Zachary Chapman : 室町児童館 Child Care Center

For my community involvement activity I volunteered at the muromachi jidoukan, an after-school center, where I played with children and taught English. The kids quickly took a liking to me, and everyday I would be tackled by a gaggle of them the moment I walked in.

    I noticed a lot of things while working at the jidoukan. First and foremost, was the independance displayed by the students. The kids were between the ages of 6 and 9 but displayed a far greater ability to solve problems for themselves compared to American children. For example, during snack time, Japanese students are expected to set up their own tables, get their own food, and pour drinks for each other. Teachers are essentially not involved. Also, when students had a conflict with each other, they were generally expected to be able to solve it on their own. Once, a student was fighting with another student over a toy, and the student went and asked the teacher for help. Instead of resolving the fight, the teacher asked the students about how they could resolve amongst themselves.

    Another time, a student destroyed a toilet. Us teachers had no clue who did it, so we had a student assembly, and one of the teachers talked about how the destruction of the toilet was a burden on everybody else. Here speech went along well with Japanese ideas of communal collectivism. In the end she asked the student to give him/herself up because they owed it to the jidoukan community as a whole. I thought this was quite interesting and different to how American teachers would have handled the situation.

In closing, I had a very interesting time working at the jidoukan. Working with Japanese kids enlightened me concerning a lot of facets of Japanese society.

Isaac Jemielita Tennis!

For my spring semester, I chose to play tennis at a local tennis group called Pacorn tennis. They meet everyday except Wednesday at courts nearby Omiya station. Because the most people come on the weekend, I would go every Friday and play tennis. This was good because usually people picked a regular day to go so I got to know several people over the course of the semester. I played a bit of tennis in high school but hadn’t had much of a chance to play in college. The level of play was just right for me and I have gotten a bit better at tennis and Japanese from doing it.

The way it’s structured is always the same. For an hour and a half, everyone does drills together. The remaining time is spent playing doubles. Since there a lot of people (sometimes as many as fifty people come!) and not many useable courts, there were a lot of chances to catch my breath and chat in Japanese.
One thing that happened every week is that at least one person would express concern about the way I was dressed. Everyone wears long sleeved atheistic shirts and work out pants. And a hat sometimes. I can’t really play tennis in pants, so I always wear shorts. Someone always asks me if I’m cold. Then I say no and they look at me like I’m an idiot who will probably die of hypothermia or something. Playing tennis in Japan was a great choice. It was a fun way to get exercise and meet Japanese people.

Amanda Grice: Klexon and Kyoto Cooking Circle

I am doing two activities for my CIP: taking cooking lessons with the Kyoto Cooking Circle, and volunteering my time at Klexon to help people practice English.

The Kyoto Cooking Circle was made to teach foreigners how to make Japanese food. It only meets once a month so I have only been to two meetings. The first one we made a Japanese stew dish called Nikujyaga. The second was a special meeting to teach a group of high schoolers studying abroad from Boston and took place in a very old style Japanese house. We cooked ramen over a very old wood-burning stove, and washed the vegetables from a hand-pump in the backyard. It was really interesting to be in a very old style Japanese home.

At Klexon we sit in rows at tables and talk to the person across from us. Every ten minutes we all shift one seat down so we get to practice with new people. After that, we split into groups and have a discussion.

Klexon is for anyone wanting to practice English, so it has been helpful for meeting a wider variety of people. I’ve seen college students, English teachers, pharmacy technicians, shopkeepers, Disney World workers, and chemical engineers, to name a few. I have also met other English speakers from all over the world — France, Holland, Syria, India, and Canada. I have been very thankful for this opportunity to meet and talk with such a variety of people and have made many friends at the meetings.

We’re always given a sheet of paper with a conversation topic on it but there have been many times where we have gotten sidetracked and never discussed it. Some topics have been favorite childhood foods, favorite childhood games, favorite thing to do in winter, dream vacations, or clubs you joined in high school.

I like the assigned topics sometimes because it gets you talking about things that usually don’t come up in regular conversation. For example, the night we talked about childhood games, I was seated at a table with three Japanese people, a Dutch man, and a French man. We discovered that we had played all the same childhood games, though we had different names for them. We bonded over these shared childhood experiences that I would not have guessed were so universal.

