Melanie Berry: Volunteering at the Kyoto International Manga Museum

Volunteering at the Kyoto International Manga Museum has been a fun and interesting but occasionally demanding experience. I have definitely learned a lot there, not only about manga itself but also about tourism in Japan, how the Japanese tend to view their own pop culture and foreigners’ perceptions of it, and the culture of the workplace. Adjusting to such a new environment, though, is not exactly simple. The main two difficulties I’ve encountered while volunteering are switching sets of social cues between the Japanese staff and foreign guests and interacting on a casual basis with the staff.

Overall, I have found that for the most part I can communicate fairly effectively with the staff of the museum, but occasionally I have had trouble switching between Japanese and English when conducting tours and answering questions. Switching between the languages themselves is not necessarily the problem, although that is sometimes difficult. Moreover, the various social cues you utilize while in a setting like a museum seem to differ to a certain extent between Japan and America. Though I’ve volunteered in an American museum before, it was difficult to bring a lot of what I learned there to this experience, as the way one greets customers and generally behaves around them seems to be generally a bit different here. It can also be rather jarring to switch from using formal language in Japanese with our supervisors to using English with the guests. One suddenly feels the instinct to make one’s language more formal toward the guest, although my intuition developed while working in an American museum tends to push me to want to seem friendlier, more welcoming, and therefore a little more informal. This has definitely been more interesting than it has been difficult, though. Figuring out the different ways to interact with both the guests and the staff makes every day fascinating.

In addition, bonding with the staff has been a little difficult, mainly because we are always in a constant work environment. I regularly talk to the two employees who supervise us, Yasui-san and Uramune-san, who are both extremely nice and friendly and also have occasionally been able to speak to some of the other employees, such as the kamishibai artist who performs shows at the museum. However, because our breaks are at different times from the rest of the employees, having time outside of the main areas of the museum to speak casually is rather rare. Because of this, it has admittedly been difficult to get to know people at the museum. Overall, though, I’m glad that I’ve gotten to know the employees I have met at the museum! It has been a great experience.

4 thoughts on “Melanie Berry: Volunteering at the Kyoto International Manga Museum

  1. Wow volunteering at a museum in Japan seems pretty tough. I have enough trouble interacting with people in daily life, so doing a job that requires that is beyond me. But it seems like good practice with getting comfortable in all kinds of social situations, which is definitely not something that we learn in Japanese class.

    I’m not very familiar with the manga museum. I went there for the kimono event and thought it was really awesome, but aside from walking through it to don some traditional Japanese clothes, I haven’t gotten a really close look around. When you give tours, what kind of stuff do you talk about? In American museums, you usually explain pieces and artists and history; is it the same? Do they display manga? Or other things?

    • Haha, I’m definitely not very socially adept, so it’s been interesting! After a certain point, though, you start to get used to dealing with different people and different situations (in both Japanese and English). You start learning how to figure out how to deal with new situations as they come up, so it is a really good experience, I think.

      Generally, the tours Kristen and I have been doing are mostly to explain the outlay of the museum to guests and to quickly detail the history of the building (it actually used to be an elementary school and was built in the 1920s). We ourselves don’t actually do much explanation of the exhibits themselves. The Manga Museum’s main attraction is definitely just the sheer amount of manga available to read (around 50,000 volumes are available in the museum to read, out of 300,000 total that they have). They also have a permanent exhibit explaining what manga is, etc., and displaying manga that was popular in each decade for the last century. There are also some special exhibits that rotate in and out, including a fashion exhibit and another displaying work regarding 3/11. There are also workshops, as well as artists demonstrating how they draw manga. So, to sum it up, I think it can probably be best described as a mix of exhibits and demonstrations with a huge manga library.

      So all in all, I think it’s pretty cool! Definitely worth a visit. I know I sort of want to go back on a non-volunteer day to catch up on some manga that I never finished!

  2. It’s hard enough just switching between formal and casual Japanese sometimes. On top of that, you have to worry about switching in and out of English, too.

    Were the guests you interacted with always English speakers? Did you ever find yourself saying very Japanese-style English phrases when trying to be polite with them?

    • For the most part, the only guests we consistently interact with (outside of a few Japanese-speakers who ask us questions) for extended periods of time speak English, though many of them have been from places like Singapore, Belgium, France, etc. It’s been really interesting to meet people from across the world! There also haven’t been as many Americans as I’ve expected. They certainly have been coming, but in small numbers compared to others.

      And yes, that’s definitely happened to me. I sort of have to shift my mindset when I switch into tour mode, and sometimes it just doesn’t shift all at once… I also keep bowing when I speak with tour groups, mostly out of habit. I’m not sure if they think it’s really awkward, haha, but I also don’t want to step too out of line with how the other employees and volunteers act towards guests at the museum. So it’s a weird situation!