MISAWA AIR BASE, Japan — On
Tuesday evenings, the Mokuteki Ballroom resonates with a
“thump, thump, thump” once used to call soldiers to
battle, entertain gods and drive away evil spirits.
These days, the venerable taiko drums are melding two
distinct cultures as a group of Americans learns to beat
The Dragon Eagle taiko drum team has played at
weddings, local festivals, charity events and even an
Aomori prefecture traffic safety promotion. On Saturday,
the drummers performed a free concert on base
celebrating the group’s seven-year anniversary, a
milestone instructor Kazuko Igarashi never dreamed
possible in the beginning.
Ten years ago, she started taking taiko drum lessons
in Aomori City with the goal of teaching the ancient
Japanese percussion to Americans. She found some
Japanese opposed the idea of sharing with foreigners an
art form steeped in tradition, dating back some 2,000
years. But Igarashi persisted, feeling that if Americans
had a special experience in Japan that they would always
look favorably on their time here. “If you move, you can
talk about Japanese memory forever,” she said.
It seemed like an impossible dream at first: She had
no taiko drum and no place to practice. But she spoke to
the manager of the Mokuteki Community Center at the
time, who said “let’s start,” Igarashi recalled.
At first, the team mostly practiced on tires. Taiko
drums come in a variety of styles, but a traditional
drum made from a hollowed tree can cost as much as
$6,000, Igarashi said. Igarashi has since bought five
drums, as have some of her students, who currently
number about 15 Americans working or living on Misawa
Chris Petrone, a Department of Defense Dependents
Schools Pacific teacher at Cummings Elementary School,
is in his fourth year with the group. Already a drummer,
Petrone said playing taiko drums was at first like
learning a new language.
“It’s more heavy, a lot more power, different sticks,
a different feel to the drum,” he said. “A lot of sore
muscles, a lot of popped blisters when you first start.”
The group practices once a week — every Tuesday from
7 to 9 p.m. — for $10 a lesson or $40 a month. Members
who don’t have a drum practice on pillows or tires at
home while listening to a DVD the team has recorded of
The American taiko drummers often play for Japanese
crowds that respond with standing ovations, they said.
“One time, a mama-san was driven to tears, she was so
happy to see us up there,” said David Wray, a Sollars
Elementary School teacher.
“It’s been [Kazuko’s] dream to bring this very sacred
and important part of Japanese culture to Americans on
base,” Petrone said. “Some Japanese frown upon it, some
don’t … but she’s stuck with it and it makes her so
happy to be able to share this with us.”