Elise Shuba: Volunteering at Mitsuba Kindergarten

I chose to complete my CIP volunteering at a kindergarten nearby Doshisha campus. I would head over after lunch and play various games with the children. On the day I would go, I would arrive after the kindergarten’s planned activities and official classroom time had already ended, so at this time all of the children would be grouped together and allowed to play with whatever they wanted. Depending on the number of kids on that day, we would often move to a bigger room with more toys. This meant that the ages varied from 3 years old to 6, which can be a huge difference when the kids are that young, but they all played together very well.

When starting, I was worried that the kids would be shy or afraid to interact with me, but those fears were unfounded and I was happy that they became excited to see me as the visits went on. The kids assumed I knew Japanese, so they spoke fast and used some local slang to the point where I often had trouble understanding the older kids in the beginning. As time went on and I got used to the way children talk, it became easier for me to understand. One thing that was hard for me when I first started was distinguishing between a statement and a question, since they all used casual speech and I was not able to hear their intonation well. The kids taught me more than I expected to learn, and not only about casual Japanese (such as replacing ない with へん, or young kids referring to themselves by their names instead of using the word “I”), but also about the Japanese method of raising children. For example, the kindergarten staff stressed responsibility in the kids for things such as cleaning up their own lunch area, gathering their items when it was time to go, and also encouraging the kids to look out for each other and holding each other accountable for helping out. It is a different atmosphere from preschools I’ve been to before. That said, kids are kids and I had a fantastic time playing with them every week.

In addition to learning from the kids, I was able to experience a bit of a formal environment with the staff at the kindergarten, where I tried my best to use keigo with my superiors. It was fun to hear お疲れ様です at the end of my shifts and be able to say it back. For any future students, I recommend making sure that they enjoy their CIP and feel comfortable speaking and participating during it, because that active participation is what really makes it worth it. Initiating conversation with people I don’t know well is not something I typically do, but I found that people are generally enthused if you attempt to speak in Japanese, more so if you initiate first, so I encourage everyone to go out there and do their best. Unfortunately we were able to continue our CIPs for only about a month and a half, but it was something that I would regularly not have had the chance to partake in and am glad that I was able to take advantage of this opportunity.

Wiley Krishnaswamy: Koto Lessons with Sensei Kurahashi Ayako

The KCJS Japanese language curriculum includes a requirement for an individual project, something involving the Japanese language carried out by a single student to be gradually completed and reported upon throughout the semester. My project this semester involves producing (some of) an English translation of In’eiraisan (In Praise of Shadows,) a composition by Taisho/early Showa period writer and playwright Tanizaki Jun’ichiro, famed for his astute comparisons and contrasts of Western and Japanese culture and aesthetics. Quite early on in this essay, Tanizaki points out how western recording and amplifying technology (of his time,) having been developed to suit the particularities of Western music, failed to capture at least half of the charm and reticence so central to traditional Japanese musical aesthetics, the beauty contained in subtle musical texture, pauses, silence, and approaching silence—this idea stayed with me throughout my Community Involvement Project at KCJS, that being taking lessons in Koto with local teacher Kurahashi Ayako.

The Koto is a type of East Asian long zither, similar in construction and playing method to the Chinese Guzheng, Korean Gayageum, or Vietnamese Dan Tranh. It consists of a long and slender hollow wooden body likened to that of a dragon, above which a set of thirteen (usually) moveable bridges are held down by strings that run lengthwise down the 2 meter playing surface. The side of the strings to the right of the bridges from the perspective of the player are secured behind a hard bridge at one end, and are plucked with the right hand, wearing specialized plectrums called tsume. The left hand is free to either pluck strings as well, or push down the strings on the other side of the movable bridges to raise the pitch or create a vibrato effect among other things. The history of the instrument is somewhat unclear as stringed instruments have been found in Japan dating back to periods before heavy permeation of technology and culture from China/Korea, but it is likely that the modern Koto descends from a mainland long zither used during or before the Han dynasty in China. Originally used to play slow and elegant court music, as the instrument was adapted to Japanese tastes and musical styles over the years it changed in form and composition as well, leading to a modern instrument quite different from its ancestor.

