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By PJ Hirabayashi, a Peace Ambassador

I am a baby boomer, a sansei woman (third-generation Japanese American) born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area. I was an adventurous and happy pre-schooler, as free as flying on a swing reaching toward the sky. When I entered public school, my radiant spirit was shattered by the harsh taunts of classmates, who didn’t know better that I was not the WWII Japan enemy. The silent pain from not being accepted or included flattened my self-esteem and confidence. I didn’t want to be Japanese nor did I understand my Japanese cultural roots.

It wasn’t until college when I became involved in civil rights did I learn that 120,000 persons of Japanese descent were incarcerated in internment camps in the US during WWII. Why didn’t my parents ever speak about their incarceration while I was growing up? Did this secret have anything to do with their insistence that I “Don’t speak out and rock the boat” and “Don’t bring attention to yourself"? This launched my quest to uncover my cultural identity—“Who am I?” and “What is my place in this world?”

My personal quest coincided with momentous events of the era including the birth of Ethnic Studies and Asian American Studies on college campuses where I learned about the diverse cultures in American history that never made it into history books. Asian American Studies curriculum also advocated for social change, community organizing, and volunteer service. These principles became an important part of my values and practice.

College presented me with new awakenings. The single event that literally turned my life around was experiencing the visceral performance of taiko (Japanese drums) by the San Francisco Taiko Dojo. A mother and daughter played together onstage just as powerfully as the men. No separation of gender. Everyone played equally, as One. The vibration and power of the taiko hit my gut and heart. My spirit that was once dashed as a little girl was re-ignited with uplifting energy and joy.

After college I settled in San Jose Japantown in 1974 and became a charter member of San Jose Taiko (, which evolved into a prominent performing ensemble of taiko drummers. In 1975, I married Roy Hirabayashi, one of Sa JoseTaiko's (SJT) original founders. SJT members were invited to commute to San Francisco to study with Seiichi Tanaka, sensei (teacher) of San Francisco Taiko Dojo for one year. He encouraged us to continue practicing taiko and to develop SJT’s own style. Because we had no sensei while practicing in San Jose, it was essential that we create an organizational structure that was flat, not hierarchical, and collaborative so that we could pool all of our experiences, skills, and resources together. We wanted to create an organizational style that mirrored the same values of effective community organizing—empowerment, social justice, consensus, leadership building, and cooperative work ethic. This was unusual since Japanese traditional art forms have a distinct hierarchy.

We knew we could never be Japanese taiko, nor did we want to just copy or appropriate it. To play Japanese taiko respectfully, one would need to live and breathe Japan's environment and culture. Celebrating this difference, SJT music would embrace sights, sounds, and inspirations from growing up in America.

SJT's collaborative organization and artistic creativity/process became the group's hallmark. After nearly 40-years guiding SJT, Roy and I transferred our leadership in 2011 to the next generation of leaders. Our succession was seamless and done with loving care. Some regard our transition as retirement, but for me, it was a time for re-wirement.

Since my entire taiko career was based on the group ensemble, how was I to transition into becoming an independent artist and do better with what I do best? With taiko being a powerful tool for transformation and peace, perhaps I could focus my taiko work on peace building---TaikoPeace.

Karen Armstrong's Charter for Compassion and the Shift Network's Peace Ambassador Training program were two sources that helped guide me in developing TaikoPeace. I was surprised to learn that the principles of the Charter for Compassion and the Peace Ambassador Program paralleled the principles of San Jose Taiko. This was a validation that I was already carrying within me the core values for cultivating a culture of peace.

My mission for TaikoPeace was unleash creativity, spark new connections of co-creativity, and heal the human spirit through the dynamic energy of taiko. It is a creative initiative to inspire others to promote a culture of peace (inner and outer) by expanding our awareness to shift our world from competition to cooperation, from insensitivity to compassion, from exploitation to sustainability.

TaikoPeace is my compass in aligning me with projects that I never would have dreamed to have such far reaching impact. TaikoPeace is collaborating with Taiko Journey and the Holy Land Trust to take taiko to Bethlehem for the second annual Bet Lahem Live! Festival (June 19-22, 2014). This is the beginning of a global movement based on three pillars: Faith, Culture, Justice. (To learn more about and support this project, click here. This Fall, I will be in Japan for three months on a US-Japan Creative Artist Fellowship to collaborate with artists whose communities have suffered from cultural discrimination---Okinawan, Ainu, and Buraku. I will meet with artists and musicians from these communities who are passionately using their arts, just as my taiko path has led me, for cultural empowerment, preservation, and community building. (To learn more about the US-Japan Creative Artist Fellowship, click here.)

PJ Hirabayashi is the Artistic Director Emeritus of San Jose Taiko and recipient of the Japan-US Friendship Commission Creative Artist Fellowship for 2014. Her current project “TaikoPeace” seeks to amplify positive social change and personal transformation throughthe dynamic power of taiko. PJ and husband, Roy,have received lifetime achievement awards---Artist Legacy Laureate from Silicon Valley Creates (2014)and the National Heritage Fellowship for Traditional and Folk Arts from NEA (2011). PJ is a graduate of the Peace Ambassador Training program taught by James O’Dea. To learn more about PJ, click here.

The Catalyst is produced by The Shift Network to feature inspiring stories and provide information to help shift consciousness and take practical action. To receive The Catalyst twice a month, sign up here.

This article appears in:
2014 Catalyst, Issue 12: Summer of Peace is Here!

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