Zack Even: Volunteering at a Kodomo Shokudo

At the start of the program, I was unsure of what I wanted to do for my CIP. I had mentioned in the KCJS questionnaires that I was interested in participating in an activity involving cooking, and Nakata Sensei suggested that I work at a kodomo shokudo, a cafeteria where members of the community, particularly families with kids, can come for a free meal.

I tried calling a few kodomo shokudo’s in the area, and, after handing off the phone to Nakata Sensei almost immediately in the first call, I managed my way through the second on my own and found a shokudo that needed volunteers. With a limited amount of information about the cafeteria – just the name of one of the volunteers, its location, and a time I should arrive by – I set out the following Friday for the first time.

Because I knew very little about what to expect, I was nervous on my first day. Even finding the shokudo was a bit difficult: it is much smaller than I anticipated, located within an unassuming house. I waited for a few minutes along the street until someone appeared whom I could ask. Luckily, she was one of the volunteers.

Working at the shokudo has improved my Japanese language and allowed me to apply it in a way I rarely get to in class – to discuss food and cooking. My CIP has also introduced me to a number of interesting people, including the two kind women who run the shokudo, an economics professor at Doshisha, and a man who works in computer graphics, whom I met up with outside the shokudo to talk about computer animation. By preparing food alongside the women who run the shokudo, my vocabulary relating to food improved, along with my miming skills, which I could always fall back on if I didn’t understand what they had asked me to do. I also got to interact with kids who came to the shokudo. While my host family has a two-month-old baby whom I love having around, obviously I cannot communicate with her yet, so the shokudo gave me an opportunity – to practice my language with children – that I would not otherwise have had.

While, as a foreigner, I often felt a bit like the odd one out at the dinners, I also felt like I was truly participating in and even contributing to the community. As the woman who runs the shokudo asked me when my last day would be, I felt a sense of pride knowing that to a small degree they had come to depend on my help. While it seems that, at least at this particular shokudo, some families come simply to enjoy the community atmosphere, others seem to rely on the Friday dinners. Like in the US and any other countries, a portion of families in Japan cannot afford enough food for their children – one in seven, Nakata Sensei informed me. The shokudo guarantees them at least one stress-free, pleasant meal a week, and I enjoyed being able to help create that meal for the families who came.

Jamal Tulimat: Klexon

For my CIP activity, I participated in Kyoto International Club Klexon, a conversational club where English speakers come to speak with Japanese participants who would like to practice their English. The club met once almost every week from 7 to 9 PM at the Wings Kyoto Center. The two hours were split into parts; for the first one, I usually got a new partner every ten minutes in a way similar to speed dating, where I talked with them about anything ranging from our daily lives to our opinions on recent political developments. For the second hour, several Japanese participants and I made a group of five to six, where we got to speak in a way similar to friends on a group outing. Although we were usually given topics to talk about, I found it more helpful to talk about things that often come up in conversations to help the Japanese participants improve their English.

Participating in Klexon was a great opportunity to make native Japanese friends and feel more like I’m participating in the community. I was a bit sad at the beginning thinking that I was not going to get much of an opportunity to practice my Japanese, but luckily after the first week, I got to go to the local bar with newly made Klexon friends where I spoke with them in Japanese while sharing a nice drink. After immersing myself more in the club, I began to think of Klexon as more of a social place where one meets friends rather than a place where one comes to do work. The more I participated in Klexon, the more I bonded with friends I made there. Eventually, several KCJS student participants and I got to make a group chat with our Klexon friends where we scheduled meet ups and outings on some weekends. On one Saturday, we all got together and went to the Kyoto Shibori Museum where we learned different dying techniques before we each got to dye our own scarf in wonderful patterns and colors.

Even though English is my second language while Japanese is my fourth, participating in Klexon really helped me understand my progress in Japanese, further showing me what I needed to focus on to get better. For example, after seeing where Japanese people commonly made mistakes, I was able to reflect on expressions that were difficult to say since they did not translate between the two languages very well.

