An important part of the KCJS program is the Community Involvement Project, CIP, which encourages students to engage in an extracurricular activity where they will be much more submersed in Japanese culture outside of the classroom. Examples of potential CIP activities include Japanese archery, tea ceremony, martial arts, sports, farming, international exchange circles, and various kinds of volunteer work among other possibilities. It was difficult at first I think for many students to find a fulfilling activity before expanding our networks in the Kyoto area. While it is significantly more difficult to find an activity in the spring due to many Japanese universities being on break, the fall semester overlaps well with the Japanese school year, making it simpler to find activities which will fill the CIP requirement. However, I think the value of the CIP depends primarily on individual students’ efforts, and the fact that universities are mostly on break during this time can lead to students finding even more valuable CIP groups.
For the first semester, I was unsure at first what kinds of activities would be available for me, and chose tennis as a safe option, as the group meets regularly, and with my skill level I would be able to adapt relatively quickly. In retrospect I would say there was nothing wrong with this decision, but I feel that overall it held little value for me as a cultural experience compared to other possible activities. After a few weeks I began to find other ways of integrating myself into the community, such as Taiko lessons, English instruction, and volunteering with disabled youth and kindergarteners. I enjoy tennis, but it has limited value as a way of learning about Japanese culture compared to these other activities.
Currently, my primary extracurricular activity is volunteer work at the Aiai House, a social welfare corporation where staff members take care of youth with disabilities, which span a large variety of physical and mental handicaps. I was fortunate enough to be introduced to the staff here by the woman at whose house I teach English once a week. I can say without a doubt this has been the most worthwhile experience of my year abroad.
The Aiai House is divided into two floors. The residents on the 2nd floor are for the most part less disabled than those on the 1st floor, and in fact the 2nd floor residents work with the staff to operate a bakery once a week to raise money for the Aiai House. While their capabilities are limited, each one of the residents has a job in this process. The activities at the Aiai House keep them physically and mentally stimulated while providing them with a means of bringing in a small amount of money for their families. The staff members regularly conduct these kinds of activities that go above and beyond their duties in helping to keep the residents healthy and stimulated, kindness reflected even more so in the fact that they give this time for relatively small compensation. I have also felt this kindness ever since I started volunteering, as staff members have even invited me for dinner at their homes on occasion, and always go out of their way to involve me in conversations. One of the staff even offered to have me stay with her family during the New Year’s period when she heard that I would not be allowed to stay with my home stay family. Over time I have also become a recognized member of the staff in the eyes of the residents, and I feel grateful to have earned this level of trust with them. In some ways, I am also glad that the novelty of my being a foreigner has subsided, meaning I can experience more natural interactions not as heavily influenced by my foreignness.
Over time I have noticed my attitude and perspective with regard to the group changing and maturing. I sometimes almost forget their disabilities, in the sense that I see them simply as other friends who just communicate differently. Spending time with them has helped me understand their individual personalities and methods of communication, which are far more complex than I had anticipated. Understanding the personalities of people with disabilities also gives deep insight into the fundamental differences between American and Japanese mindsets. For example, one of the people I help take care of on the second floor cannot speak, but is highly insistent on following manners, and will not be satisfied until she is sure every person says “itadakimasu” before eating, and “gochisousamadeshita” after finishing. I feel very lucky to have met this group, and plan to continue my volunteer work with them until I leave Japan later in the summer.
While there are many ways in which my study abroad experience has been enriched by this volunteer work, above all, the relationships I have forged at the Aiai House are the most valuable thing I have come away with in my time here.