Some things I have to talk about again and again. I always have to talk about where I’m from and what is famous there and why I came to Japan and what is difficult about Japanese.

Many people I spoke to at Klexon did not understand why I wanted to learn Japanese because they felt like most people in the more visited areas of Japan spoke at least some English. In addition, most of them seemed to have felt forced to learn English for their careers. This was not true of everyone, though, and I met others who were learning English as a hobby along with other languages. 

I think Klexon has helped me be a better communicator. I was able to practice my Japanese during and after most meetings. But I also learned how to communicate better in English. Speaking to non-native English speakers forced me to speak clearly and learn how to word things so that they would be more universally understood.

Many people were shy with practicing their English. I can understand, since I’m very shy with using my Japanese. Over time I got better with keeping a conversation going, so that there would be no awkward silences.

I am really thankful I had this opportunity to meet so many different people and talk about culture.

Meave McIver-Sheridan: Koto lessons

This semester I continued to attend group koto lessons with Iwasaki sensei. We were joined by two more KCJS students, giving us the chance to work on learning and preparing to perform a piece together. Although I have been learning to play the koto, our new classmates took up the shamisen. Because of this I was able to learn a bit about the shamisen and even got the chance to try playing the shamisen once.

One major difference with my previous musical training, having only been exposed to the Western musical tradition before this, lies in the way the instruments are tuned. For example, although the shamisen reminds me of the violin in form, its tuning changes depending on the piece. The same is true for the koto. This reminded me of the way wind instruments in Western style orchestras sometimes receive music that has been transposed to different keys, although the instruments retain their standard tunings. With the koto, the tuning of the strings changes while the musical notation remains constant. While this makes the music much easier to read, because the notation is relative it has made understanding the music theory much more difficult.

Another characteristic of the music that I have noticed involves the way it is arranged. Most of the pieces that I have heard, even more difficult ones, are more sparsely arranged than much Western ensemble music. The spaces and pauses are more integral to the music, I think, than in music I am more familiar with. Only the shakuhachi and the vocal line provide sustained melodies, while the stringed koto and shamisen are plucked. This allows for longer spaces of time to elapse between end of one note and the start of the next.

One of the most pleasant aspects of this semester’s weekly koto lessons has been our sensei’s hospitality. Every week she provides hot tea and sometimes sweets or other snacks. Many weeks she also invites the students who are able to attend out to dinner. This welcoming atmosphere gives a homey atmosphere to Iwasaki sensei’s studio, making it easy for her students to look forward to returning each week.

Christine Lee: Bazaar Cafe Volunteer

When I first arrived at KCJS, I really had no idea what I wanted to do for a CIP activity. After scouring for hours on this very CIP blog and reading students’ various experiences, I decided that I wanted to do something a little bit out of my comfort zone: working in customer service at Bazaar Cafe. While the experience differed a little bit from my expectations (I did not interact with customers all that much), being a part of the Bazaar Cafe family was one of the most valuable experiences I had while studying abroad in Kyoto.

Bazaar Cafe was first founded in 1998 as essentially a safe space for people of all ages, nationalities, socioeconomic backgrounds, sexualities, and faiths to come gather and relax. The cafe is located just down the block in a small side street. The atmosphere is cozy with a wooden interior filled with the voices of people enjoying their (extremely delicious) dishes and the happy chatter of the staff in the kitchen.

Something that I really enjoyed about my time working as a volunteer was the casual atmosphere of Bazaar Cafe. By ‘casual,’ I mean that there’s not a lot of 敬語 (けいご – honorific language) that needs to be said. When I first arrived, I had practiced the written 敬語 phrases that KCJS suggested I use the first time I meet the cafe staff. However, on arriving, my supervisor, はっちゃん and レイカさん, were extremely kind and welcoming. From there, I started to build small, but strong relationships with the various volunteers and staff members that would make their way to the cafe.

Essentially, I would spend a lot of the time doing menial tasks such as washing the dishes, putting leftover rice in tupperware, fixing business cards, etc. But I felt that doing something that required little thinking ultimately allowed me to try and fully engage in conversation with the cafe staff. We talked about various things from first loves, Nicolas Cage movies to Filipinx dance. What I enjoyed most of all was the diversity amongst the staff members. There weren’t only just Japanese people, but Filipina and Thai staff that have lived in Japan for most of their lives. There were also people like me, who had just arrived in Japan or were studying abroad.

