Derek Hong: Ritsumeikan Wadaiko DON

For my CIP, I participated in Wadaiko DON.  Wadaiko DON is a student-run taiko circle at Ritsumeikan University.  At my home university in the US, I am a part of a taiko club run by Brown and RISD students called Gendo Taiko, and I wanted to see how a wadaiko circle as run by students in Japan differs from a taiko club run by students in the US.

My initial contact with the club was difficult since I was still getting used to having full conversations in Japanese.  However, the students in the club were welcoming and readily willing to let me participate.  The amount of time I needed to put into my CIP was a little higher than usual since practice was usually twice a week for at least an hour, but I was determined to try and participate as much as I could.  During practice, I had to quickly get comfortable using plain forms and, more importantly, using casual speech.  In the end, even though I’m still not fluent in casual speech, I was able to hear how the friends talked to each other and gave instruction.

It is a bit regrettable that my time in the taiko group was so short and that I needed to commute far to participate.  It made it difficult to spend enough time with them to really practice my Japanese and get a sense of how they are outside of the taiko circle setting.  That said, I think it was a great insight into how student circles are run in Japan.  For the most part, there are a lot of similarities between Wadaiko DON and Gendo Taiko.  We are both student run groups, we both practice together as a group, and we play many of the same styles.  Further, like Gendo Taiko, many of the Wadaiko DON members started taiko only after entering the circle.  As for differences, Wadaiko DON is about twice the size of Gendo Taiko and, as such, they are able to perform at a much higher potential level.  For each performance, they hold auditions to decide who can participate.

On the whole, I’m very glad that I was able to participate and be accepted into a Japanese university student group, especially one that concerns taiko.  Wadaiko DON performs at a very high level, and I am very thankful to be able to have seen their mainstage performance, participate in regular practice, and perform in the Takase-gawa Sakura Matsuri (pictures and videos below).  The Wadaiko DON members were extremely welcoming and helpful even when I didn’t quickly understand their instruction.  Even though the language barrier made it difficult to interact smoothly with the groups usual happenings, this was a unique experience that could only have happened during my study abroad.  I am especially glad to have participated in the Takase-gawa Sakura Matsuri, during which I was able to see the carrying of the Mikoshi from the perspective of the parade that went down Teramachi-dōri.  It was a unique perspective on Japanese life and the continuation of tradition.

On the day of the Matsuri, the weather was sunny and warm, and the sakura blossoms were just beginning to lose their petals.  As the wind swept through the trees, the petals flew up and floated down gently, breezing in the background of the crowded streets.  Even though it was my first sakura matsuri, I had the feeling that it was a picture perfect representation of what sakura matsuri could be.  People of all ages attended, from the elderly who came to experience the annual matsuri once again to the children who are sure to have made fond memories.  Anyone can participate in the carrying of the mikoshi (“portable shrine”, although its significance is far deeper than the English translation would make it seem) throughout the streets and, within the large group of mikoshi carriers, there was a strong sense of community and participation in tradition.  As the large parade processed through Teramachi-dōri Shōtengai and the narrow streets adjacent to it, onlookers came out to see this once-a-year event.  The spot of the festival, the Former Rissei Elementary School, seems to have been particularly chosen because of its long history.  At the taiko performance, a woman danced among the taiko players.  Although out of the ordinary, it seemed like she and her family had attended the Rissei Elementary School before it was decommissioned and that she was moved to the point of dance by the once-again lively atmosphere of the school.  Instead of letting the building fall into disuse and be forgotten, the matsuri brings life to the location.  Although the Takase-gawa Sakura Matsuri is only in its 38th year, the tradition of matsuri goes far back in Japanese history.  Even though it was my first matsuri, I felt like there was deep significance in the passing of cultural memories through events like this.

I hope to bring these new perspectives on taiko and matsuri back to Gendo Taiko and try to inform the way we put on matsuri in our own communities half-way across the world on the East Coast.

第38回高瀬川桜祭り 神輿


8 thoughts on “Derek Hong: Ritsumeikan Wadaiko DON

  1. 本当にすごいね!I’ve never heard of this before now though I have seen references. It’s great that you put so much energy into it! You need to perform for the KCJS peeps before we all leave!

    • Thanks! I love performing taiko, but to be honest it’s a little boring with just one person, haha. It’s definitely better in a group performance. There’s a surprising amount of taiko performances at matsuri and other events, so if you’re ever back in Japan definitely check it out!

  2. It’s really cool that you were able to experience and participate in Wadaiko DON. As for the interactions with the other members, I too find casual speech to be particularly challenging. Did you have to use Senpai/Kouhai speech with the other members?

    • I didn’t see much of Senpai / Kouhai speech, but I think that mostly comes from the structure of the circle. Most members are on very friendly terms and there isn’t much of a hierarchy past the temporary leadership that comes with organizing songs for performances. For sure, there is a feeling of seniority among the members who have participated for longer, but even then there didn’t seem to be a large distance.

  3. I’m really happy that you get to do what you love in Japan as well! I’m impressed that you managed to perform with the group in such a short time period, but I’m not surprised since I’ve seen you perform before and needless to say you’re really good! In terms of casual speech, I find it hard myself since a lot of the speech is cut off and you have to assume what other people are talking about. I was wondering how long before you/other people started talking to each other in casual?

    • The first meeting was a little formal, like explaining the group and figuring out how our schedules might work out. But past that, surprisingly, I think it would have been fine to start speaking more casually right away! In fact, I think it was a little difficult to fully engage with the circle members without being able to speak fluently in casual speech. But in any case, I definitely got a better feel for the “feeling” of casual speech (much easier to have a conversation with) vs です・ます (feels a little stiff).

  4. Taiko drumming sounds really cool, even just that stance in the photo. How good were you compared to the others, since you’ve been doing it for a while already? Were the members surprised that an American was already able to practice taiko drumming in the United States?

    • I think I was probably middling in skill level for Wadaiko DON. However, I think the maximum skill level of their group members was higher than Gendo Taiko. They were a little surprised at the styles we also played in America, but at the same time, the song rhythms were slightly different.