Needless to stay, Klexon was a significant part of my study abroad and language study and I’d recommend it to anyone who is willing to go out of their comfort zone to make friends. My tip is – if you want to get to know someone, ask for their LINE! It’s easy and most people will say yes. Klexon is really the experience that you make out of it!

Derek Hong: Ritsumeikan Wadaiko DON

For my CIP, I participated in Wadaiko DON.  Wadaiko DON is a student-run taiko circle at Ritsumeikan University.  At my home university in the US, I am a part of a taiko club run by Brown and RISD students called Gendo Taiko, and I wanted to see how a wadaiko circle as run by students in Japan differs from a taiko club run by students in the US.

My initial contact with the club was difficult since I was still getting used to having full conversations in Japanese.  However, the students in the club were welcoming and readily willing to let me participate.  The amount of time I needed to put into my CIP was a little higher than usual since practice was usually twice a week for at least an hour, but I was determined to try and participate as much as I could.  During practice, I had to quickly get comfortable using plain forms and, more importantly, using casual speech.  In the end, even though I’m still not fluent in casual speech, I was able to hear how the friends talked to each other and gave instruction.

It is a bit regrettable that my time in the taiko group was so short and that I needed to commute far to participate.  It made it difficult to spend enough time with them to really practice my Japanese and get a sense of how they are outside of the taiko circle setting.  That said, I think it was a great insight into how student circles are run in Japan.  For the most part, there are a lot of similarities between Wadaiko DON and Gendo Taiko.  We are both student run groups, we both practice together as a group, and we play many of the same styles.  Further, like Gendo Taiko, many of the Wadaiko DON members started taiko only after entering the circle.  As for differences, Wadaiko DON is about twice the size of Gendo Taiko and, as such, they are able to perform at a much higher potential level.  For each performance, they hold auditions to decide who can participate.

On the whole, I’m very glad that I was able to participate and be accepted into a Japanese university student group, especially one that concerns taiko.  Wadaiko DON performs at a very high level, and I am very thankful to be able to have seen their mainstage performance, participate in regular practice, and perform in the Takase-gawa Sakura Matsuri (pictures and videos below).  The Wadaiko DON members were extremely welcoming and helpful even when I didn’t quickly understand their instruction.  Even though the language barrier made it difficult to interact smoothly with the groups usual happenings, this was a unique experience that could only have happened during my study abroad.  I am especially glad to have participated in the Takase-gawa Sakura Matsuri, during which I was able to see the carrying of the Mikoshi from the perspective of the parade that went down Teramachi-dōri.  It was a unique perspective on Japanese life and the continuation of tradition.

On the day of the Matsuri, the weather was sunny and warm, and the sakura blossoms were just beginning to lose their petals.  As the wind swept through the trees, the petals flew up and floated down gently, breezing in the background of the crowded streets.  Even though it was my first sakura matsuri, I had the feeling that it was a picture perfect representation of what sakura matsuri could be.  People of all ages attended, from the elderly who came to experience the annual matsuri once again to the children who are sure to have made fond memories.  Anyone can participate in the carrying of the mikoshi (“portable shrine”, although its significance is far deeper than the English translation would make it seem) throughout the streets and, within the large group of mikoshi carriers, there was a strong sense of community and participation in tradition.  As the large parade processed through Teramachi-dōri Shōtengai and the narrow streets adjacent to it, onlookers came out to see this once-a-year event.  The spot of the festival, the Former Rissei Elementary School, seems to have been particularly chosen because of its long history.  At the taiko performance, a woman danced among the taiko players.  Although out of the ordinary, it seemed like she and her family had attended the Rissei Elementary School before it was decommissioned and that she was moved to the point of dance by the once-again lively atmosphere of the school.  Instead of letting the building fall into disuse and be forgotten, the matsuri brings life to the location.  Although the Takase-gawa Sakura Matsuri is only in its 38th year, the tradition of matsuri goes far back in Japanese history.  Even though it was my first matsuri, I felt like there was deep significance in the passing of cultural memories through events like this.

