Taiko, some speculation about early performance practice on Japanese drums

Adapted from material originally submitted as part an entry to the West Kingdom Royal Arts and Sciences Championship, October 4, 2008

Detail from a folding screen of “Genre Scenes of the Twelve Months”, 16th century, Important Cultural Property A11090, Tokyo National Museum.

Taiko” simply means drum. A terracotta mortuary figure known as a haniwa, depicting a man beating a drum dates to approximately the 6th - 7th century CE.[1] It is not clear whether drumming was indigenous or had roots in China and Korea. Arguments can be made both ways. Suffice to say, the Japanese had drums and used them.

Drums were used in performances of gagaku, the music of the Imperial Court. Heavily influenced by the styles of T’ang China, gagaku dates to the Nara period (710-794 CE) and many musical pieces and some of the dances (bugaku) were preserved by the Court and are still performed today.

Various types of drums were used in Japan prior to 1600. Small rope-tensioned drums such as the ko-tsuzumi and o-tsuzumi (also still used to accompany Noh plays), are beaten with one hand while the ropes can be pressed to vary the pitch of each beat. Somewhat larger rope-tensioned drums might be beaten with sticks. The largest, most familiar form of taiko were simply cut and carved from a single large log, with skins stretched and nailed over each end.

 The Tokyo National Museum owns a 16th century screen depicting scenes of the twelve months. In the detail at the head of this article, drummers and dancers celebrate the lunar New Year. At the left, one man plays a large drum known as an o-daiko. Rows of seated drummers under the open eaves play tzuzumi-type hand drums, while several others play small drums of the shime-daiko type to the left and below the figure carrying the giant red fan. Unlike modern taiko ensembles with massed rows of taiko, this scene shows only one big drum. Taiko were costly and precious and might be the property of a village or shrine.

They might also be the property of a warlord. Drums were used for military purposes as well. Volume 17 of the Zoku Nihon no Emaki shows a pair of men lugging a large drum, beaten by a third as two mounted samurai survey the battlefield from behind tate (standing shields).[2]


“Nobody goes to a taiko concert to listen.”
     - Jeff Shannon Davidson, Kaji Yama Taiko, Oakland and Alameda, California

If you’ve seen taiko drumming in the United States, you’ve experienced a distinctly modern style that derives from the inspiration of a former jazz drummer named Daihachi Oguchi, who passed away earlier this year. In the late 1940s, a relative found what appeared to be an old taiko score in a warehouse and gave it to him to see what he could do with it.

“Oguchi, having a passion for drums and music, but no experience with taiko, wanted to perform the old deciphered music for the Osuwa Shrine. Visiting antique stores and borrowing old drums, he began to build up a collection of drums and a group to play them. After hearing the piece played in its authentic form, Oguchi used his jazz drumming experience to make what he found to be a monotonous piece into something more interesting.”[3] [Emphasis mine]

He jazzed it up, literally. He collected taiko of various sizes and “voices” to be used in an ensemble inspired by the variety of sounds a modern drum kit is capable of.  And of course, he made it showy. The kumi-daiko style was born.

Modern ensemble taiko is part drumming, part dance. It is extremely physical, meant to attract the eye as well as the ear.  

As a novice student of kumi-daiko with an interest in what may have been going on prior to the Edo period (and possible applications for performance within the SCA), I believe we may be able to hazard a clue from observation of gagaku instrumentalists and traditional musicians who provide accompaniment for noh, kyogen and bunraku plays or traditional dance.

Gagaku ensembles represent the formal tradition of the Imperial Court. Imagine fourteen solid minutes of "don-su, don-don-su/don-su, don-don-su" played at a stately pace by a percussionist whose hands barely seem to move. Seven minutes of it can be heard here. 

It is common for stage hands to appear during the action of Japanese plays to hand a character a prop, or take it offstage, the convention being that these assistants are "invisible" to the audience. Likewise, in bunraku (puppet theatre), the puppeteers are "invisible," even as they manipulate their puppets in full view. Having been fortunate enough to attend live performances of kabuki, kyogen and bugaku, I can confirm that after the initial surprise, it is possible to ignore them as one becomes absorbed by the story being performed.

In short, Japan has a classical tradition in which musicians, particularly those accompanying dance or plays limit their movement to that needed to produce the music. Their role is meant to enhance the performance of dancers or actors, not distract the audience from it. 

Folk drummers playing for festivals were also playing for dancers. While the festival scene at the head of this article hints at a more lively style, their purpose differed from that of the modern kumi-daiko ensemble. 

I suspect that prior to the innovations of Oguchi-sensei in the 20th century that Japanese drumming did not include the showy physical routines we have become familiar with in modern taiko performance. 


Bensen, Daniel, Bowdoin Taiko “History of Taiko,” 2005, http://studorgs.bowdoin.edu/taiko/history.html

Malm, William P. Japanese Music and Musical Instruments (Vermont and Tokyo, Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1959.

Rolling Thunder Taiko Resource. http://www.taiko.com/

Genre Scenes of the Twelve Months”, 16th century, Important Cultural Property A11090, Tokyo National Museum. http://www.tnm.go.jp/en/servlet/Con?processId=00&ref=2&Q1=&Q2=&Q3=&Q4=11[34]_____4181_&Q5=&F1=&F2=&pageId=E15&colid=A11090

Imperial Court Ensemble. Gagaku: Ancient Japanese Court and Dance Music (Audio CD, Bescol, 1994) ASIN: B000002NSU 

[1] Ochi, Megumi, “What The Haniwa Have To Say About Taiko’s Roots: The History of Taiko,” at the Rolling Thunder Taiko website.

[2] Bensen, Daniel, Bowdoin Taiko “History of Taiko,” 2005, http://studorgs.bowdoin.edu/taiko/history.html

[3] Robinson, Randall, “Daihachi Oguchi: Taiko Master Silenced.” July 15, 2008 http://www.allaboutjazz.com/php/article.php?id=29948

Copyright 2008 Lisa A. Joseph

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