Gabrielle Reinecke: O-koto and the Kyoto University Choir

While establishing a CIP and forging connections can prove a daunting and sometimes discouraging process, I found it to be an ultimately invaluable part of my time at KCJS and my life here in Kyoto.

My first CIP, which I have continued both semesters here, is learning how to play the koto (A traditional Japanese string instrument with moveable bridges) and it was through what I suspect to be a combination of serendipity and extreme thoughtfulness on behalf of the KCJS staff that I was placed in a homestay which made these lessons possible. My host mother had studied the koto for quite some time and was kind enough to introduce me to her sensei, who has been generous enough to teach me free of cost for the for the past eight months. This connection made my CIP search easier than most, as I had long admired the instrument and had vague hopes of learning to play it while in Japan. Their long-established relationship made the introduction process very easy, and it wasn’t until I undertook the task of introducing another student that I began to more fully understand the complexity and cultural context surrounding such arrangements. Because all parties involved lived in the same neighborhood, special care had to be taken in regard to kinjo no tsukiai (neighborhood relations) between my teacher, the host families, the students, and all combinations thereof. What I suspect might have taken two or three phone calls in the US took over fifteen phone calls and some rather complex social maneuvering and face redress strategies so that no party felt disregarded – no small task when it comes to the finer points of Japanese joshiki (common sense, if you will) and etiquette.

My subsequent interactions with my sensei and her other students always left me a bit flustered as I could never be sure I was properly adhering to these unstated (and, as a foreigner, rather opaque) social codes, but they were sensitive to my situation and my language skills helped carry me through reasonably well.

My sensei is a true bohemian and has that slightly eccentric flare I personally associate with masters of traditional crafts and art forms – a trait I’ve come to find very endearing, though it certainly threw me at first. She has a very flowery way of speaking that utilizes an impressive range of keigo (formal speech) and Kyoto-ben (the local dialect) which, while I had no trouble understanding linguistically often surprised me in usage. For example, though I am the student and much younger, she often uses formal speech towards me, that is to say, the sort of language I would be expected to use towards her. However, I quickly came to realize this is more a reflection of her personality than misinformation on my part in regard to the way formal language is used in a real-life context.

The sequence of aisatsu (salutations) took a while for me to grasp. One might think, ‘how many salutations can one possibly use?’ but Japanese salutations are not limited to words of greeting. Also included are acknowledgements of the previous meeting, a request for guidance in the day’s lesson, a promise to work hard, and any number of repetitions and reiterations thereof based on my sensei’s responses (which, in accordance with her speech style, were rather numerous). Another repetitive sequence also concludes the lesson.

Also of interest was the occasional use of the greeting ‘good morning’ despite the fact that my lessons have always taken place in late afternoon. This is something not usually taught in Japanese textbooks, and is apparently not even common knowledge among Japanese until about college age, but the greeting ‘good morning’ can be used the first time you see someone in certain contexts (at part time jobs, in the world of the arts, etc.) regardless of time-of-day.

Of course, I also learned quite a few pieces of music, including two of Japan’s most well known songs, and had the opportunity to perform on numerous occasions, but what remains with me was the time I spent with my sensei and the extreme care and kindness she showed me. It was my first time interacting with a Japanese person of her age and occupation, and I believe it gave me valuable insight into the inner workings of Japanese relationships on the whole, despite her undeniable uniqueness. I will remember the time I spent under her tutelage quite fondly and, with any luck, will have the opportunity to make use of what I have learned in the near future.

My second CIP I began only this past semester, but while it was also music-related, it gave me a very different insight into Japanese society, and Japanese college life in particular. Natasha helped introduce me to the KyoDai Gasshodan (Kyoto University Choir) and from day one they welcomed me as a real member. Because our school schedule operates on a different calendar from that of Japanese universities, it is understandably difficult for us to truly experience campus life here the way we would in the US. I never really felt like a student at Doushisha (or Kyoto Daigaku) until I had the chance to sing with them. For the first time I thought “so this is what it must be like to be a ‘regular’ student.” That feeling of belonging was invaluable, and I will  treasure the time I spent with them and the memories we made. I know how difficult it can be to get involved in a campus club or circle, but if you can make it work, it’s more than worth it.

2 thoughts on “Gabrielle Reinecke: O-koto and the Kyoto University Choir

  1. Wow, you pretty much had every linguists dream right there: a crash course in the usually hidden and much more detailed points of Japanese communication. I gotta say, I’m really jealous. It really seems like you got to learn much more than just how to play the koto (which already is pretty awesome in it of itself) which I think really was the point of these CIPs.
    If you had to pick one (I know, I hate these questions too, sorry haha) aspect of your experience with your koto sensei (or with the Kyodai Chorus if you’d prefer) that you’d consider to be the most invaluable, what would that be?

  2. Gabri, before I decided to start my CIP in tea ceremony, I consulted your posts from last semester (mainly because I was concerned that I might feel and make other people feel awkward in a traditional Japanese environment). Although I can say now that my experience in tea ceremony doesn’t seem to have involved the same level of formality as yours, there were times when I felt as if not being able to properly use keigo or abide to the Japanese/茶道 etiquette was perhaps inconvenient for the other practitioners and the teacher. I am wondering if the type of language your sensei used with you changed at all throughout these 2 semesters.