Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
Japanese American EthnicityIn Search of Heritage and Homeland Across Generations$

Takeyuki Tsuda

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9781479821785

Published to NYU Press Scholarship Online: May 2017

DOI: 10.18574/nyu/9781479821785.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM NYU Press SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.nyu.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright University of NYU Press, 2022. All Rights Reserved. An individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in NYSO for personal use. Subscriber: null; date: 25 June 2022

Performative Authenticity and Fragmented Empowerment through Taiko

Performative Authenticity and Fragmented Empowerment through Taiko

(p.225) 7 Performative Authenticity and Fragmented Empowerment through Taiko
Japanese American Ethnicity

Takeyuki Tsuda

NYU Press

Abstract and Keywords

For Japanese Americans, taiko provides an authentic experience of ethnic heritage even though it is not an unchanged cultural tradition that provides a direct link to an ethnic homeland or an ancient past. The remaking of traditional taiko by Japanese Americans involves a performative authenticity that demonstrates how taiko resonates with their current lives, and allows them to display ethnic and gender identities in ways that challenge demeaning stereotypes of Asian Americans. Taiko can thereby be personally empowering. At the same time, however, taiko’s reception by American audiences reinscribes Orientalizing discourses that racially essentialize Japanese Americans as the exotic Other. Therefore, taiko can also be disempowering at the collective level.

Keywords:   ethnic heritage, tradition, authenticity, taiko, performativity

Tradition and Authenticity

As discussed in the previous chapter, cultural traditions from the ethnic homeland are constantly reconfigured not only though time but also through space. Recreated in the present, such traditions travel across national borders through the diaspora and are appropriated and remade by co-ethnics in other countries. In addition to being subject to the contingencies of history and different social contexts, musical traditions such as taiko are also constantly reworked through individual performativity, which introduces innovations that transform originally inherited forms.

However, if traditions never remain the same but are always in flux, the issue of cultural authenticity arises. This is especially the case for taiko, which has spread throughout the Japanese diaspora, which consists of Japanese descendants (nikkei) scattered across the Americas. As it has traveled from the ethnic homeland and been remade in numerous countries, many different versions of taiko have been created that are embedded in various social and historical contexts. So are certain taiko traditions more authentic than others? Are older cultural traditions perceived to be more authentic than newer ones because of their greater historical continuity with the past? For diasporic descendants like the Japanese Americans, are traditions that closely resemble cultural forms from the ethnic homeland considered to be more authentic? If so, is their attempt to reconnect with their ancestral heritage by completely recreating and reinventing homeland traditions tinged with a nagging sense of insincerity and falsehood?

Issues related to tradition and authenticity are definitely on the minds of Japanese American taiko drummers, as indicated in interviews and online blogs. If Japanese American taiko is “all made up” and “there is (p.226) nothing really traditional about it at all,” as the founders of Kinnara Taiko freely admit, how can it feel ethnically authentic? “Because taiko has developed into a Japanese American kind of westernized art, it gives you the illusion of getting in touch with your roots,” Steve Okura of Asayake Taiko observed. Nonetheless, if later-generation Japanese Americans are seeking to truly recover the ethnic roots and ancestry that they have lost over the generations, taiko performances cannot feel fabricated and inauthentic.

As a result, there are some Japanese American taiko players who attempt to achieve a certain cultural authenticity by drawing from taiko as practiced in the Japanese homeland. However, authenticity is not simply based on the unchanging nature of cultural traditions or their ability to provide a direct link to an ancient and pristine past. Instead, the remaking of traditional taiko among later-generation Japanese Americans also produces a type of performative authenticity that makes taiko resonate with their current lives and feel more real. Therefore, the nostalgic yearning for ethnic heritage involves both recovering the past as well as reconstituting it in the present. Taiko’s performative authenticity is quite empowering on a personal level, allowing Japanese Americans to display ethnic and gender identities that challenge and undermine demeaning stereotypes of Asian Americans. However, despite its subversive potential, taiko’s reception by American audiences reproduces Orientalizing discourses that racially essentialize Japanese Americans as the exotic, Asian Other and is rather disempowering at the collective level.

Authenticity, Origins, and Homeland

Authenticity is a sense of genuineness or realness (Erickson 1995, Steiner and Reisinger 2006:299), which is usually based on a connection with historical origins (Linnekin 1991:446). Since authenticity is associated with the preservation and persistence of traditional forms, contemporary cultural performances that faithfully reproduce what was originally practiced in some distant past are often understood to be more authentic. As some scholars note (Chhabra, Healy, and Sills 2003:703; Taylor 2001:14–15), past research on tourism regarded what is staged, performed, and recreated as distorted and modified social constructions and thus fake and inauthentic deviations from the real (MacCannell (p.227) 1973). As a result, the remaking of traditional forms implicitly becomes associated with a lack of authenticity. In fact, Eric Hobsbawm (1983:8) contrasts invented traditions with “genuine traditions” that apparently have an unbroken continuity with the past and have not been recreated or remade, implying that the former are inauthentic. In contrast, Richard Handler and Jocelyn Linnekin argue that since all cultural traditions constantly change and are thus symbolic constructions, there are no genuine and spurious traditions and that instead, “authenticity is always defined in the present” (1984:286).

More recent research has moved away from realist conceptions of authenticity based on objectivist assessments about whether cultural practices accurately reflect original forms (Kim and Jamal 2007:183; Wang 1999:351). Instead, it has emphasized authenticity as a subjective, experiential state, referred to as “existential authenticity” (Erickson 1995; Kim and Jamal 2007; Steiner and Reisinger 2006; Wang 1999). Authenticity becomes a process of self-realization and identity-formation depending on whether cultural performances feel genuine and real to those participating in them. As shown in heritage tourism, the search for authentic experiences often involves delving into the distant past in order to return to cultural origins where one’s true self and identity can apparently be found (Chhabra 2003; McIntosh and Prentice 1999; Steiner and Reisinger 2006:309; Taylor 2001). Tourists see heritage sites and cultural practices as more or less authentic depending on how closely they believe they reproduce conditions from the past (Waitt 2000; Chhabra 2003).

