Rooted in Community: San Jose’s Asian American taiko turns 50

EVOLVING WITH THE BEAT — Today’s San Jose Taiko has evolved to include innovative collaborations, such as “Swingposium” with the Wesley Jazz Band. photo by Mark Larson

1973 — (L to R:) San Jose Taiko founders Rev. Hiroshi Abiko, Dean Miyakusu and Roy Hirabayashi play with Young Buddhists Association members of the San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin. courtesy of Roy Hirabayashi

For half a century, San Jose Taiko has supported San Jose’s Japantown with its driving beats.

Although internationally renown as a performance ensemble, the group has stayed close to its roots in community organizing.

Though much has changed since its inaugural format as an activity for the San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin’s Young Buddhists Association, the group continues to tell the history and stories of the ethnic enclave through two generations of leaders.

“In many ways, we like to say we’re the ‘heartbeat of Japantown;’ we are the musical storytellers of the Japanese American experience through the residents and businesses of Japantown,” Wisa Uemura, the group’s executive director, told the Nichi Bei News.

That connection comes from founder Roy Hirabayashi and longtime Artistic Director PJ Hirabayashi’s work establishing a distinctly Asian American group after Roy’s efforts to help establish ethnic studies at San Jose State University. PJ Hirabayashi told the Nichi Bei News that they were not following a formal school from Japan and organized a group based on their own principles seeking to empower themselves and to create their own identity.

In 1972, Roy Hirabayashi became a youth advisor for the San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin as Rev. Hiroshi Abiko became a minister. In trying to engage younger members of the congregation, they decided to look into taiko after hearing about Kinnara Taiko by Rev. Mas Kodani and Senshin Buddhist Temple in Los Angeles.

“I had never done taiko before. I grew up playing a lot of music, but more Western, nothing Japanese,” Roy Hirabayashi told the Nichi Bei News.

The Sansei musician said he primarily listened to R&B, soul and Latin jazz growing up.

Hirabayashi recruited a friend, Dean Miyakusu, to join him in raising funds for the nascent group, and purchased seven or eight drums in 1973 from Kinnara. After recruiting youth from the Betsuin’s YBA that summer, the group’s first performance was for a Buddhist churches district conference that October.

He said the group did not so much “teach” as hold jamming sessions in the beginning.

The group’s intent shifted, however, from being an activity for youth to performance relatively early in its life. By the beginning of 1974, Hirabayashi said the younger kids left the group once college students started joining from San Jose State University. And after performing at the church’s 1974 Obon, Russell Baba introduced them to Grandmaster Seiichi Tanaka of San Francisco Taiko Dojo, who invited them to take lessons for a year.

Roy Hirabayashi said 20 or so San Jose members initially went up to Taiko Dojo, but Tanaka’s Spartan training regimen quickly reduced the number to half that. Given the casual membership of San Jose Taiko’s players, members continued to meet in San Jose on top of Tanaka’s lessons and the two groups parted ways after a year.

“So we’re really a hybrid of Kinnara Taiko in Los Angeles, who taught us how to make drums and what they’re doing from a very Buddhist perspective — that’s where Rev. Abiko wanted to go — and Seiichi Tanaka introducing us to what he was doing, the Japanese festival drumming style that he brought over from Japan and his style of teaching as well,” Roy Hirabayashi said. “But we realized that we really wanted to do our own music and create our own thing.”

EVOLVING WITH THE BEAT — Today’s San Jose Taiko has evolved to include innovative collaborations, such as “Swingposium” with the Wesley Jazz Band. photo by Mark Larson

That core concept stayed true throughout the Hirabayashis’ tenure as leaders and continues to hold true under its second generation of leadership.

Uemura, who joined at the same time as Artistic Director Franco Imperial in 1998, said their two-year audition process entailed learning about the importance of San Jose Taiko’s place in the Japantown community.

“When we both joined the group way back in 1998, there was this discussion amongst the organization. Are we a community group or are we a professional company?” Imperial said. “But I think where we’ve reconciled … is that we have the organizational heft to be able to be both, to be a professional performing arts company that’s rooted in our Japantown community…. It’s a very symbiotic relationship. Our programs, our artistic vision, is based on our Japantown and Japanese American identity.”

