The Kokoro Files is a series that is dedicated to sharing the stories of people who are passionate about Japan. I’m pleased to present an interview with taiko drumming expert and Japanese language teacher Mary Murata. Read on to discover the origins of taiko drumming and why the art form is so captivating.
Thanks for agreeing to the interview Mary. I thought I’d kick things off by asking when did your interest in Japan first manifest?
I had a Japanese friend when I was 10 years old, but my main interest sparked when I travelled to Japan in 1984. I’ve been studying Japanese language and culture ever since.
What are some of your favourite aspects of Japanese culture?
Too many to mention. For me, what is interesting about Japan is that after 35 years of studying the country, there is still new stuff to learn! It is also changing rapidly and a very different place from when I first went. It’s fascinating.
What kind of Japanese based teaching have you done and do you think there is a difference in teaching styles between the West and the East?
I taught English in Japan for 14 years, and then I came back to the UK and now teach Japanese language at York St John University. I teach Japanese in a communicative way (the way I was trained to teach English) with an emphasis on self expression, and this often clashes with the design of Japanese text books, or the JLPT which are more traditional in their approach.
You’ve mentioned that you’re part of a Taiko drumming group based in York. For people who are unfamiliar with Taiko drumming, what is its significance in Japan?
Drums as instruments have been around for millenia. In Japan there is archaeological and historical evidence of drums going way back. Before the 1950s, taiko drums were mainly played as an accompaniment to other instruments in theatre, festivals and other entertainment, as well as in Buddhist and Shinto ceremonies. However, it was revolutionised in the 1950s when young people added flash dance moves or cool jazz rhythms to taiko drumming. Since the 1950s it has developed into a performing art; Kodo taiko drummers pioneered the internationalisation of taiko by taking it to theatres around the world. https://www.kodo.or.jp/en/
In the UK, the pioneers of taiko are Neil Mackie and Miyuki Williams of Mugenkyo who set up the UK’s first professional group, Mugenkyo 25 years ago. Almost every player in the UK can trace their roots to Mugenkyo, one way or another.
Taiko has been around in the UK since the 1990s when Neil and Miyuki started Mugenkyo. There are around 50 groups in the UK, which includes everything from school groups, adult community groups, groups for people with special needs, and professional players too (like the players who appeared on the sound track of Isle of Dogs). What is interesting to me is the way that all these different groups and individuals use taiko to express something of themselves. Some people see it as a Japanese cultural artefact but others as a musical form. For me, I really like the Japanese culture and the folk arts, but we also play modern pieces that have no connection musically or culturally to Japan. Some people use taiko as a tool for therapy or simply a fun way to spend time with their friends. So although it has its roots in Japan, taiko means many different things to different people, and this is what makes taiko interesting.
It must feel like quite a rush when you’re playing. How does it feel when you’re performing in front of a crowd?
When I first started playing taiko, I didn’t want to perform. But I have discovered that I am a terrible show-off and love performing now. I like to share my passion for taiko with other people, so performing and teaching are the two ways I do that.
Have there been any famous Taiko drummers who’ve left their mark on history?
The person who is credited with the revolution of taiko in the 1950s is Oguchi Daihachi who was the first person to create a taiko ensemble with drums as the main instrument. Den Tagayasu was the founder of Ondeko-za who went on to become Kodo who are probably the most famous group in the world.
Are there any other kind of Japanese musical styles that you’d recommend for people who are interested?
Since taking up taiko, I’ve become very interested in all forms of Japanese folk music — the drumming traditions of local festivals (rather than the stage) but also folk singing and instruments such as shamisen.
From a western perspective, do you feel we have a habit of romanticising Japan?
As a Japanese teacher, I spend a lot of time trying to get my students to see beyond the “kawaii” of Japan — J-Pop, Anime, etc — and see the real country. Both good and bad aspects. I love Japan but that doesn’t stop me having a critical eye.
What would your best advice be for someone who’s never travelled to Japan before and where would you recommend going?
Japan has become much easier to travel in for someone with no language skills — English signs are everywhere and the internet will help you too. So I’d suggest keeping away from the obvious tourist sites. My favourite place is Kagoshima (where I lived for 7 years); there are beautiful mountains and seas, as well as rich culture, although not so many “been there, done that, tick off the list” famous sites. The ideal place to come across something unexpected.
I also love visiting off the beaten track islands like Sado and Hachijo Islands which have a rich taiko history.
Japan can represent different emotions for different people. I’ve always thought of it as a place to find balance and serenity. On a personal level what does the country mean to you?
To me, Japan is my second home. I feel totally comfortable when I go there.
Mary Murata lived in Japan for 14 years. She is currently senior lecturer at York St John University and is a founding member of Kaminari UK Taiko.