Grand Master Seiichi Tanaka & the San Francisco Taiko Dojo
Japanese taiko drumming
San Francisco, California
Seiichi Tanaka is a Grand Master of the ancient Japanese form of ritual drumming known as taiko. Taiko combines percussive sound with physically demanding choreographic movement to create a mesmerizing musical performance. “Teaching the discipline of mind and body, in the spirit of complete respect and unity among the drummers, that is my policy,” says Sensei Tanaka. “Heart, skill, physical strength, and courtesy—these four elements are based on Japanese martial arts. I have the same philosophy for my taiko.”
Originating some 1,400 to 2,000 years ago, the taiko drum was likely first employed in military settings, then later incorporated into agricultural rituals to protect crops and bring rain. Later, taiko became central to the rituals of the Imperial Court and the religious rites of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. After World War II, taiko drumming evolved again with the emergence of kumi-daiko, performance ensembles that brought together multiple drums of various sizes and tones.
Tokyo-born and Nagano-raised, Seiichi Tanaka came to the U.S. in 1967 at age 24. Attending that year’s Cherry Blossom Festival in San Francisco, he noticed one thing missing from his experience of community celebrations in Japan: the sound of the taiko drum. He found he had discovered his calling: to ensure “that the word ‘taiko,’ like ‘karate’ and ‘sushi,’ would one day become an integral part of the American vocabulary.” He went back to Japan to study with Grand Master Daihachi Oguchi, who had founded the first kumi-daiko. One year later, in 1968, Tanaka returned to become the first taiko drummer to perform at San Francisco’s Cherry Blossom Festival. That same year he founded the first taiko school in North America, the San Francisco Taiko Dojo. In the years that followed, he made many trips to Japan to study with other “National Cultural Treasures” of taiko, and began to traverse the United States helping start other taiko ensembles.
Nearly 50 years after founding San Francisco Taiko Dojo, Grand Master Tanaka has now taught over 15,000 students. Through his own tireless efforts, and the work of his students, Tanaka has had a hand in the establishment of most of the 250 taiko dojos in North America. In 2001, Seiichi Tanaka received a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, our nation’s highest honor for folk and traditional artists, for his work in preserving and teaching this ancient Japanese art form in the United States. In 2013, Emperor Akihito of Japan awarded him the Order of the Rising Sun, Japan’s oldest national decoration, for his work fostering U.S.-Japan relations and promoting Japanese culture in America.