Creative Nonfiction

Creative Nonfiction Issue #49

The Art of Japanese Drumming – An Outline of Belonging

By Jessica Watson







for Z, that you should not be so alone.




  • Horse.​​ The poet Fady Joudah​​ has​​ described how​​ souls linger in living horses.​​ The souls of past horses and the souls of the horse’s past riders.​​ It is the same for taiko drums, those used in Japanese drumming.​​ Each drum bears the physical marks of the person who played it: fingerprints, scuff marks on the​​ drumhead,​​ gashes​​ in the wood.​​ Drummers​​ that​​ prefer​​ to play​​ a certain​​ drum become associated with it, and drums are remembered for the​​ drummers​​ who played them.​​ 

    • What I have left of Z’s​​ belongings include​​ a copy of Stephen Levine’s​​ A Gradual Awakening,​​ the used black Yamaha stage custom 5-piece drum​​ set that he​​ gifted me, his music theory notebooks,​​ and​​ papers appointing myself as the representative for his social security disability benefits.​​ 

      • His notebooks are full of music charts, hand-drawn and color coded, of scales and chords, delineating the relationships of every​​ note on a guitar fretboard.​​ The covers are decorated in his naïve, expressionist style of painting: bold strokes of color smudged across the​​ covers using fingers and paintbrushes.​​ Maroon and cerulean dominate one notebook cover; black​​ and peach dominate the other.​​ On one scale (A​​ minor), he overlaid a miniature photo of a groundhog, standing upright with its two front teeth sticking​​ out.​​ On​​ another​​ page, he glued a photo of the lead singer for Joy Division, Ian Curtis, whom he idolized.​​ After our separation, he let me keep the notebooks for my own​​ guitar​​ studies, and I began to​​ chart scales using his format. A note from my first guitar teacher sits in front with the message “Slowly is beautiful” written in cursive.​​ Looking at​​ many of​​ the​​ scales now, I’m not sure what is his handwriting and what is​​ mine.

    • ‘Horse’​​ is one of the base rhythms that​​ everyone​​ learns​​ to play in a taiko dojo.​​ Base rhythms​​ beat​​ continuously, like an ostinato, underneath other melodies or soloing drums.​​ ‘Horse’ sounds like a galloping horse, especially at faster speeds.​​ When practicing​​ ‘horse’​​ it’s important to vary which hand leads, to develop ambidexterity.​​ 

      • Not long after getting my first drum set from Z, and taking my first drum lessons, I saw a college group play taiko.​​ I remember being transfixed by the group’s performance.​​ They were disciplined,​​ standing in powerful stances​​ comparable to martial artists, barefoot so their feet could feel the ground and sometimes vocalizing sounds that I would later learn were called​​ kakegoe.​​ Group harmony was the focal point; it was important that everyone coordinated their movements and drum beats with one another.​​ It was important that you had an awareness of where the other players were in relation to you, where you were in relation to the drum.​​ 

        • Z interfered with​​ my chance to play with the college group, but before he did, I had one​​ memorable​​ practice session with them. We stood​​ in a circle and​​ stretched our calves, wrists, quads, neck and shoulders, all parts of the body that we would need most. Then​​ we​​ pulled the drums out​​ into the center of the room​​ and​​ warmed​​ up by playing rhythms in a call-and-response format.​​ The group leader would play a rhythm (call) and the rest of us would play the same rhythm back (response). We were using rhythm to talk to each other: the difficulty of communicating with words became supplanted by rhythms whose meaning is intuitively understood.​​ Soon they started to teach me my first song and I committed it to memory​​ right then, as if it was my native tongue. As I played the song with a smaller group, the others cheered us on.​​ 

          • Years later, after a move to Miami, I joined​​ a community​​ group​​ with a dojo in Hollywood.​​ The rules were simple: if​​ we carried any negative emotions from our daily lives into the dojo, our sensei would tell us to leave it at the door.​​ We were only ever allowed to be in the present moment, so it was in the present moment that we traveled to Berkeley one year to be guests at a taiko festival.​​ It was also in the present moment that I received some devastating news​​ about Z​​ that same weekend​​ of the festival.

