Rebecca N. Clark, Iaidô (Spring Semester)

I hate stage fright —the way it feels like there’s a riot of dancing mad butterflies in your stomach and a jackhammer where your heart should be; the distinctive itch along the nape of your neck as you imagine all eyes on you; the fear of overhearing whispers commenting on what you did, or did not, do to mess up. Unsurprisingly, it’s scarier when you don’t fully understand what people are saying, when every whisper you hear could just as likely be about you as someone else if only you could understand the language enough to tell the difference.

During the month of training leading up to my first competition in iaidô —Japanese sword-drawing— I couldn’t keep these thoughts out of my head. They kept creeping up on me, pouncing right when I would reach for the hilt of my sword, turning a smooth draw into a stuttering, stumbling flail of limbs and blunted steel. My senseis at the dojo probably noticed it, the way I shied from being in the front row of any in-dojo demonstration or the look of terror that I never managed to hide fast enough when they asked me to perform solo to demo a new technique. One day, as we put the finishing touches on our routines the Sunday before competition, we held a mock competition. As each flight stepped up and ran through the four kata (routines) we had to perform, each person called out their number and the name of our dojo’s style, musoujikiden eishinryuu. When my turn came, I took a breath and started to speak, gripping my sword, sheathed at my left hip, like a lifeline. I made it through the number, but then the name of the style came.

MusojMusokideMusokiden enryuu,” I finally stuttered out, face probably as pink as my practice kimono. It was embarrassing, to say the least, that I messed up something as simple as our style’s name, but we had to keep the mock competition going. After a quick correction from the head sensei, N-sensei, my flight and I completed out set and soon the mock competition was over.

The dojo’s de facto mother figure, H-sensei, had of course been watching, and when we split off into belt groups she took over teaching mine and started by having me practice saying our introductions. I could do it if I went slow, but it sounded odd coming after the confident declarations of my belt-mates. Rather than letting me apologize, she waved her hand in that affectionately dismissive way few can pull off and turned to all of us. With a clap of her hands she declared,

“We’re all your nakama. And so we’re going to help you.”

Then she turned to the native Japanese speakers and had them all say their introductions again, but this time at a steady and slow pace that I could match. I was stunned at hearing her declare us all to be nakama —friends who share a close bound and look out for the well-being of each other and the group— and felt myself wanting to cry at the sincerity and acceptance with which she said that and at the grins the other students immediately sent my way.

We all sounded the same when H-sensei was done with us, and as she went off to talk with another student, I apologized again to the other students, feeling bad for inconveniencing them. They just chuckled, and K-san, a feisty young woman the same age as me, replied with her trademark smirk,

Isshou ni ganbarou!” (We’ll do this together!)

Then the call for us to lineup and ceremonially remove our swords for the final time as practice ended went out and we all scrambled for our places. I smiled through the whole thing.

When competition day came, I was nervous, but not nearly as much as I would have been if I didn’t know I had my dojo-mates and senseis, my nakama, standing beside me and supporting me. My flight went up, and we all said our introductions, my own fitting in right alongside theirs, even if the American accent I can never seem to shake fully was still there. It was over in a flash and we walked off the stage together, laughing with the aftereffects of nerves and congratulating each other on a job well done as our senseis smiled in approval.

In the end, I didn’t place, but I still consider the memory of that experience alongside the men and women who count me —and I them— as their nakama to be one of my dearest from my time here. Moreover, I learned first-hand about the importance of teamwork in Japanese group mentality and how that translates into experiences such as my own, where the members of a group look out for the well-being of both each other and the group as a whole. Though this is not a quality unique to Japanese culture and society, it is one for which my experience here in Japan, interacting with the Japanese, has been all the richer.

Gita Connolly: NICCO (NGO) Intern

After searching for NGOs in the Kyoto area that focus on international development, I decided to join NICCO for one of my CIP. NICCO stands for the Nippon International Cooperation for Community Development, and this NPO (as non-profits are called in Japan) supports self-reliance projects in developing countries around the world as well as right here in Japan. I mainly serve as a translator from Japanese or Hindi to English for online publications or information from partners on upcoming projects, but also get to enjoy just volunteering at events, such as their annual charity run along the river at Demachiyanagi. Although I am really close with some of the other interns, one staff member in particular took me under his wing, gifting me manga for kanji practice, teaching me about various Japanese historical events in the area, sharing interesting folk stories, and correcting my Japanese grammar in exchange for my help with English or explanations of American events like Thanksgiving and Black Friday.

