Perhaps the best way to understand society is to be a part of it. Certainly, my experiences taking Japanese calligraphy (shodo) classes and participating in the Doshisha Exchange Students Association (DESA) were an integral part of my stay in Kyoto. In particular, taking part in these two different activities gave me different perspectives of the society that I eventually became a part of, albeit for a fleeting moment.
My initial decision to learn shodo was motivated by my desire to learn how to relax, focus, and achieve a semblance of serenity. Given my lack of background in shodo, that was the most I could ask to achieve within the short three months I had in Kyoto. Certainly, I have gained some insight on how to achieve these goals. Far from being a master calligrapher, I can say that this experience has benefitted me greatly in my own personal development.
What most interested me, however, was the social interaction that occurred at the shodo classes. My class, which is structured for adults, followed right after a session conducted for children. On certain occasions, I entered class early and, as a result, was gifted the opportunity to see teacher-student relations between the teacher and students of various age groups. Also, given that the adult class was the last class of the day, I was able to observe group dynamics in action during the packing-up process. Also, the usage of varying language forms, such as keigo and plain form, together with the varying involvement of students in the packing-up process, reflected the steep levels of hierarchy and social position embedded in Japanese society, though in a microcosm of a relaxed calligraphy class setting. For example, at the end of each class, the only other male student, who was an elderly man, would pack his equipment and leave straightaway while the rest of the students (including myself) helped to clean up the room. It was an intriguing insight as it reflected unsaid gender roles: men (especially older men) could be excused for leaving while the women cleaned up the area. Although integrating into Japanese society was a major goal of CIP (which, fortunately, I did to some extent by participating in group activities), it was this outside-in perspective that I have found most intriguing and precious.
DESA, too, was an opportunity to immerse into Japanese culture, though in a largely different manner compared to shodo class. Comprised of Doshisha University students who sought to further cultural exchange opportunities with foreign students, DESA succeeded in its goal and the activities organized by them certainly enriched my stay in Kyoto. Other than the all-too-typical nomikai, DESA-organized events, including a trip to Osaka and other recreational activities, provided ample opportunity for KCJS and other foreign students to bond with the Japanese students. Specifically, the trip to Osaka was exceptionally fun as we watched sumo wrestling and toured Osaka with the students as our guides! Given that we were hanging out with Japanese students, involvement in the community was more proactive through DESA as compared to shodo, for foreign students had to actively engage and respond in conversations with our DESA peers.
More importantly, the interactions with DESA students gave me an opportunity to understand the importance some of them place on learning English whilst providing me with an insight into their worldviews. I remember vividly an exchange I had with a Japanese second year university student who lamented on his less-than-perfect English capacity. He saw fluency in English as a key to the world, opening doors to different cultures and societies. Inadvertently, I ended up promoting study abroad as the best way to learn both the language, as well as the culture, of a particular place. Their perspectives on university, job-hunting, and the corporate world were certainly precious in adding to my understanding of Japanese society. Not to mention the least, the chance to practice Japanese with DESA students certainly was much appreciated, for casual forms of speech were more often used as compared to the shodo classroom and, from time to time, host-family conversations.
The perspectives I have learnt about Japanese society and the opportunity to practice conversational Japanese are among the most cherished takeaways I have from KCJS. Indeed, without the experiences at shodo and DESA, my stay in Kyoto might have been somewhat less enriching.
Sounds like you had a really good time with two very different activities. Shodo seems to be a more individual activity while DESA is a typical university club which is pretty social. How do you think your experience with shodo compared with your experience with DESA? Which would you recommend for incoming KCJS students?
Other than the insights on different aspects of Japanese society, I’d say that shodo was an activity that made me focus on my inner self and build patience, while DESA gave me an opportunity to be “out-there”.
About recommending either, I can’t quite say because it depends on what you’re trying to achieve for CIP, e.g. whether you’re here to challenge yourself, or be really comfortable and get by smoothly, etc. Once you’ve decided, you should pick an activity that suits your personality and your goal, in my opinion.