Andrew Wellen: Volunteering for NicoNico Tomato

For my Community Involvement Project, I volunteered with an organization called NicoNico Tomato at Kyoto University Hospital. NicoNico Tomato plans crafts and fun activities for children with serious illnesses staying at the hospital. Because I am a pre-med student, I was interested in getting more patient experience while abroad, and while I admittedly did not have as much interaction as I would have liked, I have really enjoyed my time volunteering. Although NicoNico Tomato has many volunteers who come in with varying frequency, most are older ladies who have had their own children benefit from the organization. Each week they would offer me tea before setting me up with some small activities to do, like coloring, cutting paper, or blowing up balloons. It was nice to be able to take a break from classwork and do something relaxing, even more so when considering the good cause.

Although at first I was fairly quiet and only talked with everyone when they asked me questions, I gradually became more and more comfortable. I have shared a lot of cultural experiences and learned a lot about Japanese culture from talking with them, everything from the differences between how Easter is celebrated in America and Japan to how Japanese people pick up on different regional dialects. Everyone was very patient in putting up with my Japanese, and it was fun trying to find ways to work around the language barrier and describe ideas that the other culture did not have. Through everything I got to know the ladies of NicoNico Tomato, and I will miss them when this semester is over. The amount of time they dedicate to volunteering is amazing, as is the effect they are having on these sick kids’ lives. Spending time with them has helped me step back and realize that there is a world outside of KCJS in Japan. The couple of times I did get to do activities with the children, although it was fun, it was also sad when thinking some of them might not have that much longer to live. But seeing everyone come together to make things more bearable for these children was inspiring. Becoming a part of this outside community has been one of the highlights of my study abroad experience.

Katie May: Flute Lessons

For my CIP, I took flute lessons twice a month from the same teacher that I had my Junior year abroad in Osaka. It was nice to see how much I had improved in four years not just in my flute playing but also in my Japanese. I remember four years ago we spent a good bit of time with the Japanese- English dictionary during lessons trying to get our point across to each other. This semester I only had to use the dictionary a few times for more technical musical terms. It was a nice confidence boost to be able to have a conversation in Japanese  with someone who isn’t a Doshisha teacher or a host-parent. Overall I think it was a good experience that helped my Japanese and my flute playing.

Yiwei Ding: Shamisen Lesson


During the course of learning Shamisen, not only did I learn how to play this classical Japanese instrument, but also did I know more about how Japanese people greet each other and treat people of different relations with varied ways.

Every time Okada-san(one of the fellow students) or Iwasaki sensei came back from a trip, they would buy us souvenirs such as Taiwan okashi or cookies from Hokkaido. For easier distribution, the souvenirs always have dozens of small packages within the large box. Sometimes Okada-san would show us pictures from some events. Personally speaking, it’s really a good tradition to bring stuff for friends or co-workers from a trip. It’s always a good thing to share the happiness with other people of a journey. And it also surprise me how considerate Japanese people are that they would remember to buy the right the amount and size of gifts so as not to bother people.

I’m also glad to have the opportunity to attend Okada-san’s graduation recital. It’s in a Japanese style room in a beautiful building complex. All the performers were wearing Kimono and sitting on their knees. For the first time that I experienced the Japanese performing culture in real. I was told by Nakamura-sensei that everyone should at least behave properly, although the audiences are not necessarily required to sit on their knees, it’s important to mind your behavior and keep quiet during the performance. At the break time, Iwasaki-sensei had prepared Japanese Matcha and okashi for all the people present. It’s really a great tradition to always treat your customers nicely.

All the beautiful songs that had been played have gentle and intriguing rhythms which are different from what I have ever heard before in modern music.

After experiencing how nicely and neatly Japanese people treat each other and how this kind of culture affect their way of being, I really appreciate this great opportunity of doing CIP and learning new skills and traditions in this country.


Nicole Flett: Doshisha Hula Circle

Dance has always been a big part of my life, so my first thought for CIP was joining a university dance circle. Although I wanted to join a hiphop circle, they unfortunately didn’t answer my email for a few weeks (twitter seems to be the big contact hub for university circles but I didn’t want to create an account). Instead I joined Meahula, a hula group on campus open to females only. They usually don’t take students mid-year (I ran into this problem quite a lot with other dance groups), but since I’ve previously danced hula for about 6 years, the president allowed me to join and learn the first-year group dances.


