For my Community Involvement Project (CIP) this semester, I continued to participate in Doshisha’s Hiking Club. Because Japanese students were on spring break for a few weeks of the semester, we were not able to meet as often as we did in the fall. Nevertheless, on the weeks that everyone was able to assemble in our club room for our Saturday afternoon meetings, we would usually head for the trails of the mountains surrounding Kyoto or go on training runs in Gosho, the imperial palace that sits right by Doshisha’s campus, or by the river near campus.
More than just working out and going on hikes together because we had to, it felt like we all were interested in staying active because we all really wanted to. I noticed this in particular this semester, because many of the club members showed up for our meetings despite being on vacation. Even though many of them had other obligations during their spring break, they still made the effort to come out every Saturday. If I could place why this was so, it’s because they all valued the community we’ve built and all wanted to see as much of Kyoto as possible by foot.
I’ve spent practically every Saturday this year with the hiking club. I have really enjoyed these meetings, because it’s felt like I’ve been part of a team, despite not being Japanese, and despite not speaking perfect Japanese all of the time either.
So, if you’re looking to stay active and to be a part of a great community, check out this club!
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.
For my CIP project I volunteered at Kyotographie this semester. Kyotographie is an International photography festival that takes place in Kyoto every Spring. My work there included making timelines for various events, translating the program introduction into Chinese, creating a media outreach list, and putting up posters in Universities and cafes.
Kyotographie is a very International workplace. There are staffs from France, Britain and Hong Kong. It is a generally easygoing work environment: people sit around a big table, the director brings her kids in sometimes, and work hours are flexible. Nevertheless I still caught a glimpse of the Japanese work environment. For example, when Japanese staffs are listening to their supervisors, they have to answer “はい” after each and every sentence to show that they understand what he/she is talking about. However, the conversation is very fast-paced and the response is too immediate to convince outsiders like me to believe that they truly understand. It seems more natural to me that if people take more time to digest the information and ask more questions. When they are talking to me they slow down a little bit and use easier words to make sure that I understand.
It was also surprising that one of the staff would reply to me back in English every time even though I speak to her in Japanese. It is a common phenomena I often witness in Japan but did not expect to be the case at a work place. It reminds me that when I am in China and a foreigner speaks Chinese to me I might reply him/her in English as well. For some people they see it as an opportunity to practice English, and for some else it is a place one can say “Hey I speak English as well.” I think it is largely due to the fact that Japan and China (and most East Asian countries) are relatively homogenous societies where people don’t get to interact with “outsiders,” and it makes the moment that they speak another language special. However, now that I have lived in Japan and learned that speaking a language while the other person is using another to talk to you can be frustrating for that person, I know how to interact with foreign people better.
Overall working in Kyotographie is fun and if you are looking for CIP in Spring semester I recommend checking Kyotographie out. Also, the exhibitions are going to be from April 14th to May 13th, I will be doing supporting staff work for the exhibitions then and please come to visit us!
In addition to the daily Japanese classes and electives, I spent the spring semester of 2018 volunteering and helping out the staff at the Kyoto University Hospital’s In-patient Children’s NicoNico Tomato Program. Every week consists of a new task designed to celebrate the closest holiday. The sheer level of consideration for the children throughout my time there was highly impressive and completely tangible. Despite the gap in language levels, I was able to grasp that these obaa-chans that worked at NicoNico were very fond of children.
The first project I worked on with the staff of NicoNico was Valentine’s Day cards for the in-patient children. The completion of these cards took the span of several weeks, likely due to the level of details incorporated into each card. Not only did the card require precise sewing techniques, a realistic rendition of a bar of chocolate was incorporated as well, looking freshly opened with the foil artistically ripped. The end result took the appearance of a coat on a hanger with a white, fluffy scarf coiled around the hanger to make it more realistic.