I hope to bring these new perspectives on taiko and matsuri back to Gendo Taiko and try to inform the way we put on matsuri in our own communities half-way across the world on the East Coast.

第38回高瀬川桜祭り 神輿


Logan Cody: Klexon

For my Community Involvement Project I participated in Klexon – an English conversation club. Every Tuesday I would meet for two hours in the Wings Gender Equality Center with other KCJS members and other native English Speakers living in the city, to talk with Japanese college students and workers in order to help them practice their English speaking abilities. For the first hour of the meetings, I would talk in one-on-one sessions with the Japanese club members – discussing anything from their jobs to their opinions on recent political developments. Then in the second hour, I would talk in groups of five to six people in order to practice group speaking abilities with them. The club would offer prompts and possible topics of conversation, but I found that most of the Japanese participants were happy to elect their own topics of conversation, and usually wanted to discuss broad cultural differences between Japan and the US, or grammatical novelties between Japanese and English. As I became closer friends with different members of the club, I began to join them for food and drinks after the meetings or at Karaoke parties on the weekend.

Through my continuing interactions with the Klexon group, in and out of the weekly meetings, I feel that I was truly able to integrate into, and participate in, Japanese social activities and functions. Furthermore, in helping to teach English to Japanese people I was better able to understand my progress with my own language studies: for example, it seems a lot of the Klexon members use the word “maybe” more often than what would be considered natural in English (eg. “Maybe, my job is working in finance”). My assumption is that this over-usage stems from learners attempting to directly translate certain phrases from their native tongue into their target language – which is probably a mistake that I make as well in my own language studies (ie. trying to convert head-first English phrasing/idioms into Japanese, instead of solely relying on the set head-last grammatical formations of the language). I also found that simply speaking to a large number of Japanese students and workers allowed for many fascinating insights into people’s opinions about food, and clothing, and history, and politics. A particularly interesting example would be my conversations with a member of Japan’s Self-Defense Force: I was able to learn about his daily work, and about how most Japanese citizens look down upon those who join the SDF.

As for my advice to future students, I can’t stress enough how important it is to get a Line! Everyone here uses Line, and it’s just such an easy way to make friends quickly. After a meeting, if you have even the slightest interest in being friends with someone, I’d highly recommend trading Line account information. And then afterwards, even if you don’t text them, the likelihood that they text you and ask to hangout is very high. There’s practically no work involved at all! And getting to meet Japanese people and hang out outside of the CIP activities is such a wonderful opportunity to make friends, to speak more Japanese, and to learn more about Japanese culture and life.

Mary Tebbetts Nichols: Calligraphy

I took calligraphy lessons alongside Sara and Josie with a local calligraphy instructor for my community involvement project. The calligraphy lessons were around an hour in length. Classes would usually involve practicing a single word until we had a decent feel for the writing process. Though I loved learning how to write with energy and elegance, I was especially fond of the conversations we had with the instructor.

I feel that I have a better understanding of how to ask for help and advice in Japanese. This project has forced me out of my comfort zone and encouraged me to ask for clarification when I felt uncertain about an instruction or to share my own thoughts and opinions when a certain approach felt like it was working. In addition to gaining more confidence in my communication strategies, my CIP helped me get a better understanding of the cultural importance of thoughtfulness in Japan. The level of intent that went into the instructor’s every brush stroke or gesture, like offering everyone cough drops when she herself was in the middle of a coughing fit, made me reconsider how I approached my daily life and activities. I found interactions with strangers and public etiquette easier to understand and navigate when trying to follow her example.

I have learned how to navigate social situations in Japanese with greater confidence than I had at the beginning of the program through the calligraphy class. My advice for those looking to take her classes or try calligraphy is to be mindful. Even something as small as taking a moment to think things through, whether it was my next brush stroke or response in a conversation, helped me make use of the language and calligraphy tips I learned.

