Taiko is one of the traditional percussion instruments of Japan. The School of Taiko, located in Bellevue, teaches the art of taiko drumming. Co-owners and instructors, Ringtarou Tateishi and Asako Tateishi, are professional taiko drummers and have a wealth of experience from performing Japanese taiko all over the world.
They will be holding the Bellevue World Taiko Festival on March 3rd. This year will be the 4th Annual Bellevue World Taiko Festival, with special guest performers Miyake Geinou Doushikai, a well-known and respected taiko group from Japan. It is a valuable opportunity for Seattle-area residents to see authentic, traditional Japanese taiko.
The International Examiner caught up with Mr. and Ms. Tateishi to talk about their history, their hopes for the future and the upcoming Bellevue World Taiko Festival. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. Some segments have been translated from Japanese to English.
International Examiner: Please tell me about your personal roots and history.
Ringtarou Tateishi: I was born in Mie prefecture, and [when I was] very young, we [had] taiko activities in my area. So, I joined [a] taiko group from six years old and I started western drumming [while I was a] high school student, and I joined professional taiko group Ondekoza after [I] graduated university; I was 22 years old.
I traveled around the world with Ondekoza for 10 years, and after quitting Ondekoza, [became an independent] drummer and moved to Orlando, Florida … [then] I joined [a] group who worked for Disney World. We performed seven days a week and six times a day and 365 days a year. So every day, six times, we performed for the audiences.
We [Asako and I] moved to Seattle in 2009. We established The School of Taiko then, [and] now still we are going.
Asako Tateishi: In Japan, I worked [as a] play-by-play announcer [for] motorcycle races, mainly in the Suzuka-Circuit and Twinring-Motegi. And also, I [worked] as an MC for the events and an event coordinator. [That’s how] I met him [Ringtarou] and joined the taiko world.
I can play the guitar because I started it when I was young. When we decided to go to United States, I wanted to learn some Japanese traditional instruments, so I chose Tsugaru shamisen. However, that was about 16 years ago, and there were only a few instructors of Tsugaru shamisen in Mie prefecture. I was looking for an instructor and finally, one day I found one in Yokkaichi city from a magazine. So, I could learn Tsugaru shamisen, but I had only three or four months to learn it before leaving Japan [for the United States]. So, that was my start with Japanese traditional instruments.
Then, I moved to Orlando and I learned Japanese whistle. After that, when my grandmother passed away, I received a koto [from her], a Japanese harp, and brought it back to the U.S. There was one instructor of koto in Miami. Later on, another instructor moved to Orlando from Japan, so I took lessons from her once a week for two years.
I have one kid. When he was about three years old, I started learning taiko in Orlando. I could play some Japanese traditional instruments, so I could join taiko group concerts. But, when I joined the concert, I would just play whistle or Tsugaru shamisen. I thought that if I could play taiko, it would be better for this music group, so I started learning it.
RT: I think that [Asako] is skilled at playing guitar, so it is easy for her to master string instruments. In music, understanding how to make initial sounds and how they reverberate is a very important skill, and I think that she is good at this. She could play many instruments and actually, my son also plays taiko, so I think that our family music group, Chikiri, plays good music for audiences.
AT: I was adult when I started taiko. Normally, if I were learning in Japan, I don’t think that I could have started it [at my age]. But, in the U.S., people are open-minded about trying new things, so I felt it was ok to learn taiko. I am Japanese. Playing taiko is one of the ways and tools to express my culture, customs, traditions and so on.
IE: There are so many percussion instruments all over the world. What about Taiko is distinctly Japanese?
RT: There are two differences between Japanese taiko and other countries’ percussion instrument [in my view].