While working on individual components of large projects, the staff gossips as furiously as one might expect obaa-chans to do. The instances of gossips were both among the most interesting and yet most difficult part of my community experience. While the stories are highly entertaining when I understand them, the counter is that I rarely manage to fully understand them. From their interactions, it seems evident that the obaa-chans have likely known each other for a significant period of time and are friendly enough to use highly casual forms of speech with each other. As such, conversation between the other staff typically occur in casual Japanese with liberal usage of regional dialects.
With my ears constantly hearing casual forms, I subconsciously want to return conversation in such a way despite knowing that the more proper way is more appropriate. It is particularly difficult as interactions with the children are meant to be done in casual, while interactions with the staff and the parents of the children should be more formal. The transitions are exceedingly odd and difficult to adjust to, and perhaps I can argue that I have learned a lot about switching formality of speech through this experience, but truly, I have only been able to notice it after committing mistakes after mistakes of misrepresented respect. Nevertheless, the experience of working with children and for the children was highly enjoyable with the welcoming staff. I would definitely enjoy continuing volunteer work in this program if I had a longer time to spend in Japan.
This semester, I joined Doshisha University’s Figure Skating Club. They have practices one a week from 6:30am-8:30am, but the location of practice changes with the season. From November to March, the practices are held at Kyoto Aquarena; however, from April to October, the rink is turned into a pool. Due to that reason, practices are then moved to Osaka.
I joined a sports club this semester because I wanted to meet more people my age. The club members are really dedicated, so pretty much everyone goes to practice every week. I was honestly surprised by how dedicated they are. Some people live in Osaka, so they wake up at 4 in the morning just to make it to practice on time. Another girl I met lived too far away to make in time for practice, so she sleeps over her friend’s apartment in Kyoto the night before practice. I was considering quitting the club for reasons that will be explained later, but when I saw everyone put their all in the club, I thought it would be rude of me to not do that same. Because of that, I continued with the club.
Another thing I found really interesting was the club dynamic. It was always the first years responsibility to set up the music and clean it up at the end of practice. I offered to help, but they would always politely refuse and say it was the first years’ job. The upperclassmen have other responsibilities, so setting and cleaning up got delegated to the first years. I also think it is a way to make all club members more involved aside from just having fun and skating. The senpai or the experienced members’ responsibility to teach and guide the inexperienced members. Aside from one day, I never saw a coach at practice. The captain would decide how practice would run and lead the drills. There are many experienced members (experienced as in they started skating when they were in elementary school) who would give advice to beginners and teach them new tricks. I really appreciated it when the captain came by to check up on me and helped me with the basics.
I really did enjoy the club and was even able to go watch a figure skating competition. I am actually happy that I continued to go to the club, but I did not get as close as I hoped. I was a total beginner; the only thing I could do was clumsily skate forward. Because of that, every time I practiced, I would do laps around the rink by myself just to learn the basics while the other members were running drills and practicing their programs. Perhaps if I was more skilled, I could have integrated more into their practice. Since everyone is seriously practicing, there are not many opportunities to talk to them. Of course there are some people in the club I am really comfortable with; but at the same time, there is still a disconnect. If you decide to join a sports club, I really recommend joining something you have experience in to help ease the integration.
The CIP that I chose was calligraphy with Asakusa-sensei. I found this class through a fellow study abroad student’s host mom, who took me to the location on the first day of class. Because we are only in Japan for such a short period, instead of starting with the basics, the teacher let us write what we wanted. In the class, we learned the proper holding technique for the brush as well as the importance of a kanji’s writing stroke order. Each class, we choose a character that we would like to write, practice it a multitude of times, and then write it on a good sheet of paper to take home.
I think I was able to learn quite a lot about the relationship between sensei and gakusei, especially since the class size was so small. Through the semester, omiyage was of course not required, but I feel it really did help shorten the distance in formality. I was also able to practice keigo for the beginning of the semester and went into simple desu/masu form near the end.
Overall, I really enjoyed doing this CIP throughout the semester because it was a good change of pace from classes. Additionally, we were able to arrange a class time that was dedicated to the KCJS students, so even if you mess up with your Japanese, there is no rush for the teacher’s time. I think that this was the best fit for someone like me who was searching for a more arts and crafts/hands on activity.