As much as I disagree with strict kouhai-senpai relationships, I’m glad I was able to experience it with my own eyes through the group. Examples include the senpai waiting for first years to move all the desks and chairs out of the way whenever we used the classroom, and also first years feeling they did something wrong because it wasn’t them who took the mirrors all the way from the other room but the older students. Yet according to my friend, the hula group is one of the stricter ones on campus compared to other university circles in terms of the senpai-kouhai relationship, but it is still far less strict than high school clubs.


I was in the weird position of being a foreigner – one who was sort of a first year for the group because I was learning the first-year dances, but the same age and grade as the senpai, and technically everybody’s senpai in hula because of how much experience I have. Everyone approached me to talk during breaks, but only in groups of kouhai or senpai – there was only once when I was talking to both first years and a senpai at the same time. I was also able to get away with a lot of advantages by not being a real part of the group – I didn’t have to pay fees since I was only borrowing a skirt and uniform, and I also didn’t have to pay for participating in the festival. If anyone felt animosity towards me for being able to swoop in, they didn’t show it though (but my privilege is something I couldn’t help but keep in mind, which is why I made efforts to go to both practices every week – also because I genuinely enjoyed being able to talk and dance with new and old people). I had a great time dancing something I hadn’t in such a long time, and I made a few good friends (both first years, who were arguably easiest to talk to, and senpai who were the same age as me), and many new acquaintances (there were so many girls that when I talked to some for one practice I usually didn’t talk to them again because the next time there would be a new group of girls I’d be talking to). A few my favorite conversations included dropping the “Harvard” bomb, saying that my favorite food was taiyaki, and perfecting the art of talking about my studies and where I live. The best part was hearing that many of the girls admired English and the US because people can say their opinions straightforwardly. If the modern generation thinks this way, I wonder if these senpai-kouhai and strict keigo-speaking relationships can slowly change?



Dylan Jekels: Calligraphy Lessons

Coming into KCJS, I was certain that I would join a club for my CIP project. I was excited to interact with college-aged students at Doshisha and learn more about circle culture. However, when I found out that my host mother was good friends with a calligraphy teacher, I was immediately interested. I had never tried calligraphy, English or otherwise, and found myself drawn to it.

Not to state the obvious, but calligraphy is really difficult: there is a posture for it, you have to have the right tools and set up your paper in the correct manner. As the semester progressed, I also came to realize that there is a proper headspace for writing something well-balanced and appealing to the eye. Taking calligraphy this semester really helped me to think about the relationship between artist, brush, paper, ink, and final product – as an art history major, making these connections was important. I found myself looking forward to returning each week in order to learn more and progress my technique.

Most valuable of all, however, is the relationship that I formed with the calligraphy teacher, Asakusa-sensei. At first, I wasn’t sure how to communicate with her. As time progressed, though, she began helping me with Japanese as I helped her with English. Our conversations ranged from clothes to earthquakes. Although the typical teacher-student relationship can be quite rigid, I feel as though I have earned a true friend within Asakusa-sensei. At the end of each lesson, we would chat over tea and a snack. She introduced me to interesting aspects of Japanese culture, like how to wear a kimono, the tofu truck, and we even went to see the emperor of Japan drive by when he was visiting Kyoto. Her guidance and warmth has encouraged me to continue pursuing calligraphy when I return to the United States.

I encourage anyone who is unsure of what to pursue for their CIP project to outstep the limits of your own mind. The most valuable things that I gained from my CIP was the experience in a new art form and the companionship of my teacher – you can find such treasures all around Kyoto, if you just look a little bit outside of your comfort zone.

Yupei Guo: Koto Lessons

Right from the beginning, I knew that I wanted to involve myself in Japanese music – I had always held an interest for traditional Japanese music, yet always lacked the time and energy to serious pursue it. I was soon lucky enough to be introduced to Iwazaki-sensei’s Japanese music studio, and thus began my CIP playing the Japanese koto.

Having played the Chinese equivalent of the koto for ten years, I began my lessons expecting somewhat of an easy ride. However, the differences between the two instruments were far more pronounced than I had thought. Japanese music tend to follow an entirely different scale, standing in sharp contrast to the major scale that is omnipresent in the Chinese music I was used to playing. The minor scale that I encountered so much in my koto pieces was what gave Japanese music its unique “sound” – a sentiment of reserved melancholy; furthermore, the octaves are not set and I was astounded by just how many notes can be played on merely thirteen strings, and for the first few weeks I struggled painfully, even with words of encouragement from my kind sensei.