If anyone is looking for a chance to really engage in conversation, I would recommend this volunteering opportunity at Bazaar Cafe! In addition to sometimes being fed amazing food, I thought that the laidback and kind cafe environment was the ideal place for me to share my experiences as an exchange student and for the staff to tell me more about themselves. Overall, I hope that more students continue to volunteer their time at the cafe!

Leah Sorkin: Pacorn Tennis Circle

For my CIP, I joined Pacorn community tennis circle in Saiin, a neighborhood in southwest Kyoto. I decided to join the tennis circle because I wanted to find a CIP where I could be active but also meet people. When I first joined the tennis circle, I found it very difficult to figure out how practices were structured. It was obvious that there was an implicit hierarchy and that there was a certain order of drills within the practices, but no one verbally communicated any of this to me, so I was very confused for a couple of weeks while I figured everything out. It was also cold! Playing tennis outside in January is not the most comfortable, although aside from a few mutterings of “samui!”, no one ever complained. Throughout my time at the tennis circle though, the weather has warmed, and both the organizer, Ageta-san, the people I came to understand to be chosen by him as informal leaders and instructors, and everyone else were exceedingly welcoming. They tolerated my rusty tennis skills throughout the drills, and pulled me aside to help me learn or fix certain strokes one-on-one.

On the more social side of things, I never managed to break past small talk with anyone, but the circle provided me with the opportunity to meet many young Japanese professionals, an opportunity I probably would not have had otherwise. While most of the members of Pacorn are men in their 20s and 30s, who are often difficult to engage in conversation, especially, I think, from my standpoint as a young American woman, a few of them have reached out to me, especially more recently, and the few women in the circle have engaged me in interesting, if shallow, conversations. One very vivacious man introduced me to a great number of people a few weeks ago, and while I could not possibly remember all of them, his introductions helped with some of the hesitation around speaking to me, especially around whether I could speak Japanese.

All in all, I am glad that I dragged myself all the way across Kyoto to Saiin a few times this semester to get to play some tennis and interact some of Kyoto’s young professionals. I would recommend joining Pacorn to future KCJS students, especially if you live close by!

Nicholas Han: Assistant English Teacher at Ohara Academy

At my home school in America, my university offers a language partner program with study abroad students. I had really enjoyed teaching others English, which is why when I came to KCJS and had to pick a CIP, I was very interested in becoming an assistant English teacher. Once I started it at Ohara Academy, however, it did differ a little from what I expected.

My experiences back home with teaching Japanese tended to involve the meaning of phrases, often for American slang. As a result, I came in with expectations similar to that. However, because the students at Ohara were elementary and middle school students, their Japanese was not that advanced yet. Instead, it surprised me that what they really focused on was pronunciation and forming basic conversations. However, it was still enjoyable, as I was able to meet and talk with many young Japanese students.

During my time at Ohara, I also encountered a couple unexpected cultural customs. The first that comes to mind is how at Japanese schools, everyone is required to completely finish their food with no leftovers at all. One day, after eating lunch, I left a few tiny bits of rice in the bowl. However, when the teacher saw, he told me that in Japan you couldn’t do that. After that time, I made sure to finish everything every day. Furthermore, another surprising aspect of Japanese schools is how cleanup is done by the students. It contrasts significantly with American schools, where students tend to care very little for the school’s cleanliness. One final unexpected thing was that every day each class had a student assigned to begin class. They would call for all the students to stand up, and then everyone would say “good morning” to the teacher, before sitting down and beginning class.

I think my experiences as a English teaching assistant wasn’t quite what I expected when coming into it. Despite that, it was a great opportunity to see a completely different perspective of how school is run. Because of that, I think that it was a very worthwhile and rewarding experience that I would definitely consider doing again.

Trevor Menders: Kyoto National Museum

I had the opportunity this semester work Kyoto National Museum to fulfill my CIP requirement. As my focus within my East Asian Languages and Cultures program is art history, this was  a dream come true. I would get to work not only with the objects I had spent countless hours looking at in books and behind plexiglass cases, but at the same time I would get to use my Japanese in a professional environment. This kind of opportunity, though, naturally came with a lot of pressure: as I hope to enter museum work eventually as a professional, my coworkers and bosses weren’t just people I would be working with for the semester, but people I’d be in contact with for the rest of my career.