I have been interested in the Koto for quite some time, having dallied in it for a few years in the USA before coming to Japan. As much as I read about playing techniques and musical forms, nothing could compare to having an actual player teach me how to properly play the instrument. Even before I came to Kyoto, I was decently sure that this was what I wanted to do for my CIP—after arriving, on the recommendation of my host family and a past student who stayed with them, I was directed to Kyoto resident Kotoist Kurahashi Ayako, an incredibly skilled performer and with years of experience who offers lessons out of her warm and comfortable traditional style town house. While she teaches the Koto and Shamisen, her husband, also an respected musician, performs and teaches Shakuhachi—They often perform together all over Japan and overseas as well. After my initial meeting with Kurahashi-sensei to work out scheduling and other details, I started going to her house weekly for lessons in the instrument. While Kyoto’s traditional cultural and musical world is quite known for being secretive and often unwelcoming towards visitors, Kurahashi-sensei and her husband were incredibly warm and welcoming towards me and other students coming to them with little to no experience, despite their incredibly high skill level.

As I had done some practice studying up on vocabulary surrounding the Koto and its various techniques beforehand, we were able to communicate quite smoothly (to her surprise) and each lesson has been quite rewarding. Each lesson was essentially comprised of some amount of working on a few specific techniques, followed by playing through full musical scores and working through difficult parts. After learning to play through the ubiquitous Sakura Sakura, Kurahashi-sensei chose two very different pieces for me to work on. One of them, Yatsuhashi Kengyo’s Rokudan no Shirabe, is considered one of the most important pieces of a Kotoist’s repertoire, as the six movements of the piece contain a wide range of techniques and playing styles. Considerate of the fact that I would be returning to the United States after the semester, she picked a piece that would allow me to practice and continue to improve a number of techniques on my own.

As I mentioned a few paragraphs ago, Japanese music makes incredible use of reticence and subtle texture—while learning different playing techniques I was constantly reminded of this. Playing the Koto is so much more than it looks like; while one may see simply plucking on the right hand and pushing on the left, there are a myriad of different techniques involving these movements and more. Some of the more melodic ones include timed release of bent strings, karari and sarari (types of glissando-like techniques,) and arpeggios. Techniques that affect texture include playhing with the back of the tsume, scratching along the string with the side of the tsume, or even flicking the tsume sideways along the string quite quickly for a dynamic noise. It is quite hard to put into words, but after learning and using these techniques I became a lot more able to hear them in performance, and deepened my appreciation of Koto and other Japanese musical instruments.

The focus of the CIP, however, does not lie entirely in the subject matter one engages with—involvement in the local community and communication with those in the former are also key parts. Kurahashi-sensei and her husband Yodou-sensei were quite warm and friendly, inviting me to several concerts that they and their friends were performing at. Before and after lessons I spent time at their house talking to various guests from different parts of the world, observing practice sessions and learning about how those people from starkly different walks of life ended up practicing traditional Japanese music in Kyoto. While I can speak Japanese to the point where there were no real difficulties in conversation, my language (especially keigo) when put on the spot is by no means perfect. While I was initially worried that a mess up in respectful language would have unfortunate results, I quickly learned that most people do not fret about the small details of speech if respectful and kind intention is conveyed clearly through manner.

I learned this not only through Kurahashi-sensei herself, but through the other various people I met during the course of my CIP. In the process of buying music and tsume for my lessons, I became acquainted with a Koto retailer working out of a small store in Gion. Given the insular nature of both that area and the musical community, He tends to only show up at/let people into the store upon request. With introduction from my sensei, I was able to work out the details of our meeting and purchase the necessary materials, and as I am writing this I plan on visiting him again to talk in detail about the Koto business in Kyoto for a project in a different class.

All in all, my CIP experience allowed me to not only gain a solid foundation that will enable me to continue working on my Koto playing at home, but also achieve a clearer grasp on the necessities and peculiarities of socialization and conversation in an area of Japanese society that I see myself engaging with in depth in the future. I am quite grateful to Kurahashi-sensei and her husband for their warm welcome and continuing support, as well as to my amazing senseis at KCJS who helped me with some of the more difficult aspects of proper student etiquette and communication. I only wish that I had had a Koto with me in Kyoto to practice more often—while I am quite sad to leave Kyoto, one thing that I am looking forward to going back is being able to polish the base of skills that Kurahashi-sensei gave me everyday at home.