          • Z​​ used to tell me a horse joke.​​ He would use his dog voice when he told it, the same voice he used to talk to dogs, including the two dogs that lived a block from our apartment on Clay Street in Denver.​​ The same voice he used to tell me about Ebony, aka​​ Ebeneezer, a black collie mix that, based on how often he spoke about her,​​ was essential to his recovery after his most recent​​ relapse from heroin and cocaine.​​ He told me about Ebony, who he couldn’t keep after moving to the city,​​ before he introduced me to her by way of trespassing into the yard of her new owner.​​ But the voice, the voice​​ conveyed his love of animals.​​ The voice conveyed affection for horses and an admiration of what made a horse, a horse.​​ It conveyed empathy, and empathy was, after​​ all, the doorway in which I first​​ entered into life​​ with Z. With few exceptions, I had never met anyone with as much empathy for​​ me.

            • A horse walks into a bar.​​ The bartender says, “Why the long face?”​​ 


  • Ki.​​ Kee.​​ Energy.​​ I carried​​ my​​ bachi​​ (drumsticks) around in a yoga bag decorated with a rainbow array of chakras.​​ I purchased the bag because I​​ liked the colors and designs, since I had only the vaguest notion of chakras and their potential reverberating impact​​ on someone’s life.​​ Whether or not​​ one​​ puts​​ any stock in chakras, energy is something that manifests​​ in people in empirical ways: how they gesture when they speak, the weight of their touch on your arm,​​ their​​ productivity,​​ speaking volume, body language and posture.​​ 

    • Some drummers​​ practice exercises to develop​​ individual control of each​​ finger that can be commanded​​ while playing​​ through their grip on the drumsticks.​​ They use fine motor skills to go fast, and the larger muscle groups of the forearm and biceps when hitting hard.​​ The wrists of drummers​​ are vulnerable to injury because of their looseness, which allows fluidity and speed, permitted by the joint’s motion in two planes, and that juncture of veins, arteries and nerves.

      • Z’s energy​​ extended through​​ his fingertips and spine, out the top of his head.​​ His wrists and fingers were skilled in handling the strokes of a paintbrush, strings of a guitar, the knobs on his mixing board and pen tool of his desktop.​​ 

        • Taiko​​ songs are learned by muscle memory.​​ Still, the best drummers don’t rely on physical strength alone.​​ Power can be gained by​​ one’s​​ stance and form.​​ Most important, though, is the power that stems from​​ one’s​​ will.​​ It supersedes exhaustion.​​ You have to want to exist to strike a drum.​​ In that moment of striking a drum, you exist for that purpose.​​ 

    • Taiko gets energy flowing through​​ me.​​ If​​ I​​ have an emotional block,​​ I​​ can dislodge it through the physicality and communality of taiko.​​ Energy spills off the stage in​​ a taiko performance, reaching the audience.​​ The sound of taiko can be heard from a distance, and when​​ I’m​​ in its presence,​​ I​​ can feel the vibrations in​​ my​​ chest.​​ 

      • Anergia is a symptom of depression.​​ It can also be a​​ symptom of fibromyalgia, m.s., Ehlers-Danlos, lyme disease and ovarian​​ insufficiency.​​ Like most people,​​ I​​ google symptoms when seeking explanations.​​ 


  • History.​​ Grandmaster Seiichi Tanaka brought taiko to the United​​ States from Japan in the 60’s.​​ Taiko is one of the few physical art forms that​​ you can improve upon with age.​​ Taiko groups consist of students, apprentices and performers.​​ When I first met Tanaka-sensei, I wasn’t​​ a performer, or even​​ an apprentice yet.​​ I was a student​​ of the taiko group,​​ tasked with the job of​​ staging​​ the drums for each of​​ our group’s​​ songs during an anniversary performance.​​ Tanaka-sensei was a guest performer on this occasion of​​ our​​ 20th​​ anniversary.​​ Myself and the other​​ students were invited to play one song​​ with the performers​​ that evening, called​​ Suwatte,​​ which means ‘seated.’​​ The song is named after the row of drummers that play in a seated position, leaning back as if they​​ are​​ doing sit-ups​​ while striking the drum.​​ This style of playing the nagadō-daiko​​ is​​ extremely physically demanding, but your ability to get through a song playing in this position signifies​​ your growth within the group by way of endurance.