In this sense, authenticity becomes an object of nostalgic desire, a longing for a more traditional past that has disappeared due to the apparent ravages of modernity. In this sense, the search for ethnic heritage among Japanese Americans is also an attempt to reconnect with an authentic cultural past that has been lost because of generations of assimilation in the United States. Nostalgia is predicated on loss, since one can yearn only for something that has disappeared or is in danger of disappearing. It is precisely the cultural assimilation of later-generation Japanese Americans that produces a nostalgic desire to recover a cultural heritage that can form the basis for ethnic authenticity.

Insofar as authenticity is rooted in the distant past, older cultural traditions have a greater claim to authenticity than newer ones because of their (p.228) presumed connections to origins. As a result, they often become the basis for the experience of ethnic heritage. For diasporic groups that have been scattered around the world, time itself is mapped onto space, so that the ethnic homeland is seen as the source of ethnic authenticity and heritage because it is where cultural traditions originated in the past. Newer cultures in the diaspora are thus positioned as less authentic, or even inauthentic when compared to those of the homeland. As Joni Jones points out (2002:12), the hyphen (for peoples labeled “Asian-American” or “Japanese-American”) creates a sense of inauthenticity, so that their diasporic cultures are perceived as derivative modifications of the original and thus less genuine than the cultures of Asians and Japanese (Wong 2005:88).

In this context, Japanese Americans, especially the yonsei, look to their ancestral homeland of Japan as the place of origin where authentic ethnic traditions from the past can be found. They judge cultural practices as more or less genuine based on whether they resemble those in the ancestral homeland, a tendency also found in other Japanese American community activities, such as beauty pageants.1 As Angela Ahlgren indicates, those engaged in taiko are no exception: “North American taiko players, regardless of their own connection to the Japanese diaspora, look to Japan as an artistic homeland, a source of authenticity, and a site of inspiration” (2011:61).

This is aptly illustrated by Seiichi Tanaka, the Japanese immigrant regarded as the “father of North American taiko.” Before he introduced taiko to the United States, he first returned to Japan to train with kumi-daiko masters in his homeland. Subsequently, his San Francisco Taiko Dojo ensemble and school adopted the Japanese repertoire and performance style, are organized according to traditional Japanese hierarchical relations, and use “genuine” taiko drums from Japan. Tanaka also employs very disciplined and rigorous training methods and intensive physical conditioning (which he refers to as “no pain, no gain”) akin to those of Japanese professional taiko ensembles. Former students recall his training as exhausting, grueling, and painful.

Because Tanaka is associated with older taiko traditions from the original homeland, he has become the arbiter of authenticity in America and “affirms that having roots in Japanese taiko should be the criterion that distinguishes ‘real’ or ‘genuine’ taiko” (Ahlgren 2011:26, 70–71; Konagaya 2001:119–120). As Deborah Wong observes:

(p.229) [Tanaka’s] teaching style is considered particularly rigorous, and American taiko players think of any training with him as a mark of authority. Although he is not regarded as the only source of “authentic” taiko in North America, his lineage carries a particular weight even though it is not always explicitly recognized as a link to Sukeroku [one of the original Japanese taiko groups that he trained with]. (2005:80; emphasis in the original)

Thus, for instance, a prominent New York taiko group’s affiliation with Tanaka and Japanese taiko ensembles like Kodo is seen as a link to Japan and gives the group an aura of authenticity (Yoon 2001:424). Since older traditions (kumi-daiko in Japan) are often considered more “traditional” than recent ones (kumi-daiko in the United States), the latter often claim a connection with the former in order to gain greater authority and authenticity.

In addition, a number of Japanese American taiko players have gone to Japan and lived there for an extended period of time to study taiko from the original source, which gives their playing authentic credibility (Carle 2008:19). The most prominent example is Kenny Endo, a well-known taiko musician. As a result of Tanaka’s vast influence as well as those who have studied in Japan, virtually all North American taiko groups owe a tremendous musical and stylistic debt to Japanese professional taiko groups, especially Sukeroku (Wong 2005:85).

However, not all Japanese American taiko players are concerned about authenticity. Some well-known taiko ensembles such as Kinnara, On Ensemble, and TAIKOPROJECT see themselves as more “progressive” and do not claim any connection to Japan or to traditional Japanese taiko. Instead, they pride themselves for being innovative by actively incorporating rhythms, instruments, and performing styles that move away from Japanese ones. One blogger has weighed in on comments posted about cultural tradition and authenticity in taiko by declaring that he does not care much about the issue because he is simply playing taiko to have fun. “If you get too obsessed about authenticity, it becomes restrictive and takes the fun out of it,” he opined.2

In fact, there is some tension between taiko players who are supportive of the more progressive groups and those who are self-professed traditionalists and judge taiko groups based on a scale of relative authenticity (p.230) where Japan continues to be the benchmark for what is considered real, “traditional” taiko. Steve Okura of UCSD’s Asayake Taiko described his view of the issue in this manner:

I have pretty mixed feelings about the issue of “diluting” the original Japanese culture. Some people feel taiko should be strictly Japanese and that there are certain styles that are traditional and they try to focus on those. … I think taiko has to be inclusive of other cultures, because for me, it has grown from something that was strictly Japanese to really an international art form. But there are those with classical training, who are like, “I grew up this way. Taiko should be this way.”

In fact, the more progressive and innovative groups can receive criticism and pressure from others for not being sufficiently “authentic” and “traditional,” although such concerns seems to be somewhat waning recently. This was initially a source of tension between Seiichi Tanaka and Kinnara Taiko. As described in the previous chapter, when Tanaka first saw Kinnara members practicing, he claimed that that they were not playing real Japanese taiko at all. He did not want them to use the word “taiko,” but instead to refer to what they were doing as “drumming” (JANM interviews). Roy Hirabayashi also had to deal with such issues when San Jose Taiko was first forming:

So I think San Jose Taiko’s style of music became a very world musical form. … [We] really incorporated a lot of different things. We got into trouble early on because people, the traditionalists, were complaining that you can’t use a tambourine with taiko or a cowbell. That’s not taiko. People were kind of getting down on us for that kind of stuff. (JANM interview)

The irony of this nostalgic yearning on the part of some Japanese Americans for an authentic tradition of taiko from their ancestral homeland is that the ensemble taiko tradition in Japan is itself relatively new, as noted in the previous chapter, and predates the Japanese American taiko tradition by only about twenty years. Moreover, Japanese kumi-daiko is a radically remade tradition and has little resemblance to the taiko of old Japan. In fact, Japanese taiko ensembles themselves do not (p.231) make any specific claims to an inherited, ancient tradition (Bender 2012: ch. 4). This again indicates how the ethnic homeland, solely because of its privileged status as the place of ancestral origin, becomes the arbiter of authenticity, even if its cultural traditions are very recent and not very “traditional” per se. In diasporic contexts, space becomes a greater determinant of what is considered authentic than time.

