Mikotosama's Vision: Serve the World by Beating Drums

By Koji Nakamura (leader of the Shumei Taiko Ensemble)

In May 1982, Grand Sampai was held at the Kyoto Prefecture Gymnasium. Ondekoza [a famous taiko group] performed the Oodaiko (the huge taiko drum). It is known that all of the Ondekoza members beat the drum immediately after running a distance equivalent to the Boston Marathon [26 miles], and they performed sustained, continuous beating of the most enormous drums I had ever seen. The scene made me ask myself how were they able to continue it, and it made a tremendous impact on me. Several months after that, Mikotosama presented a plan of "One Hundred Drums" for commemorating the centenary of Meishusama's birthday [December 23, 1982]. It seemed that Kaishusama [the spiritual leader of Shinji Shumeikai] and Mikotosama [the second President of Shinji Shumeikai] were greatly attracted by the sound of the drums.

Seven members started a taiko practice tour with the Ondekoza [taiko group] prior to the "One Hundred Drums". It was on the 10th of August 1982 that we began, and I started then as well. At that time, we practiced drumming at Unzen, Nagasaki, where it was thought we would have an appropriate practice area. We returned to headquarters once a month to report directly to Mikotosama and to receive his guidance. As the time for the "One Hundred Drums" neared, one hundred youths stayed together at Kishima [in order to intensify our practice and endurance]. On Meishusama's birthday, the 23rd of December, "One Hundred Drums" were performed in unison perfectly and, miraculously, for longer than one hour. Mikotosama was delighted with our performance and told us, "You gave a world class performance." This One Hundred Drums was the beginning.

The Ondekoza Taiko group was created by Mr. Tagayasu Den in 1970. The unconventional Taiko drum group had developed endurance by running thirty to forty kilometers every single day, after which they immediately beat the drums continuously (in just loin cloths) without being out of breath. They performed in America in 1975, and later in Europe and again in America. During our practice at their place, Mr. Den often asked us, "Shall we play the drums together all over the world?"

At the Youth Grand Celebration in 1982, we taiko practice members demonstrated our experience. Later, Mikotosama asked Mr. Den and me to the reception room to talk together. Mr. Den said passionately, "We are planning to run twenty kilometers every day and beat the drum at churches in Europe for the forthcoming four years, and finally we will go to the Vatican and beat the drum in front of the Pope. Wouldn't you like to come with me and see the world?" It was an absurdly large-scale story, but it was his dream. Mikotosama listened to his words attentively, and his eyes shined. He answered, "That sounds interesting to me. I would wish to join you if I were younger."

From the third through the 8th of May in 1983, we played fifty drums at the Celebration of the Completion of Meishusama Hall. The fated day of May 9 arrived. Mikotosama called together some members - including me - who desired to devote their whole life to Meishusama's philosophy and service to others, and he asked us why we would like to do so, one by one. In the end, he was convinced of the sincerity of our commitment and shook hands with each one of us, speaking the word, "Congratulations!" At that time, Mikotosama said to me, "Nakamura joins Ondekoza, so you have to beat the drum and share your devotion to Meishusama around the world."

The very next year, we were told we could join the Ondekoza group's visit to Europe. The drum practice was hard. We ran and beat the drums, beat the drums and ran again. We repeated it every day, again and again. Our firm determination to live up to Mikotosama's expectations enabled us to withstand the grueling training. We at last started for Europe in May 1984. Two days before our departure, we returned to Misono to obtain counsel from Mikotosama. Mikotosama had a departure service for us in Meishusama Hall, and gave us his guidance in the reception room afterward. "You can meet European people through playing the drums, and they can understand your beliefs and Meishusama's philosophy through giving Jyorei. Make friends there; some years later when devoted members visit there, they will be welcomed." On the 21st of May, we left for Europe with these words ringing inside our heads.

During our journey, Mikotosama passed away. I could not believe the news at the beginning and felt totally drained of energy for a while. I thought of returning to Japan, as it did not seem to make any sense for me to remain in Europe under these circumstances. I finally changed my mind about returning to Japan. I thought that if I continued working hard in Europe, Mikotosama might be released from the restriction of his body and might appear to me even in Europe, and I prayed to him. Surprisingly, and quite suddenly, I could make friends through the drum concerts and I gave them Jyorei at once. This made me feel that Mikotosama was hearing my prayers, and was present with us in Europe. New friends of mine were moved when they heard my drum performances. I no longer felt any kind of wall between them and me, even at the beginning, and they were willing to receive my Jyorei with no hesitation. In a word, I felt that the drum performances worked as great magnets drawing people to Meishusama's philosophy and to Jyorei. After Mikotosama passed away, this experience in Europe increased my desire to share Meishusama and Jyorei with the world by beating the drums stronger and stronger.

