My Journey



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 I was in college and became involved in civil rights did I learn that 120,000 persons of Japanese descent were incarcerated in internment camps during WWII. Why didn't my parents ever speak about their internment experiences while I was growing up? Did this secret have anything to do with their insistence that I "don't rock the boat," "don't bring attention to yourself," and "don't embarrass the family"? 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 many momentous events of the era including the birth of Ethnic Studies and Asian American Studies 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—"If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem." These values became an important part of my belief system.

My college life presented me with new awakenings—intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually. The one event that literally turned my life around was experiencing the visceral performance of taiko (Japanese drums) by the San Francisco Taiko Dojo. I saw a mother and daughter playing together and as powerfully as the men. No separation of gender. Everyone played equally—as One. The vibration and power of the taiko was so transforming that 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 (SJT), which evolved into a world-class performing ensemble of taiko drummers. In 1975, I married Roy Hirabayashi, one of SJT's 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, but collaborative so that we could pool all of our experiences, skills, and resources together. We wanted to create an organization that mirrored the same values for 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 it. To play Japanese taiko respectfully, one would need to live and breathe the Japanese environment and culture. Celebrating this difference, SJT compositions would reflect sights, sounds, and inspirations from growing up in America.

SJT has realized dreams and programs we never would have ever imagined back in the early days. After 38+ years guiding SJT, Roy and I transferred our leadership in July 2011 to the next generation of leaders. Our succession was seamless and done with loving care. Some regard this transition as retirement, but I feel that my work has only just begun.

Preparing for succession was humbling. I had to go deep inside myself to ask, "What is my next step?" I have always felt that taiko is a tool for transformation and peace and I firmly believed that SJT processes and values are a model for peace. Synchronistic events such as the debut of Karen Armstrong's Charter for Compassion, Deepak Chopra's book Peace is the Way, and the Shift Network’s Peace Ambassador Training all guided my focus to be on peace with taiko – TaikoPeace.