S.F. Taiko Dojo to move out, but plans to keep drumming

San Francisco Taiko Dojo. file photo

As donations continue to pour into San Francisco Taiko Dojo’s GoFundMe fundraiser, its leaders are looking for a sustainable future for the storied taiko performance group and school.

Ryuma Tanaka, son of Grandmaster Seiichi Tanaka, broke the news to group members Aug. 7 that they had been asked to vacate their South San Francisco studio by the end of the month. Tanaka said he first learned about the impending increase in rent earlier this year, but had kept the news to himself, especially as the group prepared for the LA Taiko Fest held Aug. 6.

“Originally, they wanted us out in June. So I had to really fight hard to at least stay until the end of August, because we had that performance in Little Tokyo,” Tanaka said. “I wanted to make sure our performers were at their best, practicing their best, and mentally ready to put on a great show, because if that was going to be our last performance, I wanted to make sure everyone in L.A. sees us at our best.”

While members were shocked by the news, senior members such as Ryan Kimura sprang into action to plan the next steps after Tanaka revealed the Dojo’s state of affairs. Kimura characterized the news as “a punch to the gut.”

Kimura said he and other senior members held a Zoom call the next day, on Aug. 8, to develop the GoFundMe campaign, which Tanaka helped promote online and through the media. The impromptu fundraiser raised its initial goal of $50,000 in a matter of days, and blew past the second $75,000 goal in just over one week. As of press time, the campaign has raised $83,962 via 713 donors as of Aug. 31.

Tanaka also said the ensuing media attention has granted them a short reprieve, extending their lease through the end of September to give them more time to pack.

Taiko players from across the world have pitched in to help the dojo, which was founded in 1968. Many within the taiko community expressed the difficulty groups like San Francisco Taiko Dojo face.

While Masato Baba was never a Taiko Dojo member, his parents learned under Seiichi Tanaka and started their own group in Shasta, Calif. Baba said he owes his career as a taiko drummer to the dojo.

“I wouldn’t be able to do what I’m doing and most taiko groups out there (in the U.S.) wouldn’t be able to do what they’re doing, just because of the sheer numbers of students that have moved on from his dojo and started their own taiko groups,” Baba said.

Support came from as far as the East Coast with Soh Daiko also contributing to the fund.

“Tanaka-sensei played an instrumental part in Soh Daiko’s formative years and we still pass down many of his teachings to the current members,” Tamiko Ooka, the group’s leader, said in an e-mail to the Nichi Bei Weekly.

While the group now has a healthy reserve of cash, Tanaka stressed that he does not plan on wasting the money they raised. He said he declined to continue to pay high rents at unsustainable rates just to stay open, and said his focus for now is to pack up the Dojo into storage and find a new permanent space, which he recognized is a challenge in the expensive San Francisco area.

“For us to afford anything, it’s gonna have to be, someone reads the newspaper, … or T.V. newscast, and says, ‘Hey, I have a spot, maybe you can use it, let Taiko Dojo use it at a discount,’ because we just can’t afford market rate.”

San Jose Taiko Co-founder Roy Hirabayashi said losing San Francisco Taiko Dojo would be a significant loss to Japanese American culture and heritage.

“S.F. Taiko, Kinnara Taiko and San Jose Taiko are the first three taiko groups to start in North America and probably outside Japan,” Hirabayashi said in an e-mail to the Nichi Bei Weekly, “We are also rooted in the last three Japantowns — Nihonmachi, Little Tokyo and San Jose Japantown. It would be a tragic loss if any pioneer taiko groups had to stop due to a loss of space or financial difficulty.”

Hirabayashi added, however, that finding and maintaining rehearsal space for performance groups is challenging in the region. Taiko groups must not only find affordable spaces, but also find spaces that are either soundproofed or remote enough to not get noise complaints from neighbors.

Still, members are holding out hope that the Dojo can stay in the area.

“I really want Taiko Dojo in Japantown. I feel like that’s where we belong. I feel like there should be a home for us there,” Kimura said. “I do admit, parts of me are holding my breath that something will pop up in J-Town, in terms of a space for us.”

The San Francisco Taiko Dojo had a showroom in the Kinokuniya Building, but the location closed during the pandemic and the Dojo moved out due to nonpayment of rent.

While the dojo hopes to find a space and continue practicing, for now, Tanaka and the group’s members have been focusing on moving out. Kimura noted the advanced class of performers have been coming to practice, but are spending their time packing rather than practicing taiko.

“Right now we’ve planned to put things into public storage units. Some people are taking a few bins here and there into their own garage, but we have a lot of stuff,” Tanaka said. “We have over 100 drums, I mean, God. We’re just digging around and more stuff is coming out, and we’re like, ‘Oh jeez, where did we get this stuff?’”

One source of relief, however, came from Sacramento Taiko Dan and their leader, Tiffany Tamaribuchi. The former Taiko Dojo student agreed to house the group’s giant odaiko, drums made from giant hollowed out tree trunks. Tanaka noted that they had trouble fitting the drums through most doors.Tamaribuchi lamented that the Dojo’s plight is all too common and that taiko groups must constantly contend with finding a decent and safe space to practice where they do not get constant noise complaints. She said her own group has had to move several times over the years as well and had almost lost their current space a few years ago as well.

“I believe San Francisco Taiko Dojo will come through to the other side of this challenge because I believe in the strength of will and character of the members, but I also know that the dojo will need a considerable amount of community support and assistance for this transition to be truly successful,” Tamaribuchi said.

Kimura meanwhile said San Francisco Taiko Dojo intends to keep on drumming.

“If I think back to the history of Taiko Dojo, a lot of times, folks will just bring a drum to a park and they would practice. So even during the beginning of the pandemic, there would be some members who would meet up with one of our instructors at a local park and they would bring a drum and that’s how they would practice,” Kimura said. “So, I think, we’re lucky in the sense of that, we can be creative and we don’t really take no for an answer. So we don’t stop. I think we have a lot of fighters in the group, which is great. So we’re going to find a way to keep practicing, that’s for sure.”

For more information, or to contribute to San Francisco Taiko Dojo’s fundraiser, visit https://www.gofundme.com/f/help-taiko-dojo.

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