During my stay in Kyoto I participated in the activities of Kyoto University Dance Club (社交ダンス), where I managed to immerse myself into a Japanese college club vibe. Since I’d never danced even a single time before attending the club, I was quite nervous on the first day, and found myself just as clumsy as I expected at the dance practice. Yet learning to dance is not the point of joining a dance club in Kyoto; rather, it was to interact with my Japanese peers on a regular basis so that we both could serve as かけ橋 through which we were able to understand each other’s cultural background better.
The Dance Club holds activities as often as 3 times a week. Each time lasts for 3 hours. I tried to commit as much as possible to the club activities, but I was also busy with schoolwork, so I often ended up going once or twice a week. One thing I found interesting though was the fact that the club claims to have between 20 to 30 members who have signed up for club activities, but almost every single time only those 6 or 7 same members showed up. Occasionally we would be lucky to have others join us but that was pretty rare. One of the club members told me that this phenomenon is quite common among Japanese university circles, where you would expect some members to regularly show up and become the core of the circles while others who rarely show up are labelled ‘ghost members’ (幽霊部員). I’m glad that I didn’t become one of the ghosts.
During the 3 hours of club activity we would practice different forms of 社交ダンス such as Tango, Waltz, and Samba, although I still have difficulties even now in distinguishing them from each other. To be frank, dancing is not my thing, but thanks to the warm-heartedness of my Japanese peers I was able to enjoy the activity sessions as much as I could. They knew I had never had experiences in ballroom dance and my Japanese wasn’t that good, so they treated me with patience and taught me step by step. Although more often than not I still ended up messing up with everything, I do not regret joining the Dance Club, because other members regarded me as a normal, functioning member of the club too. The opportunities to interact with Japanese peers are absolutely the most valuable experiences I’ve had so far. Therefore I highly recommend the KU Amateur Dance Club even if dance is not your thing, and on a side note I’m pretty skeptical that someone is actually worse than me at dancing.
I spent my CIP project volunteering as an assistant English teacher for an informal English class held in the house of my host family once or twice a week. Every Monday and Wednesday, two classes were held and taught by my host mother’s daughter (who is an adult with four children of her own). One class was for 5- and 6-year olds; the other was for 7- and 8-year olds. The teacher’s 3-year-old daughter also participated.
I love children, so an excuse to interact with them was very enjoyable for me. I learned a lot about Japanese and Japanese children as well. For example, for the younger children especially, there was a ‘warming-up’ period of a few weeks where they simply stared at me in astonishment and almost never spoke. The teacher apologized, saying they were just surprised by my presence, and were usually much louder. After two or three weeks, they opened up and started talking to me, asking me questions like “Where are you from? How many people live in America? What’s the weather like there?” They all speak very quickly and in Kansai-ben, so understanding them in the beginning was a little difficult. I learned some of the Kansai-ben particular to Kyoto, such as ‘hin’ to signify negation (dekihin instead of dekinai) or -haru as the slightly politer way to end verbs.
The older children took less time to warm up to me, asking me questions after maybe one or two weeks. The youngest child, the 3-year-old, took almost a month and a half to speak to me at all. She also was reluctant to speak even in my presence. During class, she would instead whisper her answers into her 6-year-old sister’s ear. The only exception was the children of the teacher; her three oldest children had lived in America for a year or so, and she hosts foreign students herself so they were not shy at all. Her 6-year-old daughter talks to me often inside and outside of class, occasionally saying surprisingly advanced or observant things to me.
I was also able to interact with the parents of many students as well, who treated me as another teacher and thanked me after each lesson. Some even sat in on a lesson or two, and spoke to me afterwards to thank me. The parents were very serious about picking up their children on time, and apologized profusely if they were late even a few minutes.