    • When I first meet Z it seems all he has is history.​​ He lives in a room full of memories.​​ The storage over his bed houses stacks of white boxes that contain the thousands of slide photographs he has taken over two decades of his life.​​ Eventually, he​​ took​​ photos of me, designing a set with mirrors and colorful cloth.​​ 

      • When I begin​​ performing​​ with the​​ taiko​​ group no one has any idea how uncomfortable I am with being photographed.​​ How uncomfortable I am wearing the uniform.​​ There is probably no word for the discomfort in Japanese. Photographers are everywhere, taking photos and videos that later surface on Facebook or Youtube.​​ I think maybe when I look in the mirror I see something different than what others see.​​ Something upsetting.​​ 

        • Z was the first person to show me that what I saw was not what others saw.​​ He was the first person I trusted to take my photograph.

          • Wind-in-the-pines, or​​ Matsukaze,​​ is the name of a famous Japanese horse that I read about online.​​ The horse was too wild to be tamed until he met a​​ kindred spirit:​​ a samurai wild enough to tame him. They were inseparable until the samurai died, and the horse was never seen again.

            • The subject of one of Z’s emails to me is:​​ I loved water polo until my horse drowned.

              • I googled​​ this to make certain that water polo does not, in fact, involve horses.


  • Naming.​​ In taiko groups, once someone has reached a certain status of respect, we affix 'san'​​ to the end of their name.​​ Rin​​ becomes​​ Rin-san,​​ Kei​​ becomes​​ Kei-san,​​ Haruto,​​ Haruto-san.​​ It happens spontaneously.​​ People just start saying it.​​ 

    • Z did not want to be called by his first name.​​ He introduced himself to everyone by his last name, a name he shared with his brother in Portland, his writer sister in New Hampshire, his chemical engineer father in Bethlehem and his now deceased mother.​​ On learning his name, which I took to be his first name, it gave him an air of mystique and​​ evoked​​ Hungarian origins.​​ Together with the way he dressed (thrift store​​ blue postal jacket, black boots, grey utility pants), the name helped to house the creative spirit that he embodied, a spirit most people didn’t appreciate.​​ 

      • He was difficult to be around when going through withdrawal. If only I hadn’t seen his other sides,​​ Brian Eno on​​ mix tape,​​ French toast on challah bread,​​ tickets to King Crimson,​​ it would​​ have made it easier to leave. Our last Christmas together, when I realized he was too depressed to enjoy the gifts I had gotten him,​​ I could have​​ packed up my​​ belongings and moved out of the apartment we shared in a renovated threadmill​​ on a river in central Connecticut, and finish my degree in ecology.​​ Eventually​​ I did move out, I fled to an apartment a few blocks away mid-semester.​​ The physical separation couldn’t substitute for mental separation though.​​ He had been my best friend.

        • I avoided sharing too much of my private life with people​​ during those years because of the shame of living with someone​​ who​​ I loved who was self-destructing.​​ At the same time, I thought it was my birthright, to be ashamed,​​ to love what I was ashamed of.​​ You​​ might wonder who​​ could​​ ever be made to feel that way, especially someone who looks so normal, so privileged on the outside, someone that blends in so well.​​ My answer to that is that it starts very young, before you are your own person,​​ when you’re just a girl,​​ and it becomes embedded in your skin​​ the way​​ calluses​​ form​​ on your fingers from drumming.​​ You can’t distinguish between healthy and unhealthy, happy and sad.​​ By the time you almost reach​​ mid-life, that’s when you can start to tell​​ the difference.​​ By this time, you are almost your own person.

