Grace Xu: Doshisha Piano Research Society

At the beginning of the semester, Director Mason introduced the Community Involvement Project (CIP) to us as, rather generally speaking, a mini-ethnography project. We were all to try our hand at being ethnographers – to find a circle or club activity and act not just as participants but also as observers, doing our best to formulate hypotheses about our activities and the communities we were to supposedly study, making note of cultural practices and rituals while we attempted to learn them ourselves.

If producing an ethnography – or practicing ethnography – was the end goal of the CIP, then I must be completely honest here and admit that what meager observations and experience I have gathered seem wholly insufficient for anything resembling ethnography. After spending most of the semester trying (and failing) to do as Director Mason suggested – in other words, trying to find a circle that I was both passionate about or at least interested in and revolved around a skill/subject I had some talent for – I ended up joining the Doshisha Piano Research Society out of (mostly) frustration and a lack of better options. Looking back, I think that these negative feelings I held during my entrance into the circle were the root cause of my lack of success, so I would like to reflect a bit on my experience here in case it might be of use to aspiring ethnographers among the future KCJS students.

But first, allow me to backtrack a bit. You might be asking yourself, what exactly is ethnography? Simply speaking, the term ethnography refers to a systematic method of studying people and cultures, and is characterized by certain features such as prolonged first-hand study and participant-observation research methods. Leaving aside the more general discussion surrounding the utility and legitimacy of ethnographies as a tool for cultural interpretation, however, I’d like to instead examine a claim by Hoey – that, despite the recurring issue of objectivity in social science research (or in other words, how researchers can ensure some degree of validity and credibility in their work) it is precisely this very human element of reactivity that makes ethnography possible. In Hoey’s own words:

Ethnographic fieldwork is shaped by personal and professional identities just as these identities are inevitably shaped by individual experiences while in the field. Unfortunately, the autobiographical dimension of ethnographic research has been downplayed historically if not discounted altogether[…]The explicit professional project of observing, imagining and describing other people need not be incompatible with the implicit personal project of learning about the self[…]Good ethnography recognizes the transformative nature of fieldwork where as we search for answers to questions about people we may find ourselves in the stories of others. Ethnography should be acknowledged as a mutual product born of the intertwining of the lives of the ethnographer and his or her subjects.

Although I personally may not agree completely with Hoey’s rather poetic description of the relationship between ethnographers and their work, I do agree in the interpretation of the above quote that a deep and personal investment is required in order for ethnographers to be successful in their work. Of course, that is exactly the opposite of the sort of mindset I held entering the CIP, and a large reason why I think truly useful/insightful ethnography is so difficult. The shallow and to be honest, rather superficial observations I made on my meager trips to the piano circle – how, for example, the circle’s club room was tiny and narrow, shunted to a corner of a side campus in a gloomy building along with dozens of other circles, or that despite being called a research society not much research on pianos was actually done in the few hours I accumulated at the circle – reflect more upon myself then the community I was called upon to observe, and if anything show a innate lack of ability for ethnography rather than an admirable, if amateurish effort for social science/anthropological research. I could, for example, posit that the reason why the piano circle is so popular among the university students (there are at least 30 members, judging from the quick glance I had at the sign up sheet) despite there being only 2 pianos available in the circle’s room, is because of a hesitancy to create noise and thus cause meiwaku, or disturbance to one’s neighbors at home. Is this perhaps reflective of a tendency in Japanese culture to put the needs of the group or others before one’s own desires, of a subconscious and constant awareness of the needs of the community over one’s own? And so on.

But more importantly, no effort of mine could conceal such continued and blatant speculation, nor the fact that I wouldn’t even consider myself as having made a single acquaintance from my CIP (does one person who somewhat begrudgingly added me on Line and whom I haven’t contacted once count?), much less any friends or other lasting relationship. I have decided to be completely honest in this summary of sorts and admit that I have absolutely no viable hypotheses regarding this community I unwittingly “joined”. Quite simply, it was a personal endeavor perhaps doomed to fail from the start. On top of my long commute, my decision to take three afternoon electives (for my home school’s engineering major requirements), keeping up with recruiting activities back home and even just enjoying what little time I had with my host family, the additional burden of involving myself in yet another commitment was, I suppose, something I couldn’t help but avoid in order to prevent myself from stretching too thin. Or rather, perhaps it was impossible for me to be successful from the start after so many failed attempts at joining other clubs and with the kind of distant and impersonal expectations I entered with. Perhaps, in the end, it is just as Hoey said: that only in truly deep and intimate involvement – indeed, personal commitment and passion from the very beginning – that ethnographic success can be found.

Sources: Hoey. Brian A. “A Simple Introduction to the Practice of Ethnography and Guide to Ethnographic Fieldnotes.” Marshall University Digital Scholar (June 2014). Available at:

2 thoughts on “Grace Xu: Doshisha Piano Research Society

  1. It`s really unfortunate that you weren`t able to really get into CIP during our short stay in Japan. I agree with you on the fact that with the little exposure that we have on Japanese life within our CIPs, it is a bit presumptuous to believe ourselves as intimately involved with these communities. If you could somehow gone back to the beginning of the semester, what actions would you have taken in order to find a better CIP situation?

    • Thanks for the comment! I’m not sure there’s anything I could have really done to make my experience with the CIP much better, since I think I fundamentally disliked the idea of the CIP from the start. But maybe it would have been better to find a club like Rose’s go class or Ichikawa-sensei’s ping-pong circle, which revolve on concretely improving one’s skill in a particular area through matches, rather than the ones I did end up trying out, which were mostly centered on small talk (and can get tiring rather quickly).