Throughout the semester I volunteered at a small café located near Doshisha called Bazaar Café. What initially attracted me to this particular place was its policy on accommodating all kinds of people, regardless of things like sexuality, illness, nationality, etc. I don’t think minority experiences are what one typically has in mind when they think of Japanese culture, or any kind of culture, so I joined out of a curiosity to see what that might look like.
I wasn’t surprised to find that it was just an ordinary café. Every Wednesday I simply washed dishes and chatted with my co-workers, something I found to be quite enjoyable. Of course, at the start I had my own preconceptions of what “immersing myself in Japanese society” would be like when I volunteered. It’s hard not to default to generalizations, especially ones as unique as Japan’s. I was worried about being formal and how much making mistakes in my Japanese would affect my relationships with the other workers. However, on my first day I was immediately given the nickname “Gabby-chan” by my co-workers who also introduced themselves with a nickname using the honorific “chan”. The atmosphere of the café wasn’t formal at all, and I would speak both politely and somewhat casually without anyone remarking on it. My co-workers joked around often despite the age differences between them, and would often involve me in these jokes as if I had been there for as long as they had.
It was things like this that made me quickly realize that I couldn’t draw any concrete conclusions about Japanese culture from my time volunteering at the café. My co-workers would also switch between speaking formally and speaking casually. They wouldn’t talk about themselves too much or about Japan, because it wasn’t as relevant as what needed doing around the café. The most “Japanese” things I observed were all the shoes out on the veranda that you took off before you came inside, and now I know that Shizuoka is famous for its eel dishes. To replace this lack of cultural observation, I found that I was able to deconstruct ideas I previously held instead. For example, I’ve learned in my Japanese classes that “umai” isn’t typically used by women. Neither is “azasu”, but one of my female co-workers used those kinds of masculine words very often. This particular instance reminded me that to learn about a place you really have to experience things on an individual level, and not expect behaviour that you only learn about in a classroom to apply to an entire country.
I think my CIP experience has been very rewarding and I would definitely recommend volunteering at Bazaar Café to people looking for something both fun and low energy, workwise. However, I will say that volunteering here is very much what you make of it for yourself. Everyone was very kind to me. They’d chat with me whenever the café wasn’t particularly busy, or offer me whichever random snacks they had around the kitchen. But there were also slow days where I didn’t say much at all. I had to push myself to be social and gradually overcome a fear of making mistakes that would sometimes hold me back when it came to conversations. It was very much an experience I benefitted from because I made the conscious decision to speak more each time I went, and my advice would be to do the same.