The CIP isn’t just an opportunity to apply Japanese in real life, but also to engage in real-time cultural learning. For me, this started right away. My entry into the museum in the capacity of volunteer research assistant and translator was a bit unprecedented—all kinds of people volunteer at the Museum, and many art history graduate students help with research and curatorial initiatives, but as an undergraduate in a non-Japanese degree program, I was not the most obvious candidate to help out the curatorial board. A lot of negotiating had to be done to get me in, and so on my arrival, my acquaintance at the Museum then helped me do the jikoshoukai and thank to the appropriate people—except that the appropriate people meant everyone who worked in the curatorial office. This surprised me; the idea of the jikoshoukai certainly doesn’t have an exact counterpart in English-language cultures, but the formality of the self-introduction aside, you would certainly never introduce yourself to so many people at the same time in an American office. I nervously moushimasu’d and yoroshiku onegaiitashimasu’d so many times on the first day that by the end I could hardly say the words correctly any more. This was my first indication that in the Japanese office environment, no matter how compartmentalized individual tasks may be, the whole office has significant input and participation in pretty much every aspect of operations, and because of that everyone is expected to be able to interact with everyone else from the get-go.

I hit the ground running: there was much to be translated. I was allowed to work on a variety of projects, starting with object labels from the Museum’s permanent collection which were out on frequent rotation, progressing through the special Hinamatsuri exhibition, instructional and didactic sheets for upcoming family workshops, and ultimately editing the audioguide script and translating articles for the monthly KNM newsletter and labels for the special Kaiho Yusho exhibition. I also learned the layout of the museum, and got to assist in a special showing of the Yamai no Soushi for visiting scholars. Such diverse projects exposed me to so many different aspects of the office culture. Of course, as a museum is a bit of a unique shokuba, I can’t imagine that this sort of office culture is applicable everywhere, but it felt great to begin to get a handle on what it feels like to be a member of Japanese working society.

The most interesting thing about the experience, in terms of cultural learning, was the snacks. At various jobs and internships I’ve held in the US, there’s usually a kitchen somewhere, with a pot of stale coffee on the counter and someone’s leftovers in the refrigerator. However, this was not the case here whatsoever. My desk, part of the education department’s section, sat right across from the designated snack table. Edible meibutsu are a big part of Japanese omiyage and otherwise gift-giving culture; whenever somebody would come from outside the museum for any sort of business meeting or special viewing, some sort of fancily wrapped okashi would undoubtedly accompany them, regardless of their relation to the museum. After being humbly accepted, the snacks would then be passed around to the people who had the most direct relation to the meeting or showing, then be set out on the snack table for anyone to enjoy. Museum staff who went on vacation or business trips would similarly bring back snacks for the office, distributed in a similar fashion.

I had a discussion with one of the curators about this snacking culture. I expressed the genuine surprise I had felt when I received my first wagashi, a manju from Tokyo given by a visiting scholar, after helping with an object showing. She laughed and asked if this sort of gift giving was not standard in America—my response couldn’t have been a vehement enough “no.” If this happened to anyone in a professional environment in the US (myself included) I would be immediately be suspicious that the person giving the gifts wanted some sort of favor for me. As “yoroshiku onegaishimasu” implies, this sort of gift giving in Japan does presume to elicit a favor in a vague sense—that of continued good relations—but not in the way I’d infer in an English-speaking environment.

The learning experiences, both academic and cultural, afforded to me at the Museum have been invaluable, and they are memories of satisfying work and enjoyable conversation that I will cherish for a long time. To anyone considering this sort of formal work environment for their own CIP, I can only advise to not hesitate and to jump in straightaway. Initially, because of the perceived culture and language barrier, it can be a bit difficult to prove your own merit, but once you situate yourself, the dedication to work is inspiring, and it’s a great feeling to be included in such dedicated pursuits.

Kimberly Madrid: Volunteering at Kyoto International Manga Museum

For my CIP, I am volunteering at the Kyoto International Manga Museum once a week. The museum has over 300,000 items in its collection of manga volumes and magazines and guests spend hours pouring over their favorite series or finding new ones. Despite the museum feeling more like a library than like an actual museum, it does have permanent exhibitions on display and has special exhibitions and events every few months.

