To the Beat of a Group Drum: An In-depth look at Stephanie Nakamae

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By Katrina Yentch (reported for advanced reporting [LJ 100] Winter 2014)

Growing up as a 4th generation Japanese American, UCI junior Stephanie Nakamae did not realize that her passion for the arts and her cultural roots would later tie together in college.

Everything about Steph is welcoming and optimistic, despite the fact that she’s just spent her day running from work as a graphic designer for Caplee Corporation to her arts classes to a Jodaiko fundraiser. Her smile is warm, enormous, and her voice exclaims pure excitement as her pitch rises and falls.

Despite her crazy schedule, Stephanie is happy where she is. Stephanie Nakamae is increasingly involved in the arts at UC Irvine, and more specifically Jodaiko.

Jodaiko, Japanese for “passionate drumming” is an extension of Tomo No Kai, the Japanese culture club on campus. More specifically, it is an extension for taiko, the ancient Japanese art of traditional drumming and percussion. The Chinese and Koreans introduced Taiko to Japan as early as 300-600 CE.

Nakamae further explains taiko: “[it is] the Japanese ancient art of drumming that they’ve used for centuries, [but it is for] artistic expression now.”

Nowadays, modern taiko has seen much change.

“Taiko is very progressive. It’s starting to turn more into a performance. Before it was used way back in the day to pump up everybody before war! They’re really modernizing it now and they have all these professional groups, [like] Taiko Project in LA and San Jose Taiko. They’ve performed with [hip hop group] Bangerz, and it’s really progressive.”

Although Stephanie’s involvement as a performer and a member of the publicity chair with Jodaiko traces back three years (since the beginning of her freshman year), Jodaiko originally formed in 1992 by two UCI students David Shiwota and Peggy Kamon as an effort to showcase different talents at Tomo No Kai’s culture night. To this day it remains a strong yet slightly unknown presence in the UC Irvine community.

Taiko groups also span toward other UC campuses as well, like UCLA and UCSB.

Stephanie didn’t come to UCI with the original intention of joining Tomo no Kai, but she remembers, “My friends from temple recommended it to me because it’s very similar to the [Buddhist] youth group in [Japantown in] San Jose, which I saw similarities for sure later on.”

Stephanie also grew up watching taiko drum performances in her hometown of San Jose, CA. It’s no surprise that she would find herself becoming a part of the group later on.

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“I grew up watching San Jose Taiko, and I’d get really jazzed up after watching their performances. It was so much fun to watch. One of my friends who was a member at the time told me to come out [my freshman year].”

Watching it obviously didn’t mean she’d start out fantastic at it.

“I may not be the best at beats and I’m not the strongest person out there, but it looked like fun. So I tried it and I was pretty bad at it but I learned. Mostly everybody comes in without experience, and I grew to love it. When you start playing taiko you get exponentially better after your first year.”

After doing her first year of Jodaiko, Stephanie certainly found herself immersed in it, and saw the demands that came with such a unique and crafted art form.

“Sometimes I struggle with the time commitment. Our practices are Tuesdays and Fridays for four hours. It’s like joining a team AND doing performances. They’re not mandatory but high advised, and fun too. We do on campus events, weddings…Vietnamese people love us.”

Despite the bright splash of colors and the motivation that accompanies the loud and proud beats of taiko performances, Stephanie’s favorite part about Jodaiko is the people she drums alongside with.

“My generation 20 (the group who joined the same year as her) has gotten so close, [even] more so than previous years. As a freshman you just wanna make friends with everyone and we all happened to be freshmen in our year too. We’ve had so many late nights. We do midnight Denny’s on Valentine’s Day, and we were just ALWAYS hanging out the first year.”

As their passions for taiko grew stronger, their academic interests changed too.

“We were all biology and science majors and ended up switching into arts and other majors actually.”

This led to Stephanie’s recent switch into the Arts major at UCI, which wasn’t a coincidence, considering her extensive involvement with musical art forms and tangible art also.

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“When I was little, I always loved drawing. I always drew everywhere. I put it on the backburner for the first two years of college and it was really sad because that’s what I always associated myself with. I didn’t rekindle that until the end of sophomore year. I just realized after taking some lower div art classes I was like, ‘wow. I can totally see myself in this major and walking around Mesa Court.’”

Currently, Stephanie finds herself immersed in the arts at UC Irvine everywhere. From her job as a graphic designer at Caplee Corporation (a company that specializes in custom manufactured goods) to taiko to her major itself. She finds crossovers on a regular basis.

“Both of them (jodaiko and graphic arts) are pretty similar and artsy. Not very many people here do either. (She references first the minimal amount of arts majors at UCI in general, and then references the large portion of dance and drama majors in the Clair Trevor School of the Arts). [Whenever I say I’m in taiko], I have to explain often to somebody what it is if they’re not familiar with it. I think that in itself makes it a really interesting art form.”

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