Volume 14 Numbers 1 and 2, 2004
ROLLING LIKE THUNDER: THE CONSTRUCTION OF ETHNICITY IN AMERICAN TAIKO WEB SITES
Nancy R. Bixler
University of Washington
Abstract. Web sites associated with immigrant performance groups are fertile sites for examining the construction of ethnicity. In this paper, the authors analyze two taiko (Japanese-American drumming performance groups) web sites for the ways in which the construction of ethnicity is various, complex, and interlocked between the labels of “Japanese,” “Japanese-American,” and “Asian-American;” and the ways audiences are constructed in the sites. This study reveals that the differences between the sites in both areas can be at least partially attributed to their various placements in regard to the history of immigrant experience and in relationship to their degree of transnationality. The authors suggest that the particularity of these adaptations as shown in this study stands as a recommendation for more case studies of the distinctiveness of ethnic construction in web sites.
The drums are huge, like tree trunks chopped in sections and scattered at angles to each other by a primordial hand. At one time taiko drums were hewed whole out of tree trunks, but that was too punishing to make and too heavy to carry. Nowadays the drums are transformed from barrels, and the light gleams burnished off the mahogany staves. Figures in black headbands are rooted in front of the drums, legs bent and diagonally apart, torsos straight. Arms spin in slow, strong loops to thud on the skin surface of the drums, one after another, with enormous thrust. Sweat runs down the players’ bodies. They switch drums; they pair, facing each other; everybody drops out but one person with a single drum; all swing back to the drums and attack as one. If music is melody and harmony — if message is words — neither exist here.
The Drums Roll Like Thunder.
Taiko is a muscular and dramatic performance form that is
“very loud and visually exciting” (Wong, 2000, p. 67). It
has gained significant popularity in the last three decades, in both the
Taiko groups comprise a notable site for the creation and maintenance of cultural group identity, one that is particularly and specifically linked to ethnicity through self-identification and through performance. Because participation in taiko is volitional, taiko groups are choice-driven sites of identity construction. Though rooted in centuries-old Japanese drum traditions, taiko as it appears today has developed creatively and idiosyncratically over only the last few decades and appears to involve a variety of constructions of ethnicity, including, for example, references to Japanese as well as to Japanese American and Asian American ethnicities. The choice for performers is not only whether to participate, but which flavor of ethnic identity or identities to construct as a group. Therefore, taiko is a fertile site for examining changing conceptions of Japanese-American and Asian-American ethnicity.
Many taiko performing groups have World Wide Web sites.
The web is a fluid medium when it comes to conceptual linkages to physical
place; it offers a range of options from total geographical disconnection to
distinctive adaptations to localized custom. When taiko combines with the Web,
the options for relationship to place multiply.
In short, the overarching question we ask in this study is how these taiko web sites, as exemplars of immigrant ethnic identity construction, choose among their possibilities. We selected two taiko performing groups’ web sites for study—San Jose Taiko Group, and Portland Taiko (see Appendix)—because together they represent a range of size, age, and professional scope, while each still carries the primary markers of the discourse community of U.S. West Coast taiko performance groups. For each, we query the primary texts and graphics for constructions of ethnicity. Of these constructions, we ask two major questions. First, what is the relationship displayed between the constructions of ethnicity and place, where place is considered on a continuum from local to translocal to national to transnational? Second, how is audience constructed in relationship to the group? For each web site, how do these two elements interact?
In the following sections of the paper, we first introduce conceptual background for the analysis. Specifically, we review some current trends of thinking, first, on the continuum from local to transnational, second, on ethnic identity construction, and third, on the World Wide Web and such factors as place, immigration, and ethnicity, with particular attention to taiko groups. An analysis section follows. This begins with an explanation of the close reading methods we used for this study and our choice of texts within those web sites. Then each web site is examined for constructions of audience and of ethnicities. Finally, we discuss the ramifications of the analysis.
The Local to Transnational Continuum
There is some contention about how transnationalism is defined, but for the purposes of this study, we will begin with Faist’s (1999) definition. He distinguishes transnationalism from globalization by noting, “Whereas global processes are largely decentered from specific national territories and take place in a global space, transnational processes are anchored in and span one or more nation-states” (p. 67). Under this definition, the internet is a global process, but web sites may or may not be global, depending upon whether conceptual links to specific physical places are salient. According to Faist’s criteria, immigrant cultural spaces are de facto transnational because they contain “cultural elements from both the original sending and receiving countries [that] have found entry in the cultural repertoire of the descendants of migrants” (p. 62).
Faist (2001) notes that transnational social processes reach between two or more “geographically and internationally distinct places” (p. 40). We add to this Mahler & Pessar’s (2001) concept that in transnational activity, “nation-states and borders… remain important" (p. 444). According to this definition, taiko web sites are particularly rich in complex and imaginative, if fragmentary, transnational elements. The drums themselves go back originally to Japan. However, it can be plausibly argued that the performance form in its current state—ensembles of drummers playing set pieces in a choreographed and dramatic fashion—developed in the early 1970s in California among Japanese immigrants and their descendants (Fromartz, 1998; Yoon, 2001). Currently, taiko is growing dramatically in popularity both in the U.S. and in Japan (Fromartz, 1998).