      • He​​ was the first person to call me ‘whole.’​​ I wasn’t exactly sure what that meant except that it filled me with a sense of confidence, and after feeling invisible for many years, I​​ had a sense of belonging.

    • Z took the news of​​ his mother​​ passing quietly, but I know he felt more orphaned than​​ ever​​ before.​​ At his most ill, he blamed his parents for not doing more for him.​​ They gave him refuge a few times during rehab.​​ It was during one of his stays with them, in their trailer in the quaint mountain town of Bethlehem, that he created the music theory notebooks​​ that I have now in my possession.​​ He stayed in a small spare room with wood paneling, where I imagine him drawing the grids for his scales and painting the covers of his notebooks, pouring over music theory books borrowed from the local library,​​ and duplicating what he learned in his own​​ hand.​​ His study of music was his own form of therapy.​​ On particularly beautiful​​ nights, I imagine he drove to Route 3, and cut through a sliver of the White Mountains​​ to​​ breathe and look at the patterning of trees from road to peak.​​ 

      • I​​ never attain 'san'​​ status, but I also tell myself that quiet people are always underestimated, and that if I had to choose between follower or leader, I’m neither.​​ The nice thing about taiko, is that the drum speaks for​​ me.​​ A vast space opens up where​​ I​​ don’t have to use words to communicate.​​ 


  • The dojo.​​ I shared​​ five​​ living spaces with Z.​​ He was clean at​​ three​​ of them, but there were times I wondered if I knew everything.

    • The dojo is our practice space for taiko. It will become a welcoming space. A space of possibility. A space where​​ you​​ start to take up space. After being in this space a while, the dreams​​ you​​ have of being invisible start to dissolve. When​​ you​​ pull into the lot and see the bay, it fills​​ you​​ with excitement and nervousness. The dojo belongs to all of us. Each of us takes ownership in taking care of the space and equipment.

      • One spring in​​ Bethlehem, I woke up on a sofa-bed​​ in the sunroom​​ at Z’s parents’ house, dust glinting streams of sunlight.​​ We made the trip from Denver after his​​ father called to say,​​ "She’s dead."​​ That morning, I woke​​ up in a sunbath, forest birds around.​​ Came from the city to this small mountain town.​​ Saw the light through the trees, didn’t know the word in Japanese:​​ komorebi.


  • Kata.​​ Kata means ‘form’ in Japanese.​​ According to Heidi Varian in​​ The Way of Taiko, “In​​ taiko,​​ kata​​ refers to the stances and movements used for a particular song or style.”​​ Form is related to discipline​​ because it requires physical and mental discipline to maintain your form, to be mindful of your lines in space, the grip on your​​ bachi,​​ the way you fold your arm down to strike the drum and the way you stand.​​ By being so mindful, the​​ act of playing the drums pulls you into the present, into intense interactions with the other drummers and the audience.​​ 

    • Z always had good posture standing or sitting at his computer recording music.​​ At least, that’s the way I remember him.​​ I’m not sure why his depression was not reflected in his form, the way some people​​ slump their shoulders forward.​​ He kept a rigorous schedule for his art, but​​ avoided self-care.​​ I would tell him to go outside, take a walk and get fresh air.

      • Some think mental health issues are a result of​​ a lack of discipline of the​​ body, like when they say,​​ "You should smile more!"​​ or, this time louder with more emphasis,​​ "Why do you always have to look so sad?",​​ then scrunch their face into a hideous frown.​​ A social worker told​​ Z​​ it might be manic-depression.​​ 

        • The first time I tried to write this essay, I attempted to write in a conventional form.​​ But the story bled beyond the edges of the page;​​ suicide and taiko, belonging and loneliness bound together like roots and dirt.​​ I couldn’t separate the two, I could not have one without the other,​​ and when I​​ began to remember the details, how I went to the apartment we used to share, and when he finally let​​ me in, I saw blood in the bathroom and a trail on the floor, how another time I tried to be let in, then I tried to use my key, but the door was barricaded, and another time the police had to break the door down.​​ So I couldn’t write the story straight. I​​ needed​​ an outline​​ to hold its shape, the way that ribs contain the vital organs. I needed the outline to hold the​​ wild​​ horse galloping inside my chest.


