Roy and PJ Hirabayashi

2011 National Heritage Fellows
Roy and PJ Hirabayashi
Photo by Mel Higashi

Transcript of conversation with Roy and PJ Hirabayashi

Roy Hirabayashi: Taiko is the word for the Japanese drum, but what we're doing I guess is what we consider or refer to as kumi-daiko, which means ensemble drumming. And the difference is historically the taiko drum, the taiko in Japan has been used in many different kinds of purposes and occasions. You would see it in the festivals, in the temples. Historically it was used in the battlefield to send the field commands across the battlefield. But most popularly, you would see it in many different festivals throughout Japan. But you would many times see the taiko being used to accompany other type of art forms--singing and dancing, or the more classical forms. The kumi-daiko form that we're doing, or the ensemble form, is just using primarily taiko as an instrument -- the singing and dancing is not the primary focus; it's just the drumming itself.

Jo Reed: That was Roy Hirabayashi, he and his wife PJ are the co-founders of San Jose taiko, and both are recipients of the 2011 National Heritage Fellowship. 

Welcome to Artworks, the program that goes behind the scenes with some of the nation's great artists to explore how art works. I'm your host, Josephine Reed.

With San Jose Taiko, Roy and PJ Hirabayashi have helped   create a new Asian American art form. They've combined the traditional rhythms of Japanese drumming with musical and cultural influences from around the world. San Jose Taiko performs its music with choreographed movements so in addition to rhythm, its members need physical strength, endurance, and energy.

The group operates as a collective with members participating in all aspects of the art from composing, and choreographing pieces, to designing and sewing  costumes, and to handcrafting the drums themselves. 

When San Jose Taiko began in 1973, there were only very few Taiko organizations in the United States. So I was curious about how they started. And When I spoke to Roy and PJ Hirabayashi, That was my first question: How did San Jose Taiko begin? Here's Roy…

Roy Hirabayashi: We started the idea of doing Taiko in San Jose through the San Jose Buddhist Church, and it began sort of as an activity to try to bring the youth into the temple to do some kind of activity, just to draw more people in and the younger folks, basically. And so the minister that was there, Reverend Hiroshi Abiko at that time, he suggested maybe we should try to do this activity and see what would happen. So he recruited two of us actually-- myself, Dean Miyakusu, and then Hiroshi-- Reverend Abiko-- and I. We decided just to try to do this. We had no clue what at least I didn't-- really had no clue how to really form a taiko group because I had never done it before. Musically, I had done other kinds of music growing up but never taiko or a Japanese art form like this. And that started in Japan actually, relatively recently. So traditionally it's not a really old art form. In Japan, we refer to it as starting about 1951 in Japan, and it came over here to the United States in this form in 1968, basically. And so we just really kind of jumped into it a little bit blindly, but we learned how to make our first drums and some basics from the group called Kinnara Taiko in Los Angeles, who had started just before us. And then after we got it started going a little bit, we were able to learn some other basic form from Seiji Tanaka, the San Francisco Taiko Dojo.

Jo Reed: What attracted you, PJ, to taiko?

PJ Hirabayashi: Well, I have to say it's the power and the energy, and being a Japanese-American woman, there was kind of this relatedness that I had to do that because it was so much power. I was not really interested in the very quiet and very meditative, sedate art forms such as classical dance or the tea ceremony or flower arranging. Everything was embodied in taiko from something that was sports-like, including some theatrics. It was just everything that I ever dreamed of.

Jo Reed: You were trained as a dancer, weren't you? So you really had a sense of performance and a physicality.

PJ Hirabayashi: Absolutely. I think that's what really attracted me. Because in my body, there was just that seed of wanting to move, something that could just be expressed so unabashedly. And to do that with music, drums, the body moving-- it just spoke to me very loudly.

Jo Reed: When we think about the time that San Jose Taiko started in 1973, that was a period of great activism in the Bay Area in California, and that kind of informed the way you went about beginning taiko. Isn't that true, Roy?

