Homecoming Song

Through emigration, assimilation and war, Maui Taiko kept a traditional obon song alive in Hawai‘i—then returned it to Japan
Story by Paul Wood. Photo by Matt McDonald.

When you drive the streets of Kahului, you see the clearest symbol of Maui’s transition from the plantation camp era to an all-inclusive economy. After the Second World War, Maui’s sugar producers mechanized their operations, and the island found itself with a largely displaced workforce.

Planters converted thousands of acres of cane land into a planned sprawl of fee-simple houses, which they offered to former employees at low prices. Suddenly the descendants of immigrant laborers, most of them Japanese, were able to become homeowners.

Kay and Ronald Fukumoto grew up in this world. She is now a retired CPA. He is a civil engineer and land surveyor, president of Fukumoto Engineering in Wailuku. Their home is on a wide but tightly packed street in Dream City. The Fukumotos’ landscaping is bonsai-neat with orchids blooming on the front lānai. Inside, the house holds a well-tended museum of family artifacts. The one odd feature is the garage, which has no room for cars because it is crammed full of huge taiko drums, most of them fashioned from recycled red-wine barrels by Ronald himself with the help of the members of Maui Taiko, an ensemble that performs traditional music from the Japanese homeland. Kay founded Maui Taiko decades ago with a driving ambition to keep alive the rural culture of her great-grandfather, who came to Maui from Fukushima prefecture as part of the first wave of contract laborers to the Islands. In recent years she and her ensemble members have begun traveling back to the source to perform in Japan.“We have tried to preserve those special cultural connections,” Kay says. “And yet many parts of Japan have moved forward. Many Japanese visitors will come to our obon [an annual Buddhist festival to honor the ancestors] and go, ‘This is crazy. Why are you still doing this?’ I suppose they think of us as like the Amish.” But an environmental disaster in 2011 has convinced Maui Taiko that it has something important to offer people in Japan: cultural memory.

Ronald Fukumoto prepares to wield his taiko bachi (drumsticks) as part of a performance by Maui Taiko, a traditional Japanese musical ensemble performing here on the grounds of the Paia Mantokuji Soto Zen Mission.

Drumming goes deep in Japanese culture. For centuries taiko (“drum” in Japanese) has accompanied theatrical and courtly events, set the tempo for farmwork and inspired courage in battle. Also, in a tradition that is uniquely Japanese, drums were used to state and restate the identity of communities. Any village worth its rice had a song, and at obon time that song was sung over the throbbing foundation of taiko rhythms, rhythms that inspired villagers to dance and dance for hours, often to just one song. Their song. 

Taiko drums come in all sizes. But the sound most associated with obon is huge and pounding. Imagine, in a time before earbuds and radios, walking a dirt path under a silent evening sky. Suddenly, big drums begin booming. Then the shrill fue, the bamboo flute, cuts through the bass, shooting its whistling across the darkening fields. Then voices burst forth, high-pitched and wailing, the verses repetitive, trance-inducing. These sounds, blended, travel for miles over the rice fields.

Or over sugar cane fields—as it must have been for the contract laborers in Keāhua Camp in Pukalani, where Kay’s great-grandfather lived and worked a century ago. Keāhua Camp residents pooled their precious pennies to purchase instruments. They constructed a yagura, a decorative tower, to serve as the musicians’ bandstand. Then at obon time the community gathered, men in happi coats, women in yukata (casual summer kimonos). They danced in lines arranged like spokes around the tower, and the steps were easy to learn. Obon festivals often climaxed with the floating of paper lanterns on the sea or a lake, symbols of hope launched into the darkness. But conditions in Hawai‘i altered the tradition somewhat. For one thing, camp residents came from many ken (prefectures) and so brought many songs. The obon songbook diversified. Kay’s great-grandfather was a Watanabe (her maiden name) from Fukushima, but Kay herself can’t explain why “Fukushima Ondo” became the Pukalani camp’s primary song. Perhaps it reflects her ancestor’s charisma and his dedication to traditions, which he passed to her over three generations.

Life in Hawai‘i caused immigrants to mingle with people of all origins, from Polynesia to Portugal. Obon crowds became more diverse. In Japan, obon events occur on a single day, and on that day everyone returns to his or her ancestral village to reconnect with personal roots. In Hawai‘i, though, where nobody could return to the roots, obon festivals were spread out over a summer season and shared among all. “Although obon started off as a Buddhist event,” says Kay, “it’s now a community event that welcomes people from all ethnicities and cultures.” Still, these adjustments did not seriously bend the tradition. Hawai‘i obons still happen at Buddhist temples. “Here in Hawai‘i,” says Kay, “we’re trying to perpetuate customs. This is about continuing culture.”

Kay herself is a contradiction. Her mother was a picture bride who came to Maui from Fukushima at 19. Her father maintained the cultural practices of his grandfather: He was adept with taiko, fue and song, and at every obon season he and his friends would gather to rehearse. Women and children would wait on the side. Only men were allowed to hit the drums. But at age ten Kay began breaking the gender barrier. While the men were talking story, she recalls, “I went up to the drum. I knew the pattern.” The men found this amusing. “I was cute. If I had been a grown woman,” she says, “the reaction might have been quite different.” As it turned out, she might have been the youngest female drummer in taiko history. Later, when she was a student at Baldwin High School, “My girlfriends and I played taiko and dressed up in yukata.” In this way Kay began a rather nontraditional approach to perpetuating traditions.