Uemura and Imperial officially took over the group in 2011. However, they said the transition was gradual. The Hirabayashis expressed their intent to retire eight or so years earlier and had gradually worked with the new leaders to ready them for the transition.

“The reason we stepped out … was we felt it was really important that we pass on leadership to the next generation, and at the same time, the two of us wanted to be able to still continue to do taiko in our own way,” Roy Hirabayashi said.

The two, in their early 70s, continue to play and teach taiko. Along with joining San Jose Taiko’s 50th anniversary concert in October of this year, they said they hope to go on tour with their own performances starting in November as well. Roy Hirabayashi said he hoped to tour smaller pockets of Japanese American communities in the United States to share with them the history of taiko as a Japanese American art.

“What we’re feeling right now is, for taiko here in (the) United States, especially, the Japanese American story behind that is being erased,” he said. “The development of taiko in America started in Japanese communities on the West Coast, and so we are interested in going into some of those small communities where maybe taiko had been or really hadn’t … but still to go through to share our stories on what we’ve been doing and what’s been important in the preservation of the Japanese American culture in that way.”

For Uemura and Imperial to take over, however, the Hirabayashis made sure to emphasize their next generation of leaders embodied the same dedication to not only playing the taiko, but their group’s role within the community. PJ Hirabayashi said they developed classes to teach new members about the history of Japantown and taiko.

Roy Hirabayashi said he was pleased with how Uemura, a Hawai‘i-born Yonsei, and Imperial, a Filipino American from Texas, now embody their founding principles as new leaders who have succeeded in bringing their own stories into San Jose Taiko today. Uemura herself considers herself a “caretaker” of the legacy the Hirabayashis created.

Today, as San Jose Taiko readies itself for its next set of programs celebrating their 50th anniversary, Imperial said the group planned a trip to Heart Mountain, Wyo. to allow their performers a better understanding of what the San Jose Japantown community went through during the war. While the group’s changes from its years under the Hirabayashis were gradual, the current leaders said the COVID-19 pandemic caused the greatest amount of upheaval and self-reflection within the organization, including offering them time to reflect on their roles in the community in the absence of performances during the pandemic.

In May, the group plans to hold its third Japantown Immersive program in San Jose’s Japantown.

According to San Jose Taiko’s current leaders, the upcoming program hopes to incorporate storytelling about the community’s history with interactive activities such as cupcake decorating and lessons on Hanafuda.

“With each activation, there’s a story, and there’s a history that’s shared with it. So for example, for Hanafuda, there is the teaching of this card game, but then there’s also the sharing of the history of the gambling that happened in Japantown and how that was an outlet for workers who were not allowed to bring their wives to America and they needed a social outlet,” Imperial said.

Uemura said she looked at her role and Franco’s roles as “caretakers” of the Hirabayashis vision for the organization. She hopes to stay true to the founding principles of the organization throughout her tenure. At the same time, the organization is seeking to grow sustainably, and outwards to embrace collaborations with other artists.

Because of taiko’s noise factor, finding a permanent home for the group has always been difficult.

The founders noted they had started out in the Buddhist church’s gym, but had to often cancel practices if any other events were happening. Uemura remembers a period of time where the group had to move every five years as many warehouses in San Jose were sold and developed in the last few decades.

The group had hoped to build a Creative Center for the Arts as part of a major mixed-use project in the center of the ethnic enclave. While the project is advancing and stakeholders hope to break ground in 2024, Uemura said her organization will be a tenant of the project. They are satisfied with the long-term lease they have secured to give their group long-term stability and a permanent home in Japantown for the first time ever.

Above all, however, Uemura said San Jose Taiko stands at the vanguard of multicultural music.

She said, in celebrating 50 years, it not only means looking back, but also reflecting on the past and future as well.

“For us, 50 years is not only celebrating us, although we are quite happy to celebrate that, but it’s also celebrating the emergence of and celebration of the vibrant and diverse cultural community that exists here in South Bay,” she said.”

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