In the wake of three decades of growth, taiko groups in
Ethnic Identities and Audience
Mathews (2000) suggests that there is “both personal and collective identity, the former referring to one’s sense of oneself apart from others... and the latter referring to who one senses oneself to be in common with others” (p. 17). While identity is a lived experience of the individuals, it is situated in and formulated through a historically constructed sense of collective identity. Faist (1999) defines collective identity as the state of a group having “first, a common core of shared beliefs, ideas, the memory of a common history, aspiration, the identification with certain projects and second, ascription by others concerning the collective character, certain dispositions, memories, etc.” (p. 68).
Many factors enter “cultural identity… in all the ambiguities of that term” (Mathews, p. 17), including the degree to which cultural identity is ethnic. Stokes (1994) calls the process of the creation of ethnic identity “ethnicity,” and notes, “Ethnic boundaries define and maintain social identities…” and that the process of ethnicity happens in “specific local situations” (p. 6). Immigrant populations negotiate a sense of heritage and links to the place of origin, but at the same time may feel the need to resist ascribed labels and positions in order to negotiate their space in the place they now call home. Furthermore, children of immigrants rarely follow the continuum of adjustment their parents do, complicating the construction of second- and further-generation development of ethnic identity (Faist, 1999). And regardless of generation, populations must also manage to some extent the identities people in their host country construct around their ethnicity.
In short, there are multiple audiences for construction of ethnic identities: oneself, one’s group(s), and the various milieus surrounding the individual and the groups. As performance groups, taiko groups also face a physical audience of people attending concerts, festivals, and workshops, some of whom are less than familiar with the art form. and its history. Thus Mathews (2000) points out that lack of experiential connection on the part of both players and audience to the source of an art form is a problem that is common with traditional art forms. In the U.S., at least part of the audience lacks cultural or ethnic background on any of the cultural factors relating to the form (Sellers-Young, 1993).U.S. taiko groups, like many groups performing ethnic traditional arts in this multiethnic nation-state, choose how to project the traditions of their art form to audiences.
Mathews’ (2000) conception of
cultural identities “as more chosen than given” (p. 5)
comes closest, we believe, to encompassing the multiple audience inherent in
immigrant ethnic identity construction. In this conception, a cultural identity
is “performed in that one must convince others as to its validity” (p. 22). Ethnicity, then, consists at least in part of
persuading others of one’s chosen constructions of ethnic identity. This study’s purpose is to analyze how this
complex balancing act is performed on the web sites of two
The World Wide Web and Constructions of Place, Immigration, and Ethnicity
When examining how the World Wide Web, as a medium, may influence the ways in which ethnicity is constructed on these sites, it is well to keep in mind that the options for creating relationships to physical (geographical) site and place are significantly flexible on the World Wide Web. The web functions such that relationship to place is not mandatory. Mitra (1999) and Mitra and Cohen (1999) point out that intertextuality, where texts are intimately connected with other texts, decenters the text. This expands the ways that site and place can be constructed on the internet.
Place is a complex construction for immigrants, who have real, remembered, and imagined connections back to places of origin as well as mixed loyalties and experiences in their country of adoption. Groups who associate with the experience of emigration or immigration—as with American taiko, which has roots in Japan but is performed in the U.S.—can utilize the Web’s flexible relationship to place. A number of immigrant groups specifically use the internet to create and maintain connections to places of origin and to other immigrants, for instance, as in Mitra’s (1999) study of U.S. Asian Indian immigrants.
In addition to maintaining connections, web pages can be sites of description of oneself and one’s group, enactments of identities in themselves. Buroway (2000) notes that the crossing of global with local (as with localized adaptations of World Wide Web usage) causes a proliferation of identities because identities can be constructed on a variety of levels. We would expect this to be particularly pertinent to construction of identities relating to ethnicity or immigration, because globalization and localization are, among other things, issues of relationship to physical site and place, and site and place are important issues to ethnic and immigrant identity. This is, in fact, one of the points of investigation of this study.
Of course, the Web as a medium is not completely free-floating. The Web has characteristics that allow some disconnection from material circumstances; Mitra and Cohen (1999) note that on web sites, “The author is no longer stabilized within a particular geographic space but is indeed a global and nomadic author” (p. 197). However, as Jones (1999) points out, despite the user’s potentially greater freedom of choice “regarding place, identity, etc.” (p. xii) the World Wide Web “does not exist in isolation. To study it as if it was somehow apart from the ‘off-line’ world that brought it into being would be a gross mistake.” Wheeler (1998), in her study of Kuwaiti Internet use, found that the globalizing tendencies of the Internet do not always override users’ abilities to tailor and customize their Internet use to fit their local cultures.
Thus the Web continues to have ties to the off-line
world—ties which should be examined. One of the questions we ask in this study
is, How does the issue of place (examined in terms of the local to
transnational continuum) play into taiko groups’ ethnic constructions? Taiko
groups are constrained by physical circumstance on several levels. As we have
mentioned, taiko as a performance form has a leg in two geographical
places: It traces its roots to
In addition, taiko groups in their current incarnations
communicate with specific other geographies:
There are interlaced communication channels between
Therefore, other taiko groups become part of the audience for web sites. And, of course, taiko groups are public performers. They have off-line audiences who physically attend performances, classes, and workshops, and the groups depend, to varying degrees, on the monies from these activities for their operating expenses. Therefore, one of the major questions we ask of these web sites is, “How does the presence of this multiple audience play out in the construction of ethnic identity in the taiko groups’ web sites?” In other words, how is audience constructed on the web sites, and what is the relationship between the audience construction and the construction of ethnic identities?
In summary, taiko groups are in the position of working within several potentially conflicting frames when constructing the messages in their web sites. Within these varying tensions, each web site presents picture(s) of ethnic identity and situates the audience in particular ways, and all of this happens within a continuum of place from local to translocal to transnational to national.
