Erika Ninoyu is an accomplished percussionist who specializes in the traditional Japanese form of taiko. She is also a staffer for a representative in the US Congress. Ninoyu recently spoke to Roll Call about her background and the ways in which she uses music to help her perform her duties in the seemingly disparate field of lawmaking.
Born in Anchorage, Alaska, to Japanese parents, Ninoyu studied and subsequently taught music in the United States. In 2013 she moved to Japan to play taiko professionally.
“We lived in and trained every day, even on weekends, in an abandoned elementary school building in the mountains of Aichi Prefecture,” Ninoyu recalled. “I ran 9K every morning, cleaned the dojo, cooked for 20 members and staff, repaired costumes and dedicated countless hours to training.”
It was around this time that Ninoyu developed an interest in political activism.
“Growing up, I thought I was both Japanese and American, but for the first time I realized there was something called being Japanese American,” she told Roll Call.
After returning to the US she began working with Japanese American advocacy groups, eventually securing a Congressional fellowship from the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies (APAICS). From there she went on to work in the office of Rep. Grace Meng, a Democrat from New York. She is now vice chairwoman of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.
Ninoyu argues that, in addition to giving her the discipline and work ethic required to succeed in the hyper-competitive atmosphere of Washington, DC, her musical background has other, more specific advantages.
“We’re really in touch with rhythms and what moves people,” she explained. “I think what a musician such as myself brings to policymaking is the creativity and vision to guide these impulses, ideas and expressions.”
Perhaps that’s what the world’s legislatures need: more musicians and less lawyers.