The drums, the language barrier, and other things I attacked in Japan

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Graphic by Kayla Payne / The Flat Hat

The most valuable thing I did in Japan was attempt to be a normal college student.

They encouraged us “ryuugakusei” (exchange students) to join clubs on campus, as many Japanese students enjoyed club activities after class, a range of “bu” (clubs), “saakuru” (circles) and “ai” (interest groups). Used to being in four to seven clubs at a time at the College of William and Mary, I was shocked at the notion that most students in Japan would only engage in one. Regardless, in spite of hardly being over my jet lag, I looked up the meeting dates and location for my college’s “wadaiko” circle, excited at the prospect of trying Japanese traditional drumming. I didn’t even begin to feel nervous until I found myself in front of the door of their meeting room, alone.

I slipped into a chair and kept my eyes down as the students filed in, but it wasn’t long before they noticed me.

“Wadaiko saakuru ni hairasete kurete onegaishimasu,” is kind of what I asked, growing red, 20 perfect strangers staring at me. I had prepared what I would say in the typical “ryuugakusei” style, with Google translate and a bit of practice. “Please let me join Wadaiko Circle,” I had rehearsed dutifully. “I don’t know anything about drums, but I’ve played plenty of other instruments, I’ve got rhythm, I can read music. Even though my Japanese isn’t so good, I’ll try really hard!” But when you’re trying to apply a language you’ve only spoken in classrooms to everyday life, nothing ever really goes according to plan. What came out was more like a broken, miserable plea for assistance.

“I’m not fluent,” I said, without even forming the words.

The club president seemed to take pity on me, giving me her contact information along with a number of sentences that may as well have hit me in the face and bounced off. One thing I did understand, though. “Come back on Monday.”

I could hear laughter as I left that didn’t feel imagined.

I didn’t know whether to count it as a failure or a success. I had an invitation to return, but I’d just made a fool of myself in front of the people I had been desperate to impress. I thought it over briefly, but swiftly decided that the next logical step in my journey was to run off to the English learning center and sob amongst copies of “English Conversation Starters” and “100 Things to Do in America.” I was just another one of these books to this place, anyway, I thought bitterly, unfairly.

Oddly enough, the language barrier (or “kotoba no kabe” — “word wall,” in Japanese) wasn’t something I’d considered much when I was hyping myself up about joining drum club. I’d wanted to play “wadaiko” since high school, back when I was only just learning my “konnichiwas” and “sayounaras,” and never in this time did I expect that my first “wadaiko” experience would take place in the country of its origin. And even once I discovered that possibility, I’d expected to have a much easier time of it; I’d always done pretty well in Japanese class, but here, my weak points were instantly red-hot and relevant. My listening skills were abysmal. I relied on my memory to get by. I wasn’t good at being social. In practical Japanese, there was no such thing as an easy A. But I had convinced myself it wouldn’t matter. To me, words were simply a road block standing between me and the music.

And why let a glaring lack of communication skills stop me from making new friends and playing exciting new instruments? It was just another one of those instances that if I was going to learn, I was going to have to get used to messing up. Often. Publicly.

So I attended the first rehearsal of the semester. The first 30 minutes of practice were spent setting up the drums; the tiny “shimedaiko,” the numerous “nagado,” the gigantic “oodaiko,” the hanging “okedo,” their various stands and legs, some of them taped to the ground to prevent them from running away once the floor began to vibrate. I was lent a pair of “bachi,” the thick, cylindrical wooden drumsticks that are used to play “wadaiko” — much heavier duty than the regular kind, to prevent breakage during the swift, powerful movements used to play. Not that I needed such indestructible-looking drumsticks; my initial hits were weak, my arms loopy. I was used to dealing with my piccolo; here, one drumstick weighed more than that entire instrument, and it needed to be swung with a good deal of force to create the desired sound.

A couple of people introduced themselves to me immediately. One guy, a first year who had already been playing for a semester, spoke English pretty well, and it glued me to his side. Luckily, he didn’t mind. The president introduced me to those who hadn’t been around to witness my embarrassing first meeting, I said what I hoped was the proper stock politeness phrase (it seemed to work), and they went around the room and told me their names. In my nervousness, none of them really stuck the first time around (which was terrible, since we were using a language that generally uses first names instead of the word “you”), but I swore to myself I’d get them all as soon as I could. Another level of complication layered nicely on top: honorifics. I wasn’t sure who was my senior (in terms of skill level, I suppose, everyone was), so I decided to simply address everyone with the suffix “san” until I knew them better. That seemed to be what they were doing with me. The entire group had a name, too — “Kagura.”

Soon, mercifully, I was forgotten, and we began to play — simple warmups at first. Half notes, quarter notes, eighth notes — this I could do; it was what I was comfortable with. The reverberating sound of my sticks connecting with the drum was extremely satisfying; it was louder than any instrument I’d ever played before. I could put all of my power into it. I didn’t have to be afraid of breaking my sticks. In short, I enjoyed the sounds and sensations of playing the drums quite a lot. Then we launched into a more complicated piece (this, I learned later, was also a warmup). I sat on the floor, and the room exploded as “bachi” hit “taiko.”

It was thrilling to watch; the Japanese phrase for “play the drums,” “taiko wo tataku,” sounds deceptively similar to “taiko wo tatakau” or “attack the drums,” and it’s a mistake I made over and over again. It made perfect sense to me. The overpowering sound of the drums expands to fill the entire room. The ground vibrates. The walls shake. The players shout. It rattles your eardrums. And it’s hard not to grin like a maniac; even just sharing the room with the sounds of “wadaiko” is a powerful feeling.