Roy Hirabayashi: Yes, very much so. Prior to even thinking about doing taiko, I was pretty heavily involved in the Asian-American scene in the Bay Area, primarily on campus at San Jose State and also in the community in Japantown in San Jose. And as you mentioned, the late '60s, early '70, there was the antiwar movement, the beginning of ethnic studies, the beginning of Asian-American studies, and different kinds of programs like that were happening on the campuses. And so I was really interested in learning more about my heritage, growing up as a third-generation, or sansei, Japanese-American here in the United States. I just wanted to know more about my heritage that I really didn't know, and there was a lot to learn at that time.

Jo Reed: You're one of the oldest taiko groups in the country. There were two others, one in San Francisco, one in Los Angeles, and then San Jose Taiko. How did you go about learning?

Roy Hirabayashi: I wish back then we had the internet and everything else, but yeah, there was nothing. The resources were very limited, and so we had to be very creative on our own, and I guess in order to develop that. So it was just trying to see as much as possible and learn from whatever resources we did have available. And, as mentioned, Kinnara Taiko and San Francisco Taiko Dojo were the only two here. And then eventually there was a group called Ondekoza that started touring from Japan in the United States. So seeing what they were doing was really an early start for us to examine what taiko was like coming from Japan. But early on, because we did not have those resources, or even a teacher that we could identify as a leader of our group, we really formed sort of a collective style of operating. And more importantly I think is that we really early on decided to start writing our own music based upon our own experiences and influences and what we felt was important using the taiko at that time. So creating from the start a Japanese-American taiko sound that was very unique to what San Jose Taiko is still today.

PJ Hirabayashi: I think there was a lot of question whether we were actually being respectful of playing the correct way from Japan. But at that time, there were only LPs to refer to, other than the direct link with Seiji Tanaka, who is also an NEA folk-traditional artist and recipient Fellowship. But I think that was what was very important, that we wanted to create our own voice, to have our experiences of having grown up in America really get reflected in our art form. Therefore our music instantly became very cross-cultural in nature. But I think we were also being very true to who we were, and to use taiko as a tool for that expression also, not just for our own self-development but for a group of people playing and discovering and exploring where it could possibly go, and also knowing that we are doing this as a community effort as well to contribute to our Japantown community in San Jose, for its festivals, and that's what kind of enlightened us to really want to take taiko to wherever it could possibly go.

Jo Reed: When I look back at what you envisioned and how you moved forward, it is so ambitious in the best possible way. You had to make your own instruments, write your own music. You were taking a tradition and preserving it and honoring it, but at the same time expanding it and taking in influences working in concert but also working in community and doing it all.

Roy Hirabayashi: <laughs> We didn't see that happening early on, naturally, but as we look back, yes. I think what was important for us is that we were trying to create our own sound and be connected to our culture and heritage, and as we start to move forward, we discovered that more people, not just Japanese-American, but just people in general were becoming interested in what the taiko was all about. And so it really did take off, and that's, I guess, what's been exciting for us. We have been trying to, I guess all along, really tried to make a statement in our own way as far as creating the art form here in the United States, because I think we realized early on that we had that opportunity to really do something different here, using an instrument that is not really well known here, but to create the art form here, even beyond what was happening in Japan. And so we were a little bit bold I guess at the time to try to make that decision to really go beyond what was happening traditionally even in Japan to create sort of our-- I guess our multicultural sound or our voice in that way using the taiko, but rhythmically in many different other styles.

PJ Hirabayashi: With both Roy and myself being involved in Asian-American studies, there was kind of a platform about serving our community. If you were in Asian-American studies, it wasn't all about scholastic studies; besides, there were hardly very much reference books or resources to really read back in the '70s. But the main spirit of community-building, to serve the people, I think that really was a part of how we looked at developing San Jose Taiko; that there was no way that we would have a sensei, as in Japan, to tell us what to do, or "This is the way to do it." We were exploring that we had to work collectively, very collaboratively, in order to maintain our organization. We were trying to also level the playing field, everybody contributing as equally as possible, and I think that in itself has been kind of our enduring principles that continue today.

Jo Reed: Well, you combine self-expression with community-building.

PJ Hirabayashi: Absolutely. I think it's very, very necessary that they go hand in hand, that people come to the table being able to participate fully, and I think that's what art should be about.

Jo Reed: Let's have a verbal imagining: How many people are in San Jose Taiko? How many group members?

Roy Hirabayashi: Right now the performing company is about 18 members.

