By John Sammon NikkeiWest Staff Writer
It’s too early to say if the character “Taiko Cat” will result in a new career for Yurika Chiba as an animator, but she said the painted cat’s emergence as a sort of cultural icon in San Jose’s Japantown has surprised her.
“It kind of just took off,” she said of the cat’s growing popularity. “There’s something about the cat. People love him. A cat playing taiko drums.”
Chiba’s love for traditional Japanese taiko drumming and her artistic ability, formerly a hobby, led her to paint Taiko Cat at the request of the Japantown Business Association in October of 2012 to grace an electrical power box at Taylor and Seventh St. in Japantown.
The image of the cat can now be seen adorning tee shirts and has become a mural at a local snack shop.
Chiba said she had a conception of a cat figurine that would be seen as a welcoming to passersby.
“I also wanted him (Taiko Cat) to be like a good luck charm,” she said. “He’s a maneki-neko in Japanese.”
Maneki-neko literally translated means “beckoning cat.” Traditionally a good luck charm for decades in Japan, in modern times such cat figures are usually made out of ceramic or plastic. A typical representation is a cat with one paw raised in greeting, often displayed at the entrance to a shop, restaurant, gaming parlor or other business. In Japan such cats also adorn key chains, piggy banks or serve as flower pots.
Chiba is on the Artistic Staff of San Jose Taiko, one of the country’s premier taiko drumming groups, and works full time as a performer and teacher.
Taiko drumming uses a variety of percussion instruments and flute playing. Introduced to Japan through Chinese or Korean influences in the 6th century, the drumming served a variety of purposes including an early form of communication, and for theater and religious festivals.
“Taiko is part of the cultural heritage of Japan and involves creative effort. We write our own music,” Chiba said. “It also requires physical and mental discipline.”
Though centuries old, taiko was introduced to the United States only fairly recently in the 1960’s. Since then it has steadily grown in popularity.
Born in Saitama, Japan, Chiba moved with her parents to Toronto, Canada in the 1970’s while still an infant.
“My parents had family in Toronto,” she said. “My dad had a job offer in Canada and my mom’s aunt sponsored our move there. My parents wanted a different kind of life.”
Her father Yutaka and her mother Reiko had been young people in Japan during World War II.
“Those were hard times,” Chiba said. “My mother’s mother was a teacher and was gone from home a lot. She had to work because her husband was away in China teaching the Japanese language. Mom and five siblings were left alone at home in Japan and had to fend for themselves. Mom learned as a child how to start a fire and cook rice.”
After the war Yutaka became a flute maker. He produced a metal flute made by a company called Muramatsu Flute.
Chiba grew up in Toronto and attended the University of Toronto where she graduated with a degree in psychology.
“After graduation I went to Japan and for three years taught English to students at a high school through a teacher’s exchange program (JET),” she said. “I was in a little fishing village called Hiwasa. I played taiko drums there with a fisherman’s group (band). I was the only woman.”
After that Chiba got a work visa to go to Australia and for a year lived in Melbourne.
“In Australia I became part of an all-woman (taiko) band,” she said. “I traveled around Australia. Then I was offered a job in Washington D.C. at the Japanese Embassy working for the Office of Cultural Affairs. I was an assistant to the Cultural Attaché. One of our main jobs was to stage the annual National Cherry Blossom Festival.”
Chiba said however life in the Beltway was not a good fit for her and she moved to Sonoma, California, where she began teaching taiko drumming to children in Santa Rosa at the Sonoma County Taiko.
“This was in 2001,” she noted. “In 2006 I moved to San Jose and for a while I worked at a restaurant in Japantown, Kubota (Japanese cuisine and sushi bar).”
Chiba auditioned for San Jose Taiko, the third major taiko drum group to be formed in North America in 1973, after creation of the San Francisco Taiko Dojo in 1968 and a group in Los Angeles (Kinnara Taiko).
The audition to become a member of San Jose Taiko was rigorous to say the least.
“It took two years,” Chiba said. “The first year is the audition period and the second year you serve an apprenticeship, which is a training program. You have to demonstrate fitness of body and musical skill. Judges evaluate you and we started with 10 applicants. After three months it was cut down to four.”
Playing taiko for an audience beating on drums for two hours at a time is not for someone who is not in good physical condition. Performances also include physically demanding body movements.
Since going full time with the group Chiba has played in concerts all across the U.S. and overseas. San Jose Taiko does approximately 120 performances a year and also has a children’s program teaching the drumming art with over 70 local youngsters involved.
“Concerts in the Midwest (Iowa) are unusual because people are so curious,” Chiba said. “They’ve never seen anything like this before and they ask us so many questions.”
Once during such a concert a child, noting that the performers all wore the same type of traditional Japanese (work) costumes, asked “Are you all related?”
“One thing people find interesting is our footwear,” Chiba said. “We wear what is like a type of martial arts slipper; it looks like a white pair of sox or like mittens for feet with splits between the big toe.”
Tentative plans call for a future concert combining San Jose Taiko and the nationally famous Wesley Jazz Ensemble swing band on June 24, likely to be performed at the San Jose Buddhist Church Betsuin (640 N. 5th St. San Jose).
When Japantown officials asked Chiba to paint a utility box she said it was natural to include taiko drumming in the theme. However, the first “Taiko Cat” she painted on the box got hit by a car in an accident last year. The metal shell with the painting was removed leaving a somber grey power box.
Neighbors missed the cat painting.
“The city had taken it away and it was just a grey box,” Chiba said. “The Japantown Business Association asked me if I could paint another one. I did the new painting pretty much the same but this time I included some animals, a bunny and a dog.”
The likeness became more popular when requests to put it on tee shirts were made. The shirts were silkscreened and have become popular sellers at a local store, Nikkei Traditions, a gift shop run by local merchant and photographer Jim Nagareda.
Chiba was then asked to paint Taiko Cat as a mural in a local ice cream and snack shop, Jimbo’s (170 Jackson St. San Jose).
“The mural is inside the building and measures 13 feet wide by 7 feet high,” she said.
Chiba makes decorative designs for greeting cards and painted a mural at a restaurant in the Willow Glen area of San Jose, Yuki Sushi, depicting a journey of the restaurant owner’s mother from Japan to California.
She said one of the things she likes most about San Jose’s Japantown is the collaborative spirit which characterizes the community.
“All the organizations and businesses like to work together,” Chiba said. “It’s like one big family.”
For more information on “Taiko Cat” go to www.taikocat.com. Persons or groups wishing to book a San Jose Taiko performance may go to www.taiko.org.