SAN FRANCISCO — Grand Master Seiichi Tanaka, founder of San Francisco Taiko Dojo, has been named grand marshal of the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival’s Grand Parade, to be held on Sunday, April 20, starting at 1 p.m. at CIty Hall and ending in Japantown.
Tanaka, the son of a professional baseball player, was born in Tokyo in 1943. He spent his youth in a prefecture near Nagano and, like his father, grew into a skilled athlete. He attended Chiba University of Commerce on a baseball scholarship, graduating in 1964. Shortly thereafter, he visited the United States for the first time.
It was on a visit to the Cherry Blossom Festival in San Francisco Japantown in 1967 that Tanaka discovered his calling. He was surprised to learn that there was no taiko drumming at the Cherry Blossom Festival — or, for that matter, anywhere else during his travels in the United States. “In Japan, taiko drumming is played at practically every occasion — especially special ones like festivals or ceremonies,” he said. He immediately concluded that he wanted to introduce this powerful musical art form to the United states, and he dreamed that the word “taiko,” like “karate” and “sushi,” would one day become an integral part of the American vocabulary.
Tanaka returned to Japan and sought out a visionary in the taiko world, Grand Master Daihachi Oguchi of Osuwa Daiko, to teach him the art, traditions, and philosophies of taiko.
In 1968, Tanaka emerged as the sole taiko drummer at the Cherry Blossom Festival. That same year, he established San Francisco Taiko Dojo, the first such school in the United States. He is often heard saying that the essence of taiko is not only the skillful playing of percussion instruments, but also the discipline of mind and body in the spirit of complete respect and unity among the drummers. To Tanaka, taiko drumming can be expressed in one word — “heartbeat.” “We listen to it before we are born; it is instinctive.”
Forty-five years have passed since the founding of San Francisco Taiko Dojo, and more than, 15,000 men, women and children from all walks of life have been fortunate to study under Tanaka. Many of these students have gone on to begin over 250 other taiko groups throughout the United States and Canada. Additionally, in Tokyo, the drum maker to the Emperor founded an academy — Nihon (Japan) Taiko Dojo — based on Tanaka’s teachings and taiko philosophy.
Tanaka has been recognized by various countries for his talents and contributions to the preservation of Japanese traditions and culture. Most recently, he was honored by Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs with its prestigious Foreign Minister’s Commendation, which recognizes Tanaka’s significant efforts in promoting the Japanese art of taiko drumming.
The Foreign Minister’s Commendation follows closely on the heels of another major achievement in the arts world. In 2001, Tanaka was named a National Heritage Fellow by the U.S. National Endowment for the Arts. This award is widely recognized as one of America’s highest honors in folk and traditional arts. He was one of only 13 in the nation chosen and honored for their artistic excellence, authenticity, and contributions to their field.
Tanaka currently continues teaching hundreds of students in the art of taiko and lives in San Francisco with his wife, fine artist Kumiko, and son, Ryuma, the general manager of San Francisco Taiko Dojo.
In 2007, Tanaka was inducted into the Bunka Hall of Fame, which memorializes Northern Californians that were important to the culture of Japan as practiced here in America.
Last year, Tanaka was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun (5th Order: Gold and Silver Rays). The order was established in 1875 by Emperor Meiji of Japan and was the first national decoration awarded by the Japanese government, created on April 10, 1875 by decree of the Council of State. The badge features rays of light from the rising sun. The attachment is shaped into a chrysanthemum. The design symbolizes energy as powerful as the rising sun in parallel with the “rising sun” concept of Japan.
The order is awarded to those who have made distinguished achievements in the following fields: international relations, promotion of Japanese culture, advancements in their field, development in welfare or preservation of the environment. Tanaka officially received this honor by visiting the Imperial Palace on Nov. 13, 2013. The award was presented by Emperor Akihito.
For more information on the Cherry Blossom Festival, which will be held April 12-13 and 19-20 in Japantown, visit http://sfcherryblossom.org. For more information on San Francisco Taiko Dojo, visit www.sftaiko.com.