restricted access Butch Bodies, Big Drums: Queering North American Taiko
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Butch Bodies, Big Drums
Queering North American Taiko

The sound of drumming rumbles from the stage as the five Asian, Asian Canadian, and Asian American women of Jodaiko move and sweat with each other in the physically demanding art of taiko. On the first weekend of August each year, white canvas tents dot the perimeter of Vancouver’s Oppenheimer Park, where attendees sit spread on blankets or wander through the festival’s offerings.1 Food stalls line one end of the park, offering yakisoba (fried noodles), takoyaki (octopus fritters), and other Japanese fare. Artisans sell cards, jewelry, T-shirts, and other wares from underneath tents. And in one corner of the park, on the dusty baseball diamond, sits the stage, covered in red-and-white striped canvas, the words powell street festival in bold black-on-white capital letters across the apron of the platform.

Throughout the day, musicians, martial artists, and minyo and butoh dancers animate this corner of the park as the crowds watch, wander, and move through the festival. The Powell Street Festival has its roots in Japanese Canadian community activism, and its founding marked the hundredth year of Japanese Canadians’ presence in Canada, an anniversary that was not lost on its founders.2 In 1977 socially engaged Sansei (third-generation Japanese), some of whom were already involved in providing social services in their community (such as through the senior center Tonari Gumi), coordinated the first festival, part of a larger effort to reclaim the area surrounding Oppenheimer Park on Powell Street, a neighborhood east of [End Page 1]

Fig. 1. Left to right, Eileen Kage, Leslie Komori, Tiff any Tamaribuchi, Toyomi Yoshida, and Kristy Oshiro perform “Kokorozashi” at the 2009 Powell Street Festival. Photograph by the author.
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Fig. 1.

Left to right, Eileen Kage, Leslie Komori, Tiff any Tamaribuchi, Toyomi Yoshida, and Kristy Oshiro perform “Kokorozashi” at the 2009 Powell Street Festival. Photograph by the author.

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downtown where many Japanese Canadians lived until they were evacuated and interned during World War II. The inaugural festival marked the beginning of what would become a long-standing Vancouver tradition.3 The Pride in Art (PiA) festival, a series of performances and art exhibits by and for lgbtq community members and renamed the Queer Arts Festival in 2010, takes place the same weekend.4 Its several weeks of programming coincide with Vancouver’s lgbt Pride festival, which itself overlaps precisely with the dates of the Powell Street Festival. Since 2006 Jodaiko has been performing in Pride in Art and since 2007 at both festivals.

When the women of Jodaiko (roughly, “woman taiko” in Japanese) take the stage, they perform a mix of their own compositions and “traditional” taiko music, following the conventions of many North American taiko groups.5 Much of the group’s repertoire showcases the strength and power of the drummers. Their costumes yoke to one North American taiko custom of performing in tapered indigo pants, matching aprons, and colorful happi coats (informal coats fastened with an obi, or sash). In these ways, Jodaiko is a typical taiko group, but it is unique in other ways. Unlike many North American taiko groups that are based in a city and rehearse together regularly all year round, Jodaiko functions as more of a pick-up group. Its geographically dispersed members seldom rehearse together except in the days leading up to a performance. One of the peculiarities of playing with Jodaiko is its fluid and ephemeral nature. In contrast to more established groups such as San Jose Taiko and Sacramento Taiko Dan, which both have 501(c)(3) status, staff members, and a fairly regular membership, Jodaiko operates without the financial resources to compensate performers or sometimes even to cover travel expenses.

Jodaiko’s provisional and temporary nature provides space for a type of queer intimacy by bringing people together across national and ethnic borders in a community that is both fleeting (just one week a year) and ongoing (every year).6 Despite the fact that the majority of North American taiko players are women, Jodaiko is one of only a few all-women’s groups. During my fieldwork between 2006 and 2009, Jodaiko was the only group I was aware of comprised entirely of [End Page 3] queer-identified women.7 While the group...


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