As Rent Nearly Triples, San Francisco Taiko Dojo Searches for Hope—and New Space

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Multiple drummers and large drums on stage
A 2017 San Francisco Taiko Dojo performance in Colorado.  (San Francisco Taiko Dojo)

For over 50 years, San Francisco Taiko Dojo has nurtured a love and appreciation for the traditional Japanese art form in the heart of the city’s Japantown district. But now, the dojo founded in 1968 by Grandmaster Seiichi Tanaka faces an uncertain future as new landlords have issued a steep rent increase that’s nearly triple the current studio rent, according to the dojo’s manager.

Once echoing with the strong rhythmic pounding of drums, San Francisco Taiko Dojo’s studio space now sits silent, its walls turning barren as members struggle to pack up years of equipment, including a collection of over 100 drums of varying sizes.

“I mean, we moved a lot of stuff and it’s barely made a dent,” says Ryuma Tanaka, Grandmaster Tanaka’s son and the dojo's general manager.

As the first taiko group established in the United States, San Francisco Taiko Dojo was also the first to allow women to drum alongside men, and to admit non-Japanese members. Its traditional drum performances are a standby of festivals in Japantown and the performing arts in the Bay Area.

A San Francisco Taiko Dojo performance in 1985. (San Francisco Taiko Dojo)

When Ryuma received a letter about the rent increase in May, he initially kept the news a secret from his father and other dojo members. He ‘fought really hard’ for the lease to be extended until August to allow for dojo members to practice for an upcoming memorial concert in Los Angeles’ Little Tokyo. Thinking it might be the group’s last performance, Ryuma stayed quiet about the rent increase, hoping members would be able to fully showcase their passion and skills to a larger audience outside of the Bay Area.

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“I wanted them to see San Francisco Taiko Dojo at its best,” says Ryuma, who worried that the news “would just destroy everyone's spirit, everyone's morale.”

A day after the show, Ryuma broke the news to his dojo members and father. While the conversations were difficult, they were not altogether new. In the past two years, the dojo had already faced several threats of closure due to the pandemic. While each incident presented new struggles, they were able to remain afloat each time. This time, however, the dojo must relocate or shut down permanently.

These days, Ryuma is frantically searching for a new space for the dojo to relocate to. He’s looked into spaces in Hunters Point, Richmond, Vallejo and ‘the whole San Mateo County.’ Storage space isn’t the only issue—there’s also sound. Taiko drumming is loud, and Ryuma says that they are not able to move into areas close to residential neighborhoods for fear of noise complaints.

At times, Ryuma says, the stress has been paralyzing, like ‘watching a tsunami on its way over’ but not being able to do anything to stop it. Dejected by these difficulties and the lack of support provided to arts, Ryuma turned towards his community.

The dojo began a GoFundMe campaign on Aug. 12, with an initial goal of $50,000. They surpassed this goal in four days and, as of Aug. 18, have received over 500 donations and raised over $64,707. More importantly, Ryuma says, the outpouring of supportive texts, phone calls and emails have been ‘nonstop.’

“I want people to know our situation,” says Ryuma. “Even if you don’t get the big magical rescue—some Hollywood ending.”