First, Japanese taiko has religious meaning like praying to gods, and emphasizes training the body. Japan is a country of rice cultivation, and we have religious drumming around this twice a year. There are festivals and people may play for healthy plants or rain after planting the rice. Then, the second festival is after the harvest to thank the god or gods. This second one is normally held before winter, and there is nothing planted during winter. So, it is really important to train and maintain the body all year. Especially because Japanese taiko includes squatting and heavy sticks [so you have to stay fit to play it]. People have said that you can hear taiko from 10 miles away. So, these powerful parts of taiko are really distinctly Japanese.
The second thing is the rhythm [and drumming movement] With other countries’ style of drumming, there usually is a set tempo. But with Japanese taiko, the tempo changes a lot between parts. So, there are separate parts…that include rhythms that shift over the course of the song. The beat and rhythm changes in different parts. … It also includes the style of moving . Each part- A, B,C- has different movement and tempo.
IE: What is the Bellevue World Taiko Festival?
AT: We’ve held it since 2014 [to share] Japanese culture [through] taiko drumming, with a special guest performer mainly from Japan or [out of state]. [We also have] local performers in it. We coordinate new relationships [among] local performers and guest artists. This is a very important event [for] Japan Creative Art and The School of Taiko to share Japanese culture through music, especially taiko drumming.
IE: This year will be the 4th Annual Bellevue World Taiko Festival. What kinds of reactions do you get from non-Japanese American people at the festival? Are most people familiar with taiko now?
AT: So, in the U.S. and also Europe, [people are] very familiar right now [with taiko]. Especially in the Seattle area, so many people are interested in Japanese culture, so I think that audience of the taiko festival mostly know [about] taiko. But [for] some of them, this is [their] first time [seeing a] taiko performance, especially by professional taiko drummers. So most of them, they said [they are] very impressed [by the] taiko performance, from the bottom of the human’s soul [because of taiko’s] spirit, power and energy. Some of them return [to the] next taiko performance.
So, this is our mission: sharing taiko performances [so] audiences know [about] Japanese culture. …[We feel] very successful if some [people who] don’t know Japanese [culture] come to the festival with their friend and [become a fan of Japanese culture]. This is our mission.
RT: When famous musicians come here from Japan, almost all [of the] people in the audiences are actually Japanese. But in taiko concerts, over half of all the audience members are non-Japanese. It isn’t because they like all [kinds of] Japanese traditional music; like with shamisen or Japanese traditional dance, most of the audience will be Japanese. But, with taiko, about 80percent of audience members are American. It is because taiko is special.
IE: Are most people in the audience first-time viewers or established taiko fans?
RT: Most people have listened to taiko before. They like taiko and come to our concerts. There are many free taiko concerts, but ours is not free. Even with that, many people come.
IE: What have been the most difficult things running the event?
AT: This is our 4th Taiko Festival. Every time, we have to do many challenging [things], like to find [performers] who want to come to Seattle and perform to community with their busy schedules. And also, it is difficult to find good venues [that match the] schedules of the performers from Japan. Also, we need many supporters for running the event and volunteers on the day, and board members to plan schedules going to the concert day. So, everything is very challenging, especially in Bellevue. There are few concert venues in [the] city of Bellevue, so all that time, we are asking many venues to [fit] the schedule. This is the most difficult thing, to find venues if we have [the] festival in [the] city of Bellevue.
IE: In this event, Miyake Geinou Doushikai are the special guest performers from Japan. They are so famous that they are in Japanese junior high school textbooks. Please tell me about this special appearance this year.
AT: For the Taiko Festival, we have Miyake taiko [played by] Miyake Geinou Doushikai from Japan. They are famous and [they have a] very unique taiko style, like very low stance with [high] energy to hit [the] taiko drums.
They are [a] very unique group because [all] four members are family. [The] leader is their father, and then three brothers perform with [the] father. And also, they are famous because Kodo, the worldwide famous taiko performers group, loved [the] Miyake taiko style and picked [up] their numbers. The leader of Miyake Geinou Doushikai, Akio Tsumura, taught his taiko style to Kodo. That’s why everybody knows the Miyake taiko [style], and [is excited for] Miyake Taiko to [come to] Seattle, and we can see [them live] on the stage.