I had many great experiences while interning, but the most interesting part was simply learning all of the small habits unique to Japanese office culture. I experienced more than my fair share of mishaps and misunderstandings during my fifteen hours/week at NICCO, especially when just joining the office. When I showed up to the NICCO office (a cozy machiya-style building) for the first time to “talk with them”, I met with four staff members for an hour or so and answered questions. To my surprise, afterwards they asked me to walk into the main office room (momentarily pausing work for everyone else seated at their desks, typing away) to give a brief self-introduction.  I realized later that our little chat was actually considered an interview, and somehow I had managed to pass their intern criteria and that’s why they had gone ahead and introduced me as a new team member.

The second time I came into the office, when I had just sat down at the intern desk, one of the staff members suddenly announced that some kind of meeting was starting and everyone around the room stood up immediately. After a couple seconds I realized that they were holding this meeting for my sake, and promptly (embarrassedly) stood up while everyone began very formally introducing themselves in keigo. Since I was only used to attending meetings where people either stand up and talk one at a time so that everyone focuses on them, or we all just stay seated, the whole process of going around the room while everyone is standing and presenting overly-formal intros was quite a surprise. Despite these formal intros, however, we all share snacks and make jokes in a very friendly work environment, with one co-worker (to my great surprise and amusement) even laughingly commenting on my Kansai-ben. It is simply a fact of office culture that the standard soro soro shitsureishimasu-es upon leaving are always met with a hearty assault of otsukarasamadesu-es.

I’m especially entertained by one other office tradition, the aizuchi (emphatic interjections to show that they are listening) that everyone uses while talking to the founder of NICCO or while on the phone. Other than just being extremely polite to their superiors (as an employee would do in any office), they speak in a voice about an octave higher, use hesitant tones to ask questions that they already know the answer to, or soften even the smallest of requests. Another intern and I looked at each other and tried not to laugh as, just a couple meters away, one co-worker emitted an enthusiastic “hai!” every two seconds while the shachou explained directions. The best part is, I notice a lot of people smile to themselves while watching others make these seemingly-ridiculous aizuchi, and yet these laughing people make the same exact aizuchi when talking to the shachou as well. I guess if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

Rebecca N. Clark: Iaidô (Japanese Swordsmanship)

   Iaidô is a sport —and an art— that I’ve wanted to learn since I first heard of its existence several years ago as a freshman in college. The fluid power and steady grace of iaidô practitioners’ movement transfixed me as I replayed YouTube videos and followed along as best I could as swords flashed through the air.


Presentation of members before the grand master at a joint gathering of dojos

When I learned that I had been accepted into the KCJS program with its Community Involvement Project (CIP) requirements for us students, my top pick for the CIP was very obvious. With the assistance of the teachers and staff, I was able to find and join an iaidô dôjô in nearby Hirakata city and soon found myself immersed in a vibrant, close-knit community of martial arts enthusiasts. The people I met there have been nothing short of kind and helpful, making sure that, even with the language barrier, I am able to make it to practices and luncheons every week (the dôjô has no physical presence and as a result, practices are held at a different community center each weekend), and they have even included me in the carpool system that ensures members of all ages and locales are able to arrive on time.

Putting on the iaidô uniform proved to a ready catalyst for bonding among myself and the other female members. We all chuckled good-naturedly over my utter confusion as I attempted to wrangle a kaku obi —a stiff cloth wound around the waist to hold the sword

From top to bottom, left to right: sword carrying case; cloth sword cover; kimono; hakama; kaku obi; iaitô; sheath; knee pads

and belt the kimono— into place and keep my hakama —wide-legged pants— in place throughout the three-hour practices. This same uniform also quickly proved to be my biggest reminded of the kindness and generosity of my dôjô-mates. Every time I look in the mirror of the community center’s practice hall, I see the soft gray of my kimono, the heavy black cotton of my hakama, and the lacquered sheath of my iaitô —a blunt-edged sword— and am reminded of how these items were either gifted or loaned to me so that I could practice with the proper equipment from day one. For example, when we figured out that the iaitô I had been using was hindering me because of the length, a member volunteered his extra iaitô that was short enough for someone with my five-foot-even stature to wield.

