KANAZAWA, ISHIKAWA PREF. – With the dream of raising Japanese “taiko” drumming to worldwide prominence, a centuries-old maker of the traditional instruments is creating a business foothold in Los Angeles.
Encouraged by a steep increase in sales of taiko drums in the United States, Asano Taiko Co. has been preparing to open a Los Angeles shop and launch a course in taiko lessons in July since setting up a U.S. subsidiary last June.
In recent years, ensemble taiko drumming has become a popular pastime, particularly among Japanese-Americans on the West Coast. Nationwide, roughly 300 taiko ensembles have sprouted up.
“I want to establish (the Los Angeles shop) as a springboard for spreading Japanese taiko culture around the world,” said Katsuji Asano, 29, who oversees the U.S. project and is the son of an executive with the firm. Asano Taiko, whose history dates back to the beginning of the 17th century, is based in Hakusan, Ishikawa Prefecture.
Taiko drumming’s popularity in the U.S. grew after an attention-grabbing gambit staged in 1975 by a Japanese ensemble called Ondekoza, according to the Kodo Cultural Foundation, a Sado, Niigata Prefecture-based group that seeks to bring taiko to a global audience.
Ondekoza members participated in the 1975 Boston Marathon as runners, and immediately after crossing the finish line trotted onto a makeshift stage and wowed spectators with an ensemble drumming performance using the massive “odaiko” versions of the drums.
Taiko performances are now held in various cities across the U.S. Among them, the North American Taiko Conference has been held every two years since 1997, alternately in Los Angeles and other West Coast cities, bringing together American and Canadian taiko drummers. The event is sponsored by the Japanese American Cultural and Community Center of Los Angeles.
During the 2011 North American Taiko Conference, Asano Taiko sold around 30 drums in just three days, with each going for about ¥150,000.
Asano Taiko’s drums have won accolades as being superior to those made in the United States. U.S.-made taiko, which are usually converted from wine casks, lack the resonance typical of the Japanese firm’s drums, which are comprised of one-piece bodies carved out of wood by skilled craftsmen.
Asano Taiko has tailored its business approach to win over more U.S. customers. It sells small taiko light enough to be easily carried by women, who constitute a large portion of the U.S. customer base, and it offers a discount of around 20 to 30 percent compared with prices in Japan.
Taiko players in the U.S. tend to prefer a rhythm and blues style of performance. But Asano said he is hoping to awaken Americans to the Japanese style of drumming, which creates each sound with a wholehearted intensity. He also hopes American drummers will play a role in promoting Japanese culture worldwide.
“My dream is to propel American players onto the global stage,” Asano said.