This semester I decided to take a Japanese pottery and sculpture class at the Yuuraku classroom in Katsura. Not unexpectedly, from the very beginning I turned out to be the odd man out as a young foreign student in a Japanese sculpture class dominated by おばさん (middle aged women and housewives). Whereas in the US, a foreign college student branching out into various classes is something that wouldn’t cause anyone to bat an eyebrow, but my presence to most people in the small classes was evidently a surprise. While in America that surprise would likely be channeled into small talk, it would take a week or two before most of the other sculptors besides my teacher, Katayama Sensei, would become brave enough to question me. However most of the time I was quite content to listen to them gush about their kids and small talk while I sculpted much like the way an American class would work.
Moreover Katayama Sensei wasn’t shy about telling me that she hadn’t had much experience with foreign students. Nevertheless she was always quite kind in helping me form my creations. Using rather simple Japanese we were able to overcome the barriers of technical terminology that sculpture sometimes requires. Recently she showed me a dual Japanese-English picture guide to Japanese sculpture that has helped us both understand each other quite well, and recently we have tasted the fruits of our labor.
For example, this is my first cup:
This is only half of what we did this week:
Regardless my experiences trying to express my ideas and wishes therein have been very helpful for my Japanese. My weekly visits also allowed me to move in from the periphery of the classroom dynamic that I found myself in during the first week or two as the Japanese began to drop the honorifics from their speaking habits in favor of casualness. They still kept a healthy dose of Kansai dialect though!
This process has matured to the point where, when we aren’t all concentrating on keeping our creations from spinning out of control or lopping off a side of a piece due to negligence, the people of the Yuuraku classroom and I have very stimulating conversations. Often they have to do with comparing each other’s work as any work space would, yet due to my inherently foreign characteristics the conversation tends to gravitate towards what adventures I should have in Japan or what they would like to do themselves.
In that way despite my class largely consisting of middle aged women I can probably say that we’re becoming friends. For beyond the new pottery techniques I’ve acquired and potter culture, the ability that people have to connect to each other with very little in common has been the most useful insight into Japanese culture I’ve had the pleasure to experience.
Sounds like you had a great time! What advice would you give to future students who are looking to take up pottery and sculpture just as you did?
Probably to look up some vocabulary words and lingo before they come. While it isn’t a problem to only use regular Japanese, if I had taken more time to prepare I’m sure I could have accomplished much more.