  • Kiai​​ or​​ Kakegoe.​​ If a taiko​​ drummer​​ is summoning something deep,​​ they​​ might​​ call out kakegoe.​​ If a​​ drummer​​ is losing energy,​​ the other players​​ might​​ shout kakegoe to support them.​​ Kakegoe is​​ sometimes considered ‘spirit.’​​ We draw strength from our own and others’ kakegoe.​​ 

    • It’s been over a decade since I last saw​​ Z, but I still remember​​ the​​ tone and pitch​​ of his voice. ​​​​ 


  • Skin.​​ Care of the skin of a drum is very important.​​ The heads are made of cow hide and can be nailed on or fastened with rope. You learn not to touch the drumhead with your hands​​ or to place any objects on it.​​ Sometimes audience members or festival attendees will try to pound the drums with their hands or touch them.​​ ​​ 

    • Eventually, you’ll get blisters on your fingers from playing, a big one right in the crook of your thumb.​​ Especially after​​ a long session or when playing odaiko (the big drum), holding those extra large​​ bachi,​​ blood blisters well up and threaten to​​ pop.​​ In a moment of pride, you’ll take a photo of your raw thumb, with the skin torn off after a workshop.​​ 

      • In​​ an old​​ photo​​ of Z, his face​​ looks more scarred than​​ I remember it.​​ There are white patches on his cheeks and nose that I​​ suspect are healed spots.​​ The collar of his t-shirt is stretched out and frayed.​​ His hairline is receding and he appears to be consciously holding his head at an angle. ​​​​ 


  • Belonging.​​ Taiko groups welcome everyone.​​ They are meant to be inclusive but it can be intimidating to start playing and continue attending practices.​​ Before and after class, we all line-up in order of seniority and bow.​​ 

    • To be ostracized is to be cast out of a group that you once belonged to. Ostracism isn’t something that is ever stated as such.​​ There is never a written decree or announcement that excludes you from membership or destroys your sense of belonging.​​ You just feel it.​​ 

      • According to Merriam-Webster​​ 'ostracize'​​ came from the “Greek​​ ostrakizein:​​ "to banish by voting with potsherds."​​ Its ancestor, the Greek​​ ostrakon​​ ("shell" or "potsherd"), also helped to give English the word​​ oyster.​​ Those that got ostracized from civil society were either too powerful or too unpopular.​​ 

      • Z was probably always an outcast.​​ Some people never find where they fit.​​ 

        • He told me a terrible story of something that happened to him when he was young.

          • If it is true, the police should have been notified.

        • Depression and anxiety are alienating features of anyone.​​ How can you feel like you belong, if you don’t feel right?

          • A firefly flitted by;
            “Look!” I almost said​​ –
            But I was alone.
            -Tan​​ Taigi

    • Our taiko group was invited to perform at the 45th​​ International Taiko Festival at Zellerbach Hall in Berkeley. When we arrived at the auditorium,​​ the excitement of being in a large theatre would have normally made me feel outside​​ my body, like a vibrating​​ electron about to​​ hit the ground,​​ were it not for the grounding effect of the drums, and the​​ salt lamp glow of​​ the stage​​ emerging from a cavity of dark. We​​ each​​ took​​ a seat in one of the rows​​ close to the stage. The seats​​ had knit cushions​​ in shades of purple​​ with wooden arm rests which I used, and gradually forgot about as I became more and more engrossed in the sounds and energy of the drummers.​​ San Francisco Taiko Dojo​​ stood in rows spread across the​​ stage to​​ rehearse​​ a song called, “Hiryu”.​​ The first part of the song was familiar, then unexpectedly, the row of drummers split as they​​ stepped wide​​ and turned until each side passed the other​​ to​​ swap​​ positions.​​ They moved like petroglyphs, extending their arms and​​ holding​​ the bachi​​ like staffs.​​ Their movements seemed reckless, but each time drummers crossed,​​ the​​ passage​​ was smooth.​​ I could feel the sounds in my chest, ribs and sternum vibrating,​​ loosening​​ sinews​​ and grit, my heart absorbing a low hum.​​ 

      • For weeks after the experience, I am walking on a cloud.​​ I wonder if this is what beatification is like.