San Jose Taiko Group and Portland Taiko are the two groups
whose web sites (see Appendix) we are examining in this study. For each, we
analyze the text on the web sites, factoring in certain graphic elements and
photographs. We consider it crucial to analyze visual aspects along with the
text in studying how the two groups choose to construct and project their identities.
The web as a medium employs text and visual images in producing meaning for
the site (Mitra & Cohen, 1999; Sosnoski, 1999). As Sosnoski (1999)
notes, web sites have a “profoundly graphical dimension” which can “carry the
meaning of the site” (p. 136). In analyzing
visual images, we turn our attention to the use of ethnically established symbols,
based on the cultural expertise of one of the authors, who is Japanese and was
born and raised in
For textual analysis, we analyzed the words on the web pages for evidence of audience construction and clusters of meaning around ethnic labels. We looked for channels created on the web site for audience (though in this case, the text about audience was frequently inseparable from graphic elements, which set routes the audience could take into the site). In terms of examining clusters of meaning around ethnic labels such as “Japanese,” “Japanese-American” and “Asian-American,” our approach most resembles Ivie’s (1987/2000) use of metaphor clusters or Philipsen’s (2000) and Katriel and Philipsen’s (1981) approach of finding how meanings group around key terms. In short, we were looking for concentrations of words in order to discern salient meanings, in the same way that we looked for clusters of meanings in accumulations of graphic, color, and typeface elements in the visual aspects of the sites.
Because sites with text and graphics are a “synergy between the two different kinds of texts [i.e., the written word and audiovisual images]” (Mitra and Cohen, 1999, p. 188), we also considered how the two elements affect each other. For the pages we examined, on both sites, the amount of space taken up by written description is at least twice the space taken up by visual elements. Therefore, we were particularly concerned with the ways the visual elements enhanced or contradicted the words.
We have chosen for each web site the half-dozen or so primary pages that contain textual explanations of the groups and their philosophies and of the taiko art form itself. These explanatory pages appear to serve an introductory and definitional function, and are therefore most pertinent to such matters as the construction of ethnicity and audience.
San Jose Taiko Group
Many taiko web sites have text explaining the taiko art form;
the group’s philosophy and composition; schedules for performances, workshops,
and classes; and a page of links to other taiko performing groups (in the U.S.
and abroad) and to other community resources. Of the dozen West Coast
web sites we reviewed, San Jose Taiko Group’s web site was bigger and more professionally
constructed than most. This reflects the fact that San Jose Taiko has been operating
consistently since the early 1970s and is generally considered among the top
taiko groups in the
Construction of the group and of the audience. A number of features on the web site project San Jose Taiko’s position as one of the top two taiko performing groups in the U.S., including the consistent and pleasing use of graphic design elements on the site’s pages (see Figure 1); an impressive schedule of dozens of performances, including a tour; descriptions of training sessions held for other taiko performing groups; and references to performing relationships in Japan and a handful of other countries.
Figure 1. The banner graphic from San Jose Taiko home page.
Viewers of the San Jose Taiko web site are offered a number of defined activities for viewers of the site to follow. These include a search function, something unusual in taiko web sites; a taiko store with items for fans to buy; a newsletter; a link to an online donations form; and a link to a Yahoo San Jose Taiko fan club (complete with chat capability). Aside from the search function, the remaining four activities for site visitors are associated with traditional constructions of audience as viewers and supporters. Besides being consumers of the information on the web site, the site audience is constructed as purchasers of items (the profit of which goes to help support the group), as receivers of news about the art form and about upcoming performances, as fans (another support function), and as donors of support dollars. This is a particular construction of audience that places visitors to the site in a distinct relationship to the group and its performers, that is, as people who are outside the group connecting with the group through discrete channels. It is as if they are saying to the audience, “We will perform for you.”
If the audience is outside the group, San Jose Taiko itself is depicted in its text as being bounded and cohesive. Many taiko groups appear to perform or adapt other groups’ musical pieces (i.e., drumming) and choreography (i.e., stage movements), but the “About San Jose Taiko” page (San Jose Taiko/About San Jose Taiko, n.d.). notes that all artistic functions, including composition, choreography, and drum and costume creation, are done by members of the group. This constructs the group as self-contained in constructing in its performances. “Through this singleness of mind and spirit,” the web page notes, “harmony is achieved and the music rings with unity and clarity.”
Names and group photos are the main sources of personal performer characteristics, and flawed as these are as indicators, they do seem to support the idea that the unity (or homogeneity) of the group extends to its personnel. Thirteen out of 15 of the performers have Asian names, 11 of which are of Japanese extraction. On the initial explanatory pages, the group photographs (some of them showing as many as 43 people) are posed in formal line-ups which make it hard to distinguish individual players (see Figure 2). In a choice that is unusual among taiko web sites, where visual drama is the norm, San Jose Taiko has chosen to provide few shots of the group in performance on its explanatory pages, and those that are there are quite small. The visual effect of this is to deemphasize the taiko members as individuals and to emphasize the group as a well-established institution that needs, one might say, no introduction.
Figure 2. Group photograph of San Jose Taiko on tour; the caption reads: “Rhythm Spirit 2002 concerts a success! Thanks to all of you who came out to support and cheer us on. We couldn’t have done it without you!”
Construction of ethnicities. The visual images used on the web site of San Jose Taiko convey a strong sense of Japanese tradition, which can be attributed to several main factors. These are color schemes, costumes, calligraphic choices and graphic designs.