Jo Reed: Is that how many people are likely to be on the stage at the same time?

Roy Hirabayashi: It varies. Like our larger festivals, when we're home, we'll have almost the entire company participating. Normally when the company's out on tour, our concert program on tour is just eight performers. So it's less than half of that.

Jo Reed: And how many drums are likely to be on stage at the same time?

Roy Hirabayashi: Well, during the entire program, we're using a lot; a variety of drums are going on and off for different pieces or songs that we created. The tour, we'll take out anywhere between 25 to 30 different drums during any one tour, depending what the program is all about.

Jo Reed: When you're on the stage together you perform as one. Can you talk about the process of how that comes together?

Roy Hirabayashi: You know, that's something that we worked really hard on trying to do, and I think it's sort of a signature about San Jose Taiko is all about-- creating a unified look as far as our performances, a style of the choreography of the piece or the movement, and just how everyone is participating in different ways. For us, it's very important that, again, that there's no differences between male/female roles, so everyone is cross-trained in all parts of the different songs and different drums and instruments. And so anyone should be able to play any part basically. It's not a gender-based position, basically. And so with that, what we were really trying to do is develop leadership from the top-down that's all equal. And so everyone being able to participate and be able to take part in that leadership of the organization or the group as we're moving forward. So even during practices, there's many times not just one person that's leading the rehearsal, but there could be several members of the group taking on different segments of the practice in order to teach different parts and instruct and lead what's going on during the rehearsal itself. And so that piece I guess is sort of coming from that collective process that we tried to initially use in the development of our organization, and that's been a really important part of how we've tried to develop the organization, or San Jose Taiko in general.

PJ Hirabayashi: Artistically we also encourage our members to contribute to our repertoire of songs. And so we have quite a range of expression that comes into play. And so it does become very holistic in the way San Jose Taiko operates as a company.

Jo Reed: San Jose Taiko didn't begin as a professional company, but you became one. Can you tell me how that evolved?

Roy Hirabayashi: Yeah, so we started-- it was really community based, and it began, as we mentioned, out of the temple. And rapidly became just a group of people within a community that was interested in doing this just for fun. And that's when we started forward and started learning more about what taiko was all about and seeing other groups. And again, at the same time, writing our own music and trying to put our own program together and our own style together. We soon began to realize that we had an art form or style that was different than what other groups were doing, especially from Japan. And that was, I guess, an early concern for us, is whether or not people in Japan would recognize that what we're doing as third-generation Japanese-Americans, removed from what's happening in Japan, using taiko that we made ourselves in America, would be something that they could recognize as different and also that they could appreciate. And so in 1987, we had an opportunity to actually go to Japan to tour with another group, a group called Ondekoza, a joint tour, and that was the point when we were able to take our music there, and actually our instruments too, and show the Japanese people, what we were trying to do. And that was interesting, because we were touring a joint program with this other group, a Japan-based group, Ondekoza, and so they were able to see the two different styles on the same stage at the same time, and to compare that. And we found that the people in Japan realized that we were different, and appreciated what we were doing. After that trip, we realized that we had something that we wanted to really try to move forward, and that it was important for us to really think about how we would actually make this into a program that we could take to a broader audience in order to share what we're doing, and because we felt it was an important statement to really talk about what it is to be Japanese-American or Asian-American here in the United States, and creating this art form in that way. And so that was kind of a pivotal point in the early '90s, in order to create that opportunity.

PJ Hirabayashi: I think it's very important to say that we didn't we didn't want to copy what was already being done in Japan. And so to go professional, or create a professional company, and how to reach other communities that would not otherwise see taiko being performed in their community, we wanted people to understand we are not from Japan, that we are home-bred here in America, and that we are actually developing this art form.

Roy Hirabayashi: I'd like to also say that organizationally, what was really important for us at that time in the early '90s was that we had an opportunity, actually through NEA, to go through the NEA advancement program. And that program was one that really set us up organizationally to really take a hard look at what we were doing in order to frame the whole business side of how we were going to operate from that point forward.

Jo Reed: Is it fair to say that that's the point that you realized that in fact this taiko, San Jose Taiko, was going to be your life's work, or had you already known that?

