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Ministers, Dry Cleaners, Farmers, and Gardeners: The Original Taiko Drummers in the Continental United States—Part 2

(L-R) Kenkichi George Kurosawa, Katsumi Fred Matsunaga, and Kisoji Frank Kobayashi drumming at the Buddhist Church of Sacramento’s Obon on July 5, 1961. (Arthur Kobayashi)

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Sacramento’s “Fukushima Ondo” Musicians 

In postwar Sacramento, an energetic group of singers, drummers, and flutists from the Fukushima Kenjinkai, theater company Yamato Gekidan, and the Buddhist Church of Sacramento performed live versions of “Fukushima Ondo” for the temple’s Obon festival. 

Harry Nobuyoshi Sato, print shop owner and gardener, played the shinobue (side-blown flute) while hotel worker and gardener Kisoji Frank Kobayashi and Katsumi Fred Matsunaga played the shime daiko. Kenkichi George Kurosawa, a farmer and gardener, vigorously beat the taiko, leaning into the drum, bobbing back and forth, and hitting with full-bodied movements. In later years, the troupe was joined by Fumio “Fred” Katayama, Henry Mizushima, Sakura Minyo Doo Koo Kai members Tomiyo Nojiri and Miyuki Yokogawa, Tiffany Tamaribuchi, and others.

(L-R): Fumio “Fred” Katayama and Tiffany Tamaribuchi at the Buddhist Church of Florin’s Obon on July 21, 2007. (Walter Menda)

Katayama (1928–2015) was a gardener and amateur jazz drummer who played taiko wearing sunglasses and a hachimaki (headband) over his slicked-back hair. As recalled by Tamaribuchi, now a professional taiko drummer, Katayama would wind up over his right shoulder and then strike: 

DON...DON...Don-Don tsu Don Don ka ra ka ka... going full force into the beats, then lean back during the singing of the verses playing the ji [pulse] on the fuchi [rim] with a (now that I think of it a James Dean kind of) laid back style, left hand up, right hand low, (cigarette dangling while he still smoked) ... and yet totally not performative ... he was just there to hold the space and keep the beat[.]

Katayama, Mizushima, Tamaribuchi, Sakura Minyo Doo Koo Kai, and Sacramento Taiko Dan performed “Fukushima Ondo” for decades at Obon festivals in Sacramento, Florin, Marysville, and Penryn. 

Reverend Hiroshi Abiko

Reverend Hiroshi Abiko at the Buddhist Church of San Francisco’s Obon in San Francisco, California, ca. 2005-08. (Courtesy of Misaye Abiko)

Hiroshi Abiko (1941–2022) was born in Los Angeles, where his father Reverend Yoshitaka Giko Abiko, was a minister at the Los Angeles Hompa Hongwanji Buddhist Temple. After incarceration at the Jerome and Tule Lake concentration camps, the family returned to Japan to care for their ancestral temple in Shiga prefecture and moved back to California in 1954. Hiroshi Abiko attended school in Alameda, graduated from California State University, Sacramento, and completed his ministerial training at Ryukoku University in Kyoto.   

Inspired by the activities of Kinnara Taiko, Rev. Hiroshi Abiko co-founded San Jose Taiko in 1973 while serving at the San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin. He married Misaye Kamigaki in 1974, and worked at temples in Palo Alto, San Francisco, and Los Angeles from 1983 to 2013. Throughout the decades, he played Bon daiko with enthusiasm and a grin overbrimming with joy, often donning a small taiko slung around his neck so he could dance and occasionally strike the drum. At Rev. Abiko’s memorial in 2022, Rev. Kodani remembered his fellow minister and friend in this way: “Instead of chanting, he opened himself up to being chanted. Instead of dancing Bon odori, it danced him. When playing taiko, it soon played him. Etcetera. Etcetera.” 

Bon Daiko Drummers

Ministers such as Rev. Bunyu Fujimura at the West Los Angeles Buddhist Temple, Rev. Masao Kodani at the Senshin Buddhist Temple in Los Angeles, Rev. Shuichi Tom Kurai at the Sozenji Buddhist Temple, and Rev. Joshin Dennis Fujimoto at the Idaho-Oregon Buddhist Temple shared this love of taiko and played Bon daiko at their respective Obon events. 

In addition, hundreds of temple members filled the role of Obon drummer through the years including Stanley Arai in Anaheim, Joe Watanabe in Auburn, Shohei Frank Doi in Fresno, Shigeo Yokoyama in Gardena, Shinkichi Maruki in Los Angeles, Hideo “Al” Ito in Monterey and Watsonville, Minoru Harada in New York and Seabrook, Ray Nishikawa in Ogden, Henry Matsunaga in Portland, Shizuka Fukumoto in San Mateo, Shinzui Sanada in Salt Lake City, Toshio Abe in Seattle, Robert Noguchi in Sebastopol, and Randy Yano in Visalia.