One of the factors is the prolific use of certain colors, namely, red, white, blue, black and, for highlights, gold. The letters used throughout the web page are blue, black, and red, and the banner for the web page has all of the colors above (see Figure 1). The banner is partly a collage of photographs which have been turned into earthy shades of red and blue. Any person familiar with the Japanese culture would recognize this color scheme as the one used in the famous traditional Japanese ukiyoe block print by Hokusai, commonly known as “Red Fuji.” In this work, blue is used for the sky, white for clouds, black for lining the shapes, and red for Mt. Fuji, one of the national symbols of Japan. The color scheme of blue, white, and black is also well-known in another of Hokusai’s block prints widely known as “The Wave,” a stylized image so famous that many people in the U.S. would recognize the large, frilled waveform as it curls rightward toward an invisible seashore.
These five colors are not only associated with Japanese
national symbols, but are also frequently seen at summer festivals in
San Jose Taiko’s costumes, as shown in photographs in the web pages we examined, appear to be a combination of martial arts costumes and kimonos, adapted to movement and for visual impact. The costumes employ a tricolor version of the web site’s color scheme—blue, black, and red—and they include traditional Japanese elements, such as a headband; a short-sleeved jacket with wide sleeves, banding around the neck, and front crossover closing; a belt resembling an obi; black pants; and white socks (see Figure 2). The costumes strongly carry traditional Japanese elements with some adaptations. Therefore, the clothing carries the same impact as the web site color and symbol schemes.
In combination with the color schemes and clothing, certain calligraphic choices and graphic designs add a “Japanese” flavor to the web page. The lettering used for the signature print for the group name in the banner has a brush-stroke look reminiscent of Japanese calligraphy (see Figure 1). Also, behind the titles of hyperlinks are ragged swipes of color in red or black which resemble wide brush strokes. No Japanese writing is actually used on the pages we examined, although there is some terminology in Japanese related to taiko. One place that features a Japanese word spelled in English characters is “Arigato [Thank you]” (see Figure 2) in a group photo. The fact that this relatively well-known Japanese word is spelled in English characters is indicative of a Japanese-American identity rather than a Japanese one. With English being the language in the vast majority of the text, this may also be an adaptation to a wider audience.
Another element of graphic design that conveys
Japaneseness is the circular symbol seen in several
places: above the menu, in front of the topics, and overlapping the
graphically-designed group name on top of each page. The symbol contains
symmetrical shapes of leaves in red and white, or gold and white. It resembles
a family crest, which is still printed on kimono in modern
The two primary text pages, “About San Jose Taiko” (San Jose Taiko/About San Jose Taiko, n.d.) and “History and Tradition,” (San Jose Taiko/History and Tradition, n.d.) show distinct tensions among various ethnic constructions. Analyzing the labels of ethnicity reveals shifting relationships among “Japan”/“Japanese,” “Asian”/“Asian American,” and other constellations of meaning as they appear. We will begin with the construction of “Asian American,” since this is where the San Jose Taiko web site itself begins. The group, according to its web site, is concerned with “Asian American movement and music” that seeks to express “the beauty and harmony of the human spirit.” Taiko as a performance form is first labeled “Asian American,” a category that is relatively bounded. Then a move is made to open this out to apply to “the human spirit,” in effect broadening the interested parties to be all of humanity, without, however, losing the centrality of Asian Americanness. This move from specific to general in scope happens several times in the text, though the starting point and ending point are not always the same.
In another spot in the text, “traditional rhythms of
Japanese drumming” broaden immediately into a grouping of descriptors of
various world drum styles: “The resultant sounds are contemporary, exciting,
new and innovative, bridging many styles” notes the web page, and then,
reversing direction, “while still resonant of the Asian soul in America.” After
moving outward to the world, the movement pulls inward again, to “Asian soul in
The “traditional rhythms of Japanese drumming” is not the
only example of the conflation of “Japanese” with “tradition”: In another section
of the web site’s text, the art form of taiko is said to combine “Traditional
Japanese sounds” with “world rhythms” to bridge “diverse styles.” In another
example, “traditional values” and the “vitality and freshness of [the] American
spirit” join to “create a dynamic and compelling Asian American art form.” Tradition,
then, is related to “Japanese.” Drums are twice called Japanese, and once they
are designated “an instrument that embodies the spiritual essence and heartbeat
If the Japanese-tradition construction pulls temporally backward
into an earlier period of history, there are also constructions that pull toward
globalism and toward innovation. In terms of the wider world, the “contemporary,
exciting, new and innovative” elements are associated with “bridging many styles,”
that is, encompassing a number of different places of origin and cultures besides
Japanese. Pulling against the constellation of tradition-Japan are the qualities
vitality and freshness; they are pictured as bringing new energy to an older
art form. This appears to contrast the traditional forms of
Summary. The overarching
concept painted by these ethnic constructions in the text is that taiko can
accommodate changes, including admixtures of elements from non-Asian and
non-U.S. cultures, while still remaining Asian American in its “soul.” In this
text, all roads, all infusions, all innovations lead to Asian American, which
is enhanced by any and all additions. There is substantial pull, however, back
to the traditions of ancient
It may be useful to
summarize in terms of constellations of meaning clustering around labels of
ethnicity. The Japan-tradition constellation of meanings pulls backward, both
into history and to a different geography,
The construction of audience on the San Jose Taiko web site is notable for its image of the group as cohesive and bounded. This reinforces certain aspects of the ethnic constructions, specifically, the traditional, communal values of the Japan-tradition constellation. The audience’s role as fans, viewers, and supporters also reinforces the group’s image as a well-known transnational performing entity with a founding (and still influential) place in the taiko community.
