Oral Histories

Interview of Johnny Mori

Taiko drummer for the jazz-fusion band Hiroshima.
Traditional Asian Arts in Southern California
Asian American History
Biographical Note:
Taiko drummer for the jazz-fusion band Hiroshima.
Cline, Alex
Mori, Johnny
Persons Present:
Mori and Cline.
Place Conducted:
Aratani Japan America Theatre in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles, California.
Supporting Documents:
Records relating to the interview are located in the office of the UCLA Library’s Center for Oral History Research.
Interviewer Background and Preparation:
The interview was conducted by Alex Cline, UCLA Library Center for Oral History Research. Cline has spent a considerable amount of his career as a jazz drummer/musician in Los Angeles.
Processing of Interview:
The transcript is a verbatim transcription of the recording. It was transcribed by a professional transcribing agency using a list of proper names and specialized terminology supplied by the interviewer. Mori was then given an opportunity to review the transcript but made no corrections or additions.
9 hrs.
Regents of the University of California, UCLA Library.
Series Statement:
The Traditional Asian Arts in Southern California series focuses on both immigrants and second- or third-generation Asian Americans who have continued East Asian or Southeast Asian musical, dance, and performance traditions in Southern California. Some preserved their art form by adhering to the traditional forms of their disciplines, while others incorporated elements from Western arts and culture.
Father’s family background—Father, a Japanese immigrant, moves from Southern California to Salt Lake City, where Mori was born—Mother’s family background—Her family is relocated to internment camps during World War II—She goes to Salt Lake City after the war, where she marries Mori’s father, and then the family moves back to Los Angeles—Mori’s father becomes a gardener—Los Angeles neighborhoods where many Japanese citizens settled after the war—Mori’s diverse neighborhood near La Brea Avenue and Washington Boulevard—Japanese language school—One of Mori’s uncles helps found a Japanese American youth baseball league—Pockets of large Japanese American populations around Southern California during the 1950s and ‘60s—The effort to retain Japanese culture in Mori’s household—Early exposure to music—Travel to Buddhist churches around the area for Obon and other important annual festivals—Racial dynamics at school while growing up—The local culture and organizations of Japanese gardeners to which Mori’s father belonged—The many activities which Mori engaged in with other Japanese Americans around the area—The beginnings of the raising of Mori’s consciousness regarding his racial identity and the recent history of Japanese Americans—He surveys his options as he is faced with the possibility of being drafted and sent to serve in the Vietnam War—After considerable effort, he is awarded conscientious objector status as a Buddhist, which leads to his working for the nonprofit Amerasia Bookstore in Little Tokyo—He is introduced to the Japanese taiko drumming tradition by his Buddhist minister, Reverend Masuo Kodani (Reverend Mas).
Ideas Mori entertained as to what he might do after graduating from Los Angeles High School—Takes classes in dental technology and golf, among other subjects, at Los Angeles City College—Geographical and racial distinctions that defined the social circles at Mori’s high school—Bowling as a common activity among the Los Angeles area’s Japanese American community—Dances with live music in the community during the early seventies—Social situations in which young Japanese American men could meet young Japanese American women from around the area—Historical reasons for the introduction of Western elements into the Japanese community’s music—The gradual re-emergence of traditional Japanese art forms in the community after World War II—Racial issues surrounding the dating of non-Japanese girls in high school—Economic factors that defined and affected students from the African American and other minority communities at the high schools around Mori’s neighborhood—Changes in the demographics of his old neighborhood—Japanese movie theaters around L.A. that Mori frequented—Influential Japanese films—The situation for teachers of traditional Japanese arts in the L.A. area—Ways through which Mori’s socio-political consciousness began to be raised regarding Japanese American history—Political and ethical issues he examined in relation to his possibly being drafted into the Vietnam War—His watershed conversation with his parents about his decision to be a conscientious objector—The genesis of the Amerasia Bookstore—The bookstore provides service to the then burgeoning new field of Asian American studies—Redevelopment of Little Tokyo beginning in the 1970s—The bookstore relocates twice to keep up with the redevelopment of Little Tokyo—Mori’s officially mandated service time with the nonprofit organization ends quickly, but he remains with the bookstore throughout its existence.
Mori’s involvement, in conjunction with the Young Buddhists Association of the Buddhist Churches of American, in the formation of Concerned American Buddhists as a forum for discussing socio-political issues in the early seventies—Networking with other socially concerned Asian Americans around the country—His connection to Don Nakanishi and Amerasia Journal—The influence of his Buddhist involvement on his conduct during the late sixties and early seventies—The problem of barbiturate use among youth in the Asian American community during the seventies—Confusion about traditional gender roles and gender issues in Japanese American families after the internment during World War II—History of Senshin Buddhist Church and the presence of non-Japanese members in its congregation—How Reverend Mas created controversy by changing the Sunday service at Senshin in the seventies—Reverend Mas founds the nonprofit organization Kinnara to create a venue for more traditional Japanese Jodo Shinshu rituals and practices, beginning with chanting—Zen-based Kinnara retreats in San Luis Obispo—The playing of gagaku music begins as part of Kinnara’s activities--Early efforts by Kinnara members to learn taiko drumming—Kinnara’s style of teaching taiko—Mori’s first experience attempting to play gagaku music with Kinnara under Suwahara Togi-sensei—Negative experience in a junior high school orchestra class ends Mori’s early interest in playing music.
