Japanese Taiko Drums
All Music Guide - July 2002
(Used by permission - © 2002 All Music Guide)

by Bruno Deschênes


Since Japanese drum ensembles such as Kodo or Ondekoza appeared in the 1970s, Westerners have been fascinated by these Japanese musicians playing a powerful and energetic music on drums, with a type of playing which shows unusual physical feats as well as a remarkable discipline.

The 1980s saw alongside the growing popularity of Japanese drums the creation, in particular in the U.S. and Canada, of numerous local taiko ensembles, some of which became professional ensembles. In many ways, joining these ensembles entail learning a particular used of drums, but especially learning a physical discipline typical of the Japanese spirit.

The Japanese Taiko ensembles as we know them today are relatively new; they were created some fifty years ago. The real term for these ensembles is “kumi-daiko”. But today “taiko” is being used to refer to these ensembles, while in fact the word refers to the drums themselves.

Historical Background

Drums were used in Japan more than 2000 years ago. Not much is known about these drums and how they were made and played. From around the 5th century B.C. on, Japan started to have regular contacts with China, which brought in many new things, including in particular Buddhism, writing, many new art forms and techniques, music and musical instruments. The new musical instruments were brought mainly during the Nara Period (710-794), at the time of the Chinese Tang Dynasty (618-917). At that time a type of court music called Gagaku was introduced to Japan. Many of today’s musical instruments are issued of Gagaku court music, such as drums and different kinds of percussions, shakuhachi and fue (transverse flute), koto and biwa, in particular. The drums of the Gagaku ensemble were of Chinese and Korean origins (the design of the huge dadaiko drum of Gagaku orchestra still shows today its Korean origin) and came to be used later on in Kabuki, Noh, Bunraku (puppet theater), folk festivals and other kinds of religious rituals. Around 900 B.C., Japanese cut communications with its neighbors, cutting at the same time their cultural influences. From then on, the development and adaptation of these musical instruments are attributed to Japanese craftsmen and musicians.

Shinto, Japan’s native religion, was already using drums at the time. It was established as an official religion because Chinese Buddhism was seen as a treat to native beliefs of the time. Both religions developed and maintained in their many rituals and special occasions the used of taiko as a mean to please the deities, induced a state of receptivity in the ritual celebrant, or as an aid in chanting. But only the holy men could then play the taiko, either singly or in pairs.

The Japanese percussion ensembles we know today are from the festival (“o-matsuri”) and folk tradition; they are used as well in street theaters, dance, pantomime and other similar occasions. They also have been used in time of wars to give courage to the samurai, to intimidate the enemy or to issue commands.

Noh theater had the greatest influence in adapting and setting the making and playing of taiko drums. All drums in used today are based on Noh’s drums. Their differences are basically in sizes; and they are generally named according to their use and the region in which they are made and used. A typical traditional percussion ensemble is called “hayashi”; this name is used as much for festival ensembles as for Noh and Kabuki ensembles. In festivals and rituals, they are generally, but not always, accompany by a “fue”, a small bamboo transverse flute. Originally, the hayashi consisted of three drums (an odaiko, a large drum, and 2 taiko, a small drum tighten with ropes and held with a stick), a hand gong and a fue. Over the years, and especially lately with the creation of modern taiko ensembles, their sizes have grown to include drums of many different sizes, including the huge odaiko, and other percussions. As such, the music of these Japanese drums is very simple. It is made of repetitive patterns which slowly vary.

Modern Taiko Music and Ensembles
Sources: Rolling Thunder, Samuel Fromartz, Takeshi Takata

The modern taiko ensemble as we know it today is a recent phenomenon. It was in fact created in 1951 by a jazz musician named Daihachi Oguchi. Getting his hands on an old taiko piece to perform for the Osuwa shrine (near the Suwa lake, in the mountains West of Tokyo), he wondered why many taiko never played together. He decided, on the one hand, to bring together a large group of taiko drums and other percussions, and, on the other, being a jazz musician, he thought of “jazzing up” the piece a little, breaking up with the hayashi tradition of small ensemble and its playing. He brought together taiko drums of different sizes and pitches, as well as other percussion instruments; each musician sometimes playing several taiko. He also divided the rhythms into easier parts to play (especially that the first players he worked with were not professional musicians).

He thus created the first modern taiko ensemble, or kumi-taiko: O-Suwa Daiko, which was an instant hit. Many groups were created in the Hokuriku nearby mountain region. These groups would play in hot springs to entertain the visitors, for example. In 1957, the Hokuriku Odaiko Enthusiasts Association was created, and in 1958, the Hokuriku Taiko Association. Japanese television played an important role in the popularity of taiko.