Carter Yee: Kyoto University Hiking Circle

For my CIP for the fall semester, I joined one of the other KCJS students, Theo Sternlieb, in entering the Kyoto University Hiking Circle. This circle was intended for students who enjoy the outdoors and spending time in nature. But unfortunately, due to frequent scheduling conflicts including the fall Okayama trip and the typhoon, Theo and I were only able to attend meetings in the club’s box. Nonetheless, it was an exciting time as Japan was in the Rugby World cup. As such, we hung out with the other students and watched them play against South Africa in the semi-finals.

I was happy to join the hiking circle despite not being able to get outside with them at all. It was nice to be able to talk to and enjoy the company of students in a more relaxed environment! Many of the students seemed surprised that we wanted to join their circle. One aspect that I was glad to see was how inclusive the club was in terms of its leadership. Often, I have found that outdoor spaces and activities are permeated by an overwhelming sense of masculinity, so I was happy to see that this was not the case.

Since Kyoto University did not start again until midway through September, and the club does not do many activities in the fall, it was difficult to attend the necessary amount of CIP meetings. We were able to supplement this with outside activities that got us involved in the community, but overall, I was sad that I could not do more with the hiking circle itself. As the start of our semester does not match up when either Doshisha or Kyoto University students start, the number of activities on the calendar that KCJS students can participate in can be somewhat stunted. It is important to realize that there are other opportunities to get involved with the community. I was able to continue rock climbing in Kyoto; an activity that I participated in back at my home university, and even got Theo involved as well. It has been a great experience to meet people at the rock gym. Similarly to the hiking circle, there is also balanced representation among the genders. As it is mostly locals who climb there, we have started to learn some climbing-specific words and phrases in Japanese. There is a very supportive environment where everyone cheers on everyone else. People often shout ”がんば!”, meaning “try your best!” Being able to travel to Okayama on the fall trip also helped me expand my network of friends in Japan! I have been surprised at all of the kindness with which we have been received living and studying in Kyoto.

Meghan Gibbons: Volunteering at Kenryu Kindergarten

I worked as a Kindergarten “teacher” at the nearby kindergarten. I would come in the afternoons, and play with the kids, until either I went home, or their parents came and picked them up. Whatever came first. Usually I’d try and incorporate some English into the play- weather that was doing bad renditions of the hokey pokey- or reading books in English and doing my best on the fly translation from the English book into Japanese.

For a country that’s struggling to meet the demand for child care it was interesting to see how the kindergarten was set up. The one I volunteered at was different from what I had seen in America, where school typically starts with preschool, and classes are arranged by age.

This kindergarten wasn’t just five-year old’s, but children ranging from ages 3-6.  More like a combination of American preschool and kindergarten, rather than just a kindergarten. The kids would typically be in “classes” for the morning, these were divided by age. For the afternoon all the kids whose parents couldn’t come and grab them quite yet, would pile into the play room, where there were a plentiful crafts and toys awaiting. They hung out there until one of their parents came to get them, and they would either go home- or play on the outside playground with parent supervision.  I remember being struck with how independent and cleanly they were. Maybe my elementary school was full of degenerates, but coat racks, and craft supplies were always an utter mess, and were prone to housing ants.  However, for this kindergarten, children were trusted with tape and scissors. One of the more popular crafts was to wrap string around a plastic device, then cut along the edge of it to make small yarn pom-poms. Kids had tons of these little pom poms tied to their bags, which were orderly put away in small cubbies, along with their coats and yellow hats. They were also trusted with puzzles, which miraculously had all of their pieces. A rare find in my preschool days.

It was also interesting how kids would play differently than how I remembered playing as a kid. The biggest one was how play didn’t seem particularly gendered. Meaning the boys would gladly take the big blocks and build towering structures, but then would all sit down and play teacher, or house together. Girls would either play and build along with them, or would wander off to color, or use the blocks to build small police station, and play cops. There were several times I would come in and be labeled a criminal, and a small girl tied string around my ankles as makeshift handcuffs.