Performative Authenticity

The search for ethnic authenticity and heritage does not simply involve nostalgically reaching out to the homeland and to the past. Although cultural performances that seemingly reproduce older cultural traditions from the country of ancestral origin can be subjectively experienced as more authentic than newer traditions remade in the diaspora, this is not always the case. More recent traditions can sometimes feel more real and authentic than those inherited from the distant past because their improvisational nature and possibilities for innovation make them more relevant to individuals’ contemporary histories, identities, and cultures. Because of the performative agency inherent in newer, recreated traditions like Japanese American taiko, they can be adapted to current conditions and therefore resonate with personal experiences and concerns to a greater extent, therefore making them feel more real and genuine.3 According to Tom Sumimoto, a University of California at San Diego student who used to be part of a community taiko group, “I think taiko is a good example of how Japanese culture progresses and is changed over time by people who sustain it into the future. You’re not forced to stick to a regressed tradition, but you can keep changing and adapting it.”

I use the term performative authenticity to refer to the feeling of genuineness produced by the innovative and adaptable nature of remade traditions. Innovation and change are not incompatible with authenticity (Johnson 2008:125) since it is precisely discontinuities with the past that can be the basis for the subjective experience of authenticity. In fact, the mechanical re-enactment of outdated, past traditions from another time or country, which have little relevance to people’s contemporary cultures and identities, can reinforce feelings of estrangement and alienation. In such cases, individuals may simply go through the motions to faithfully (p.232) replicate these ancient cultural forms, but do not realize their true selves through such rote practices, leaving them feeling inauthentic and false.

Therefore, despite being a substantial modification of the original Japanese version, Americanized taiko still feels very authentic to later-generation Japanese Americans. Just because a tradition is recent and “invented,” it is not necessarily experienced as fake and inauthentic. Instead, the performative and innovative nature of American taiko makes it feel more attuned to their personal lives and current circumstances in ways that seem more genuine.4 “I don’t see how you can be a purist with taiko,” Mas Kodani remarked. “It’s made up. And if it’s authentic, it’s made up of where you come from. [We] were raised in a different musical background, so it has to be this way” (JANM interview). PJ Hirabayashi spoke about her experiences as follows:

For me, the realness factor of American taiko was that taiko in America allowed me to experience and understand my identity as a Japanese American. … American taiko was very real, an instrument of expression that unleashed our historical oppression in America. We were able to openly celebrate our diversity while reverberating joy and empowerment for all to see. (Quoted in Carle 2008:23–24; emphasis in the original)

The modern, performative authenticity of taiko is one reason for its appeal among Japanese American youth. Taiko is often described by fourth-generation yonsei as “cool,” “hip,” “flashy,” “trendy,” and even “sexy,” words that would never be used to describe other types of classical Japanese music or traditional art forms, indicating how its performativity resonates with their current lives and identities as modern youth.

Therefore, the experience of ethnic authenticity is not always based on unaltered, past traditions inherited from the ethnic homeland but can arise precisely from their performative and remade nature. Performativity also shifts the authority over authenticity from the homeland to diasporic descendants, who are able to adapt traditional homeland cultures for contemporary purposes. For example, when PJ Hirabayashi initially studied taiko with Seiichi Tanaka, she quickly realized that she would never be able to play the instrument like a Japanese person does in Japan. This empowered her to develop a more personally authentic (p.233) taiko style that was relevant to her own musical background and sensibilities. According to her, “Our music has to be a reflection of who we are, our expression, our voice, our creativity, our stories, our experiences” (quoted in Powell 2008:917). According to Angela Ahlgren, “Rather than measure themselves against an elusive, yet seemingly fixed, quality of Japaneseness, San Jose Taiko sought to create their own authentic practice. … Their adopting the term ‘Asian American taiko’ was in part a way to forge their own authenticity, based on their own experiences as Asians in the U.S.” (2011:69–70)

Likewise, although American ensembles generally do not play on “authentic” drums imported from Japan, this does not make their music feel any less genuine. On the contrary, because Japanese Americans construct their own drums, they are more personally and spiritually connected to the instruments, which can produce a more real and authentic musical experience (Konagaya 2001:120). The fact that they also compose their own pieces inspired by their American musical backgrounds and even make their own happi outfits further enhances the performative authenticity of their brand of taiko.

Because of its performative flexibility, taiko feels more authentically real for later-generation Japanese Americans than other traditional Japanese art forms such as flower arrangement, classical dance, tea ceremonies, and calligraphy, which seem to involve the mechanical reproduction of staid and antiquated traditions. A number of women taiko players have mentioned that they have never felt any enthusiasm or personal connection with these traditional Japanese activities. “I couldn’t get into classical dancing,” PJ Hirabayashi remarked. “I could not get into flower arranging or tea ceremony. It was just not me” (JANM interview). Another female taiko player had a similar experience: “When I had to grow up, I took odori [traditional Japanese dancing]. And I just remember having to put on the kimono and get my hair done, and I just felt this was so unnatural. This is not me” (quoted in Izumi 2001:45). In contrast, when they first saw or tried taiko, it immediately spoke to their hearts and cultural sensibilities in a much more direct way.

This performative authenticity of taiko is ultimately the reason for its effectiveness as a means to reconnect with ethnic heritage and roots. Instead of experiencing taiko as an ancient tradition from a distant land, later-generation Japanese Americans have taken possession of it as part (p.234) of their own contemporary ethnic backgrounds and histories in ways that feel more pertinent and real (Konagaya 2001:121).