Taiko playing for Obon festivals at Senshin before the taiko ensemble there officially began—Sources from which the Senshin Taiko group derived its material in its early days—The taiko group begins making its own taiko drums out of oak wine barrels—Trial and error regarding making drums and fitting them with skins—Kinnara Gagaku plays in Denver and Ogden, Utah, in 1977, which inspires the formation of taiko groups in both cities—Mark Niyoshi begins making taiko drums from scratch in the 1970s—Drummer Kenny Endo begins playing with Kinnara in the early seventies—When in the Bay Area in 1974, Mori meets Seiji Tanaka through Endo and experiences the rigorous training method employed by Tanaka at the San Francisco Taiko Dojo—Tanaka shows Mori patterns and stances—Mori is invited to play with Tanaka on some of his taiko performances in L.A.—Tanaka is disappointed with Kinnara Taiko's approach and asks them not to use the term “taiko” in connection with their work—After much consideration, Kinnara decides to continue to use the term “taiko,” causing a prolonged disconnect between the two taiko groups—Endo studies formally in Japan and shares much of what he learns there with American taiko practitioners—Senshin provides practice space for Japanese taiko group Ondeko-Za during the group’s first tour and appearance in L.A.—The impact of Ondeko-Za’s performance on Mori and Kinnara Taiko—Two years after Ondeko-Za’s L.A. debut, Kinnara plays for them while hosting them again—The influence American taiko groups ultimately had on Ondeko-Za and its offshoot/successor, Kodo—The openness with which Kodo approaches its work—The Nippon Taiko Federation officially oversees accreditation of taiko teaching and performance in Japan—How Kinnara Taiko first formulated its physical approach to playing taiko—Eclectic sources of inspiration for Kinnara's taiko movements—Instruction and guidance Kinnara sometimes received from Kodo.
How and when Mori met his wife, Wendy Sahara—Wendy’s activities in the Japanese American community in Los Angeles—Wendy’s and her mother’s interest in Kinnara and its annual retreats—Mori and Sahara marry in 1980 and have their two daughters in 1983 and 1986—Mori’s daughters’ school experience in L.A.—Their college and career choices—The beginning of Mori’s involvement playing taiko drums with Hiroshima—June Kuramoto’s koto playing creates new connections between the Japanese American community in L.A. and traditional Japanese culture—The genesis of Hiroshima—Mori’s first official role in the band comes via a theater production called The Monkey Play—Hiroshima receives a Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (CETA) grant through the Brockman Gallery that allows them to rehearse every day and perform at public venues all over L.A.—Wayne Henderson advocates for the band, ultimately succeeding in helping them get a record deal with Arista Records—The band’s brief encounter with producer Rick James—Hiroshima moves to Epic Records, where the band records and releases a number of records during the 1980s—The band’s first concert outside California at Howard University—Mori establishes Japanese Festival Sounds with George Abe in order to perform and promote Japanese musical forms to diverse audiences—His involvement with the Music Center on Tour leads to the mounting of Hiroshima’s autobiographical theater production Sansei at the Mark Taper Forum in 1989—The success of the show and of the album the band recorded and released the same year—The band signs with Qwest Records and other labels—Mori’s feelings about recent changes in the music business.
The development of Hiroshima’s sound and how taiko fits into it—Artists abroad playing somewhat similar music to Hiroshima’s had limited access to the American market—Hiroshima’s albums and their distinctive cover concepts—The band’s record companies’ difficulty in identifying the music’s appropriate genre—Awareness of Hiroshima’s music among contemporary Japanese and world music artists—Japanese percussionists Katara Kisaku and Kiyohika Semba—The band’s relatively “old school” approach to its business affairs—The American music business’s inability to reach the young Asian American audience—Hiroshima’s role as a musical ambassador of L.A.’s Japanese American community—The constancy and consistency of Kinnara Taiko and its philosophy over its forty years in L.A.—The future of Kinnara—The types of people who are attracted to Kinnara—The remarkable variety of individuals participating in Kinnara Gagaku—Mori’s view of his place in the American taiko community—Current taiko groups in colleges and around the nation—Mori creates Japanese Festival Sounds to present traditional Japanese music to schools during the work week—Japanese Festival Sounds is selected as a Music Center on Tour act in the early 1980s—Mori quickly turns Japanese Festival Sounds into a professional taiko group—Film soundtracks on which Mori played—Japanese Festival Sounds’ current activities—How Mori’s activism on behalf of the community in Little Tokyo in the 1970s led to his official involvement with the Japanese American Community and Cultural Center—He is eventually asked to be on staff at the Japan America Theater as a co-producer while still booking and touring with Hiroshima and working with Japanese Festival Sounds—Situation that ultimately led to Mori’s retirement from Hiroshima in 2003 and to his position as general manager at the Japan America Theater—His reflections on his efforts to increase the profile of Asian American cultural contributions to contemporary American society—Building a solid cultural foundation for younger Japanese Americans.