanese American Sansei, I wanted to find out more about my roots,” he told the Nichi Bei Weekly in 2014. Among the early progenitors of taiko performances, Hirabayashi approached their performances with a focus on Asian American identity, and the group continues to play a central role in San Jose’s Japantown community, as evidenced by their participation in the community’s annual Bon Odori.

In being inducted into the Bunka Hall of Fame, the Hirabayashis treated the recognition as a community recognition.

“It’s not just a recognition of ourselves in the taiko community but a recognition of San Jose Japantown,” P.J. Hirabayashi said. She described the collaborative efforts artists and community members put forth in the ethnic enclave, as seen during the annual San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin Obon. “Just before Obon, we’ll get together and practice with the community. Sometimes, San Jose Taiko, along with Reiko (Iwanaga, who choreographs the annual dance), will come together and create new arrangements of old … songs and make some new songs.”

The Hirabayashis, alongside Iwanaga, performed an arrangement of “Ei Ja Nai Ka” to demonstrate that sense of collaboration at the party. “Of course, most of you folks might know, in the colloquial (the title means), ‘aw, what the heck!’ I like to regard this in the literal sense of ‘isn’t it good?’” she said. “It’s in the depths of darkness that everything and all is good. That’s a theme of Obon and how we work together in San Jose Japantown.”

“Ei Ja Nai Ka,” created by P.J. Hirabayashi in 1994, is a song and dance dedicated to her grandparents’ generation, but the song has since taken on a life of its own. It is performed around the world, and embodies the somewhat confusing concept of dancing for joy despite hardship. Hirabayashi said the song is used as a tool for community building and bridging cultures with people internationally. “‘Ei Ja Nai Ka’ has its continuing rippling effects throughout the world. In Japan, there’s a Japanese American English teacher who was there when the tsunami hit, and she asked to dance ‘Ei Ja Nai Ka’ and teach it to her community right after the tsunami,” she said. Similarly, the piece continues to be danced and enjoyed by people in occupied-Palestine and its native San Jose alike, she added.

“It’s also exciting to see the growth of taiko in North America and around the world. We’re proud to have been able to share the Japanese culture and Japanese American community in many other communities across the country,” Roy Hirabayashi said after receiving the award. “It has been our life work to support the future of our Japantowns, especially San Jose Japantown.” He pledged he would continue to share his heritage with the rest of the country.

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