Although existential authenticity has been conceptualized as a nostalgic longing for a traditional past and a reaction against the changes of modernity (Kim and Jamal 2007:189, 194; Wang 1999:360–361), authenticity should not always be opposed to modernity. Some traditions like taiko have an inherent dynamism which makes them compatible with the perturbations of modernity, and therein lies their authenticity as experience. Indeed, the performative authenticity of taiko arises from its apparent fusion of tradition and modernity as past cultural forms are reshaped in the present (Clifford 2004:156–159). On the surface, taiko appears to be the epitome of Japanese tradition, with drums, costumes, and music that resemble ancient Japan and its old-fashioned festivals. As Steve Okura described it, taiko is “seemingly so traditional and primitive” and it provides a nostalgic connection to the past. Yet, at the same time, it can also be modernized through innovation and performativity to bring it up to date with the contemporary world. For Japanese Americans, therefore, taiko speaks to their modern lives while allowing them to remain in touch with traditional culture and ethnic ancestry.

Ultimately, the authentic experience of ethnic heritage and roots depends on a delicate balance between tradition and modernity, past and present. If a cultural performance is too rigidly tied to antiquated and ancient traditions and has nothing to do with the modern world, individuals will not feel any genuine affinity to it. On the other hand, if a cultural performance is too innovative and provides no link with past forms of tradition, it feels fabricated and fake vis-à-vis the tradition and cannot become a source of ancestral heritage. As a result, Kenny Endo argues that all performative innovations must be based on an older, traditional foundation: “If you have no foundation, no basis [in tradition], and you start creating something new from there, it’s going to lack authenticity as well as quality” (Wong 2005:88). The dynamic balance between tradition and modernity is the essence of ethnic authenticity, which involves performative cultural experiences that are relevant for the present but remained cloaked in the nostalgia of the past.

(p.235) Performativity and Personal Empowerment

Performativity does not simply reconfigure cultural traditions and allow people to nostalgically reconnect with ethnic heritage and roots. It also has broader social ramifications, since all cultural performances engage audiences and thus have public effects. As a performance, taiko has also become a form of personal empowerment for Japanese Americans, which enables them to challenge the ethnic and gender stereotypes through which Asian Americans have been commonly represented. In fact, Min Zhou and Jennifer Lee (2004:17) claim that the production of Asian American youth culture is partly an attempt to counteract racial stereotypes. This illustrates how the performative authenticity of remade traditions can serve a double function: while allowing Japanese Americans to reconstitute the past as a source of genuine cultural heritage, the nostalgic longing for an authentic ethnicity also enables them to contest how they have been falsely constituted in the present by displaying the true nature of their ethnic (and gender) identities through their performances.

As Judith Butler emphasizes (1990, 1996, 2010), performativity has the potential to subvert and reconstitute hegemonic ethnic and gender categories. Performativity theory is in some ways an alternative to the social overdetermination found in classic structuralist and poststructuralist theories, which view the subject as being so thoroughly constituted by culture, hegemonic discourses, and relations of power that resistance and transformation through agency and practice become nearly impossible. In contrast, Butler’s notion of performativity shifts the emphasis away from the determinism of prescribed structures and hegemonic categories and stresses their active production through iterative practices. Gender categories and identities are performatively constituted because normative and essentialized conceptions are constantly destabilized and reconfigured through their constant repetition, which introduces the possibility of variation, subversion, and the failure to reproduce prescribed injunctions and ideals. Therefore, gender categories and identities are never fully constituted since their coherence is constantly contested and never fixed. By stressing that there is no “I” that precedes performative enactment but that identity is an effect of performances, (p.236) Butler perhaps ascribes too much agency to individuals to create themselves through their reiterative acts.

As a cultural performance, taiko has the potential to disrupt prevailing ethnic and gender categories because its power, loudness, and masculine physicality allow later-generation Japanese Americans to subvert the ways in which they have been stereotypically represented as passive and docile model minorities. The performativity of taiko confers upon them the power to constitute authentic ethnic and gender identities on their own terms and present them to their audiences.

However, the performative authenticity and personal empowerment embedded in taiko are not simply a product of their reiterative nature, but are further accentuated when taiko is enacted in the United States, in completely different racial and ethnic contexts than in Japan. Taiko does not appear radical or transformative in Japan, where it is connected to the revival of ancient festival traditions and is becoming increasingly standardized for nationalist purposes (Bender 2012: ch. 7). However, it takes on new meanings in the United States, where it becomes a way to defy ethnic stereotypes that do not exist in Japan. Its repetitive nature enhances these subversive possibilities because the new performative meanings are repeated over and over and thus literally hammered home, so to speak.

Therefore, the performative agency of cultural traditions is enhanced when they are taken up by diasporic subjects in other countries and enacted outside the original sociocultural context of the ethnic homeland. This is why a nostalgic yearning for an authentic ethnic tradition ironically empowers Japanese Americans to contest conventional ethnic and gender stereotypes in the United States.

Empowerment refers to the ability of individuals or groups to control and influence social outcomes through active participation (Cole 2006:95–97; Fetterman 2005:72; Sofield 2003:79; Zimmerman 2000:43, 48). The concept is often applied to local communities and organizations in anthropological studies of power and development (James 2000; Werbner 2000), research and intervention programs (Fetterman 2005; Zimmerman 2000), cultural tourism research (Scheyvens 1999; Sofield 2003), and studies of ethnic and indigenous minorities (Gaidzanwa 2000; Sofield 2003:86-90). Empowerment can occur among individuals, organizations, or communities (Zimmerman 2000) and can be psychological, social, economic, or political in nature (Scheyvens 1999). I find (p.237) it useful to distinguish between personal empowerment at the individual, psychological level, and collective empowerment at the social group level.

Defying Asian American Stereotypes

Japanese American taiko players often feel personally empowered through their performances, which are not only a source of self-esteem and cultural pride, but also a way of defying ethnic stereotypes. Because taiko is loud, physically demonstrative, and visually stunning, it counteracts a number of dominant images of Asian Americans, who have often been rendered politically and socially invisible and silent, their voices excluded from mainstream society (Zhou and Lee: 2004:19). In contrast, taiko draws attention to Asian Americans and demands that they be seen and heard (Yoon 2001:418, 424). In this sense, taiko performances have the potential to be ethnically subversive, unlike Japanese tea ceremonies, flower arrangement, and calligraphy, which value silence and refined body movements (Konagaya 2001:117).