Hai Anh Pham: Kyoto University's Chorus

The emails that I exchanged with the Chorus’s representative gave me an impression that the circle was an all-accepting space where even the non-experienced are welcomed: “Thank you for your interest. We await you at the first practice. And yes, we are thrilled that you are bringing friends. Bring them all, be it 5 or 10 people!!” 

And really, the people were as nice as I had pictured them to be. On the first day, a guy came all the way to where I and Yuki got lost to pick us up. After the first practice was over, we newcomers were put into the spotlight, so all the members could get to know us and sing their welcoming song. Throughout my time with them, I continued to feel the circle’s attempt to create a sense of belonging for all its members: free after-practice meals, weekend gatherings, and the funnest of all, the exaggerated, variety show-like reaction words we always give together when someone is doing an announcement. I wish I had more time to interact and make friends with everyone. My host family was far away from Kyodai, so I couldn’t participate much in the bonding activities that the circle created for its members.

Joining a circle where everyone was welcomed first gave me the assumption that the quality of real practices would be mediocre. I was wrong. Even though the songs we had to sing were really difficult, the conductor, part leaders, and most people really knew what they were doing. Not only that, they went out of their way to guide newbies like me, whether it was the breathing and diaphragm training exercises at the beginning, or the melody, beats, and nuances of each music bar. At first, it was a bit irritating to me, because their over-guidance indicated that they thought I knew absolutely nothing. However, I realized after a while that they were just fulfilling their roles of senpai, to welcome and help and instruct, especially considering my barriers not being a Japanese. And after months of going to the Chorus, although I did not have much opportunities to interact with the members outside of practice, the care that they showed toward me really made me feel like a kouhai myself, that I belonged as part of this Chorus.

Raynor Mesa: Go Classes

There are many sizes of boards in go. Although the standard is a square of nineteen rows by nineteen rows, you can use even smaller boards; for example, I started learning go on a nine by nine board. Naturally, as you increase the size of the board, the difficulty of playing on it increases: while a nine by nine board has only eighty-one possible places to put a stone, a standard board has a total of 361. Moreover, although the number of places only increases four times, the number of possible plays increases exponentially. A game of go on a standard board has so many potential plays that even the strongest super computers cannot model every possibility.

The sheer number of possibilities is why go is so difficult. It’s said that the best way to learn go is to lose your first fifty games, then keep playing anyway. For me–after taking weekly classes for seven weeks–I was only able to move on from the simple nine by nine board in the last two weeks, after a total of roughly fifteen hours of classes.

Still, going from losing every game on a nine by nine board, to barely winning a match on a thirteen by thirteen board, represents significant progress. More importantly, my Japanese classmates have been a constant source of help. Because I am undoubtedly the most inexperienced member of the class, all of the people I practice against have been invaluable sources of help and experience. Of course, mistakes abound on my part: poorly positioned pieces, missed opportunities, and badly constructed strategies. But my classmates always step in to reassure and assist me–they show me what I could have done better, what to keep in mind for next time, what they themselves had done. For a novice such as myself, such advice in a welcoming environment make my experience that much easier and memorable.

And the complement to their aid when I lose, is their praise when I win (even if rarely). I am by no means skilled at go. But the friendliness and warmth of my classmates means every class I go to is memorable and enjoyable, even on days when I do nothing but lose.

Christopher Huber: Tanka Circle

What is tanka? The question is simply answered: a poem written in 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic pattern. I felt content with my answer and decided to join the Kyoto University tanka club to try my hand at the art of their composition and reading. However, as I regularly participated in the club’s meetings, I began to lose faith in this answer of mine. In these meetings, called utakai, participating members submit poems in advance, which are then discussed, analysed and judged by the group. Over the course of these discussions, it became clear that the group and I were approaching the poems in quite different ways; it seemed that our concept of the nature of tanka was estranged. It appeared to me as though the members, even if they complemented the form of my poems or the choice of imagery, struggling to engage with them in the same way. I felt that I would never be able to truly join the group until I had solved the mystery.