Figure 5. Photograph on the Portland Taiko web site; the supertitle is “Portland Taiko. Asian American Drumming Group.”
While San Jose Taiko constructs their audience as fans, Portland Taiko constructs them as part of the group itself. It does this in two ways. First, there is a significant clustering of terms around the idea of community, specifically, a community that includes both the performing group and its audience. The group’s “community-based performance pieces… incorporate members of the community in creative presentations”; their music is a “catalyst for bringing people together.” In the space of half a page, words invoking community — “community,” “home,” “share,” “incorporate,” for example — are used eight times. Graphically, this is supported by the immediacy of the in-performance photos, which feature up-close angles and vivid facial expressions. In addition, the group puts a communal spin on the history of taiko. Taiko drums are depicted historically as calling “the community together in ceremony and celebration.”
Second, the special events descriptions feature audience participation. Portland Taiko’s school performances introduce “the value of working together.” Later, when discussing community festivals, the web site states that the group “invites members of the audience to take bachi (drumsticks) in hand and play the drums themselves,” a move that actively constructs the audience as part of the performing group. In this web site, the reader is invited into the performance; the community is invited into the group; and people are invited together.
The audience, then, is not separate from the group, but engaged with it. This strongly inclusive emphasis in a total of no more than a combined two pages of text makes the web site persuasive through its very consistency. Inclusiveness is one of the web site’s most pervasive themes. It is as if the group is saying, “You are one of us.”
The construction of ethnicities. In terms of visual presentation, Portland Taiko projects some Japanese flavor, but has progressive and pan-Asian elements as well.
Their color scheme has commonality with San Jose Taiko, in that the colors used for letters on their webpage are consistently blue, black, and red, in the same shades as San Jose Taiko’s. While this suggests Japaneseness, it should be kept in mind that most of the site’s colors come from its photographs, and many of Portland Taiko’s photos are in black and white. Therefore, we suggest that Portland Taiko’s color usage makes reference to Japanese cultural symbols without doing so as strongly as does San Jose Taiko.
The color scheme of black and white is used in Portland
Taiko’s logo, which consists of a black square, inside which is a white circle
with a mountain and waves inside. This design is reminiscent of Japanese black
ink painting, which often captures objects from nature in simple strokes. The
mountain could be interpreted as a generic mountain range, as
Outside of the logo, Portland Taiko’s titles are in standard sans-serifed font (rather than being graphic elements) and their titles in large serifed font. Because this web site is less graphics-oriented than San Jose Taiko’s, we chose not to consider the plain headings as significant for interpreting ethnic identity except to note that they do not emulate such ‘Japanese’ stylistic characteristics as brushstrokes. As in San Jose Taiko’s site, there is minimal use of Japanese words in English lettering outside of taiko drum terminology (such as names of drums) and no use of Japanese Kanji script.
The costumes shown in the photographs in Portland Taiko’s
explanatory pages are similar in many ways to San Jose Taiko’s, with one
striking difference. Of three costumes depicted, two are shown only in black
and white. These reveal design features similar to a short kimono, as described
for San Jose Taiko (see Figures 4 and 5).
The one style of costume shown in color photographs shows the same
blue-black-red color scheme we saw in San Jose Taiko’s site (see Figure 3). However, this outfit has differently-angled banded
collars that cross over from right to left, which is opposite the standard
Japanese way, and it has a clasp in front on the left breast for closure rather
than an obi. To a Japanese observer familiar with traditional Japanese
clothing, this looks non-Japanese. It suggests a transfusion of clothing styles
from other Asian countries, something that supports a pan-Asian ethnic
identity. In summary, the visual elements of Portland Taiko’s web page, while
Moving to text, on its first page, Portland Taiko subtitles itself “Asian American Drumming Group.” It is the beginning of the frequent use of this term throughout the web site. “Asian American” is, in fact, overwhelmingly the most common ethnic label, with a few designations of multiple ethnicity trailing far behind. Portland Taiko’s compositions are said to “express the diverse experiences of Asian Americans” while the group “takes Asian American music” into new areas. It is a “celebration of Asian American culture.” Portland Taiko “collaborates with other Asian American organizations,” and its youth performance group is an “introduction to the Asian American cultural context of taiko.” In short, Portland Taiko’s web site consistently identifies the group as Asian American.
Remarkably for a group whose performance form was largely
conceived in the
Thus traditional aspects exist, but they are generally outweighed by the creative, communal, and ground-breaking forward thrust of the group. Portland Taiko is dedicated to “creating… and preserving culture” and celebrating “Asian American culture” while being a “catalyst.” They “pass on cultural legacy” through “traditions — old and new” while performing “both traditional and original taiko pieces.” The constellation of words such as tradition, preserving, old, and legacy, on the one hand, make one side of a dialectical tension. The other end of the dialectical tension is occupied with a constellation of words like exciting, evolution, unexplored, innovative, provocative, creating, celebrating, catalyst, new, and original.