A number of Japanese Americans spoke about how taiko challenges prevalent stereotypes of them as quiet, hardworking model minorities who are submissive and not confrontational (see also Terada 2001:41). When asked about what Kinnara Taiko was reacting against, George Abe answered as follows:

I think the idea of the “model minority” as hardworking, sharp, intelligent, but quiet. … So people kind of step on you, but you remain quiet about it. So I think finding a voice was important for us. To find that, “Hey, we’re not all quiet. Some of us are wild. Some of us …” We need to be loud. We need to make demands. We need to be heard. (JANM interview)

Such meanings of taiko are also connected to the activism and political movements of the 1960s and 1970s to which it partly traces its origins. Therefore, taiko personally empowers later-generation Japanese Americans to explore and express a more positive and genuine ethnic identity.

In addition, the remaking of taiko by Japanese Americans as a joyful and fun performance, in contrast to the serious and disciplined manner (p.238) in which it is played in Japan, also counters popular stereotypes of Asians as stoic and unemotional (Powell 2008:912–913, Yoon 2001:424–425). Finally, since taiko is a very masculine type of performance that requires considerable strength and stamina, it may also be a way for Asian American men to counteract images that portray them as effeminate, small, and weak (Konagaya 2005:134–135). “Because of images of Asian men as kind of wimpy with really flimsy physiques, to be able to play taiko is very empowering,” Steve Okura noted. “A Japanese American [playing taiko] is buff, and especially on those huge odaiko drums—just railing on those. You’ve got to have good muscles and endurance to keep that up. So yeah, there’s definitely an empowering feeling from that.”

Contesting Gender Stereotypes

However, the potential for taiko to subvert conventional stereotypes is most salient for women taiko drummers, who frequently emphasize the personally empowering nature of their performances. Undoubtedly, this is one of the reasons for taiko’s appeal to women in the United States where over 60 percent of all taiko players are estimated to be female (Ahlgren 2011:13; Izumi 2001:45; Tusler 2003:119–121).

A number of female taiko players have spoken directly about how their performances, which involve strength, physicality, loud drumming, and full-throated shouts, challenge the demeaning and constraining stereotypes to which they are subject. For instance, Linda Uehara Hoffman, a founding member of Katari Taiko in Canada, observed that

for those people who had never performed, especially the women, [taiko] was a way to be a role model for other Asian women. It was a way to break the stereotype of submissive, passive Asian women or the whorish, heart of gold, erotic, sexy Asian women. You know, because nobody is going to take you on, if you’re standing up there swinging a stick, hitting the drum really loud. No one is going to say, “Cutie pie,” right? (Quoted in Kobayashi 2006:3).

Because the silencing of Asian Americans in mainstream society is more prevalent for Asian women than it is for men, the sheer loudness of taiko performances is especially empowering for women. “I don’t know (p.239) if this is what all women feel, but it’s the empowerment that you feel when you hit the drum and the sound of it comes out and it’s so loud,” Michelle Fujii, a former member of San Jose Taiko, explained. “It just makes you feel that you’re not a hidden voice in the society” (quoted in Tusler 2003:121). “We wanted to hit hard, we wanted to make lots of noise to show an image of women being loud and powerful,” Linda Uehara Hoffman emphasized (quoted in Terada 2001:53).

Therefore, through the performative authenticity of taiko, Japanese American women are personally empowered to defy derogatory images of Asian women by showing people who they really are. Such subversive gender implications are not as prevalent among taiko ensembles in Japan, where women are not as prominent or are in more of a subordinate role vis-à-vis men. As a result, taiko has not challenged traditional patriarchal gender norms in Japan (Bender 2012:145), which again demonstrates how taiko’s potentially transformative impact on normative gender ideologies arises when it is practiced in the different gendered context of the United States, where it can take on new political meanings.

Men also noted the personally empowering effects of taiko for women. According to Steve Okura, “You have the stereotype of Asian women as soft and submissive and quiet and traditional. So with taiko, there’s this feeling of: ‘Look, I’m a girl, but I have just as much empowerment as a guy. I can bang on drums just like them.’”

Nonetheless, it is important to recognize that taiko is personally empowering for women because it is still viewed through a dominant, masculine lens. In other words, women can defy restrictive, feminine stereotypes through taiko precisely because of its association with male strength and power. By engaging in a masculine activity, they demonstrate how women can be just as strong as men, thus showing how their relative power is derived from an accepted state of male hegemony. As one female taiko player notes, “I represent a female Asian body that is strong, that young girls like me may look at it and go, ‘wow, she can do that, she can kiai [shout], she can even be really strong as guys’” (quoted in Terada 2001:53–54).

Therefore, although taiko was not introduced to the United States for the purpose of disrupting and challenging stereotypes of Asian American men and women, this has become one of its important performative (p.240) consequences which enables Japanese Americans to explore and project an alternative self-image that makes them feel more real and genuine. In this way, a longing for ethnic roots and authenticity through taiko has taken on a subversive edge in the United States because of the particular ethnic and gender dynamics of American society, which contrast with those of Japan. Therefore, ethnic nostalgia can become potentially counterhegemonic when it travels through the diaspora, which partly accounts for the continued popularity of taiko in the United States.

Racialization, Orientalist Discourses, and Collective Disempowerment

Although empowerment has become a popular buzzword with positive connotations of social justice and equity (Henkel and Stirrat 2001:178; Sofield 2003:111), it is not as liberating as usually assumed. Often, the literature implies that personal empowerment naturally leads to collective empowerment of communities, and vice versa (Sofield 2003:100; Zimmerman 2000:46, 48–50). However, empowerment at the personal and collective levels does not always correspond. This is especially the case with ethnic performances such as taiko, where collective outcomes depend on audience receptions and understandings. Despite the fact that taiko feels personally empowering to many Japanese Americans, it does not collectively empower them as an ethnic group because it ends up reinscribing Orientalist discourses among audiences.