At first, I thought the problem lay in communication. Although I could usually understand the clear, slow voice of my Japanese teacher, this ability did not translate into a comprehension of a heated literary discussion about poems I could not prepare in advance. There were certainly many times when I felt completely lost in the discussion. I had failed to follow the line of interpretation, even if I could follow the basic meaning of the sentences.

Aside from the discussion itself, the poems provided another obstacle. Though armed with a dictionary, there was always at least one poem I failed to grasp. Since every member is called upon to make comment, these moments were often quite trying; I would tend to talk around the poem, focusing on specific images without providing any attempt to string together the separate ideas.

However, I gradually felt I was overcoming these problems. My key strategy was to focus on interpreting the poems in advance even if it meant I had to largely ignore the first poem; that time was usually lost anyway in readjusting myself to the style of discussion. Consequently, when it came to the poems I had analysed, I was in a much better position; I was aware of a large amount of possible interpretation, which made following the comments easier and I had already decided on a few points to share, which dulled the pressure and allowed me to join more actively in the discussion.

The strategy proved key to becoming a member of the group. I won the respect of the other members not through my poems, but my interpretations. They responded to the evident consideration I was putting into my interpretation, which communicated my respect for them as poets and their craft. However, even though I was accepted into the club, the distance members felt to my poems did not disappear. We seemed to conceive of tanka in fundamentally different ways.

My first thought had been that tanka was no more than any other form of poetry, no more than one of many possible modes of expression. However, I was forced to reconsider this position after my exposure to the attitude of the club members. Questions on poetry or literature in general tended to meet with surprized and confused expressions; one would think I had asked a strange, even absurd question. When a reply finally emerged, it usually stressed the uniqueness of tanka, before admitting very little interest in other poetic forms. The pursuit was not poetry, but tanka; they read tanka and wrote tanka.

After a number of weeks, I believed I was beginning to understand their perspective. Tanka are, after all, in some ways a truly unique form of Japanese poetry; they have an age long tradition in Japan and stood as the unrivalled form of verse for over half a century. The tanka cannon overflows with great poems and poets; perhaps, their own tradition so rich and deep, tanka poets did not feel the need to look outside of tanka.

However, I was forced to abandon this supposition after a revealing exchange with one of my senpai, one of the leading members of the club, who regularly competes and wins tanka contests. As we walked together back to the station, he explained to me the difference between waka and tanka. Waka literally means Japanese poetry, but, due to the historic predominance of tanka, for a long time, it was used synonymously with the term tanka. My senpai employed the term to distinguish between old and new tanka. The scope of waka, the old tanka, was heavily confined by set conventions of diction and topic. In contrast, contemporary tanka is much freer, without any formal requirements save the 5-7-5-7-7 syllabic structure. After he had clarified the distinction, he told me I wrote in a very waka­-like style and would benefit from studying more contemporary tanka collections.

My senpai had unknowingly answered the question that had been troubling me. Indeed, I had always drawn my inspiration from the classical waka poets, aspiring to their lofty diction and keen seasonal awareness. Yet, no other member of the group was similarly motivated; I alone, it seemed, had believed in the continuity of the tradition; to the others, waka were no more than the works of poets from long ago, without any bearing on their own poetic practice.

I had my answer and indeed succeeded in presenting poems that spoke to the group, yet, if anything, I felt even more lost. I could no longer see why tanka was special, why these poets composed exclusively tanka. They do not see themselves as the last generation in a long line of tanka poets, yet nor did they see themselves as artists focused on a single mode of expression. I struggle to understand, but the struggle is interesting. One day, I will certainly find out what tanka mean to its poets.

Saminya Bangura: KLEXON

For my CIP, I’ve been attending the Kyoto Language Exchange Salon (or KLEXON) in Shijo once a week. While I didn’t get to practice a lot of Japanese language, it has still been an incredible experience that has allowed me to learn a lot about the Japanese culture and even make a few friends!