Summary. We will begin with summarizing in terms of constellations
of meaning around ethnic labels. On Portland Taiko’s web site, Japanese origins
are not ignored, but they are sometimes transmuted into the more general
category of “tradition” and sometimes converted (as with the costume in the
color photographs) to a more pan-Asian ethnicity. In short, the presence of
Japaneseness is slight. The Japan-tradition linkage is not foregrounded on the
Portland Taiko web site: The “tradition”
part of the constellation is stronger than the “
However, “Asian American” is not necessarily the most robust construction of identity on the web site. The constructions of innovation and of audience inclusiveness are as strong or stronger than that of Asian American. The “innovation” constellation is not concerned overtly with ethnicity, but with the energy that pulls toward a future of creativity and progress. It is a major identity constellation for the group. Furthermore, the idea of audience as community is so pervasive that it deserves, we feel, to be considered an identity construction in its own right. If the boundedness of San Jose Taiko reinforces traditional Japanese values, then Portland Taiko’s friendly relaxing of boundaries pulls in the opposite direction, toward future and innovation, thus further minimizing the tradition constellation. The picture of the group as concerned with Asian American identity, high-energy innovation, and inclusiveness weave continually through the site in such a way that it is hard to image that they do not rub off on each other. Thus, the audience construction reinforces the constructions of pan-Asian ethnicity and innovation, and vice versa.
If the tradition end of the dialectic is the past, then in terms of sheer numbers, the future outweighs the past on the Portland Taiko web site. This is, perhaps, appropriate for a group that characterizes itself as having “raw power, humor, and exuberance.”
In terms of audience construction, the Portland Taiko web site consistently and strongly invites its audience to be part of the taiko group. San Jose Taiko, on the other hand, has delineated channels by which the audience may participate, channels which tend to cast the site’s viewers in traditional fan and audience support roles.
When it comes to ethnic identity construction, the San Jose Taiko and Portland Taiko web sites show some similarities. First, the major construction is that of “Asian American.” Second, there is, in both cases, a reach back into the past paired with a movement into the future, though the line to the past is stronger with San Jose Taiko and the identification with the future is more immediate and central with Portland Taiko.
These two web sites also show the variety of ways that
constructions of ethnicity may be juxtaposed. The composition of this beween
the two groups varies in two ways:
complexity, and associated meaning. For San Jose Taiko, the pull back to
Portland Taiko pictures itself as associated with tradition to a much lesser extent, with associations with Japan present primarily in costumes (to some degree, and not uncontradicted) and in color, with slight textual mentions of Japan and little of anything specifically Japanese-American. At this site, constructions of ethnicity besides Asian Americanness are minimal.
We have mentioned that community as inclusive is a strong theme in the Portland Taiko site, as manifest in an attitude of audience inclusiveness. (The idea of community is also present in the San Jose Taiko web site, though there it connotes the taiko group itself.) Innovative energy is another dominant theme in Portland Taiko’s web site. There is comparatively little emphasis on tradition or Japaneseness, and this enhances the prominence of the forward-pulling, dynamic elements of the site. We have also mentioned the stress on “Asian American” as an identity. Because the group strongly identifies itself with being Asian American, the potential exists that readers will associate the themes of innovation and inclusiveness with Asian American ethnicity.
Questions remain concerning the construction of ethnicity in these two web sites. Specifically, how do the two sites differ in ethnic and audience construction? We believe that these questions can be at least partially answered by examining the two groups’ positions on the continuum from local to translocal to national to transnational, particularly in relationship to their off-line positions in the taiko performance community. Two aspects are instrumental in using the local-transnational continuum to examine the differences between the sites. The first is each group’s relationship to the historical progression of immigrant experience. The second is the geographical breadth of each group’s off-line activities (as expressed in the group’s web site).
San Jose Taiko is one of the two central institutions
(with San Francisco Taiko) in American taiko. San Jose Taiko has lived through
multiple generations, both of Japanese immigration to the
Japanese Americans, as a group, have received a fair amount of scholarly attention, at least in part because of their unusual cultural and social cohesion and their economic success relative to other immigrant groups (Espiritu, 1992; Fromartz, 1998; Lee, 1999; Locke, 1998; Nadamitsu, Chen, & Friedrich, 2001; O’Brien & Fugita, 1991; Sellers-Young, 1993; and Takahashi, 1997). We are mainly concerned here with the progression of Japanese-American immigrant experience in relationship to the development of pan-Asian ethnicity.
The 1960s showed the development of “a nascent Asian American political consciousness and an emphasis on ethnic solidarity” (Yoon, 2001, para. 18). This may have been a reaction from the idea of Japanese-Americans as a model minority, an image that developed in the 1950s, perhaps in response to a post-World War II sense of shame around looking Japanese (Asai, 1995). Following African Americans’ lead in the civil rights movement, groups of varying ethnicities tended to band together in order to gain more political leverage. “Panethnicity,” Espiritu (1992) notes, “is not only imposed from above but also constructed from below as a means of claiming resources inside and outside the community” (p. 14) and is never entirely successful in creating a homogeneous group. Nonetheless, Espiritu feels that the “pan-Asian [American] consciousness” has had a permanent effect on Asian-Americans taken as a whole, as indicated by “self-identification, pan-Asian residential, friendship, and marriage patterns, and membership in pan-Asian organizations” (p. 15). In other words, as allegiance to a panethnic identity strengthens, allegiances to more specific ethnic identities, though they do not disappear, tend to thin.
Taiko drumming groups can help construct identity as pan-Asian American. When San Francisco Taiko was created in the late 1960s, it was, in effect, de facto Japanese American. Several years later, San Jose Taiko constructed itself consciously and politically as Asian American, stating explicitly that it mirrored Asian American experience and opposed oppression and stereotypes (Yoon, 2001). With more than three decades of their own history, San Jose Taiko’s early pieces might even be called “traditional” themselves. Therefore, San Jose Taiko progresses away from its own inception as well as progressing away from taiko as a roots-oriented Japan-based performance form.