Japanese American taiko players may personally revel in the performative authenticity and empowering agency of their art form as a means to convey a distinctive identity that subverts and challenges dominant ethnic and gender stereotypes. However, because of the ambiguity of music as a form of communication, performers do not have control over the reactions and interpretations of audiences, who ultimately determine the social impact of the performances. Therefore, the audience does not always receive the performers’ intended message (Wong 2000:67–68) and instead understands the performance in a manner that reinforces preexisting hegemonic perceptions, thus limiting its subversive possibilities and resulting in rather disempowering consequences at the collective level. This ultimately fragments the empowering potential of taiko for Japanese Americans.

(p.241) Audience reception is especially important since taiko performances are quite popular among the general public, and they are sometimes sold out. Audiences consist not only of Japanese Americans and other Asian Americans, but of substantial numbers of Americans who are not of Asian descent, especially whites. Although this is quite welcome, it may also produce a disconnection between performers and audience, who may differ in their view of what taiko means and what is being conveyed during the performance.

Later-generation Japanese Americans have actively remade and claimed ownership of taiko by producing a unique, Asian American musical genre that has become part of their ethnic heritage and history in the United States. For them, taiko represents their past ethnic struggles for acceptance in an American society that has often racialized and excluded them as the perpetually foreign, Asian Other. However, when American audiences attend concerts by taiko ensembles, they often mistakenly assume that they are watching Japanese performers from Japan. This is because taiko as a visual spectacle appears very “Japanese” to them: performers who usually look Asian playing drums that resemble those from ancient Japan while wearing very traditional Japanese costumes. Although a number of prominent professional ensembles are named after the cities where they originate (San Jose Taiko, San Francisco Taiko Dojo, and so on), many taiko groups have Japanese or partly Japanese names and also play pieces that have Japanese titles.

In addition, audiences are often not sophisticated enough to recognize that American taiko groups have incorporated Western musical rhythms into their pieces and developed their own performative style that is different from that of Japanese groups. Although I have attended both Japanese American and Japanese taiko performances, I have been unable to clearly distinguish between the two musical styles. Even Kenny Endo, who became a prominent taiko musician, thought that the first taiko group he ever saw (San Francisco Taiko Dojo) was from Japan and was told only later that they were mainly a sansei group (JANM interview).

A number of Japanese American taiko players were clearly aware of how their performances are being misread by audiences. “When Americans go see a taiko performance, I don’t think they are aware that it’s actually a Japanese American group,” Steve Okura observed. “Unless they (p.242) are some kind of taiko aficionado, they’ll definitely think, ‘Oh, this is some Japanese group from Japan.’”

Similarly, PJ Hirabayashi and other taiko performers note how audience members sometimes speak to them using Japanese words, ask whether they are from Japan or whether they speak any English, and are surprised to hear they are actually Americans of Japanese descent (see also Ahlgren 2011:119–120; Tusler 2003:101–102). Even when ensembles introduce themselves to audiences in fluent English and have white American members, certain audience members may still assume they are a Japanese taiko group (Ahlgren 2011:119–120; Yoon 2001:432).

Therefore, taiko in the United States seems to exacerbate the American tendency to conflate Japanese Americans with Japanese immigrants from Japan as audiences often believe they are listening to exotic and ancient music from a distant, foreign land. In this manner, as Paul Yoon (2001:432) points out, Japanese Americans may be unintentionally “re-Orientalizing” themselves. Instead of challenging and contesting Asian American stereotypes, they may be inadvertently reproducing Orientalist discourses that racially essentialize them as cultural foreigners irrevocably tied to exotic Asian homelands. Asian Americans may see taiko performances as empowering, but non-Asians can shift easily into an Orientalist gaze (Wong 2000:72).

As a result, the performative authenticity of taiko is not communicated to many audiences and undermined in the act of reception. This miscommunication between performers and audience members seems to lie in the inherent and ambiguous duality of Japanese American taiko that straddles both the modern and the traditional. For Japanese Americans, taiko feels authentic because they have remade and Americanized a Japanese tradition in ways that speak to their modern lives and allow them to display their true ethnic identities and defy conventional stereotypes. However, audiences do not notice these modern, performative innovations and simply focus on the traditional, Orientalist aspects of the performance. They embrace taiko as authentic because it apparently connects them to an ancient and traditional Japanese art form that has apparently survived unchanged to this day. As Angela Ahlgren (2011:135) notes, audiences are disappointed when they see white taiko members playing in an ensemble, because the performance appears less authentic and “Oriental” to them, indicating how authenticity is read by audiences in a racial manner.

(p.243) Such Orientalist portrayals are especially apparent when taiko is appropriated by Hollywood and mainstream mass media and therefore taken out of the hands of Japanese Americans. One example is the 1993 movie Rising Sun, a crime drama that occurs in the offices of a Japanese corporation based in the United States (Terada 2001:50; Wong 2000). Toward the beginning of the movie, images of powerful male taiko players from San Francisco Taiko Dojo and their thunderous drumming are intermixed with a steamy sex scene between a man presumed to be Japanese and a white woman, whom he apparently murders during sexual intercourse. The scene not only uses Japanese American taiko to promote familiar Orientalist fantasies, but engages in rather blatant racial stereotyping, invoking images of the yellow peril (in the form of sexually menacing Japanese men) during a time when the United States was seriously afraid of Japanese economic supremacy.

Another prominent example is a popular 2006 Mitsubishi car commercial featuring sexy female taiko players from TAIKOPROJECT, UCLA’s Kyodo Taiko, and Koshin Taiko who are scantily clad in red, Asian-looking outfits. Framed by dramatic pyrotechnic displays, they beat out thunderous rhythms in an explosion of sound and motion. According to Steve Okura of Asayake Taiko, “People complained that not only were they exotifying taiko, but also erotifying it too.” Despite their problematic nature, such mainstream cultural representations and appropriations of taiko are becoming increasingly prevalent as taiko music is featured in more Hollywood movies, amusement parks such as Disney’s Epcot Center, popular music bands, Las Vegas shows, popular sporting events, and even video games.

Moreover, this tendency is exacerbated by some taiko groups that dabble in a bit of self-Orientalization in order to draw attention to their ensembles and attract audiences. As Steve Okura admitted:

It’s really hypocritical to perform at some of these events because essentially, what you’re selling is Japaneseness. That’s what the Caucasians who put on these events are saying: “There’s a Japanese group who respect Japan.” Even if this is not what we are, you kind of get more exposure by hyping the Japanese aspect of it.