I came back to Japan on 24 December, 1984. After that, I was supposed to leave Ondekoza and establish our own group of Shumei taiko based at Misono. However, our entire group consisted of just three members with just three small drums so we could not play the drums. Running and practicing was all that we could do. Drums were bought one by one and a drum-training program was established, and the number of Shumei taiko group members became larger. We also learned about drums as a local entertainment rooted in each geographic area of Japan. Although we had chances to give performances at Misono on various occasions each year, this was a quite different reality from the far more fantastic future of performances abroad we had envisioned. As time passed, we were often at a loss to think of how on earth we were to be lead to performing overseas. In the end, it made me wonder if we were beating the drums just for our dreams.

In those days, it was Kaishusama who firmly supported my vision of the Shumei Taiko Ensemble. Kaishusama sometimes showed Misono to her VIP guests, most of whom were men of culture. She usually had me perform on the huge drum[Oodaiko] in Meishusama Hall for her guests. One of the guests, who knew Mikotosama very well, heard my performance and offered me his hand with his eyes filled with tears and said, "Thank you. Whenever I hear the sound of the drums, it reminds me of Mikotosama." Kaishusama continued, "I feel so as well." "Kaishusama, and even people outside Shinji Shumeikai, remember Mikotosama when they hear drums," I replied. My heart felt warm. I could firmly believe that even though our process was hard, Mikotosama surely looked lovingly at our small steps. Whenever I was depressed, these thoughts and my experiences with Mikotosama encouraged me.

Around this time, we learned how to perform on stage in the Ondekoza style, with flute music. Kaishusama told us, "Go on an expedition to Hong Kong." We left for there, but we ran up against a wall. In a word, we were at an impasse. Because we played the drums in the style of Ondekoza, players of the Japanese flute learned by themselves without a foundation, and what is worse still, we did not have original tunes, which is the most important thing in the field of Japanese drum.

With great forethought, in 1988 Kaishusama arranged for the Shumei Taiko Ensemble to study under Master Meisho Tosha, the famous yokobue flutist [the Japanese bamboo flute]. As we wanted to absorb more than 100% from the teacher whom Kaishusama chose for us, we vigorously tackled the subjects he gave us. On the other hand, Master Meisho told us, "There are people playing the flute as a hobby, and some of them ask me to teach them for a vast sum of money. I feel it bothersome and I seldom accept their offer. But as you practice hard, I will teach you how to play the flute and write the music for you. This is a very special case." He wrote new music selections for us, one after another, without accepting any fee.

And finally the music practice, the sensibility to art, the original tunes of Shumei taiko, our volunteer service [hoshi] in Misono and our understanding of Meishusama's philosophy came together to create a unique whole which had before been missing. At this time, we were only performing at Misono on a regular basis, as we had few chances to perform elsewhere. Although we had set a goal to share Meishusama and Jyorei with the world by beating the drums and working hard, we felt that out goal was still distant.

Just around this time, an offer came for our first concert as the Shumei Taiko Ensemble inside Japan. It was on the 2nd of March, 1995 at the Kyoto Prefecture Hall. Prior to the concert, I had a dream of Mikotosama: Mikotosama was giving a speech for a large audience in the sanctuary of the former headquarters in Kyoto. In his speech he said, "I envision the dissemination of Meishusama's philosophy to the world by way of beating the drums." At this time, any thought of performing overseas was beyond our thoughts, but I had seen his figure and heard his voice for the first time in quite a while and I yearned for his energy and presence.

About one month after the concert in Kyoto, the subject arose of using a Taiko performance to add color to the Opening of the Special Exhibition of the Shumei Family Collection at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in June, 1996. I could not believe it at first. Is it possible in the real world? However, concrete offers came to us rapidly from Inagaki Sensei, a curator of the Miho Museum, and the stage manager of the Metropolitan Museum sent us a message to welcome our taiko performance.

Master Meisho Tosha was delighted to know that. But the nearer we came to the day of the actual stage performance, the stricter he became about our practice. One day he issued strong words, seeing that our performance was out of unison because of lack of practice, "What are you doing! People in New York are particular about entertainment. They have acquired keen eyes for it. Japanese audiences may see you with sympathy if your performance is not so good, as long as you play hard. You cannot do the same thing in New York City. If they feel bored when they see you play with mediocrity, they will leave their seats immediately - right in the middle of your performance. Don't be complacent about New York." He taught us the severe discipline that is necessary to hold a successful concert in New York City, the most cosmopolitan city in the world.

He advised me particularly, "As we grow older, we lose our strength. Because you beat the Oodaiko, do not decrease the amount of practice. As you grow older, increase the amount of practice. Otherwise, you can't keep your present level as it is." From that moment, our attitude was transformed. We devoted ourselves to practice as if we were possessed by something. It was five to six hours every day. It might be the first and the last chance for us to play the drums in New York. I would feel anything but regret. We struggled against the heavy pressure by being engrossed with practice. Even on the first day in New York, we did not have time to do any sightseeing at all. We concentrated on practice and the final adjustments for just this one, important single concert.