Of all the things I experienced during my time at KLEXON, what’s stuck with me the most was an experience I had at one of the parties. Once a month, there is a dinner party that brings two or three language circles in the area together and on my first time there, I was surprised to have so many members (from both my circle and the others) insist on serving me drinks and food. From the moment I began studying Japanese, the importance of the senpai-kouhai relationship was often emphasized and I had always assumed that, regardless of the context, it would stand firm. However, despite my being the youngest and newest member of the circle at my table, I was served throughout the night and when I attempted to do it in exchange, I was refused, which confused me more than it hurt my feelings.

I had to wonder if my being a foreigner somehow made me exempt from the usual rules that steer Japanese club dynamics. Perhaps because the members know that my time in the club is temporary, they were choosing to treat me more like a guest than a member; so the rules of senpai and kouhai (which I do see employed when other members interact) didn’t apply. I attempted to face this by becoming involved with the group on a more personal level so that even if they knew of my transience, I could still be accepted as a permanent member based on my social presence. This involved attending more events outside of meetings (like the parties) and following through on friendships when I received LINE IDs or Facebooks. But, in the end, there was no real change over the course the semester; I was still being treated like a guest even two and a half months in.

Eventually, I came to realize that this phenomenon wasn’t of any fault of my own. I was struggling to enter the uchi of KLEXON when there was no real uchi in the first place. Though there are a group of regular members that attend meetings every single week, KLEXON’s relatively lax structure, lack of set policies regarding attendance and older membership meant that some people might go weeks without coming to a meeting. And as a result, there was no concrete group mentality; individual members might forge friendships but there was no real sense of a bond between the group as a whole. Therefore, what I thought was a senpai and kouhai interaction forged by club members might have just been a manifestation of the general idea of respecting senior members in your field or elders.

I think that my experience would’ve been much different had I been involved in a CIP with more people my age, especially on a college campus. College clubs tend to be more structured (and, as a result, more stressful) but that often results in getting closer to your peers and creating a sense of uchi. Nonetheless, I enjoyed every minute of being in KLEXON; it was fascinating to get a glimpse into interactions between shakai-jin (especially the businessmen) and experience a club that was driven and shaped by them more than anyone else.

Andrew Proebstle: Calligraphy

Through participating in the Community Involvement Project we are asked, as ethnographers, to take away from our experiences and be able to discuss an aspect of Japanese life. Studying calligraphy in a classroom with no more than four or five elementary school students at one time and one teacher made for easy observation, but it’s actually how my teacher went out of her way to deal with me that I find most interesting, and is what I want to briefly talk about without revealing too much of her personal information on the internet.

A calligraphy teacher for elementary students is someone who teaches basic techniques, and an elementary student practicing calligraphy tends to just want to get the lesson over with as quickly as possible. How then, should a foreigner interested in learning more advanced techniques be dealt with, if at all, was the predicament my teacher was faced with when I first came to her house and asked to be instructed. Fortunately for me she accepted, and even more fortunately she has worked her hardest to humor all of my unorthodox requests. She helped me write poetry, a Zen koan, and even ancient style calligraphy, all of which are things that she would not normally be teaching. For her, this meant going out of her way to prepare examples for me to practice copying that she’s not used to writing, let alone teaching to someone with barely even three years of Japanese language. Even though I made things difficult for her, she never once complained about it to me.

Her generosity goes beyond even that though. For starters, she gave me the brushes I’ve used for class every week as a present, free of charge. She never seems to mind if, for example, I’ve been struggling and it takes me until 9pm to complete my lesson, meaning that she has to wait longer to eat dinner. After a semester had passed and the New Year had come, she presented me with a lovely paperweight to use with the design of a sheep (the zodiac animal for this year), again all out of the goodness of her heart. The per month rate she charges me is more than fair, and makes it clear that she teaches for the joy of it, rather than to make a profit in spite of all the paper and ink that gets used up in a single day. It’s this character of my calligraphy teacher that not only stands out to me in an ethnographic way because of her dedication to teaching, but also has my sincerest gratitude for the kindness she’s shown me every week. It is to her that I owe all that I’ve been able to learn, and I’d like to continue practicing calligraphy after I return to America out of respect for her efforts.