It was also interesting how kids would intermingle despite the age difference. Both of my parents worked when I was a kid, so I would routinely go to after school care, where we had kids ages 5-12, and kids would always clump by age group. However, at this kindergarten, kids age 6 would be playing store, or cops, or princess with kids who were 3 or 4.

It was also interesting to see, not only how things had changes since I was young, but also to remind me of how children think. Ultimately. I understand, regardless of how different the age gap is or how different the cultural context is, children will ultimately be children. I think ultimately regardless of where children are raised there’s something fundamental to how the world is viewed. Seeing as I’m no longer a child, I don’t understand that as well as I once did, but I think I might’ve been able to understand that better, after this experience.

I’m hesitant to draw any sweeping conclusions about Japan or Japanese culture, based on this one kindergarten, or by the experiences I had there, but overall it was fun experience, and I wouldn’t change it.

Jeanine Bell: Volunteering at Klexon English Conversation Circle

For my CIP, I joined Klexon, an English second language learning group as a volunteer. I’ll admit that things went about as I expected at first — non-native English speakers were very nervous to start talking, but were interested in knowing why I came to Japan. As the weeks rolled by, we moved on from basic self introduction topics, and I got to know some of the people rather well. Some of the things that I hadn’t really realized before coming to Japan were some of the simplest daily tasks. A lot of the people I talked to mentioned going to the grocery store on an almost daily basis (whereas I typically would go once a week). Also karaoke boxes are super popular, but that seems to be the only place people will really cut loose to sing. I’ve gotten a few strange looks for mentioning how my friends and I will burst into song while walking down the street. One of my Japanese friends said that it was more of an issue with being embarrassed than being polite.

Aside from being a little surprised at some of the more reserved attitudes and lifestyles people adhered to, some things felt very much the same. As always, the easiest thing to talk about is food, and no matter who it is or where they’re from, they have something to say about food. On top of that, outside of Klexon’s usual meetings, I’ve come to realize that all kinds of people are capable of drinking a little too much, and either way the sober people feel a little bit responsible for them. Fortunately, the people I was with, no matter how inebriated, were always pleasantly polite and considerate. Either way, I’m glad I got to talk to people in different environments and settings and learn about the differences and similarities we all carry.

Nancy Tran: Calligraphy Club

I participated in the Doshisha Calligraphy Club throughout the semester. I use the word “participated” because I did not feel as though I had truly joined the club due to the manner of each session. None of the members make any particular attempts to introduce themselves or help unless you ask them, but with the atmosphere of the room even asking for help is quite difficult. Most of the time, one member helped guide me in learning how to write but his words were far and few between. Since I remained a quiet empirical observer most of the time, I was able to see the interactions between the members more. The other members tend to practice quietly by themselves until the club leader, or who I presume to be the club leader, enters and brightens up the atmosphere by seemingly gossiping with everyone. As this program is in Kyoto, most of the members speak in Kansai-ben. Whenever someone heads home for the day the rest of the members always say お疲れ様. When introducing oneself, the others tend to ask what year you are (何回生) and what faculty you are in (学部), most likely to establish a connection or establish hierarchy of ages. I entered the club hoping to learn calligraphy with my peers and establish friendly relations but it seems as though I was only able to learn calligraphy. I would not recommend this activity for someone who is looking to establish friendly relations with club members due to the nature of the members and the club activity.

Alana Hodson: English Assistant at Hiyoshigaoka High School

For my CIP, I was fortunate to be able to participle in two CIP activities. The first of the two was volunteering as an English language assistant at Hiyoshigaoka high school. I had no idea what to expect going into this CIP, but as soon as I arrived (along with my classmate, Mika, who was also doing the same CIP) we were instantly welcomed by the head teacher of the program, Oe-sensei, and the other JET ALTs. They explained to us how the high school’s English club was run and what our role was, which was to simply converse with the students in English. However, we quickly found out that it wasn’t as easy as it seemed. Although the students were able to use English during times of structured activities, they were often quite reluctant to do so outside of those times. That being said, I have seen the students use English well, so I am sure that had the club been more strict about the use of Japanese, their English would have improved greatly.