My classmates are all seniors above the age of sixty, and upon my first session I was intimidated, assuming that they would not be interested in talking with me, or would despise a foreigner. Nevertheless, throughout our interactions I was able to pick up some confidence and practice my newly-acquired skills of keigo and aisatsu. For instance, for the first few weeks, I made the mistake of saying “soudeshouka” when trying to acknowledge someone, and was promptly met with friendly laughter by my fellow classmates – it took me several weeks (and a lot of blunders!) to realize that the correct response, to show interest in someone’s conversation, would be “sou nandesuka” – “soudesuka” or “soudeshouka” actually implies disinterest (rather like the English “interesting”) – and is terribly rude. Having thoroughly embarrassed myself, I nevertheless actively used my newly acquired skills in our next conversation, much to the delight of my sensei. In another time, my sensei said “otsukaresama” to me, congratulating me after several hours of hard work, and I, in a panic, did not know what to say – I’ve learnt in class that saying “otsukaresama” to a senior is terribly rude, but I also wanted to demonstrate my appreciation of her tireless instructions – again, observation of classmates taught me that in this case, “arigatou gozaimasu” or even “kochira koso” might be considered socially acceptable responses. It is through instances like these that I finally put my keigo to use, and finally gain footing in sounding like a real Japanese person immersed in a Japanese society.

Outside of classes, we often have dinner together. Initially, I have considered my classmates to be worlds apart from me, yet throughout conversations, I realized that we may have a lot more in common. Surprisingly, even if we share difference surface level cultural traits -such as language, food, customs, history – deep down, we share similar ways of thinking. I have been surprised constantly at just how contemporary, liberal, and open-minded my classmates are – my previous stereotypes of Japanese people being conservative, reserved, and almost xenophobic have been completely shattered. In other words, koto lessons are far more than just music classes – they have guided me into a fascinating community and have shattered stereotypes I didn’t even realize I held.

Sinai Cruz: Nagaoka Catholic Church

This semester, my CIP experience was a little rough, so even though this was not officially my CIP, I would like to write about my experience attending mass at the local parish, Nagaoka Catholic Church. Almost every week since I moved into my host family’s house, I would attend mass in Japanese from 11 AM-12 PM, the only mass offered on Sundays. One of the nice things about being Catholic is that the general structure and content of the mass will be the same no matter what country, or what language, it is being given in. However, every culture brings its own nuances and traditions, so I was very fortunate this semester to observe several uniquely Japanese Catholic practices over the course of these past few months.

For example, there is a part of the mass where the priest lifts up the Sacramental bread. In America during this part, one usually kneels, or in the absence of kneelers, such as in this church, one stands and inclines their head. However, in Japan, we did a deep bow towards the altar for a few seconds instead. As we all know, the degree of a bow establishes hierarchy and demonstrates respect. The particular bow used in this part of the mass hovered between a 普通礼、a polite bow, and a 最敬礼、a deeply reverent bow. Outside of religious environments, a saikeirei bow is generally only used with the emperor or when being deeply apologetic, while a futsuurei is much more commonly used in every day life with superiors. I found it interesting to notice how deeply people bowed during this part, though I generally opted for the saikeirei myself.

Another interesting tradition took place around two weeks ago, since November is Shichi-Go-San month. A young mother brought her sons to the mass to be blessed; both boys looked around seven (not a traditional boy’s year). Instead of traditional kimonos, they wore collared white shirts and loose black slacks. The priest read a special prayer for them and sprinkled them with Holy Water. I was very surprised that there was also a version of 7/5/3 celebrated in Japanese Catholicism, since I had thought it to be a traditional Shinto activity. However, as anyone who has been to a shrine this month can see, it is a tradition widely celebrated in Japan. Since the purpose of 7/5/3 is to thank God for the health and safety of the child, the tradition can obviously be adapted rather easily to different religious environments.

Lastly, I would like to talk about some of the language used between parishioners. In October, I was fortunate enough to be able to attend a church outing to the Kyoto Zoo. The priest offered to drive me and two older parishioners to the Zoo. While the elderly ladies always spoke to me, and between themselves, in casual form, they would switch suddenly to desu/masu form when talking to the priest, or when talking about the priest. Even though the priest was younger than them, because of his status as a priest, they spoke more politely to him. However, the priest would generally reply in regular, male, plain form, like 「知らね」. Using polite language with priests is the way it is back home as well, but usually a priest will also use polite language in reply, not casual. It was a little jarring to see how abruptly they could switch between speaking styles, so I was able to realize just how important it is to be able to distinguish between different social situations and how important it is to use desu/masu form or keigo with people of a higher social status.

