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Ministers, Dry Cleaners, Farmers, and Gardeners: The Original Taiko Drummers in the Continental United States—Part 1

From somewhere in the crowd of dancers, the sound of a large taiko (drum) echoes through the summer evening. The drummer plays along to the recorded music broadcast over the PA system, striking deliberately with sweeping arms—a deep hit (“don”) to punctuate the downbeat, then sharp raps on the rim of the drum (“kara ka ka”) to accent the end of a phrase. It is a commanding presence, but in truth, the drummer plays in service to the Obon dancers as they step, gesture, and move about the circle. 

Obon is a summertime Japanese Buddhist holiday that memorializes the dead with religious services, visits to family graves, offerings, lanterns, and Bon odori (Obon dancing), unison dances in a circle, often around a yagura (elevated platform). Regional dances developed throughout Japan—from “Fukushima Ondo” and “Goshu Ondo” to “Iwakuni Ondo” and “Kagoshima Ohara Bushi”—and many of these dances traveled with Japanese immigrants as they made new lives in the continental United States.1


Early History in the Continental US

Japanese Buddhist missionaries arrived in California in 1898 and conducted Obon services in hotel rooms, private residences, and farmhouses. Over the next three decades, Jodo Shinshu Buddhist temples were established up and down the West Coast, and Obon programs expanded to include food and entertainment such as Japanese classical dance, amateur theater productions, and movies. Bon odori was added in the early 1930s through the work of Reverends Yoshio Iwanaga and Masao Washioka as well as Teruko Naito, wife of Reverend Shozen Naito.

Live music for Bon odori was featured in some communities with amateur singers and instrumentalists playing shamisen, flutes, and taiko. The Seattle Betsuin Buddhist Temple bought a taiko in 1933 and constructed a yagura for its musicians two years later. In Sacramento, the “Iwakuni Ondo” group played at the Buddhist Church of Sacramento’s first Obon with Bon odori in 1933 and purchased a new taiko the following year. In 1934, Stockton musicians performed Bon odori songs such as “Kagoshima Ohara Bushi,” “Showa Ondo,” and “Tokyo Ondo,” and the first Nisei Week Festival in Los Angeles included singers and a large taiko. Not to be outdone, Mr. A. Yamamoto was the center of attention at the Guadalupe Buddhist Church’s Obon in 1935, playing the taiko with “quaint body contortions” according to The Japanese American News, while gradually shedding his clothes throughout the hot summer evening.

Most temple communities, however, played records for Bon odori, along with or in place of live performances. This practice was hastened by the unparalleled popularity of “Tokyo Ondo,” a new Bon odori record released by the Victor Talking Machine Company of Japan in 1933 and immediately emulated in songs such as “Kobe Ondo,” “Osaka Ondo,” and “Sakura Ondo.” 

Reverend Yoshio Iwanaga playing Bon daiko at the Buddhist Church of Sacramento’s Obon in the mid-1930s. “Obon Dancing in America: Reverend Yoshio Iwanaga Photo Album,” Portland State University Library, Digital Exhibits. 

Ministers or temple members would frequently accompany the music on taiko, supplementing the light percussion and weak bass frequencies on the recordings with loud hits to help the dancers hear the downbeats. In this way, Bon daiko (Obon drumming) could refer to live drumming with other musicians, but in most cases, it indicated live, improvised, solo drumming to recorded music for Bon odori.


Bon Daiko in America’s Concentration Camps

After the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, the signing of Executive Order 9066, and decades of discriminatory and racist laws, over 125,000 people of Japanese descent were incarcerated in American concentration camps during World War II. Despite the harsh conditions, Obon with Bon odori was celebrated in many of the temporary detention centers and all ten of the War Relocation Authority camps. 

At the Santa Fe camp, administered by the Department of Justice, the all-male population celebrated Obon with religious services, Bon odori, a yagura decorated with lanterns, and a rope-tied hira daiko (flat drum). In Amache, Frank Koshiro Kumagai and Jutaro Eugene Gondo played atop a tall yagura with a shime daiko (rope-tied drum), hyoshige (wooden clappers), and a western bass drum. The Obon in Rohwer featured drummer Isamu “Sam” Sugimoto along with singer Shokichi Morino and drummer George Hiki performing “Goshu Ondo.” In Manzanar, Bon odori was accompanied with a large taiko on a yagura, and innovative craftspeople at the Gila River camp built their own drum using an animal skin stretched over a keg.2 

(L-R) Frank Koshiro Kumagai and Jutaro Eugene Gondo playing Bon daiko at the Obon on August 14, 1943 in the Amache concentration camp near Granada, Colorado. National Archives and Records Administration Collection via Densho Digital Repository. (Joe McClelland)


After the War

With the end of the war came the closing of the concentration camps, the establishment of new Japanese American populations in the Midwest and East Coast, and the gradual revival of some (but certainly not all) communities on the West Coast. Obon with Bon odori returned in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and the Buddhist Mission of North America, newly renamed the Buddhist Churches of America, publicly celebrated its 50th anniversary Golden Jubilee with Bon odori on the plaza of the San Francisco Civic Center in 1948.