The Hiyoshigaoka students were phenomenal at organizing events. While I was there, I was able to participate in two of the events; a Valentine’s Day party and an Aikido lesson. The Valentine’s day party was a lot of fun and the students used a lot of English. For example, two of the activities were “speed dating” and acting out skits, both of which were done completely in English. I was very impressed!

My second CIP was also about teaching English, but with a much younger age group. My host mom is an English teacher, so I was able to help teach her classes, which were from about ages 5 to 10. One of the most interesting things I was able to do for that part of my CIP was to read a children’s book in English while my host mom read the same book in Japanese, taking turns reading each page consecutively. One of the most surprising things I noticed while helping out my host-mom is the accuracy the children’s pronunciation.  I was often asked to read a category of words and then the children would repeat the words after me. They always were able to repeat the words perfectly!

By participating in these CIPs, I got to observe how English is taught and studied at both the high school and elementary age. It was very interesting to see how each age group interacted with the language. The younger children where more eager to share their English skills with me, though it was most the at the basic vocabulary level. However, the older student, although they knew much more in terms of grammatical structure as well as vocabulary, seemed more reluctant to converse with me or other native speakers, but did very well when their English skills had to be applied for activities. My favorite English teaching method I got to see was when and ALT at Hiyoshigaoka helped one of the students with the difficult to distinguish syllables such as R vs L, SH vs S, and V vs B. He was able to coach her through the proper mouth and throat movements use to produce each sound, and in just one session, the student improved tremendously!

Amy Zou: Kyoto University Hospital’s NicoNico Tomato

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.

Frances Chang: Kyodai Chorus Circle

Music is a universal language that connects people even when there is a language barrier. Coming to Japan, I knew that I wanted to relate my Community Involvement Project to music. I have been singing ever since elementary school and have participated in school choruses, musicals, a cappella groups and other performance opportunities. Through those experiences, I have also made life long friends. Therefore, I was determined that by joining a musical singing community, I would be able to further connect with local Japanese University students.

From the CIPs of past KCJS students, I was able to contact the Kyoto University (Kyodai) Chorus Circle. Because Japanese students end their school year around mid-February, it was a little nerve wrecking to find a circle that was still active. Fortunately, I was one of the first few people who started their CIP the second week of the program.

The Kyodai Chorus Circle is located across the Kyoto University Main Campus, where others circles, such as dance groups and orchestras, also hold meetings and rehearsals. The chorus is a coed group, where there are about 25 men and 15 women. The group sings both English and Japanese classic songs. In addition, a typical rehearsal day consists of Songs of the Day, Warm Up, Sectional Rehearsal, Ensemble Rehearsal, and ends with another Songs of the Day. Members are free to choose whichever songs they like to sing for Songs of the Day. The Warm Up session consists of physical, breathing, and vocal warm ups. Rehearsals are 3 times a week: mixed voices, individual voices, and men only rehearsals. Each rehearsal lasts 3 hours. The Kyodai Chorus Circle continued to have rehearsals throughout Japanese students’ spring break, with only a three-weeks vacation at the end of February to the beginning of March.

Japanese Chorus Circle is definitely different from choirs or musical groups in America. Although no auditions were required to join the group, I was surprised how professional everyone was. Many people had basic knowledge and background on music. However, vocal ability ranged. Japanese chorus students were very serious about their circle, and they were focused and work very hard during rehearsals. The girls rarely goofed off or took any breaks, and no one talked when the conductor was conducting or teaching. With the amount of focus, time, and effort put into the rehearsals, the chorus sounded wonderful. Moreover, there was no apparent senpai and kohai division in the chorus. After each rehearsal, members would have dinner together at near by restaurants or the cafeteria. The group dynamic was harmonious and pleasant.

Towards the end of April, the Kyodai Chorus has an annual Spring concert, which is where they introduce their new members. If you would like to perform with the Chorus at the concerts, I would advice you to go to more than 1 rehearsal sessions per week. This circle will definitely improve your personal musical ability and help you make some friends. However, if you are looking for a more active social environment, perhaps, another circle would be a better fit.