Taiko: Japan’s Most Intense Musical Instrument

Taiko (太鼓) is an enormous Japanese drum with a sound that seems to come from the depths of the earth itself. Its name literally translates to “drum.” But the word has evolved to mean the art of Japanese-style drumming. They also call this “Kumi-Daiko (組太鼓),” or “set of drums,” which is also a style of playing Taiko.

It was, and still is, a part of agrarian rituals and military applications. The theater has a long-standing Taiko tradition, you can find it as part of Noh and Kabuki performances as well.

Taiko performance at Matsumoto Festival, Nagano

The Japanese used Taiko in distance communications and was, at one time, an important aspect to the Japanese imperial court. The Buddhist and Shinto religions also incorporated Taiko into rituals and ceremonies. 

Origins of Taiko

As early as the 6th century CE, pottery from the Haniwa period depicts Taiko drums. There is archaeological evidence showing that Taiko was present during the Kofun period too. But where the drum came from isn’t clear. 

Taiko performance at the Taniyama Furusato Matsuri festival

Ancient Myths about Taiko

There’s a story from around the 8th century in the Nihon Shoki, the 2nd oldest book of classic Japanese history, which many historians dub as the origin of Taiko. This involves one of Japan’s most sacred deities, the sun goddess Amaterasu.

Amaterasu magically sealed herself in a cave after her brother, Susano’o, upset her. Enraged, she refused to come out and hid her light away from the world; sending everything into darkness. This raised grave concerns among the gods.

So, they attempted anything to coax Amaterasu out, but to no avail. They played enormous drums, yet she would not budge. But they kept playing and this inspired Ame-No-Uzume, goddess of art, to begin dancing on an upturned barrel of sake. The other gods followed suit.

Sake barrel nearly the size and shape of a Taiko drum

The drumming-like commotion prompted Amaterasu’s curiosity to take a look. Upon sliding the rock back, two other gods held up sacred mirrors.

Amaterasu saw sunshine not realizing it was her own reflection. The host of gods embraced Amaterasu and pulled her out of the cave and hence the birth of the Taiko drum.

Influences from China, Korea and India

While the myth displays Taiko’s long history in Japan, historical records show it didn’t originate there. Accounts from 588 CE talk about how young Japanese men traveled to Korea to study Kakko, a drum resembling Taiko that originated in South China. Plus, there are ancient images of Taiko drums that look like the large drums from India.

Traditional imperial court performances contain two styles of music and dance that we definitely know came from Korea and China with clear influences from India. These court drums indicate their association with ancient folklore.

Taiko like drum in China at a Temple

Modern Taiko

Taiko began to enjoy a resurgence in 1951 when a jazz drummer, named Daihachi Oguchi, stumbled upon some old Taiko music. He popularized the modern standard of ensemble performances. Today, Japan has an estimated 4,000 Taiko ensembles but they are also in Canada, the U.S., Australia, Taiwan, Europe, and Brazil.

Constructing a Taiko Drum

Taiko’s construction is just as impressive as the sound it makes. There is a huge variety of drums, but the most traditional is the large, oversized half hourglass body. It can take several years to make just one drum.

Construction methods have subgroups and classifications that depend on their size, sound, and mode of play. There are several construction stages, although each type of drum has marked production differences. But, they all comprise basically the same components.

Basic Construction

Taiko drums have a shell with drum heads on both sides to create a sealed resonating cavity. It starts with fashioning the drum’s body, or shell. Then there’s the preparation of the skin and tuning it to the drumhead.

Skins are usually aged cowhide. But they can also come from horses, bulls, or deer and take several years to dry. However, modern methods quicken this by using a smoke-filled warehouse.

Taiko drum performance at a Japanese Festival or Matusri

Sealing Classifications

How they seal the drums has three classifications:

  • Nailing (Byō-uchi-daiko, 鋲打ち太鼓): This type of Taiko comes from a single piece of wood, traditionally from the trunk of the Zelkova tree. It takes many years to dry.
  • Steel or Iron Rings (Shime-daiko): These re tunable snare-drum styles that come in a range of materials for various uses.
  • Rope (Tsuzumi, 鼓): These have a distinct type of hourglass shape and incorporate deer skin.
Giant taiko drum at the Aomori Nebuta Matsuri, a Japanese summer festival in Aomori city

Patterns ; Styles of Taiko

Over the centuries, the Japanese have developed an array of patterns classified into several categories. Changes in accent, dynamics, pitch, function, and tempo all have their own classes. What’s more, there are several styles and formats in which to play Taiko:

  • Ondezoka, begun in 1961
  • Gion-Daiko, from Kokura
  • Miyake-Daiko (宮太鼓), from Miyake-Jima of the Izu Islands with the drum set low to the ground and two drummers
  • Sansa-Odor, from Iwate Prefecture
  • Hachijō-daiko, from Hachijō-jima Island featuring the drum suspended from a tree
  • Ondeko (鬼太鼓, “demon drumming”), from Sado Island that incorporates dancing for protection and blessings
  • Elsa, from Okinawa that incorporates dancing
Shouting or Chanting As Part Of A Taiko Performance

Components of Playing Taiko

The way to play Taiko has many components to create its big, booming sound:

  • Form: There is a specific posture and stance similar to martial arts; a wide-legged upright position. The body is stable and low with a left bent knee and straight right leg. The hips face the drum with relaxed shoulders.
  • Sticks: Bachi (撥), or the sticks for playing Taiko, come in varying sizes and materials such as Oak, Bamboo or Magnolia.
  • Grip: There are a number of ways to hold and grip the sticks to provide various sounds and techniques.
  • Clothing: The most common garment is the happi, which is a highly decorated coat made of thin fabric. There are also headbands (hachimaki), loose-fitting pants (momohiki, もも引き) and an apron (haragake, 腹掛け).
Some of the largest Taiko drums are brought out during festivals in Japan

Taiko is a most intense Japanese musical instrument. The essence of it offers an amazingly deep, rhythmic vibration from a large, imposing drum. Your clothes vibrate as the sound permeates your very soul that’s joined together to become one with the percussion.

Incredible Taiko Performance

My fascination with Japan began several years back at a roadside bonsai stand while on vacation. I became more interested in the where and why's more than the trees themselves. My love of Bonsai led me to further research my interest in the gardens where they originated from and the places and people that surrounded those little trees. My curiosity was well rewarded upon visiting Saitama where the National Bonsai Museum was located and Omiya Village the bonsai mecca for lovers of this ancient art form. Exploring many towns and villages and even making my way to Japan's furthest southern prefecture of Okinawa. I hope to share my love of this wonderful and exotic place with all those who want to know more about Japan.