Kay’s great-grandfather (seated with his family) played a role in preserving the traditional song of Fukushima, “Fukushima Ondo,” after he came to Hawai‘i as a plantation worker.

At the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa she studied the history of the Japanese in Hawai‘i. The first group of Japanese agricultural laborers debarked in Honolulu in 1868. About halfway through their contracts, a third of these men had returned to Japan, complaining of nonpayment and abuse. As the Japanese became by far the most numerous ethnicity in Hawai‘i, their desire for fair pay and equal opportunity grew. Island Japanese were peaceful but proud. There were strikes and protests, and some moved to the West Coast. In 1907 and 1924 the US Congress passed legislation to block that migration. Then the bombing of Pearl Harbor put Japanese-Americans in jeopardy. “We had to lose our identity during the war,” Kay says. “Then we had to rebuild it.” It is often said that the Fighting 442nd, the unit of young Hawai‘i-Japanese men who fought so heroically in Europe, proved once and for all that Hawai‘i-Japanese were Americans. In Kay’s mind it also proved that it was fine to be Japanese. 

When she came home from college and started working as a CPA, Kay was determined to revive interest in the culture she’d experienced as a child. She kept playing taiko. She was distressed to see that obon attendance in Hawai‘i was dwindling: mostly old ladies and little kids, it seemed. She also saw that taiko drumming itself was changing. A new form of ensemble taiko performance was emerging, both in Japan and on the West Coast. These ensembles gave thrilling, concert-level programs, choreographed and muscular, year-round, not only at obon. “Taiko was becoming a pure display of being Japanese,” says Kay. “It took some courage to do that after the war.”

And she has done that, too. Kay is not a tall woman, but she is imposing and speaks clearly and directly. (She also has a high-pitched giggle and clearly has fun.) She is founder and president of Maui Taiko, a company now entering its third decade with some forty members and twenty drums. Maui Taiko performs at more than fifty events a year, at venues ranging from elder-care facilities to resorts. The group has opened for Bon Jovi and The Who. Kay is also founder and co-leader of the annual Maui Matsuri, a three-day festival of all things Japanese, which has grown over eighteen years to one of the biggest cultural events on Maui. 

In 2008 Maui Taiko traveled to Fukushima. It had been invited to perform at the Fukushima Taiko Union Concert. “It was scary,” says Kay. Fukushima City has over thirty of its own taiko groups. “We were a small group from … where?” But Kay fulfilled a dream when the group played the song “Fukushima Ondo” and their homeland hosts recognized it, even though it had been slightly altered by more than a century of separation. “Closing the circle,” Kay calls it. 

A happy ending, it seemed, but no. In March 2011 the magnitude-9.0 Tōhoku earthquake rocked the Fukushima shoreline so hard that it shifted Earth’s axis some ten inches. Less than an hour later, a forty-nine-foot tsunami destroyed over a million buildings and swamped the Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant, setting off three meltdowns and explosions that released radioactive material into the air and sea. Suddenly Maui Taiko’s mission to the homeland took on new urgency. Since 2011 the group has returned to Fukushima repeatedly to perform, to fundraise and, says Kay, “to show the resilience of the Japanese in Hawai‘i. We wanted to inspire them to hold onto their connection with their communities.” 

Fukushima City itself lies far enough from the Daiichi site that it has continued to function. But smaller communities have been evacuated to zero population. The town of Futaba, for example, lies directly north of the Daiichi ruins, which will probably not be decommissioned for another forty years. Futaba is a ghost town, its roads, buildings, stores, schools all abandoned. The community has scattered.

Hisakatsu Yokoyama, a taiko master from Futaba, Japan, signs a drum body that he gave to the Fukumotos to finish in the wake of the Fukushima disaster. Maui Taiko hopes to return the drum and perform one day in a reborn Futaba. Photo by Ai Iwane.

In 2014 Maui Taiko invited Fukushima-area groups to perform at the Maui Matsuri festival. Some thirty people made the trip from Japan to Hawai‘i. One of them was Hisakatsu Yokoyama, the taiko master of the dispersed town of Futaba. The Fukumotos had not met him, but he had seen Maui Taiko perform in Fukushima. And he had watched the documentary Great Grandfather’s Drum, which Kay produced. When Yokoyama came to Maui, he attended obon at the Lahaina Jodo Mission and witnessed the floating of lanterns onto the tranquil sea. A drum maker himself, he was astonished to find Americans making good taiko from used wine barrels in a Kahului garage. 

Yokoyama offered to give Kay and Ronald a “drum body” from Futaba if they would finish it: sand and detail the surface and skin it. The drum body was carved from the trunk of a superb keyaki tree, considered to be the finest wood for taiko. Yokoyama had paid the yen equivalent of $10,000 for this trunk, from which he had derived four drum bodies. This particular drum body he just couldn’t finish. “He was spiritually defeated,” says Kay. “His friends had relocated. I just sensed that he wasn’t going to continue.” 

“From June to September of every year we perform at every obon dance held on Maui,” says Kay. On the annual July 4 weekend the group takes the stage at the Lahaina Jodo Mission obon dance. Photo by Ai Iwane.

But after Maui, says Kay, “he had a resurgence of energy.” Yokoyama returned to the island several times. He signed the finished drum body with a fat Sharpie. He came again to drive the final tack into the drum skin. He brought musicians with him to teach Maui Taiko the community’s song, “Futaba Bon Uta.” Maui Taiko knows it now, and when the time is right, it plans to take the song and the drum back to a reborn Futaba. HH