KCJS’s contact at the museum, Watanabe-san, is one of the sweetest people I’ve met while in Japan. She helped me feel much more comfortable about my role at the museum from my first shift. On my first day, she gave me the official tour and introduced me to most of the museum staff. Although I had mentally prepared myself to do self-introduction after self-introduction, Watanabe-san actually ended up doing my self-introduction for me, telling staff members, my name, home institution, what I was currently studying at Doshisha, and in one case, even my favorite food (our initial conversation had been very extensive). At the time, I was both kind of relieved and kind of put out. My Japanese may be shaky, but I can do at least a self-introduction, I thought. But when I mentioned this in Japanese class recently, it was pointed out that maybe that was Watanabe-san’s way of both helping calm my first-day jitters and taking responsibility for me as someone who would be working under her.

As for what I actually do at the museum, it varies from menial tasks like making plastic covers for manga volumes to writing a script for an English tour to going through the special galleries and writing my thoughts on them. Some days are more exciting than others, like when I was told to go look at all the exhibits of the Kyoto Seika University Manga Faculty Graduation Showcase and talk to the Seika students. Others are slow, spent cutting plastic and outfitting volumes in it. But I am really glad I chose to volunteer here. While it is a bit difficult to get to know the staff members as my break is at a different time than theirs, becoming a part of the Manga Museum community is definitely doable if you put in the effort. There’s usually one person on their lunch break at the same time I have my break and I’ve chatted with a couple of staff members after running into them in the hallway. Recently I started helping out at the front desk and between greeting customers, I had a fun conversation about my time in Japan and favorite manga with Tsuchida-san, one of the front desk staff.

Overall, I’ve had fun while volunteering at the Manga Museum. While I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re looking for something more social, the museum is definitely a great place to have as a CIP.

Yupei Guo: Volunteering at the Kyoto Museum for World Peace, Ritsumeikan University


Discussing the video project proposal with student staff members.

This semester, for my CIP activities, I have continued working at the Kyoto Museum of World Peace affiliated to Ritsumeikan University. Although last semester my responsibilities were more mechanical (such as helping with translation between Chinese, English and Japanese), this semester I have gained more insight into Japanese society through a video campaign project I proposed; specifically, since my project involves interviewing other student staff members of the museum, I was able to observe their interactions with superiors, senpai, and kohai. I was also able to put some of my new knowledge into practice through socializing with them outside of my work hours.

Through my interviews and meetings, I was able to pick up and practice the many complex forms of keigo (honorific speech) depending on the relation between me and the person I was addressing. For example, I noticed that student staff members, even if the same age as me or “senpai”, would use the passive form keigo (sareru) with me – before, I had always assumed that simple -desu/masu would suffice. It took me some time to get it right, but I was finally able to reciprocate. Other forms, such as the complex “sasete-itadaku” and “shite-itadaku”, I learned in my regular language class, yet was given ample opportunities to put into use at my CIP. I also heard “-haru” used quite frequently, as friendly respectful language between colleagues or towards a junior member.

Aside from language, I also gained a more nuanced understanding of Japanese culture. Last week, I was told by Shiotari-san, a student staff member, that initially my superiors were surprised or even shocked at my proposal to make a promotional video, because Japanese people are not used to promoting themselves and instead prefer remaining “behind the scene”. Having lived for quite some time in the United States, where self-promotion is considered a virtue rather than vice, I was astonished. In another instance, I was invited to lunch by Li-san, an international student from China. I happily accepted, yet Li-san insisted that she “really” wanted to have lunch with me. I then learned that for many Japanese people, an invitation to lunch only serve as a perfunctory polite phrase to indicate that a conversation is finished; in China, any invitation to lunch would have to be genuine, otherwise it would be incredibly rude. Without my CIP, I would not have noticed these nuanced differences so quickly.

I started my CIP being extremely nervous and did not even dream that one day I would proudly call myself a member of the Museum community. Heading to a Japanese workplace setting when you are still learning the language can be a stressful experience, yet as long as you remain open-minded, are open to taking risks, take on initiatives and challenges, and are not afraid of making mistakes in daily speech or in your responsibilities, you will get there. My CIP has taught me keigo and nuances of Japanese culture, yet it has also challenged me to work harder and always strive for more, and for that I am grateful.