Thirty years after the pan ethnic movement began,
“Japanese American” is not absent in
Japanese Americanness is mainly missing in the Portland Taiko web site. It is possible that Portland Taiko, which began its life two decades after San Jose Taiko, projects little identification with “Japanese American” because it is further away from a time when “Japanese American” was the primary identification for taiko as an art form. It did not participate in that time, and therefore, it retains few remnants. We hesitate to make parallels to other taiko groups from a study limited to two groups. The comparison between the two groups’ ethnic constructions is suggestive, however, when considered against their chronological positions in the historical continuum. Future studies may find even more support for the idea that performance forms that transit from ethnic to panethnic may find their ethnicity construction transforming from ethnic to panethnic as well.
The two performance groups whose web sites we analyzed differ in their levels of transnational activity in terms of on-the-ground performances and audiences. We suggest that this carries through to the two web sites. In other words, a link between transnational activity and audience off-line is implied by the various strategies utilized in the web sites.
San Jose Taiko occupies a dual position as a market-driven
professional performance group and a parent group to other taiko performance
groups. The professional performance group aspect seems to drive the
construction of audience as fan, that is, audience as outside the group with
structured channels for specific types of participation. The other side of San
Jose Taiko is the one that serves as an exemplar for and educator of other
groups within the
Portland Taiko, as a largely local and translocal group,
has substantially less transnational activity exhibited on its web site in
comparison to San Jose Taiko.
In short, Portland Taiko’s overall lower degree of transnationalism allows them to construct a less heterogeneous audience. We are not suggesting that the degree of transnationalism is the only factor in the differences in audience construction between the two organizations. Groups are complex, and such things as internal dynamics, individual personalities, finances, local community contexts, and leader preferences undoubtedly influence decisions about the construction of audience in general and construction of audience on web sites in particular. However, the results of this study do suggest that the degree of transnational activity affects both the construction of ethnicity and the positioning of audience in ethnicity-related activities represented on the Web.
Finally, this case study provides strong support for making a serious effort to include historical and material circumstances in academic considerations of identity. Appadurai (1991) points out that constructions of the past can be as important as ideas about the future. Though he advises being cautious not to assume that tracing backwards will lead to some sort of “cultural bedrock” (p. 208), he does believe that the more we go into the past, the more local it becomes (p. 208). It should be noted that localizing factors are always present in case studies, and even on the World Wide Web, these can sometimes outweigh the disconnecting and globalizing influences of the medium (Wheeler, 1998), as they do in the web sites we examined for this study. The San Jose Taiko and Portland Taiko web sites form their ethnic identities in the face of multiple, potentially contending conceptions and different trajectories of needs. Despite the fact that there are many similarities between the groups and their web sites, the identities constructed can, as we have seen, vary significantly from situated case to situated case. This suggests a need for more case studies paying close attention to the particularity of web sites in relationship to their contexts. If we do this we will find that multiple identity factors move against each other in distinctive patterns. When tracing those patterns, materiality and history are not to be ignored.
 There is some
contention over whether taiko as currently performed owes its inception to
Web pages examined for San Jose Taiko were San Jose
Taiko/About San Jose Taiko (n.d.), San Jose Taiko/History
and Tradition (n.d.), San Jose Taiko/San Jose Taiko -
Welcome! (n.d.), San Jose Taiko/San Jose Taiko – Features
(n.d.), and San Jose Taiko/San Jose Taiko – Calendar
of Events (n.d.). Web pages examined for Portland Taiko were Portland
Taiko/Education (n.d.), Portland Taiko/Local Performances
(n.d.), Portland Taiko/Performance Programs (n.d.),
We got the idea for the name of this essay from what we perceived to
be the most-linked non-performance-group site in the
It should also be noted that the national flag of
Part of the experience of being in a
Yoshiaki Oi, founder and teacher of
 Taiko as an art form has the potential of challenging stereotypes about Japanese Americans. The sheer muscularity of the performances, a legacy from martial arts, “confronts and subverts dominant racial stereotypes of Asians and Asian Americans as subservient or quiet” (Yoon, 2001). And while the performances are exotic in that they employ visual elements like Japanese characters and Asian-inspired costumes, they hardly match up with the emasculated, seductive, languorous leitmotifs of “Japonisme,” the Japanese-inflected version of the orientalism stereotype (Lee, 1999) popular in the early decades of the 20th century. Portland Taiko’s photos do indeed suggest the possibility that taiko is “anything but quiet” (Fromartz, 1998). In addition, their consistent featuring of women fulfilling potent and demanding positions within the group is a reminder that women — in this case, Asian American women — need not be self-effacing. This reinforces Wong’s (2000) conclusions that women in taiko performance redefine conceptions of Asian American womanhood.
 The only place this web page uses a font with such a characteristic is one of the drop caps in their text.
 The name for Portland Taiko’s children’s group, “tanuki [badger],” is spelled in English characters.
 Portland Taiko’s web site bills the group as a “multi-ethnic Asian American drumming group,” a construction of ethnicity open to multiple interpretations. Does “multi-ethnic Asian American” mean that there are different ethnicities present, but that all are Asian American? Because the photographs show the presence of a white American, it seems more likely that “multi-ethnic” means that people who designate themselves variously ethnically combine to make the group, and that “Asian American” is a different modifier entirely, one that applies to the group as a whole.