The websites of various taiko groups also promote such images by featuring Japanese characters and backdrops and including pictures (p.244) of Asians drummers wearing traditional outfits. Their descriptions of taiko and its history can also invoke exotic images of a mysterious Orient by emphasizing the spirituality of taiko and its association with supernatural powers, spirits, religious rituals, and primitive folk arts in ancient Japan. By promoting their ensembles in ways that reinforce such Orientalist discourses, some Japanese Americans may partly undermine their own efforts to develop and perform innovative musical styles as well as ethnic and gender identities that challenge popular stereotypes.

In contrast, certain taiko groups like San Jose Taiko explicitly avoid such Orientalizing histories when portraying taiko on their websites. Instead, they emphasize the history of their ensembles in the United States, Asian American history, or their distinctive style of music. Self-avowedly progressive taiko groups like On Ensemble and TAIKOPROJECT do not cover any history and simply mention how they blend traditional Japanese drumming with modern musical styles.

Nonetheless, because the exotic foreignness of taiko attracts audiences in search of Japanese “authenticity,” even these ensembles are sometimes promoted in ways that invoke common Orientalist sensibilities in order to increase their popularity. Thus, for example, while San Jose Taiko explicitly avoids exotic images about Japan, when the ensemble tours nationally, agents and marketers capitalize on the increasing commercial appeal of Asia by selling the group to audiences as authentically Japanese and from “over there,” rather than as an Asian American ensemble from San Jose, California. They have also pressured the ensemble to change its name to “something Japanese.” According to founding member Roy Hirabayashi, “They’re trying to represent us as a group from Japan. … And then the audience kind of thinks that’s what we are, when we really feel that we’re trying to present a more American or Asian American perspective to what taiko’s all about.” Likewise, the ensemble is portrayed in promotional materials as playing ancient and exotic traditional Japanese music (Ahlgren 2011:99–101). Such propaganda is equivalent to the erasure of the history of taiko in the United States as a struggle for Asian American empowerment and distinctive musical expression.

Therefore, despite personally empowering attempts by Japanese American taiko players to subvert hegemonic ethnic representations through their performativity, such efforts do not lead to collective, political empowerment that challenges and subverts white-dominated (p.245) racial formations that exclude Asian Americans as culturally foreign, subordinate groups that are not really American. Instead, by reinforcing Orientalist discourses about Asian Americans, taiko seems to promote their ethnic subjection as the exotic, Asian Other and reproduces the hierarchical racial order in collectively disempowering ways.

In this sense, it is interesting to compare taiko with the martial arts. Both are steeped in Asian tradition and ancient history, involve powerful physicality as well as spirituality (ki), emphasize similar embodiment and proper form (kata), are performed in front of audiences, and have expanded to non-Asians around the globe. Like taiko, the martial arts are personally empowering, especially for female participants, and defy common stereotypes of Asian Americans as quiet, weak, and passive. Nonetheless, its increasingly popularity among the American public and appropriation by Hollywood has led to collectively disempowering, Orientalist stereotypes of Asian men as martial arts experts who possess a mysterious, inscrutable power or, as one of my interviewees put it, “weird small men who are somehow super strong.” It may be instructive for taiko players to reflect on this legacy of the martial arts as they attempt to project authentic performances and identities in order to ensure that pernicious stereotypes of the Asian kung fu master are not replaced by Orientalist images of the drum-beating Asian.

Beyond the Japanese American Community: The Ethnic and Global Expansion of Taiko

While Japanese Americans have not always effectively conveyed their performative authenticity to audiences nor successfully escaped racially essentialized perceptions that conflate their version of taiko with ancient Japan, their musical genre is rapidly expanding, both ethnically and globally, leading to new possibilities in artistic innovation and self-expression. Taiko has now spread well beyond the Japanese American community, and an increasing number of Americans of other ethnicities are embracing taiko and joining ensembles. These include other Asian Americans, but also non-Asian Americans as well. All of the prominent taiko ensembles now have substantial numbers of non-Japanese American and even Caucasian performers, and a good number of taiko groups can no longer be characterized as Japanese American.

(p.246) Some taiko groups have become quite pan-Asian as growing numbers of Chinese Americans, Korean Americans, and even Filipino and Vietnamese Americans participate. As a result, taiko has become somewhat synonymous with Asian American identity and culture (Terada 2001:45–46; Yoon 2001). Some ensembles such as Soh Daiko of New York consist of mainly non-Japanese descent Asian Americans. In addition, the number of white American taiko players is increasing, and some taiko groups consist mainly of non-Asians, such as St. Louis’s Osuwa Daiko and Phoenix Taiko Kai. Therefore, taiko may go the way of jazz and eventually become disconnected from its Japanese American and even Asian American roots and become a general musical genre shared by many ethnic groups (Ahlgren 2011:127).

There seems to have been some initial resistance among Japanese Americans to the ethnic expansion of taiko (Creighton 2007:209), and there are reportedly certain taiko groups that will not accept those who are not of Japanese ancestry (Carle 2008:31). Steve Okura noted that there is a huge tension in his UCSD group between those who want to keep taiko Japanese American and those who support greater ethnic inclusiveness. However, it seems that most Japanese Americans have become receptive to non-Japanese American members in their ensembles (Tusler 2003:108). “I think as taiko grows and expands out of the Asian American community, as it expands out of the Japanese American community, there’s going to be some uneasiness because it was so important as a way of establishing our cultural identity,” says Shoji Kameda of On Ensemble. “The history of taiko will be inextricably bound to the history of Asian America and no one can ever take that away. … But we have to be secure enough in ourselves to let go of control.”5

A number of Japanese Americans who acknowledge the increasingly multiethnic nature of taiko emphasize that these new taiko players must respect the instrument and understand the history of taiko. “I’m very mixed about this because I see both sides,” Steve Okura admitted.

I think if you’re going to play taiko, please be respectful of the culture and the roots of it. If that’s the case, I think that would be the greatest thing in the world. But I went to the culture show at Loyola Marymount and they had a mainly white/ Latino taiko group that was pretty bad. I mean, (p.247) people were having fun, which is great. But they were screwing up and just banging on things. I thought that was kind of disrespectful.