At the end of rehearsal, I knew that I was hooked. But I also knew that my Japanese ability wasn’t going to be enough to carry me through this on my own. So I did what, as someone from a music background, I knew I could do — I stopped stressing about communication and focused on becoming the greatest “wadaiko” player I could become in three months. After learning the basics from the club’s exec members, I went home to my dorm room, picked up two pencils, and practiced and practiced and practiced. One song turned into two. Two songs turned into five. And eventually, a fly-on-the-wall exchange student turned into a club member.

Because I focused my energy on learning to play, the learning-the-language part of the experience came a little more naturally after those first couple of meetings. I still struggled to hold a conversation, but the more I showed up, the more I learned. I learned “bend your knees” and “hit harder” and “is there sheet music posted in the Google doc?” I learned what to call each drum, each part of the uniform. Best of all, I learned people’s names.

Since I’d memorized a handful of songs by then, I was allowed to attend events with the group and perform with them in front of audiences. I walked miles into Mitaka to purchase “jikatabi,” the shoes I needed to perform in; special shoes, with separated toes. “Ninja shoes,” according to the souvenir sellers in Asakusa. I wore these ninja shoes on the train to my first performance, and was the only one in the group that showed up wearing them.

“Sasu ga, Keito,” a first year said, not unkindly. “As expected.”

“Can’t argue with him there,” I remember thinking. “Clearly I still have much to learn.”

I performed a handful of times with Kagura. First, at a local festival in an elementary school gym. I was the only foreigner in the room, a feeling I had started to become familiar with by then. The very same day, we played in the middle of the street at the Chiba Wadaiko Festa, a festival featuring countless drum circles with a great range of abilities, dance groups and giant mascot costumes, and a ton of delicious street food. A week later, I got to wear the full uniform for the full time, donning a green “happi,” red third-year “hachimaki” headband, and “tekkou” gauntlets around my wrists, as I played at the school festival in front of all my “ryuugakusei” friends. Finally, I played at a school assembly for a visiting speaker, an athlete from the U.S. Olympic Team. I wonder if she noticed a fellow American in the midst of the university’s cultural demonstration.

I loved every minute of it. It didn’t matter who was in the audience, if I stuck out, if I messed up; when you’re playing “wadaiko,” there is simply nothing else happening. Just you and your friends and the drums beneath your sticks. And I loved spending time with my friends in Kagura. Japanese club culture tends toward a lot of seriously tight-knit groups, so I was with them all the time, practicing, performing, sharing new experiences and just generally having a good time. Partway through the semester I had started hanging out with a group of freshmen outside of club hours. Sometimes, I’d have entire days when I wouldn’t use English at all. A common lament among the exchange students was that our lack of vocabulary made us very boring conversationalists in Japanese, so I was shocked to have made such good friends during such a short time. And in turn, my friendships helped me play. I had new people to ask for help, to practice with. It got to the point where I arguably cared about “wadaiko” circle more than any of my coursework; I was learning more about Japan among Kagura than I ever did in the classroom.

But unfortunately, it couldn’t last forever. The entire group was quite aware that I was leaving soon, but none more than myself. After my final Monday night practice, I stood up in front of the group and read out the message I’d been editing for days, thanking them for sharing their music with me, for including me, for being patient when I didn’t understand, and above all, for being my friends. Later in the week, we got completely smashed and sang karaoke at the year-end party. Later still, they gave me a book of thank you notes from each of the members, a sendoff normally reserved for third-years “graduating” from the club, as students were expected to begin job searching in their final year of university.

Needless to say, most of the tears I shed over the return to my home country were because of my friends in Kagura.

I’ve been back in America for about a month now — my blisters have completely faded, and my “bachi” have a home in my bedroom but no “nagado” to smack. So far away from the life I left behind back in Chiba, sometimes I have to convince myself that I didn’t make it all up myself. But I’m left with such clear memories, such treasured experiences, ones I’ll carry with me for the rest of my life. I learned how to navigate life in a new country, to communicate without using English, to fail and fail and fail (and fail) without getting discouraged.

“When you hit this pose, what animal do you think you’re supposed to be?” the visiting instructor asks me as he fixes my position. It takes me a hot second to translate. I’ve been working on this song for two months, I realize, and I haven’t ever thought twice about it.

“Eee, wakannai,” I admit that I don’t know, and hear laughter around me. Uh oh, it’s clueless foreigner time again.

“It’s the name of the song.” Clearly having overestimated my Japanese abilities, the instructor looks kind of apologetic now.

Oh. The song is called “Shishi.” What does that mean? Why didn’t I ever google it? It’s probably just one of the many wildly average everyday words that I don’t understand because I have the Lexile level of a Japanese kindergartener.

“Dragon,” I guess.

“It means ‘lion,’” he says, resigned. More giggling. Thanks, guys.

At the beginning of the year, I could’ve been reduced to tears by such an interaction. There were times during rehearsal when I felt hopeless, watching the group perform this very piece, this “shishi,” thinking I’d never be able to play it alongside them. But there I was. Coming to Japan for the semester made it abundantly clear that my language skills have a very long way to go. But I know that I am fluent in other ways.

So I shrug it off. I tighten my grip on my “bachi,” widen my stance. With my arms, I form a pair of hungry jaws, and when I start to play, my entire body roars.