 Model minorities are cooperative, conforming, and well-behaved, and (consequently, it is sometimes assumed), economically successful though “relatively powerless, and limited to specific occupations that are fairly lucrative but that place them in a buffer between the masses and the elite” (Takahashi, 1997, p. 5). The model minority image is one that a number of Asian activists and scholars have found, and continue to find, offensive and constrictive (Lee, 1999; Locke, 1998; O’Brien & Fugita, 1991).
 The Japanese internment, a historical landmark of enormous resonance, was remarkable for the emotional trauma and loss of economic and social infrastructure it induced (O’Brien & Fugita, 1991). Asai (1995) and Lornell & Rasmussen (1997) disagree respectively on whether the internment fostered or inhibited traditional group art forms. Taiko drums, at this period, were still part of multi-instrumental musical ensembles performing in both religious and social venues.
With the rise of the civil rights movement, ethnicity became “institutionalized”
(Espiritu, 1992, p. 12). The relationship between ethnic
designation and law became increasingly important for receiving economic and
political benefits, an effect that reinforced the importance of large-scale
minority categories such as “African-American” and “Asian-American.” Pan-ethnic
and pan-Asian activities developed as a way to gain political power as the civil
rights movement brought together groups of people in the
Taiko Performing Group Web Sites
Appadurai, A. (1991). Global
ethnoscapes: Notes and queries for a transnational anthropology. In R. Fox
(Ed.), Recapturing anthropology: Working
in the present (pp. 191-210).
Asai, S. M. (1995). Transformations of tradition: Three generations of Japanese American music making. The Musical Quarterly, 79(3), 429-453.
Buroway, M. (2000). Grounding
globalization. In M. Buroway, J. Blum, S. George, Z. Gille, T. Gowan, L. Haney,
M. Klawiter, S. Lopez, S. Riain, & M. Thayer (Eds.), Global ethnography: Forces, connections, and imaginations in a
postmodern world (pp. 325-349).
Espiritu, Y. L. (1992). Asian American panethnicity.
Faist, T. (1999). Developing
transnational social spaces: The Turkish-German example. In L. Pries (Ed.), Migration and transnational social spaces
Fernbank, J. (1999). There is a there
there: Notes toward a definition of
cybercommunity. In S. Jones (Ed.), Doing internet research: Critical issues and methods for examining the
net (pp. 203-220).
Fromartz, S. (1998). Anything but quiet. Natural History, 107(2), 44-49.
Ivie, R.L. (2000), Metaphor and the
rhetorical invention of Cold War “idealists.” In C. Burghchart (Ed.),
Jones, S. (1999). Preface. In S. Jones
(Ed.), Doing internet research:
Critical issues and methods for examining the net (pp. ix-xiv).
Katriel, T., & Philipsen, G. (1981). “What we need is communication”: “Communication” as a cultural category in some American speech. Communication Monographs, 48, 302-317.
Kodo (n.d.). Retrieved
Lee, R. G. (1999). Orientals: Asian Americans in popular culture.
Locke, D. C. (1998). Increasing
multicultural understanding: A comprehensive model.
Lornell, K., & Rasmussen, A. K.
(1997). Music and community in
Mahler, S. J., & Pessar, P. R. (2001). Gendered geographies of power: Analyzing gender across transnational spaces. Identities 7(4), 441-459.
Mathews, G. (2000). Global
culture/individual identity: Searching for home in the cultural supermarket.
Mitra, A. (1999). Characteristics of the
WWW text: Tracing discursive strategies. Journal of Computer-Mediated
Communication, 5 (1). Retrieved
Mitra, A., & Cohen, E.
(1999). Analyzing the web: Directions
and challenges. In S. Jones (Ed.), Doing internet research: Critical issues and methods for examining the
net (pp. 179-202).
Nadamitsu, Y., Chen, L., & Friedrich,
G. (2001). Similar or different? The Chinese experience of Japanese culture. In
M. J. Collier (Ed.), Constituting
cultural difference through discourse (pp. 158-188).
O’Brien, D. J., & Fugita, Stephen
S. (1991). The Japanese American
Philipsen, G. (2000). Permission to speak the discourse of difference: A case study. Research on Language and Social Interaction, 33, 213-234.
Sellers-Young, B. (1993).
Teaching personality with gracefulness: The transmission of Japanese cultural
values through Japanese dance theatre.
Sosnoski, J. J. (1999). Configuring
as a mode of rhetorical analysis. In S. Jones (Ed.), Doing internet
research: Critical issues and methods
for examining the net (pp. 127-143).
Stokes, M. (1994). Ethnicity, identity,
and music: The musical construction of place.
Takahashi, J. (1997). Nisei/Sansei:
Shifting Japanese American identities and politics.
Wheeler, D. L. (1998). Global culture
or culture clash: New information technologies in the Islamic world – A view
Wong, D. (2000). Taiko and the Asian/American Body: Drums, Rising Sun,and the question of gender. The World of Music, 42(3), 67-78.
Yoon, P. J.-C (2001). “She’s really becomes Japanese now!” Taiko drumming and Asian American identifications. American Music, 19 (4), 417-438.
Copyright 2004 Communication Institute for Online Scholarship, Inc.
This file may not be publicly distributed or reproduced without written permission of the Communication Institute for Online Scholarship,
P.O. Box 57, Rotterdam Jct., NY 12150 USA (phone: 518-887-2443).