RT: Miyake-jima is a small island in Japan and we call it Ritou, which means a “remote island”. Before, we invited many taiko artists who perform taiko they learned from many kinds of traditional taiko, but this year, we invite performers who play taiko at Miyake-jima. We believe that the audience will enjoy an authentic Japanese traditional festival. It is one of the biggest appearances [we’ve had to date].
IE: What led you start this event in Bellevue? By sharing taiko, what do you hope to achieve?
RT: [When] I was a member of Ondekoza, about in 1992 or 1993, we traveled [all] around the U.S. [starting] from New York [and returning back] to New York. We ran 30 miles a day every day, running [the entire] perimeter of the United States for three years.
On that trip, we visited many places in the U.S., and my most favorite place was Seattle. So, that’s why [we came here]; this is my dream, to live in Seattle and spread Japanese taiko culture to American people. So that’s why I chose Seattle.
IE: How many countries have you been to?
RT: I think about 26 or 27 countries.
While meeting new people and teaching taiko, I always think about Japan and wonder how people from other countries see Japan. And then, I think that we, as Japanese people, each has to be a representative of Japan.
Because I often feel that there are many countries where people don’t have good images for Japan [due to our history], and it is caused by education. Children get images of other countries from their education, and believe that these are correct. But, when I go there and play taiko in front of them, they say, “You are very different than what we expected from Japanese culture.” Normally, we can get accurate ideas about people’s cultures from conversation or experiences meeting people, but before [doing] that, there are often big walls due to education and it is hard to break them.
So, I try to go to many places and play taiko. I think that taiko is a strong tool to break down walls and misconceptions.
IE: What are your hopes for taiko culture in the future?
RT: Taiko activity in [the] U.S. and Japan is totally different. In Japan, many people do [taiko as a] very spiritual thing, [a] very mindful [practice]. But, in the United States, they play taiko [to have fun]. It is very different. And in the U.S., there are many taiko groups in California. Most taiko groups are there, [in] Los Angeles and San Francisco. Now, it is the 50th anniversary of the first group [in America]. So, when I was member of Ondekoza, about 20 years ago in Japan, I had never seen [this] new style of taiko. There is a different flow and history between [taiko in the] U.S. and Japan.
I love [the] American way; people do taiko for fun, [with] everybody coming together, and leaving [or forming groups more] easily. … In Japan, it is very difficult to join a group. I hope someday Japanese taiko drumming people learn [the] American taiko drumming way. It is a good direction to do spread taiko culture to the world.
AT: Taiko is not only a Japanese tradition but also enjoyable. I want to keep the good parts of traditional Japanese taiko, and improve it so it’s more fun for American people, because we are here in the United States. We are Japanese and want to share the best parts of our culture.
RT: And, I want everyone to be more peaceful. For that, we have to understand each other. It is very important to talk face to face. We do that with taiko. There are many customs and cultures, but we can respect each other. I don’t know why there are so many [cultural and political] conflicts, and many countries are causing big conflicts.
I want to take action for these countries, not just watch. [For me,] this action means playing taiko to create dialogue between our cultures. I want to share and express our Japanese culture so that people can understand us. And, we can also understand who they are. Respect for other people creates peace.
I strongly believe that just waiting cannot create peace. We need to take action. So, for our family, we play taiko. This can be very hard, but I do it because I want to take action for a more peaceful world.
Bellevue World Taiko Festival is will be held at Bellevue High School Performing Art Center on March 3rd, 2018. Matinee Start is at 2:00 p.m. and Evening Start is at 7:00 p.m. Tickets can be purchased online through Brown Paper Tickets (taikofestival.brownpapertickets.com). More information can be found on the official website: www.worldtaikofestival.org.
To learn more about The School of Taiko, visit is japantaiko.com.
To see the Chikiri artist page, visit japancreativearts.com/artists.