Taiko drummers with the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force warming up for a concert at Central Middle School in Anchorage (Photo: Zachariah Hughes – Alaska Public Media)Thursday saw a first-of-a-kind concert in Anchorage.Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force (the country’s Navy) is in Anchorage for four days as part of a training mission. Two ships are anchored in the city’s port. The crew of about 600 has been at sea since April, visiting different countries to promote goodwill. Part of that mission involved a very prestigious concert inside a school gym.Listen nowHundreds of students at Central Middle School near downtown Anchorage filled up the bleachers early Thursday afternoon. They were there for a concert, but several looked perplexed: in front of the band’s normal chairs, microphones, and music stands were stout wooden drums propped on small stands.They were taiko drums, a traditional Japanese percussive instrument.After a brief introduction, the crashing sound of the drums filled the gym, making every surface vibrate. Drummers slammed sticks thicker than broom handles in perfect coordination, circling their arms overhead, and lunging their fists forward every few measures, like martial arts set to a beat.“It’s energetic, almost like artistic sport in a way,” Erika Ninoyu, director of bands at Central, explained.Ninoyu, who grew up in Anchorage, is second-generation Japanese, and president of the Japan Alaska Association. That put her in a perfect position when she heard that for the first time in seven years the Japanese Navy would be stopping in Anchorage.“I just asked, ‘would they be interested in performing for my school,’ and they said yes!” Ninoyu explained.Part of the reason for Ninoyu’s excitement was that the performers in the Maritime Self-Defense Force are the best of the best. The visiting crew has been traveling all over the Pacific, from Pearl Harbor in Hawaii to as far south as Chile, along with stops in the Atlantic in Havana, Cuba and the U.S. Part of the mission is to get 200 newly commissioned officers better acquainted with seamanship. But another reason is cultural ambassadorship. These musicians are the A-Team. And Ninoyu was thrilled that they had been willing to play, flanked by basketball hoops, for her students.“It’s rare. I don’t know when they’re ever going to hear a professional performance of this caliber,” Ninoyu said.The students seemed enthused, too. After the first song, they erupted with applause so loud it almost rivaled the drums.The band was bigger than the taiko drummers. There was a brass section, woodwinds, a keyboard, electric bass, as well as a jazzy saxophone.According to Ninoyu, the hour-long concert is the first time the Japanese Navy has ever played inside an Anchorage school. And she believes that’s significant.“I do a lot of work outside the school, and also promote to my students, that all of us need to be bridge builders,” Ninoyu explained. “Especially someone who speaks two languages or is bicultural. In a sense, I think it’s our duty to share and empathize and learn from each other.”None of the members of the squadron visiting Central Middle School were cleared to talk on record with members of the media. Their time in Alaska included a short stop in Homer earlier in the week, and they are set to attend a ceremony at Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson.After departing Alaska, the sailors’ next stop is Vladivostok, Russia.