Overall, as both a practicing Catholic and as a religion major, I was very fortunate to be able to find such a warm and welcoming Catholic community that allowed me to observe and participate in their Japanese Catholic traditions.

Laurie Wang: Cell Biology Research at Kyoto University

For my CIP this semester, I decided to participate in two activities. The first was to volunteer once a week at the iCeMS Science Communications Group, where I worked as a translator and helped with bi-weekly event preparations. The second was working at the Hosokawa Lab of Kyoto University for the  Molecular and Cellular Biology Institute for Frontier Medical Sciences. From these two, I got to experience two sides of Japanese work culture: that of the office environment as well as the freer laboratory setting. However, since I spent the majority of my time working in the lab, I will spend this report describing my experiences there and save iCeMS for next semester’s blog post.

Upon coming to Japan, I researched some labs on my own and eventually settled on the Hosokawa Lab, which mainly focuses on the mechanisms of Endoplasmic Reticulum Associated Degradation (ERAD) and the roles of chaperones and lectin function. After sending the first nerve-wracking email to Hosokawa-sensei,  I was very ecstatic to hear back from her that I could participate and continue cell biology research in Kyoto despite my one year’s worth of Japanese abilities. We exchanged emails entirely written in extremely formal keigo, which was a challenge to me at the time. Soon enough, I was invited to visit the lab!

My first meeting almost failed to happen – I somehow ended up in the East building (the lab is in the West – thank my poor navigational skills for that), and ended up having to ask two researchers where to go. I was quickly ushered into their office as they dialed the main reception to ask which building I was to head to. From there, a reception worker picked me up from the opposite building and took me directly to Hosokawa’s office. Throughout this process, everyone used keigo and thanked each other politely, and I followed suit, though inside I was already panicking inside. If I can barely use keigo to find my way around the Kyodai campus, how was I going to do that officially – on a daily basis – in a lab?

To my surprise, this worry never came into fruition. First, I was taken aback by just how welcome and cheerful  Hosokawa-sensei was from the first time I stepped into her office – she was a character far cry from the more reserved and serious personality I’ve come to expect from older Japanese women. She wore jeans, had unruly hair, and throughout the semester joked about the news, especially regarding the 2016 U.S. election together, with me. She was also the only woman in the lab other than me out of the eight members total, which both 1) stood out to me because I’m used to more women researchers in biology in America, and 2) impressed me because she held the greatest seniority and leadership in what seems to be a male-dominated field in Japan.

As far as other discoveries are concerned, I was mostly amazed at everyone’s utter disregard for keigo whilst in the lab (even the undergrads!). It seemed to me that the norm was apparently to use keigo with others outside of the lab: the deliveryman, and the man who takes orders for lab supplies twice a week, and people you make phone calls to. However, the atmosphere within is much more casual, though still polite (です・ます forms abounded), which made sense to me because the group as a whole seemed very close knit. However, as past students have noticed, this also translated to little socialization with other people of other lab groups, despite it being the opposite case in America.

Throughout the semester, I ended up staying in the lab quite a bit, around twenty hours per week; still, I learned that no matter how hard I work, Japanese PI’s work harder- and for very long periods of time. Usually Hosokawa-sensei leaves long after midnight (“It’s okay because I just live five minutes away!” she proudly exclaims), and comes early the next morning, seven days a week, even on holidays. This of course isn’t to say that all Japanese researchers are workaholics – Tanaka-san, a fellow lab member, apparently likes to take breaks in his day to return to his dormitory, conveniently located two minutes away by bike, to take naps. Furthermore, Hosokawa-sensei herself even took a break one day to take me to see the beautiful autumn leaves in Arashiyama, which goes to show that she isn’t against spending time enjoying herself, but that she truly enjoys doing the work she does.