In all, it was a wonderful way to get to know many of the neighborhood children. I even recognize some of them when walking around these days, and the braver ones say hello and wave at me. It was also a great way to pick up more Kansai-ben and improve my own pronunciation. I’d highly recommend volunteering in any way with children to future KCJS students!
My CIP this semester was the same as last semester’s, which is volunteering at Bazaar Cafe once a week. As I explained in my last blog post, the cafe functions more or less like a regular restaurant, but aims to help give work opportunities to people who may have a difficult time finding a job and generally to just be a welcoming space to people of all backgrounds. Similar to last semester, I go once a week usually to help out around the kitchen while the cafe is open to the public. And recently, one of the supervisors asked if me and another volunteer could help translate their menu along with some other miscellaneous restaurant related tasks. However, since the cafe is in the process of trying to become an official NPO/NGO, they are closed this month, while hosting and catering occasional private events during the week. Thankfully this means that I still have plenty of opportunities to help out each week.
What has been really great about my time here is since I’ve been volunteering since September, I’ve grown rather close with many of the workers, volunteers, and managers. Definitely more so than last semester, I’ve been looking forward to every volunteer opportunity each week and sometimes end up staying for as long as 4 hours (compared to my usual 2) simply because I enjoy everyone’s company. By spending time with everyone, I always have opportunities to speak and practice Japanese; not only that, everyone else is also very eager to help teach me new words or handy phrases, which I am always very appreciative of. In this regard, I could say I’ve been doing a lot of out-of-class learning and practice with the Japanese language, but I’ll be honest, I’m not sure if I can say I learned anything “new” this semester by continuing my time with them. Rather, I feel like I am building some very special bonds and friendships with an incredibly unique and welcoming community and to me, that is a lot more important. If I had to attribute how I achieved this sense of community to anything, I would say it came from consistently going every week and not only helping out on regular days, but also helping out and participating in their larger events, which I had the opportunity to do both last and this semester. I think that it showed them that I cared to even be a part of their community in the first place and so they welcomed me and other volunteers with open arms.
If you want to have a flexible CIP and have the opportunity to meet a lot of different kinds of people, volunteering at Bazaar is definitely a great place for that. And for anyone who does choose this as their CIP, do your best to committing to going every week; ask a lot of questions and keep an open mind. They are always very grateful for any help they receive and I personally have no regrets with choosing them. Knowing that I only have about a month left with them makes me really sad so I plan on doing as much as I can to help out before I go!
During my time at KCJS, I participated in a Japanese-English Conversation program called Klexon. Klexon is similar to speed dating. People sit in rows facing each other, and then talk for ten minutes until they have to switch partners. After about 6 cycles, everyone is randomly placed into groups and group conversation begins. A piece of paper with the week’s topic of conversation is handed out at the beginning of the session. However, one does not need to talk about the conversation on the sheet; Klexon is basically free conversation.
In Klexon, I noticed that most Japanese people are learning English because they believe it is a necessity for their job, so their motivation to learn is quite high. Also, since they know that this is a conversation program, I feel the Japanese people in this program are more comfortable with talking to foreigners and generally are not as shy as Japanese people outside of the program. Therefore, there is no need to have worries about conversing because they are quite easy to talk to.
Although KCJS is a program to learn Japanese and Klexon is a program to help Japanese people speak English, I chose Klexon with special purposes in mind. Those purposes were to learn more about Japanese culture from different perspectives, to make Japanese friends, and learn more Japanese from them. During the program sessions, you can talk about anything with the Japanese people, so I took this liberty to ask them about Japanese culture that couldn’t be learned about in a class or in a book. For example, I learned about different dialects around Japan and popular slang Japanese people were using. At the end of the program, I would invite the people I was paired up with to go out drinking at a bar or an izakaya. This was a great way to strengthen our bonds and become friends. Also, we would speak in Japanese, so I was able to practice my Japanese conversation quite a lot. I highly recommend choosing Klexon as a CIP because it is fun, you can learn a lot, and most of all, make many Japanese friends.