Roy Hirabayashi: Well, definitely I think we were all really wanting just to do taiko more in different ways, and we were hoping that it could become a full-time job. Because up to that point, we were all still working other jobs or doing other things, and trying to do as much taiko as possible. And so, yes, that was kind of the critical point because at that point we were able to actually start hiring on people on staff and to start to create the opportunity for people to do this on a full-time basis. Up to that point, we just felt it was more of a community-based, almost-- initially, like I said, almost it was like a hobby. And then it just became a passion that we just are still continuing basically.

Jo Reed: Well, here's the question I have for you. You are very committed to the community, yet at the same time the company is touring internationally and nationally. How do you stay rooted to the community in San Jose?

PJ Hirabayashi: Many different levels, but of course, number one is that we started in San Jose Japantown. And Japantown in San Jose happens to be only one of three Japantowns remaining in the whole United States, that really has a geographic Japantown. And we feel very committed that we are part of the vitality, we are part of the preservation of that particular community, but it goes like the extended ripple effect that we also take pride in the fact that we are San Jose Taiko. Even with the encouragement of our promoters before-- they said, "Can't you get a sexier name, other than San Jose?" No. San Jose is who we are. And so wearing the badge of the city of San Jose, of course that's another reason of how we remain rooted to the community. And it just ripples out even farther, because taiko in general has just become so popular throughout the world that taiko can be found in Europe, it can be found in Southeast Asia, beyond Japan. And we're finding that this taiko community is a very vital force, one that connects people.

Roy Hirabayashi: Also there's several community festivals that go on annually within Japantown or around San Jose that we're really committed to doing in order to support the larger community. So those are also very important for us. No matter where the company is at as far as on the road, we're trying to make sure that we're also servicing our local community at the same time. And so with the numbers of performers we have, we were able to have a company on the road and still have performances going on at home, along with classes, because the classes that we teach for the youth and other adults are really important.

Jo Reed: Here's a question I have for you, and that is when we see a performance of San Jose Taiko, it's so polished and beautiful, and everybody working together, but you're really always exploring new creative possibilities with taiko. You're often performing original music. What does the first rehearsal look like of a piece? I mean, you have to build to that. I just can't imagine how you get from all walking into a room and, "Okay, here's this piece of music people haven't heard, to “finished product.”

Roy Hirabayashi: You know, each composer may have a different process in how to put forward or present a new song. And actually, if we're working in collaboration with other artists outside of the group, it's even a longer or more involved process, which we're actually doing right now with a couple different groups. But in general, for a new piece that's done internally, a piece could be presented not necessarily all in one chunk at one time. And so many times, it's just certain sections that are being presented over a period of time just so that people get an idea of what the rhythm patterns are, and also the composer has a feel for what might be happening using these different patterns, hearing it in different ways with the drums. Because it's so difficult sometimes to be writing something on paper, or if you're doing it on a computer it's perhaps even more dangerous sometimes, versus to actually hear it live with a whole set of drums happening, because the sound is so different. So it gives the composer an opportunity to really kind of try different things in order to finesse the ideas before it's actually presented in actual song format.

Jo Reed: There's a choreography also that goes along with taiko. It's a very visual music. How does that develop? Is that completely natural and comes out of the drumming itself, or is it a little bit more formed?

PJ Hirabayashi: Actually, it depends again. Like what Roy was saying, it depends on the composer. Sometimes the choreography comes attached with the ideas of the rhythm patterns. But what people-- let's say members of San Jose Taiko-- there are basics in structure-- that are considered San Jose Taiko that we encourage that the composer include, so that the proper technique is always involved, but then they can expand in their choreography to test-- but as long as there's that rootedness and that centeredness that is San Jose Taiko's signature.

Jo Reed: You know, it's so interesting in talking about this. So often people seem to take artistic excellence and community-building and look at it, always sensing that one has to sacrifice one for the other.

Roy Hirabayashi: I think we both feel that it's definitely a partnership that can happen in order to create that. And I think what was-- I mean, for us, I think there were a lot of other elements or different components that help build to what we're doing now, and we talked a lot about the community-building and the music and the artistic, which are very important components. But it's really just all of it together, in the sense that we were, again, trying to build or create an art form out of hardly anything here. And so having that opportunity to do that I think was, I guess, the challenge, but at the same time the excitement of what really kind of helped move us forward.