In addition, there were a couple of other interesting Japanese quirks to the lab that I noticed – taking off your shoes every time you entered a different laboratory, using automatic lights to save energy, and reusing anything and everything that has the potential to be used again. Seeing the dark hallways and crowds of shoes gave me the impression that the facilities in Kyodai were run down at first, but I soon came to appreciate just how much the U.S. can learn from such environmentally-aware habits in the laboratory. Nevertheless, other than these, I felt that doing research in American and Japan didn’t differ as much as one might expect. To this end, I am forever grateful to Hosokawa-sensei, Kyoto University, my labmates, KCJS, and finally, Yale’s Light Fellowship for making this opportunity possible for me. I loved working in the lab, and I hope to continue doing it next semester.  

Maeve McIver-Sheridan: Koto Lessons

Right from the start of KCJS, I knew that I wanted my CIP to involve music. While not particularly accomplished, I have played the violin since I was very young. I found it hard to imagine my life without orchestra and lessons every week. Because of this, I initially contacted the Doshisha orchestra, but found that their rehearsal schedule conflicted with my own schedule. Although I was disappointed, I was soon presented with another opportunity. A friend who is excellent at the Chinese version of the koto had found a KCJS recommended koto instructor whom we could take lessons with.

Although I did not expect to have the opportunity to take lessons on a new instrument, my experience learning to play the koto has been very rewarding. Having played only Western classical music in the past, I have found that learning an instrument that is so different from what I have been used to has stretched my understanding of music in many different ways. One aspect that I found particularly challenging was the music notation. Music for the koto is transcribed using numbers denoting the 13 strings of the instrument. Because there are only 13 strings, there are a limited number of notes available with any given tuning. The music can, however, require the pitch of a string to be changed by a half step or a whole step by depressing the string to varying degrees. Although the tuning of the pieces did not come very naturally to me, I nonetheless found myself relying on my ear more than I do with Western music notation, which I know how to read much better. I hope that this ear training will help me to become more acclimated to Japanese music harmonies as I continue to practice the koto.

One other interesting aspect of my time spent at koto lessons involved the other people we took lessons with. For the first couple of weeks, we joined a large group of adult students who variously played koto, shamisen, and shakuhachi. These folks were very kind and welcoming, helping demonstrate techniques for me on the first day and eventually taking us out to dinner on one occasion. One thing that surprised me was how easygoing and approachable our sensei could be, while still presenting rigorous material and expecting our best work. There were also several younger students who joined us at varying times, including one young woman who proved to be a very patient and understanding teacher when she stood in for our regular sensei once or twice. All in all, I believe that studying the koto has been a very positive experience for me and I am enthusiastic to continue next semester.

Alan Cheng: Origami Circle

For my CIP, I joined an origami circle and took shodo (書道) calligraphy lessons. The origami circle meets weekly on Wednesdays between 6 and 8pm in the Kanbaikan (寒梅館), located just a minute’s walk away from the Doshisha’s Imadegawa campus. No experience is needed and membership is not limited to only Doshisha students—any college student studying in Kyoto is welcome. The shodo lessons, on the other hand, were taught by a sensei living in my host family’s neighborhood, recommended to me by my host mother. The lessons took place once a week on Tuesdays from 7 to 9pm, so even though I participated in two activities, it was only a commitment of four hours per week with minimal travel, which was manageable with my schedule.

For this post, I’ll be focusing on the origami circle, which had more group interaction compared to my shodo lessons. The origami circle had a very relaxed atmosphere. We could fold whatever we liked, with paper and origami instruction books provided by the circle. There was no strict attendance requirement, so members could come and go each week as they pleased.

By participating in the circle, I feel like I have a better understanding of how group structures work in Japanese society from. Before, I envisioned that all clubs and circles would have a fairly rigid senpai-kohai structure, and I was curious to see what that would be like. However, the group structure, too, was fairly relaxed, and the senpai-kohai dynamic wasn’t so palpable in the origami circle. Rather, it felt more like a circle of friends—those who were more familiar with each other used casual language, while those less familiar stuck to polite form. For instance, during the first few sessions I attended, one of the more involved members (who was younger than I) used keigo when speaking to me, which is what one might expect in terms of senpai-kohai relations. However, after going out to dinner with fellow club members, they started using casual language with me without concern for age differences. The origami circle gave me a broader view on how Japanese people interact within groups.

As for advice to incoming KCJS students, I would recommend actively participating in CIP activities as soon as possible. I didn’t join the origami circle until a month into the program because I was still waiting for responses from some other groups and I didn’t want to commit to too many groups at once. In retrospect, I should have just joined the origami group from the start and been more decisive.