Another musician was also instrumental in the development of taiko ensemble: Sukeroku Daiko, whose playing style was based on Edo-bayashi rhythms. In 1959, a group called Yushima Tenjin Sukeroku Daiko was created at the Yushima Tenjin shrine, developing a style of playing which was more speedy, fluid and more powerful. The group also brought the flashy solo and choreography that is now typical to taiko ensembles. At some point the group split in two and a new group was created, Oedo Sukeroku Daiko, which is credited as being the first real professional taiko group.

In 1969 Tagayasu Den founded the now internationally known group Za Ondekoza on Sado Island, off the east coast of Japan. He gathered a group of dedicated youths disenchanted with modern city life to create a new kind of taiko group. Drumming became a way of life, with rigorous training, which included marathon running, and communal living. Za Ondekoza is credited for giving to taiko ensembles the worldwide fame it now has. The original members split from Tagayasu Den in 1981 to create Kodo, Den creating a new Za Ondekoza group. Kodo has quickly become the most known taiko group worldwide.

Kodo maintains the communal life developed under Tagayasu Den in the 1970s. They spend 4 months a year on Sado Island, training and practicing, 4 months touring Japan and the next 4 months touring the world. Since 1988, the group has sponsored a music festival called “Earth Celebration,” Sado island then becoming a real world community.

In the 1970, the Japanese government gave funding for the preservation of cultural assets that has been vanishing following World War II. Many communities took advantage of these funds to create local taiko groups that were used in festivals and other occasions. Some of them became well-known groups of international acclaim. It is estimated that there is around 5000 taiko ensembles in Japan alone (some say 8000), not counting the ones all around the world. Most of them have been created in the last 25 years or so. Generally, a taiko group comprises about 20 musicians. More than $ 80,000 US is needed to acquire the instruments needed.

One of the impact of such success has been the creation of taiko groups all around the world, in the U.S., Canada, Europe, Australia as well as South America. It is estimated that there is around 150 taiko in North America alone. The first officially created North American taiko group was formed in 1968 by Seiichi Tanaka, the San Francisco Taiko Dojo, creating his own style, called the “Tanaka Style”, a mixture of different styles: Oedo Sukeroku, Osuwa Daiko and Gojinjyo-Daiko. The style of playing of a large number of North American groups comes from the Oedo Sukeroku style, as performed by the San Francisco Taiko Dojo. The next groups to be created were Kinnara Taiko in Los Angeles in 1969, and the San Jose Taiko in 1973. Each of them creating their own style. These three U.S. groups have become professional and have toured Japan.

Taiko music has pretty much taken the world by storm, with its high energetic and compelling music, although it can be at times soft and meditative. Although based on a strong tradition, being a modern phenomenon, it is bound to be creative with a strong hold on the future.


I want to thank the people at Rolling Thunder and Samuel Fromartz for allowing me to use their material.

Suggested list of CDs of Taiko Groups

  1. Kodo, Mondo Head, Red Ink, 56111 2002
  2. Kodo, The Best of Kodo, Tristar, 57776, 1994
  3. Kodo, Tataku: The Best of Kodo, Vol. 2 (1994-1999), Red Ink, 13914, 2001
  4. Kodo, World Tour Video, VHS, Tristar, 67205, 1994
  5. Ondekoza, The Ondekoza, JVC, 3507, 1997
  6. Ondekoza, Typhoon, Tropical, 83652, 1996
  7. Ondekoza, Legend, Tropical, 769432, 1994
  8. Japan, O-Suwa Taiko Drums, Auvidis/Unesco, 8030, 1995



  • Hugh de Ferranti. Japanese Musical Instruments. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
  • Samuel Fromartz. Anything but Quiet. Natural History, March 1998. www.fromartz.com/Pages/taiko1.html.
  • Edwin O. Reischauer. Histoire du Japon et des Japonais, 1. Des origines à 1945. Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1997.
  • William P. Malm. Traditional Japanese Music and Musical Instruments. Revised Edition. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 2000.
  • Takeshi Takata. The Thundering World of the Taiko. Rolling Thunder Web Site. www.taiko.com/resource/history/thundering_takata.html.
  • Iyori Takei. CD Notes. Japan, O-Suwa-Daiko Drums. AUVIDIS/UNESCO, D 8030, 1978/1990.
  • Rolling Thunder. Overview of the Taiko Art Form. www.taiko.com/resource/history.html.
  • Rolling Thunder. Taiko Drums. www.taiko.com/resource/taiko.html.



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