Jo Reed: Now you recently made a decision to step away from the leadership of San Jose Taiko. Tell me why, and tell me what you're doing now.

Roy Hirabayashi: Well, yes. We decided to step down from our titles. I was the executive director, and PJ was artistic director. And we decided to do that because we felt it was a good time for us. I guess what was significant in our lives is that we both turned 60 within this last year. And in Japanese tradition, when you turn 60 is really a significant year for you. You've gone through five life cycles, basically-- the lunar cycle of 12 years-- and so at that point, at 60, you're at a point in your life where you're supposedly going back to a little bit of your childhood, but at the same time you have all this knowledge in order to go forward at a different level of thinking. And so we decided that at 60 it would be a good time to step down and to turn over the reins of San Jose Taiko to the next generation, and still be here, or to be able to do other projects and move on to do other things that we would like to be still continuing to do in our lives here.

PJ Hirabayashi: It has been very exciting, in that San Jose Taiko was never about one or two people being in charge of the company, because we developed San Jose Taiko to basically be all leaders, and that is kind of trusting in the process that we have developed the leadership who can continue what has already been laid before us. And so that's exciting, because we feel that we're not running away from anything, or feeling that something's going down with the ship, but it feels very wonderful. It feels healthy, and that there's new energy and new creativity that wants to take San Jose Taiko forward. For myself, becoming 60 also became very-- a time of reflection. Never had I ever asked myself, until people started to ask me, "PJ, what do you really want to do?" I said, "Well, I have been doing what I really want to do," and that's doing taiko. But now that we've stepped away from the leadership, I am really focusing on a project that I'm trying to create. It's called Taiko Peace, and all of my involvement in taiko activities, in the way I teach, the way of community-building, way of doing workshops and collaborations with other artists, I really want to bring in the concept of working with peace as a central component. I am using Karen Armstrong's Charter for Compassion as kind of my baseline of how I interconnect, how I relate, how I teach, how I communicate, how I build, and this is what Taiko Peace is going to be about.

Jo Reed: I'm a great admirer of Karen Armstrong as well. She's quite amazing, I think.

PJ Hirabayashi: Amazing.

Jo Reed: How did you find out you were going to receive a National Heritage Fellowship Award?

Roy Hirabayashi: <chuckling> Well, I came into the office and there was a message from Barry saying, "Please give me a call." And so I-- we called back right away.

Jo Reed: And that's Barry Bergey.

Roy Hirabayashi: Yes, yes. And I thought, "Oh, are we in trouble here or what?" <laughing> So anyways, then he just told us the announcement. Well, we naturally knew that our names were nominated, but it was a few years back, so we had kind of forgotten about it. And so we were just totally surprised that this was happening.

Jo Reed: PJ? Were you there, or did you find out from Roy?

PJ Hirabayashi: Was I there? Yeah, I was there, but Roy took the call. And so when he got off, I, of course, "Well, what was that about?" As we were both in shocked elation. <laughs>

Jo Reed: Well, that's a great way to be, isn't it?

Roy Hirabayashi: Yes.

Jo Reed: Well, Roy and PJ, again, many, many congratulations for this well-deserved award.

PJ Hirabayashi: Thank you so much for your time.

Jo Reed: Oh, thank you.

That was 2011National Heritage Fellows Roy and PJ Hirabayashi talking about San Jose Taiko. The National Heritage Concert will be held on September 23 at the Strathmore Theater in Bethesda, Maryland. For more information about this free event, go to and click on National Heritage Fellowships.

You've been listening to Artworks, produced at the national endowment for the arts. Adam Kmape is the musical supervisior. 

Excerts from “Spirit of Adventure” and “Hayaku” from the CD Rhythm Journey composed and performed by San Jose Taiko, used courtesy of San Jose Taiko.

The Art Works podcast is posted every Thursday at And now you can subscribe to Art Works at iTunes U -- just click on the itunes link on our podcast page. Next week, Sara Coffey tells us about the Vermont Performance Lab. 

To find out how art works in communities across the country, keep checking the Art Works blog, or follow us @NEAARTS on Twitter. For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.

Co-founders of San Jose Taiko, Roy and PJ Hirabayashi talk about the importance of this traditional art in the Asian American community. [28:34]