By the 1950s, Bon odori was an essential part of Obon festivals throughout the continental United States, and at most temples, someone from the community would bring a pair of bachi (sticks) and play the taiko for the dancers. As in the prewar years, these drummers were not professional musicians but held all manner of occupations—from ministers and dry cleaners to farmers and gardeners. They were men of the Issei and Nisei (first and second) generations with the self-confidence, spirit, and musicality to take on the highly conspicuous task. What follows is a series of five profiles of postwar drummers—Isamu “Sam” Sugimoto, Henry Inouye, Kazuo Hombo, the “Fukushima Ondo” drummers in Sacramento, and Reverend Hiroshi Abiko—along with brief discussions of women drummers and the impact of taiko groups on Bon daiko.3 


Isamu “Sam” Sugimoto

Bon daiko drummer Isamu Sugimoto and dancers preparing for the Midwest Buddhist Temple’s Obon on July 5, 1963 in Chicago, Illinois. Chicago Sun-Times collection, Chicago History Museum, ST-40001293-0005. (Gene Pesek)

Born in Hiroshima, Isamu “Sam” Sugimoto (1902–2002) moved to California as a teenager, worked as a grocer in West Los Angeles, and married Mary Ishizaki in 1939. During World War II, he was incarcerated at the Rohwer concentration camp where he volunteered as an emcee, benshi (silent film narrator), and drummer at the camp’s first Obon in 1943. After the war, he lived in Chicago where he was the community taiko drummer, playing Bon daiko at both the Midwest Buddhist Temple and the Buddhist Temple of Chicago. As Reverend Gyodo Kono of the Midwest Buddhist Temple declared in the Chicago Sunday Tribune with perhaps just a bit of hyperbole, “He is the only man east of the Mississippi who knows how to play this drum properly.” 

Sugimoto later played for the Buddhist Temple of San Diego’s Obon in the 1960s while on vacation visiting family and from the mid-1970s after he had moved to San Diego. Former temple president and Bon daiko drummer Ralph Honda remembered Sugimoto’s flamboyant style with “a lot of body motions, as if he was dancing to the music.” Sugimoto played into his nineties and guided the next generation of drummers at the temple.

Henry Inouye

Henry Inouye (1906–1991) was born in Nagano prefecture and moved to America at the age of 17. He finished high school in Oregon, attended the University of Colorado Boulder, and married Hiroko Suzawa in 1935. Inouye taught Japanese at the Buddhist Temple of San Diego before being incarcerated at the Heart Mountain concentration camp during World War II. Afterwards, the couple moved to Los Angeles and ran a successful dry cleaning business for over thirty years. 

Inouye taught Japanese at the Senshin Buddhist Temple and played taiko for the temple’s Bon odori from the 1950s through the 1980s. His understated drumming style was influential on members of Kinnara Taiko, the temple’s taiko group co-founded by Reverend Masao Kodani in 1969. As Rev. Kodani recollected: 

Mr. Inouye always wore a worn out Senshin happi [traditional coat]. He never played a set pattern and played very sparsely, only just enough to support the dancers. He tended to play at the beginning of the dancers[’] steps and at the end of a series. Feeling-wise he was hardly noticed unless he wasn’t playing at all. From afar his irregular long-spaced beats were more inviting than commanding. Egoless participating at its most difficult best.

George Abe, co-founder of Kinnara Taiko, spent many years on the yagura with Inouye and has carried on his style of “egoless” drumming at Obon festivals throughout Southern California. 

(L-R) George Abe and Henry Inouye drumming at the Senshin Buddhist Temple’s Obon on July 17, 1982. “Ethnic Heritage and Language Schools in America Project,” American Folklife Center, Library of Congress, AFC 1993/001. (Amy Skillman)


Kazuo Hombo

Born in California, Kazuo Hombo (1918–2015) was educated in Japan and returned to the United States in the late 1930s. During World War II, he was incarcerated at the Rohwer concentration camp, where he met and married Mary Sakata. After the war, Hombo worked as a gardener in the San Fernando Valley in Southern California. 

Beginning in the 1960s, Mary taught Bon odori at the San Fernando Valley Hongwanji Buddhist Temple and Kazuo played taiko for the dances. He learned how to make wine barrel taiko from members of Kinnara Taiko and built several drums for the temple. In time, he was invited to drum for Obon festivals in Los Angeles, Guadalupe, Oxnard, Sun Valley, and West Covina. Hombo played simply without any fancy embellishments and distilled his style into a series of rhythmic patterns that he taught to young drummers like Paul Jonokuchi, Mike Uno, and Brad Wood. More than anything, temple members recalled his ever-present smile as he drummed.

(L-R) Kazuo Hombo and Paul Jonokuchi drumming at the San Fernando Valley Hongwanji Buddhist Temple’s Obon. Robert and Betty Franklin collection, Special Collections and Archives, University Library, California State University, Northridge, RBF00 032. (Robert Franklin)

Part 2 >>

Notes:

1. The Obon tradition in Hawai‘i is distinct from that of the continental United States and is, regretfully, beyond the scope of this article.

2. In the late 1960s, Kinnara Taiko at the Senshin Buddhist Temple in Los Angeles independently developed the idea of building taiko out of wine barrels and shared this information freely with new taiko groups.

3. While I refer to Bon daiko drummers as the “original taiko drummers” in this article’s title, there were in fact earlier generations of drummers who played taiko and percussion for Nihon buyo (Japanese classical dance) and shibai (theater) performances. In addition, it is likely that taiko was used for community dancing at some kenjinkai (prefectural association) picnics. Little is known about these drummers at present.

 

© 2024 Wynn Kiyama

bon dance Buddhism communities continental U.S. dance drum Obon religions taiko
About the Author

Wynn Kiyama has worked as a freelance musician, musicologist and ethnomusicologist, and nonprofit arts executive on the American East and West coasts. He founded the Japanese street music group HAPPYFUNSMILE and was a performing member of Soh Daiko in New York and Portland Taiko in Oregon. His research on Bon odori has been presented in articles, a CD booklet, and museum exhibits. He currently lives with his family in Honolulu, Hawai‘i.

Updated May 2024

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