On the other hand, as taiko is increasingly taken up by other Asian Americans and Americans from other ethnic groups, this may encourage further innovation and new musical forms since these taiko players will be even further removed from the original Japanese taiko tradition. For instance, one non-Japanese descent taiko player says, “We can create our own style and not be bogged down with ‘this is how you should do it’ mentalities that can be a part of Japanese culture” (Johnson 2008:125). Indeed, Soh Daiko, a pan-Asian taiko ensemble, has already incorporated Chinese culture and Korean music into their performances (Yoon 2001:429–430).

In addition to its ethnic expansion in the United States, taiko is also becoming increasingly international, and indeed, global. Initially, it seems the international growth of taiko occurred mainly within the Japanese diaspora, expanding to Japanese Canadians, Japanese Brazilians, and other Japanese descendants in South America. However, taiko has now grown beyond the geographical and ethnic confines of the Japanese diaspora to countries not known for any significant Japanese descent populations, including Germany, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden, Spain, Italy, Ukraine, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, and Malaysia, all of which have taiko groups.6


As demonstrated by taiko, the search for ancestral roots among Japanese Americans is also a search for ethnic authenticity. However, the recovery of an ethnic heritage that feels genuine involves both reaching out to the past and reconfiguring it in the present. Since the ethnic homeland, the original source of ancient traditions, is positioned as more culturally authentic than the diaspora, Japan has become a place of nostalgic desire for a number of Japanese Americans where true taiko can be found. Although kumi-daiko in Japan is also a recently remade tradition, some American taiko ensembles claim greater continuity to the ancestral Japanese past and greater authenticity. This has produced some tension with more “progressive” and Americanized taiko groups, which do not position themselves in terms of cultural authenticity.

(p.248) In fact, the performance of cultural heritage and ancestry does not have to closely resemble traditional cultural practices inherited from the homeland for it to be experienced as ethnically authentic. On the contrary, newer, “invented” traditions that are remade in the present can feel more real and genuine because they are constantly reshaped according to contemporary ethnic contexts, making them more personally relevant and meaningful compared to rote reenactments of outdated cultural practices. Ultimately, the ethnic authenticity of taiko for Japanese Americans is found in the contemporary performativity inherent in the embodiment of reconstituted traditions. Performative authenticity shifts cultural authority from the ethnic homeland to descendants in the diaspora. However, because taiko appears very traditional and ancient on the surface, it provides a nostalgic connection to ancestral roots while allowing Japanese Americans to innovate and recreate the musical form to make it part of their own contemporary American ethnic background and culture. A fusion of tradition and modernity based on both continuity with and discontinuity from the past explains taiko’s efficacy (and popularity) as a means to recover ethnic heritage in a manner that feels truly authentic.

The performative authenticity of taiko also personally empowers Japanese Americans to constitute and display their ethnic and gender identities to the American public in ways that undermine how Asian Americans have been stereotypically seen. By reshaping past traditions, they also reconstitute themselves in the present, potentially challenging dominant ethnic and gender representations. This performative power of traditional cultural practices emerges not simply because of their repetitive nature. Instead, cultural forms acquire an agentive intentionality as they travel from the homeland through the diaspora and are enacted under novel circumstances in different places, where they counter ethnic hegemonies that did not exist in the country of origin. In this manner, ethnic nostalgia for traditional cultural heritage can become political and subversive.

However, despite the stereotype-busting performance style of Japanese American taiko, it is not collectively empowering since it often reproduces Orientalist discourses among audiences who are drawn to its exotic and mysterious foreignness and cannot tell the difference between Japanese American culture and the traditional culture of ancient (p.249) Japan. Although taiko is authentic to Japanese Americans because they have modified past traditions for their own purposes, it is authentic for audiences because it appears to connect them to an unaltered, traditional past from a faraway land. Therefore, what is personally empowering can become quite disempowering at the collective, ethnic level by subjecting Japanese Americans to white-dominated racial hierarchies that marginalize them as culturally foreign. As taiko gradually enters the mainstream, it may increasingly feed such Orientalist imaginations and fantasies, seriously fragmenting its empowering and counterhegemonic potential and leading to the erasure of the distinctive history of ethnic struggle and recognition among Japanese Americans.

Nonetheless, taiko is spreading to other ethnic groups in the United States as well as to other countries, creating new possibilities for further innovation and performativity as taiko is remade in disparate ethnic and national contexts. Although taiko was initially employed by Japanese Americans to explore and assert a specific identity and ethnic heritage, it is now becoming a means for peoples of various nationalities to express a global identity as human beings of the earth (Creighton 2007:203). There seems to be something primeval about taiko that may account for its universal appeal. In addition to the relative simplicity of the instrument and its primordial, thundering beats, it has a fundamental connection to the earth, since the drums are made out of elemental materials from nature—namely, wood from trees, the hides of animals, and metal from the ground. Taiko in this manner seems to embody the rhythm of the earth. According to Mark Miyoshi, the taiko drum maker,

I believe that these drums have the power to change the world and to help people. What I’m hoping … is that people can use … that power that they have in their relationship with the drum, to think about the larger world and what can be done and needs to be done. And that spirituality, that kind of power and strength, can change the world. And that’s the kind of change we need in this world today. (JANM interview)


(1.) According to King-O’Riain (2006: ch. 4), Japanese American beauty pageants strongly prefer contestants who look Japanese (versus multiracial) and can demonstrate skill in the Japanese language or culture. In other words, those who resemble Japanese in Japan both racially and culturally are seen as more ethnically authentic Japanese Americans.

(3.) As Wang notes (1999:359), creativity can generate a sense of existential authenticity.

(4.) In fact, those who engage in indigenous or heritage tourism based on staged performances and recreated ethnic festivals often experience them as authentic (Chhabra, Healy, and Sills 2003; Taylor 2001).

(5.) From the Japanese American National Museum website at http://www.janm.org/exhibits/bigdrum/interviews/taikoproject/

(6.) Outside of the United States, the countries that have by far the most taiko groups are Canada, Germany, and the United Kingdom.