As is evident, men were the drummers in these communities and for many years women were not considered for or discouraged from playing Bon daiko. Women played the shime daiko and percussion instruments in minyo (Japanese folk music) ensembles for Obon festivals in cities such as Denver, Florin, Marysville, Penryn, Sacramento, and San Luis Obispo, but the large drum, when used, was played by a man. 

(L-R) Mamoru “Mo” Funai, Merle Mieko Okada, and Jeannie Ishizuka at the New York Buddhist Church’s Obon in 1977. (Courtesy of Merle Mieko Okada)

As best as can be determined, Merle Mieko Okada was the first woman in the continental United States to play the large drum for Bon daiko on a regular basis, beginning in 1973 at the New York Buddhist Church. More women followed in the 1970s and 1980s, including Theresa Day-Kitazano, Jeannie Ishizuka, Wendy Takahisa, and Jennifer Wada in New York; Sharon Koga, June Hanano, Ann Takata Saneto, Arlene Takata Santa Maria, Janet Tominaga, Julia Wong, and Vicki Yamashita in Anaheim; Jan Hamamoto, Peggy Kamon-Mato, Angela Kawakami, Irene Nakatsu, Phoebe Ogami, and Aimee Yamada in Gardena; and Tiffany Tamaribuchi in Sacramento. 

Group Drumming

The biggest stylistic change to Bon daiko came with the development of kumi daiko (group drumming) in the United States, beginning with Seiichi Tanaka’s San Francisco Taiko Dojo in 1968. The number of taiko groups grew steadily in the 1970s and increased exponentially from the 1980s through the 2000s. Many of these drummers first experienced Bon daiko as an ensemble piece with standardized kata (form), sophisticated movements, continuous playing, and solos through compositions and arrangements by Tanaka (“Matsuri”) and the Tokyo-based Sukeroku Taiko (“Midare Uchi”). Highly impressive onstage, this stylized version of Bon daiko presented drummers as featured soloists and, as such, was markedly different from previous conceptions of Bon daiko as an aid to dancers that was at its best when hardly or not noticed. As Rev. Kodani wrote:

Bon Odori taiko is meant to help the dancers dance – it is not performance taiko. Bon Odori taiko is not meant to be noticed, except by its complete absence. Taiko players are not necessarily Bon Odori taiko players.

Bon Daiko Today

Ultimately, there is no single formula for playing Bon daiko and each drummer approaches the task uniquely. It is certainly true that some modern drummers play Bon daiko like a performance piece or solo, but there are those with virtuosic technique who play simply when on the yagura in accordance with the music and dance. It is also easy to romanticize drummers from the past—those without musical training who played for the community with a natural ease. At the same time, we should recall the stories (though not reported here) of drummers who played clumsily, monotonously, drunkenly, or wildly offbeat.

In the 2020s, Bon odori remains an essential part of Obon festivals throughout the continental United States, and each summer, someone climbs onto the yagura and plays the taiko for the dancers. Many of these drummers have played in taiko groups, and some are professional musicians, but most hold all manner of occupations—from tech workers and teachers to social workers and engineers. They are people of the Sansei, Yonsei, and Gosei (third, fourth, and fifth) generations and other backgrounds with the self-confidence, spirit, and musicality to take on the highly conspicuous task—to drum as if dancing, to play without ego, to smile broadly, to lean back like James Dean, and if the conditions are right, to be played by the taiko.  


Thanks to Reverends Joshin Dennis Fujimoto and Patti Nakai, George Abe, Misaye Abiko, Daryl Doami, Chizuko and Kenny Endo, Thomas Fukuman, Elaine Fukumoto, Creston Goi, Nancy and Russell Hombo, Ralph Honda, Toshiye Kawamura, Alan Kobayashi, Gail Kusano, Judy Matsuzaki, Elaine Miyamura, Grace Mizushima, Henry Mizushima, Johnny Mori, Alice Murata, Patricia Nishimura, Merle Mieko Okada, Barbara Okita, Nancy Payne, Ann Takata Saneto, Carolyn Sanwo, Mitzi Shimizu, Julia Takeda, Tiffany Tamaribuchi, Joanne Tokeshi, and Mike Uno.  

Special thanks to Reverends Masao Kodani and Ron Miyamura.


© 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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