This semester, I chose to participate in 2 activities, both sports related: kendo and
My experiences with these two activities were mixed. Firstly, as a member of the
Harvard Kendo club, I sought to continue practicing while in Japan, especially as
learning kendo in Japan is such a great opportunity. In fact, before the program,
I was attending our annual kendo gasshuku near Nagasaki. As a consequence of
my existing kendo connection, an acquaintance was able to introduce me to Kyoto
University’s kendo club. It was a great experience to be able to spar with the Kyodai
club members, but also very frustrating. As the official kendo club, most of the
students had started kendo as elementary schoolers and were thus extremely good.
While I feel like I learned a lot by observing and sparring with these high-leveled
students, because they had so much experience practices focused more on sparring
and less on teaching techniques. However, like many people in my home kendo club,
I only started kendo 2 years ago and thus I need to work on everything from basic
strokes to complicated techniques (waza). I also find that personally, I am more
relaxed when playing someone of about the same skill level. In this respect, if I could
do this again, joining a private dojo for individualized attention probably would
have been better than Kyodai’s club.
I feel like this negatively impacted my ability to interact with members of the club, because I felt awkward being at such a different level of kendo than them, and in a situation where I felt like I was impeding on their practice. Also, the members of the kendo club used very polite language when talking to me, I felt like there was distance between us. This is completely different than my experiences in the Harvard kendo club, where I feel very relaxed. Part of my problems in interacting with the kendo club were probably also that I didn’t have time usually afterwards to go out to eat with them, and unfortunately, I suppose I kind of sunk back into the woodwork after a while. While I like to talk to people, I’m not outgoing enough to get myself into the fold without someone there willing to help.
My second activity was one of Kyodai’s hard tennis circles, Whiteline. I had played
tennis all throughout highschool, but I stopped after entering college. I found
this experience valuable in attending practices, but since the circle is not very
competitive, I feel like people of all levels could go. However, even with previous
tennis experience, I still have a hard time because Japanese tennis courts are
different. While the vast majority of courts in the United States are hard courts, most
courts that I’ve seen so far in Japan are soft courts with a carpet-like texture. While
I’m not positive, I believe this type of court definitely changes the feeling of the ball.
Although many other students may say that being in sports doesn’t allow them
much time to socialize with their Japanese peers, but Whiteline is very conducive
to conversation. In Japanese tennis circles, the 40 odd people who show up are all
squeezed inside 1 or 2 courts, so there’s always a side doing the drill and the side
leisurely picking up balls. In these court change times I often talk to the other 3rd years. Overall, the tennis circle was much more sociable to me than the kendo club, but I could tell that the 1st years and 2nd years didn’t feel comfortable talking to me as I was their “senpai” when actually I didn’t really care.
However, I really enjoyed my interactions with the other 3rd years, and in fact, I recently went to a nomikai with 30 of Whiteline’s third year students and met a lot more people. A combination of factors led to this CIP activity being a success: a more open atmosphere, me being at a closer tennis level to the circle members, lots of time to talk, and the willingness of the Kyodai 3rd years to introduce themselves and arrange a nomikai.
Well the tennis one sounds fun at least! I get the whole sempai kohai dynamic is confusing, and Japanese people never seem to know what they want foreigners to do in that regard. Did you find that their expectations changed in that regard? Or did they never really clarify their social expectations?
I think it was only a problem in the kendo club, where I was technically senpai to many of them yet I was so obviously lower in skill level that they may have felt uncertain where I stood. For tennis, I think I was treated the same way as the other third years (which was convenient, because apparently I wasn’t expected to pick up any balls). Either way, nothing was ever clarified, so it was more reading between the lines and trying to assume what the Japanese people have been growing up with.