Veronica Winters: Kyoto Reborn

During the spring semester of 2018, I decided to volunteer at a Kyoto-based NPO called Reborn Kyoto. The organization has an international presence with branches in Rwandan, Laos and Cambodian and other South East Asian countries. The center that I work at coordinates the purchase of old kimonos, which they then take apart and wash to send abroad as fabric. Offices abroad teach local women how to sew certain patterns using the kimono fabric and send those finished items back to Kyoto. A shop around the corner from the primary center sells and collects the proceeds. I have experience volunteering at both the main center and the shop around the corner and from those experiences I have learned two major things about Japanese/Kyoto culture.

The first thing that I realized was that tea time is an important time for bonding in the office. This may not be true for all places and all businesses, especially those run by the younger generation. However, the main center is run by older women (age 60 and upward) who value tea time. Before I understood its importance I once tried to refuse participating in tea time, stating that I could keep working and did not need tea. The head of the branch insisted strongly by simply reiterating the suggestion that we have tea and I felt a strong pressure to accept. Since that time I have never refused tea time. We usually drink together with a snack after I have completed my volunteer shift and talk about current events such as the Olympics or about their grandchildren and I have come to look forward to tea time with the older ladies every visit.

The second cultural practice that I noticed had to do with language and politeness level. Of course, there are different registers of politeness embedded in the Japanese language. However, what I did not know, was the protocol when leaving the office before or after superiors and co-workers. You cannot use the same phrase to say “Good work today” (otsukaresama) or “I’m going for the day” (osakini shitsureishimasu) towards superiors and co-workers. I was a bit confused at first because the ladies that work there are so old and their job titles do not necessary correspond to their age, but you can gauge the importance of someone’s position via listening to the politeness register used toward them and that which they use toward others. For example, at the shop around the corner from the main center, I witnessed the older ladies who worked there using plain form with the customers, which is very unusual. It was probably due to the fact that they were several decades older than the customers; nevertheless, the shop workers made sure to use a Kyoto-specific type of honorific polite form haru to maintain that they respected the customers.

I enjoyed my CIP this semester a lot more than last semester’s (dance class and church) because I felt a lot more integrated and got to use and hear a lot more Japanese. A good CIP activity will allow you to build relationships with the Japanese people involved and not just participate in an event. It will be sad to say goodbye to the lovely ladies that I have been working with for the past 3 months. They treat me with such warmth and patience, so we have become rather close. I hope that future KCJS students will lend a hand and volunteer at this organization.

4 thoughts on “Veronica Winters: Kyoto Reborn

  1. Sounds like you found a really interesting CIP this semester. Sometimes I’ll also try to gauge someone’s role in the keigo hierarchy by listening to how they speak to others and how others address them, although I guess this might be difficult in a situation where there’s not as much interaction between people within a group. I agree that a big component of what makes or break a CIP is how much it lets you build meaningful relationships with those you’re surrounded with. Happy to hear that this semester worked out well for you!

    • Yeah. I just defaulted to using keigo with the older ladies and teineigo with the other young lady that worked there.

  2. This sounds incredible – what a great opportunity to engage with the community and also do some good! When I went to Hokkaido earlier this year and stayed on a farm, I too noticed how important tea time was. We set up tea time twice a day, which was, like you said, the main time for us to get to know each other. I wonder if it would benefit American offices to hold tea time, in order to create a stronger sense of community and solidarity.

    • Depending on the type of Americsn company, there is also a possibility that it might be a demeaning for whoever has to prepare the tea. But I definitely agree that some sort of communal activity would help build a sense of community.