History of Portland’s Mochitsuki Celebration

Written by Valerie Otani

In 1995, Portland Taiko founders Ann Ishimaru and Zack Semke attended a traditional mochi pounding gathering in Washington. They were impressed with the way that gathering to pound mochi built a sense of community and the connection to cultural traditions. Portland needed a mochitsuki. They began planning, applied for a legacy grant from the Japanese American Citizens’ League and Portland Taiko created the first community mochitsuki in the basement of the Oregon Buddhist Temple in conjunction with the JACL New Year’s party in January of 1996.

Despite the low ceilings, community members were able to take turns at swinging the heavy wooden mallet (kine) and pound the steamed sweet rice cradled in a basin (usu) made from a carved tree trunk. Older men stepped up and, with the stroke of the kine, reminded us of the athletic young men they had once been. Elders shared stories, Portland Taiko played drums and the room was so crowded that people waiting outside could only enter when someone left.

It was clear that Mochitsuki was a powerful way of drawing the community together. The symbolism of creating a cohesive dough from many separate grains of rice was an inspiration.

With the overflow crowd at the first Mochitsuki, Portland Taiko moved the event to Multnomah Art Center for the next 3 years, then to Portland State University and Portland Community College Sylvania Campus before coming to the Scottish Rite Center in 2010 and drawing attendance of over 2000 people. By the second year, Portland Taiko joined with JACL and Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center to plan and present the event, making it a way for the different organizations to build stronger connections by working together. The Konko Church of Portland has long supplied the mochi at the heart of the celebration, and has become a presenter as well.

Each change of venue was motivated by a search for more space for the growing number of community organizations who wanted to participate. The sponsors of Mochitsuki viewed the event as a way to bring the community together and educate the larger community. Small organizations could reach new audiences and have a fundraiser, benefitting from the large crowds. Having a high quality theater space has been a requirement. The storytelling of Robert Kikuchi-Yngojo is a tradition of Mochitsuki, as is the powerful drumming of Portland Taiko.

More than two dozen community organizations and over a hundred volunteers come together for this unique celebration. The goal of Mochitsuki is to keep our traditions alive and vital by sharing rich cultural experiences. We want you to experience the joy of celebrating community while enjoying the great foods, performers and resources of the Japanese American community.