On the 21st of June, 1996, our dream of performing overseas became a reality. At seven o'clock, we had a larger audience than we expected and there were still people standing in the hallway trying to gain admission. As a result, our performance began five minutes behind schedule. Our performance moved forward just in the same way as our practice - perfectly. Although playing the drums quite exhausted us and the program was quite demanding, we felt well-satisfied that we could play with all our strength. After finishing all the selections, the audience called for an encore with long and overwhelming applause. Finally, our concert came to an end without incident and with a surprisingly enthusiastic applause. After that Mr. McNeil Robinson, taiko group members in New York, So-Daiko Group members and my acquaintance, Mr. Marco Hard and some friends from SSA visited our dressing room to congratulate us on our performance. It was after one o'clock in the morning when we finished tidying up everything and carried the drums to the airport. Until then, we did not realize that we had not eaten supper. We bought fried rice at a nearby stand and we proposed a toast with glasses of juice, surrounding Mr. Ishida - our spiritual leader of the Shumei Taiko Ensemble - and shared our gladness at the success of our performance in New York until half past three in the morning.

The following morning, we greeted Kaicho-Sensei at the airport. She seemed to be delighted and told us, "Please support me with the next performance in Los Angeles." The supposedly most difficult performance is a concert in New York. I felt that it made great sense that it lead up to the next one in Los Angeles. When I imagined how to develop this movement - not only about what we would play in Los Angeles - I could not stop thinking about Mikotosama. "I envision the spread of Meishusama's philosophy to the world by way of beating the drums," he had said. Although our process was not at all easy, the time finally came for us to begin fulfilling Mikotosama's expectations.

On November 3, 1997, we had the Grand Opening Ceremony of the Miho Museum. Shinji Shumeikai began a major transformation just after this historic great event. In the following year, we entered into partnership with Rodale Institute, Interfaith Center of New York, and Ruder-Finn. The Shumei Taiko Ensemble was blessed with an opportunity to perform in New York City once again. With the good offices of Rev. James Morton and Mr. Bawa Jain of Interfaith, it became possible for us to give performances at five different places in mid-town New York City: an open space in front of the Lincoln Center, the Interfaith Center, the Cathedral of St. John the Divine, the International Culture Parade, and the United Nations Church Center. And, with the firm recommendation of Rev. Morton, we have been requested to beat the drums at the third Parliament of the World's Religions in Cape Town, South Africa, which is aimed at fostering world peace. We did not at all expect developments such as these.

We had just one serious problem. It was about how we could collect the huge amount of money necessary to cover the expense of shipping the drums to Cape Town. However, with the support of senseis of the international department came the idea to have concerts inside Japan as a means of collecting contributions for this activity. The only way was to obtain the assistance of senseis in Japan and members of Shinji Shumeikai. In spite of our concern that not many centers would apply to hold our performances, eighteen centers applied to host concerts of the Shumei Taiko Ensemble. I appreciate this so very much. From the inception of the Shumei taiko, our dearest wish has been for just such a concert tour in Japan. I had not expected that this wish would be realized in such a way. Everything has grown greatly, and developed into much more than we ever expected. At the present point no one has any doubt that Mikotosama's vision, "Disseminate Meishusama's philosophy to the world by beating the drums", is being realized perfectly.

In March of 1999 I visited Cape Town, South Africa, to attend a meeting with Ihara Sensei, the head of the international department, Mr. Jim Kenny, the director of the Parliament of the World's Religions, and the co-directors at the site of the Parliament about our plans. In Africa, drums are very popular and I was reassured that they would welcome drums from Japan from the bottom of their hearts. I felt actually that Africa was waiting for us.

One year before Mikotosama passed away, he traveled in Africa and stopped at Cape Town. I heard from his former attendant that he stood on the Cape of Good Hope and gave a joyous shout, "Oh! The earth looks round, just as we learned!" This time, more than ten years after that historic event, I was stirred with emotion standing on the same place, alone. Mikotosama's dream to realize the dissemination of Meishusama's philosophy and Jyorei to the world with beating drums arose in my mind again. The day has come that art has great responsibility in the world. The Shumei Taiko Ensemble added six new youths from Misono last year. There are more than 200 youths in the youth training program, and still more, the number in the student-training program has risen to 70. We consider it a great mission assigned to us that we introduce to the next generations the spirit and technique of the Shumei Taiko Ensemble. Kaishusama, Mikotosama, and Kaicho-Sensei have conveyed their spirit into our drums. I would like to play the drum on the stage with the youths so that we can introduce that spirit to them.

From SHUMEI MAGAZINE, VOL. 222, JULY/AUGUST 1999