Anna Kelly: Volunteering at a Museum (2)

I stuck with my CIP from last semester, and continued to volunteer at the Kyoto Institute of Technology’s museum and archive this semester as well. Although I was at the same place with the same people, I did learn a lot of new things about the museum itself, and the Japanese work environment in general.

Although my job often consists of working with old art books, I am sometimes asked to help translate things from English to Japanese and vice versa, correct English presentations and essays, and help set up the new art exhibits. I do learn quite a lot from the old books and have fun figuring out the old kanji, but it is probably in the interactions with the employees at the museum that I learn the most about Japan.

Through working with people in the museum’s office I have noticed that a lot of importance is put on the daily kyuukei, which seems to almost always be around three o’clock (the same as the daily ‘snack time’ at my host family’s house). During this time the people in the office separate out small snacks for everyone and sometimes even offer tea. I already knew that omiyage-giving is an important thing in Japanese culture, but I didn’t so much know how important it is to also bring something for your co-workers! Whenever someone goes on a trip they bring back an easily-sharable snack for everyone in the office. I wish this sort of custom was expected in American offices!

Being the only native English speaker at the museum, I had quite a few requests to work with people to translate writings from Japanese to English (and sometimes the other way around). When speaking Japanese in class or doing homework in Japanese I try to think in Japanese to help my learning. However translating forces you to think in two separate languages, and this experience has taught me how difficult that really is! In some areas where Japanese is very detailed and poetic, English does not have the same kind of flow or beauty. In other places were English is straight and to the point, Japanese can be frustratingly indirect. I also ran into some problems with words that cannot really be translated such as dorya (used often when exerting self, moving heavy objects, etc.).

Having the opportunity to volunteer at the museum for the last two semesters has been a really great experience. I learned a lot about Japan, and a lot about the work world as well. I had an internship at an American museum a few years ago, so it was very interesting to compare those two experiences. I feel more confident in my Japanese language ability, and feel more comfortable with communication after this experience. I am very excited to use what I have learned, and to continue learning more.

8 thoughts on “Anna Kelly: Volunteering at a Museum (2)

  1. Your activity sounds super fun! It’s nice that because you continued the same CIP throughout the year, you got to deepen your understanding within the same area, while continuing to learn Japanese. I found the bit about translating the languages, and your perceptions of the differences between Japanese and English super interesting.

    Because you stayed for a full year in the same activity, I’m sure you deepened your understanding of Japanese employee relationships along with older kanji and the like. Did you notice something this semester about the way your co-workers interacted that you didn’t last semester?

    • I got to spend more time in the actual office at the museum this semester so I had more opportunities to observe coworker interaction. Besides my kyuukei observation, I thought it was very interesting to listen to the kind of language that they used with eachother. It seemed to go back and forth between casual and formal, even when speaking to the same person, which honestly confused me a little bit. I’d like to learn more about that!

  2. kyuukei culture in Japan is pretty interesting. Did you ever bring your co-workers any omiyage? If so, what kind?

    Also how did you deal with super old kanji? When I used to do academic translation in Japanese, I would constantly run into words that had no translation on It was super frustrating. Even my Japanese friends hadn’t about what I was trying to read.

    Also why did you decide to work at a museum? I’m just curious :D.

    • Unfortunately I didn’t have my realization about the omiyage until too late, so I never had the chance to bring anything myself.
      I use a Chinese keyboard on my phone that allows me to draw the kanji. Sometimes the old kanji will pop up, but if it doesn’t the keyboard will usually bring up another kanji that looks sort of similar. If that happens I search the kanji that the keyboard brought up online and usually find that it’s the modern version of the old kanji I was looking for!

      I’m very interested in art and have interned at a museum before back in America so I thought it would be very interesting to see how the experiences differed (or how they were the same).

  3. It’s so funny that the KIT museum had the same practice of snacking routinely at 3:00–the staff at the KNM do the same and I was unsure if I could say that it wa sa practice outside of the KNM, and I’m so glad that it is!

    Translating is really hard work, especially when it’s with art historical texts. In my own CIP I found that even if I knew the kanji in a phrase individually, I would have to look for the compounds across a variety of dictionaries/translation engines to get a feel for what the art historical meaning of the word was. It sounds like you had a great time and learned a lot–otsukaresama!

    • Translating historical art texts sounds very difficult! But I’m sure it must have been so interesting to compare how the significance of a piece of art is described in Japanese vs in English. Sounds like a fascinating way to learn more about the Japanese culture 🙂

  4. Hi, Anna! I also had a similar experience with omiyage and translating while volunteering at the Manga Museum! There was always a box of snacks in the staff lounge for everyone to enjoy. It was interesting to see how the omiyage differed, i.e. one week there was a bag filled with Pokemon merchandise, and why the giver was giving the omiyage, i.e. a thank-you omiyage vs. a souvenir from a trip to USJ.

    I recently started helping out at the front desk and one of the staff members asked me to look over the “handbook” they have with go-to English phrases for certain situations. I thought it was super interesting how the way one speaks to a customer differs in English and in Japanese. It was difficult at times to find a way to maintain the politeness that keigo entails while not sounding awkward in English. Were you also asked to translate a “When Dealing with Foreign Visitors” handbook or something similar?

    • That’s super interesting!
      I agree, trying to translate keigo to English makes for some strange conversation. I personally feel that in English if one is too polite, or I suppose very systematic with their politeness as keigo tends to be, that they lose some of their warmth and in that way seem less hospitible! I’m very interested to hear what kind of solutions you came up with 🙂

      I was not, but I wish I was!
      That sounds like a great way to learn more about Japan, and about your own culture as well.