Ling Xi Min: Volunteering at Kyoto Museum for World Peace

I had the privilege of volunteering at the Kyoto Museum for World Peace as part of my weekly CIP activity. The arrangement was that I would go to the museum every Tuesday to volunteer for a period of about 3 hours after morning classes, where I would carry tasks including translation (between English and Japanese and occasionally German), research and miscellaneous jobs like digitizing the museum’s postcard collection (from the 1920s).

I had never worked in a museum before, let alone a museum in Japan, and to some extent I did not know what to expect, particularly with regard to how much language ability I would require in order to function and contribute effectively. Thankfully, in spite of being one of two people in the museum who could speak fluent English, things turned out as well as they could have. I think that how much one can contribute in these contexts depends as much on how one deploys one’s skills as what skills one has (which for me was a middle-schooler’s Japanese, native-level English and some limited research experience). The reality for me was that my Japanese was not good enough to write descriptions for the permanent exhibition, and probably will not be for a while. The speed at which I read and processed Japanese language research materials was also obviously slower than that of the Japanese staff. What I did instead for translation tasks, was to take the target passages in English, translate them to the best of my ability and leave the rest to the Japanese staff. Though I initially worried about the appropriateness of my translation, the curator explained to me how they saw it: it is far easier for the Japanese staff to fix broken Japanese than it is for them to read English. And though Japanese-language research materials could obviously be parsed faster by Japanese staff, what I could bring to the table was specialized knowledge and new interpretations of data related to what I had been studying in my home institution. Communicating ideas in academic Japanese to my hosts was not always easy, but it could be done with a dictionary and vocabulary list.

One important lesson this CIP taught me was to be realistic about my Japanese ability and keep short-term goals realistic. For me, it was sometimes tempting to aspire to native-level Japanese in the long term without figuring out all the small steps along the way or whether I even needed native-level Japanese to function meaningfully in a particular work context. I never imagined that something as simple as a vocabulary list would help so much – especially in a workplace where specialized vocabulary, more than grammar, is key. Having measured goals really helped me to make the most of my time at the museum and identify the ways in which I could contribute to the team.

A lot is said about the purported differences between the Japanese and non-Japanese work environments – that the former requires a greater attention to formality and hierarchy than the latter for instance. This is perhaps true to a degree, but what I encountered was not a rigid environment where everyone wore suits and bowed to their superiors at a set angle. Rather, people were in general quite relaxed. Hierarchy was not entirely eliminated – there were clearly staff with managerial responsibilities – and it was not fun and games all the time, since there was always work to be done. But in all, the whole system seemed to work out reasonably for most if not all. I think that while it is always good to have an idea of possible cultural differences between oneself and one’s hosts, what is equally or perhaps more important is to be observant of and sensitive to one’s specific context, rather than come in with a fixed idea of what one expects to find. Much like anywhere else, Japan is a big place, and there are all sorts of people and organizations, some of which will resemble the stereotypical Japanese work environment more than others. For me, the museum was a happy balance between the new and the familiar, and I especially owe a lot to the patience and open-mindedness of the staff I had the privilege of working under.

2 thoughts on “Ling Xi Min: Volunteering at Kyoto Museum for World Peace

  1. You have a great viewpoint on aspiring to fluency in the language. I was feeling similarly frustrated after spring break and wished more than anything that I could just be at a level of Japanese that I was happy with already. But like you said, being realistic is what’s important, and all of the little steps along the way are what count in the end.

    I’m sure that you really helped with the English-Japanese translations. We all have to start somewhere, right? They’ll improve steadily the more you work at it. Did you ever find yourself doing a translation, understanding why the content was structured that way, and then using it yourself in class or in your studies? Or was the material and grammatical structure completely different than what we tend to see in our Japanese classes?

    • Actually, rather than being assigned to translate a set passage from English to Japanese, most of the translation work gave me a lot more interpretative leeway in deciding what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it. More often that not, I would read Japanese books of the same genre as the English books I was translating to figure out how for instance historical writing looked like in Japanese. Then I would use grammar and vocabulary from there in my translations. Of course I would pay close attention to vocabulary especially because it really matters when one decides that a word has a nuance like “Nanjing Incident” or “Nanjing Massacre”. As for using these new grammatical structures in class, I must admit that I haven’t absorbed them to the extent that they become second nature. I intend to review them and perhaps study them more systematically in the future.