Onomichi: Roots and Branches
Sometimes forgotten in our preoccupation with the armed conflicts that have gripped the world over millennia is the flip side of war and aggression. That is the very human need to bond, to make connections with others that help us place ourselves within the greater context of humanity. That need to stay connected is profound within immigrant communities. For the first generation of immigrants, staying connected with those who share a common language and culture is a way of staying grounded in a new, confusing, and sometimes hostile environment. For the children and grandchildren of immigrants, though, those bonds become more complex, as loyalties shift to the adopted country and one’s cultural and ethnic roots grow shallower.
For publications like The Bulletin, one of our primary concerns is nourishing those roots, of helping keep the connections alive in a place like Canada where so many opportunities and distractions abound. This month we take a look at how one small group of young people are exploring their roots through the art of taiko as they prepare to make a pilgrimage to Japan this summer.
The story of Chibi Taiko is rooted in the cultural renaissance of the 1970s, a time when Japanese Canadians were marking their Centennial and many younger sansei were discovering and celebrating their heritage for the first time. It is a time that has been well documented many times in books and films, but it is fascinating to trace the direct connection to today’s young drummers and their upcoming trip.
Fast forward from the Centennial year to the end of the Millennium when artist and filmmaker Linda Ohama travelled to Japan for the first time to research her grandmother’s life for her documentary film Obaachan’s Garden. It was exactly ten years ago this month that Linda arrived in the small seaside town of Onomichi with a small film crew, searching for answers to her Obaachan’s mysterious past. Linda’s arrival in Onomichi set into motion a series of events, connections and opportunities that have strengthened her own connection to the land of her grandparents’ birth, resulting in both personal and artistic watersheds.
As Linda prepares to welcome the members of Chibi Taiko to her part-time home in Onomichi, she shares some of her feelings with our readers:
“Ten years after I first came to Onomichi, although Obaachan has since passed away, I feel she has indeed given me one of the most inspiring and amazing gifts of my life: this small traditional town where old and new meet, and where I currently write and work from.
“For me personally, as a sansei in Onomichi, any social-political stigmas, or not understanding my Japanese heritage from my childhood years in Canada—fall away one layer at a time. As things begin to make sense, it is a wonderful sense of becoming free.
“I can even make my body vocalize some simple Japanese phrases. Incredible! Ten years ago, my chest and throat would cease up and feel pain at the thought of having to say something in Japanese! I think this may be true for many sansei Canadians and Americans who were born right after the wartime years. Our parents who suffered the wartime experience because of their race, raised their sansei children to be good English-speaking Canadians with little trace of our Japaneseness. I feel this is a natural instinct in parents to protect their offspring from something they already know might cause harm. For me, that pain does not happen anymore when I speak in Japanese. I think this is what Onomichi has done for me!”
As Linda soon discovered, Onomichi is home to an excellent community-based, multi-generational taiko group called Betcha Taiko.
“They are part of the energy of this town, 40 shinkansen-minutes from Hiroshima, where the old and new merge so clearly in its narrow streets lined with traditional houses, temples, and the thousands of steep stone stairs!”
For years, Linda says, she has dreamed of sharing Onomichi and Betcha Taiko with Chibi Taiko members. Her daughter Caitlin is a long-time member of the group, while her granddaughter Skye is part of a new influx of young members and Linda is deeply committed to Chibi’s vision as a place for youth to discover the joys of taiko.
“Whenever I feel creatively inspired here (which is almost always) and get that satisfying sense of finding a ‘home’ that my spirit is so naturally connected to—I dream of sharing some of that experience with Chibi Taiko members. I hope that by coming here, they will find a new depth to their heritage and the tradition of taiko playing.”
This summer, Linda’s dream will come true when Chibi arrives in Onomichi to meet and work with Onomichi Betcha Taiko members and the people there. For the past few months, Linda has been working with the townspeople to prepare for Chibi’s arrival. The level of interest has been astounding, she says.
“Thanks to someone who has helped me produce all my film work here, Mr.Otani, the whole town is getting involved. The mayor, the temples, the families, the schools, the leaders of the community, the businesses. It is amazing! They anticipate a ten-day ‘Canada-Chibi week’ highlighted by a public performance with Betcha and Chibi at the end.
“When Chibi arrives, it will be mid-July. The weather will be hot and humid, the semi (cicadas) will be chattering all day, and the people here will be giving Chibi a taste of Onomichi and Japan—a cultural experience from their homestay families to their workshops to the big summer matsuris. PLUS the food is yummy with lots of fresh seafood as this place is located on the inland sea. Chibi will even get a special workshop with a Noh actor from Kyoto who will travel to Onomichi to teach Chibi for one morning! A few weeks ago, I saw this Noh actor perform here in an open air night ‘fire torch’- lit theatre using the wonderful UNESCO site of Jodoji Temple as the stage. When I heard that this main actor offered to come back and teach Chibi, I screeched with awe!”
Linda hopes that this visit will only be just the beginning of a great exchange of taiko music and tradition between Betcha Taiko and Chibi Taiko that will continue in the future. “I think this experience will inspire both groups—they will learn and share from each other new and old things.”
In closing, she writes: “Good luck Chibi for your fundraising concert at Nikkei Place. The people here are all cheering for you to get a full house! Me too.“
For some of the senior Chibi members who are travelling to Japan, their time with Chibi is drawing to a close as they prepare to move on to other experiences. This trip promises to be a fitting coda and a thank you gift from the group for their years of dedication, friendship and hard work.
For some the younger members, their taiko journey is in its infancy and the trip will hopefully provide not only lifelong memories, but an inspiration to plant their cultural roots deeper.
After all, having deep roots doesn’t mean one is cut one off from the many possibilities of life. On the contrary, they can provide nourishment and sustenance throughout ones’ life. And really, strong and healthy roots below ground ultimately lead to strong and healthy branches reaching upwards towards the sky.