The thing that struck me most about the entire C.I.P. initiative was, ironically, just how difficult it was to initiate. In fact, the one aspect of it that left the biggest impression on me was that it is exceedingly difficult to integrate oneself into the flow of normal Japanese university life as an exchange student residing in an entirely different flow.
My initial difficulty stemmed from the fact that I had to wait for the end of the Dōshisha University summer holiday before I received word from the circle that I had contacted – an a cappella circle called ONE VOICES based on the main Kyōtanabe campus. When I finally did manage to arrange a meeting, I quickly learned that speaking the same language does not guarantee mutual understanding. I misinterpreted the intended meeting time, and almost went home before both I and my contact realized our miscommunication and I turned around.
The second thing that surprised me was the group dynamic within the circle. My contact, who was in charge of member recruitment, immediately insisted I called her Yū-min – an extremely familiar nickname. I was even more surprised to observe that all of the club members I met or was introduced to also call her by her nickname, regardless of whether said member were her sempai or kohai. This dynamic is made more unusual by the break-down of the circle. The largest a cappella circle on campus, ONE VOICES consists of over 200 members organized into “bands” of 6, based on musical interest. This means that many members of the circle meet only on rare occasions for circle-wide events. Yū-min, as the coordinator, was familiar with almost everybody, however, interactions between members of different bands ranged from extremely informal to highly traditional, with rules of seniority being strictly observed. My general impression was that this complicated mixing of differing levels of formality between sub-groups and individuals is a far more truthful representation of group dynamics than the stark, hard-and-fast rules of propriety we are taught in class.
Another factor of this 6-member band structure was that, until five other members presented themselves (actually four, as there was another prospective member touring with me), I was unable to formally start taking part in club activities. This became the biggest obstacle for me and was ultimately why I had to shift what I had been using as my “supplementary C.I.P.” activities (with Kyōto University’s KIXS international circle) to be my main C.I.P., whereas my contact with the Dōshisha a cappella circle was relegated to the “supplementary” spot. I confess I was surprised at how strictly the members stuck to the “6 person rule.” I can’t speak for everyone, but in my experience, American university students might be more inclined to temporarily (or even permanently) allow the formation of a 7 member group, or come up with some other solution in such a case. That is not to say that one is better than the other – simply that they are different.
Were KCJS run on the Japanese academic calendar (which would be exceedingly difficult to reconcile with our lives and schedules back home), I personally think it would be easier to integrate into everyday university life. Despite the fact that in the end I was unable to really join the group due to logistical issues, I still feel like I learned a great deal from the contact I did have with its members, both in person and via text messaging. I was pleasantly surprised by the extremely warm welcome I received – by the end of the first day I had been given a nickname, invited to have dinner and to visit Yū-min at her part-time job, and even asked if I was half Japanese (which I found funny seeing as I’m very obviously Caucasian). I was struck by the level of casual friendliness and openness with which I was welcomed into the group, which as I understand is not a given. It was possibly the first time since coming to Japan that I truly did not feel my “foreignness,” mainly because they did not seem overly concerned by it. All in all, although it did not become my regular C.I.P., I found what contact I did have with the circle both educational and fun, for lack of a better word. I hope to keep in touch with the people I met there for the remainder of my stay in Japan.
Scheduling to fit in a choir as well as regular classes is pretty 大変… I can sympathize. That being said, it’s great that you got so much out of choir despite that particular difficulty! Do you have any theories as to why they were so strict about the 6 person group? Also, was it ever difficult to adjust your speaking style to fit the “mixing levels of formality” you mentioned?
I honestly have no idea why exactly they were so strict about the 6-person rule. It may have to do with the Japanese tendency to preserve 仕来たり, but that is just a guess. As far as formality levels, I actually had little trouble mainly because most of the people I came in contact with invited casual speech. I find there is also a looser constraint on what is considered “too familiar” for us foreigners – they expect us to be open and friendly to a certain extent – particularly the younger generation. They also knew from the text messages I had been exchanging with the coordinator that I had a certain command of keigo before they met me, and I think as a result they were more sure of my Japanese when they finally did meet me than the average Japanese person – I didn’t get any stilted English, and as they brought me around to introduce me to various groups, I was shocked that many of them assumed I was “in group”, even checking to make sure I was, actually, foreign. When they introduced me as ‘Watanabe’ (the name of the other student touring with me), most people actually just accepted it without question! 😉
It’s interesting how thing are done here in terms of group makeup. Soul2soul is also gigantic (over 150 members O.o) but it’s split by genre and even people of the same genre separate based on other factors such as gender and grade level. I’m sure the size of the group is partially due to the lack of audition required for participation, which I was not expecting. I guess that kind of reflects the more Type A nature of American culture. Thoughts?
I agree. I think that the size and nature of the group make sub-groups necessary and inevitable. It also makes sense to group people by style/preference/taste etc., so I completely understand where they are coming from. I think the 6 member rule is meant to have one person from each voice part (soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, base, and lead). That was another thing that surprised me – in my experience of American a cappella groups, the soloist changes all the time on a song-by-song basis, with everyone taking turns at the lead, rather than having a set main vocalist with the other members providing back-up.