        • In the middle of that weekend,​​ I watched​​ a fight break out over karaoke at a sushi restaurant that was like a​​ scene from a David Lynch movie. Sitting next to a friend in a crowded van, feeling slightly claustrophobic, it is odd that I should open an email, it is odd that it would also lead to one of the lowest lows, that I should feel despair at this pinnacle of hope. It is odd​​ that I should see the attached photos.​​ Z’s​​ wrists, blood​​ spilling​​ from the slit like​​ seawater gushing from an oyster, blood​​ and pills​​ spattered​​ the ground. It is odd that I don’t say anything to my friend.


  • ​​ Kumi-Daiko.​​ Group taiko.​​ Ensemble drumming.​​ Created in 1951 by​​ Daihachi Oguchi, the founder of Osuwa Daiko, whose grandson​​ I​​ met at the festival.​​ Kumi-Daiko​​ sees the good in everyone.​​ Lifts all the members up.​​ Brings out everyone’s strengths.​​ Pot-lucks, holiday parties, borrowing someone’s​​ bachi, fixing someone’s​​ hachimaki,​​ smell of pine pitch,​​ walking on pine needles at the Morikami in your tabi (ninja boots), smell of sweat, screaming “ya sa-sai” before you get loud, smell of sea salt, getting sore muscles carrying drums through the parking lot at Perez Museum on Biscayne Bay, smell of fish, being served a whole fish that you couldn’t eat after playing a restaurant opening, your first gig at the Hilton, playing on the third level of a riser platform that swayed with​​ every beat, oshogatsu, lantern festival, hatsume, otsukaresamadesuyou worked so hard, you must be tired!​​ 

    • I always thought that marriage and family was for other people, happy people, blessed people.​​ 

      • Depression wasn’t​​ widely​​ recognized in​​ Japan until the ‘90’s, then it was called​​ kokoro no kaze -​​ cold of the soul.

    • Your heart is a taiko. Oguchi said.​​ We all have inner taiko, and we’ve all heard the rhythm of taiko, dontsuku-dontsuku in our mother’s womb.​​ It is instinctive to feel attracted to the percussion of taiko.

      • Don doku doku don, don doku doku don, don doku doku don, don doku doku don


11. ​​​​ Ma.​​ The space between drum beats, the silence that shapes sound.​​ When you learn​​ how to play taiko, the concept of rest notes in Western music is supplanted by​​ ma,​​ with its philosophical undertones.​​ 

  • Ma​​ suggests that you can’t have presence​​ without​​ absence, words​​ without​​ white space, together​​ without​​ alone, belonging​​ without​​ loneliness.​​ 

  • In the dark theatre, a​​ 
    solitary figure basks in​​ 
    a spotlight. Stage dust flecks​​ 
    light as it falls. The pale​​ 
    skin is lit and girded by​​ 
    shadows. Muscles dance under​​ 
    the light, remembering how​​ 
    to move. Salt sprays of sweat​​ 
    and huffs of breath. A drum​​ 
    gazes at the figure tenderly. ​​ 
    Bachi​​ tell the drum how to feel,​​ 
    but the drum already knows. Horse​​ 
    and samurai. Samurai and horse. ​​ 

By Jessica Watson

Jessica Watson is an MFA candidate in nonfiction at the University of South Florida. From 2009 to 2015, she played taiko with a group in South Florida called Fushu Daiko. She holds degrees in Nursing and Ecology from UM and UCONN, respectively. She’s a nonfiction reader for Sweet Lit, where you can also read her Fan Mail. She lives on a swamp with four drumsets, three dogs, and two cats.