Gita Connolly: NICCO (NGO) Intern

After searching for NGOs in the Kyoto area that focus on international development, I decided to join NICCO for one of my CIP. NICCO stands for the Nippon International Cooperation for Community Development, and this NPO (as non-profits are called in Japan) supports self-reliance projects in developing countries around the world as well as right here in Japan. I mainly serve as a translator from Japanese or Hindi to English for online publications or information from partners on upcoming projects, but also get to enjoy just volunteering at events, such as their annual charity run along the river at Demachiyanagi. Although I am really close with some of the other interns, one staff member in particular took me under his wing, gifting me manga for kanji practice, teaching me about various Japanese historical events in the area, sharing interesting folk stories, and correcting my Japanese grammar in exchange for my help with English or explanations of American events like Thanksgiving and Black Friday.

I had many great experiences while interning, but the most interesting part was simply learning all of the small habits unique to Japanese office culture. I experienced more than my fair share of mishaps and misunderstandings during my fifteen hours/week at NICCO, especially when just joining the office. When I showed up to the NICCO office (a cozy machiya-style building) for the first time to “talk with them”, I met with four staff members for an hour or so and answered questions. To my surprise, afterwards they asked me to walk into the main office room (momentarily pausing work for everyone else seated at their desks, typing away) to give a brief self-introduction.  I realized later that our little chat was actually considered an interview, and somehow I had managed to pass their intern criteria and that’s why they had gone ahead and introduced me as a new team member.

The second time I came into the office, when I had just sat down at the intern desk, one of the staff members suddenly announced that some kind of meeting was starting and everyone around the room stood up immediately. After a couple seconds I realized that they were holding this meeting for my sake, and promptly (embarrassedly) stood up while everyone began very formally introducing themselves in keigo. Since I was only used to attending meetings where people either stand up and talk one at a time so that everyone focuses on them, or we all just stay seated, the whole process of going around the room while everyone is standing and presenting overly-formal intros was quite a surprise. Despite these formal intros, however, we all share snacks and make jokes in a very friendly work environment, with one co-worker (to my great surprise and amusement) even laughingly commenting on my Kansai-ben. It is simply a fact of office culture that the standard soro soro shitsureishimasu-es upon leaving are always met with a hearty assault of otsukarasamadesu-es.

I’m especially entertained by one other office tradition, the aizuchi (emphatic interjections to show that they are listening) that everyone uses while talking to the founder of NICCO or while on the phone. Other than just being extremely polite to their superiors (as an employee would do in any office), they speak in a voice about an octave higher, use hesitant tones to ask questions that they already know the answer to, or soften even the smallest of requests. Another intern and I looked at each other and tried not to laugh as, just a couple meters away, one co-worker emitted an enthusiastic “hai!” every two seconds while the shachou explained directions. The best part is, I notice a lot of people smile to themselves while watching others make these seemingly-ridiculous aizuchi, and yet these laughing people make the same exact aizuchi when talking to the shachou as well. I guess if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

4 thoughts on “Gita Connolly: NICCO (NGO) Intern

  1. I’m glad you had so much fun at your CIP! I’ve also found myself listening intently to other people’s aizuchi and find new ones all the time. Did you have difficulty transitioning between keigo, polite, and casual styles? Do you think your keigo comprehension and usage has improved because of your CIP? What’s your opinion on Japanese office culture as a daily work environment, i.e. do you think you would like to work in a Japanese office?

    • Initially I did have a lot of trouble transitioning between different styles (mainly because I was searching unsuccessfully in my brain for the keigo that I had *cough* never memorized), but it started to become a lot more natural and no longer pause when giving greetings or good-byes since it all became second nature. My keigo comprehension and usage has definitely improved because of working at NICCO! Regarding Japanese office culture, I would say that this NPO in particular provides a positive work environment and despite my blunders at the beginning, everyone has been overwhelmingly kind and looks out for me and doesn’t treat me as a kouhai or demand I do menial tasks like copy papers or, say, make tea for everyone, and for this I am very grateful. For the long-time (non-foreign) interns, I know the expectations are very high for their work so this can be stressful at times, but generally they are still treated very well and overall this NPO does lots of great work and worthwhile development projects. If this were the office in question, I would be happy to join it (despite the formal overtones of Japanese offices), but I get the impression that this NPO is an exception to the standard Japanese office experience, and presuming that this is the case, I would be much more hesitant to commit to one long-term.

  2. Your CIP experience sounds very interesting to me! I know it is very difficult to make a phone call in a foreign language. I wonder does everyone do the same job in this office?

    • Interestingly, almost everyone at the office has a different job! Although people work together on different projects, everyone has a unique role, for example last week several people were working on seemingly-unrelated tasks, including calling various artists and confirming donations for a charity auction in the spring, sending information to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs regarding funding, communicating with partners in India to coordinate an upcoming organic farming project, and (in my case) translating information about projects and our NPO for the English website.