As with any new sport, I had to learn a whole new way of moving and then how to control each of these motions —such as the initially awkward motion of drawing a sword— in a process that, unsurprisingly, had its hiccups. One such instance is how I, unused to the wide flowing sleeves of my kimono, have a tendency to catch the hilt of my iaitô in the cuff while drawing. In response, the elder gentleman who oversees my training paused the lesson and carefully explained to me how to remedy the problem with a needle and thread when I got home by making the sleeve opening smaller and so allowing me to move more freely. Moments like this, where help and instruction are so readily offered with a smile and steady patience, have come to define my time at the iaidô dôjô and I wear the reminder of my dôjô-mates’ kindness every time I step out onto the mats alongside them.

Esja Staggs: Calligraphy Club

Before coming to Japan, one of my goals for my time abroad was to learn 書道, and so I decided to attempt to join the Doshisha calligraphy club. Unfortunately, the Doshisha calligraphy club did not meet until the beginning of their semester, and so it was impossible to actually start my CIP until well into October. Moreover, since I reached out to the club officers via email, it was extremely difficult to maintain contact and decide on a time that I could participate in their meetings. Eventually, however, I was able to meet with one of the club officers, who then lead me to the clubroom at the Shinmachi campus. Before entering the room, it was necessary to first knock, and then say 失礼します while opening the door. Although I did not speak directly to many of the other club members, I would overhear their conversations while I practiced. Particularly, I noticed the level of formality and/or informality of the conversations, as well as the use of Kansai-ben and colloquial speech. As 書道 is by its very nature a quiet activity, I did not speak to anyone in the room besides the club member that was assisting me for the day. Consequently, most of my observations pertaining to culture and language were vicarious. Although I still do not know the names of any of the 部員 that have gone out of their way to sit with me for well over an hour and (arguably in vain) teach me how to write characters that they learned as schoolchildren, I am extremely grateful that they allowed a 留学生 such as myself to take up their time and resources.

Alex Hutchins: Bazaar Cafe

I have enjoyed volunteering at Bazaar Cafe on Friday afternoons for many more reasons other than my love of doing dishes. This is to say that I have enjoyed the opportunity to meet people in Japan who embody narratives outside of the societal norm — who break down oft-repeated monolithic statements about Japan’s cultural homogeneity. Granted, I came into this experience with a certain level of background knowledge surrounding Japan’s cultural diversity, but it is another thing in its entirety to meet and speak with people who have had those experiences. I have witnessed a group of people — there are a wonderful volunteers at Bazaar Cafe –who are dedicated to ensuring that Kyoto welcomes ALL people regardless of race, religion, or sexual orientation. I did a lot of dishes at Bazaar, but I was also able to do a lot of thinking — and I think it is because of the people I met here at my CIP that have made me realize that Kyoto is a place that I will definitely be returning to. Recently the cafe hosted its annual event at the end of November celebrating inclusivity and featuring food and goods from organizations representing groups from places such as Okinawa, Syria, Korea, and so on. This demonstration of community, aside from Kyoto’s physical beauty, has made the main hours of washing and drying worth it, and makes me excited for my future efforts to go to graduate school in this city. For me, Bazaar Cafe made Kyoto “home.”


Alan Cheng: Calligraphy (Shodō) Lessons

This semester I continued taking calligraphy lessons with an instructor in my neighborhood, who I was fortunate to have been introduced to by my host mother. Every Tuesday from 7 to 9pm, I practiced writing Japanese characters with an ink and brush along with two other students.

As a college student, how you fit in within the demographics of students who take calligraphy lessons is quite interesting: either you find yourself sticking out as the oldest among a crowd of elementary school students, or you’re conspicuously the youngest among adults over twice your age. (To be fair, as a foreigner, you pretty much stick out wherever you are but that’s beside the point!) The reason for this is that students who pursue calligraphy as an extracurricular activity typically practice in clubs at school, rather than taking outside lessons, and working folks, of course, hardly have time to take these kinds of lessons.

My class was the latter, and the two other students were both in their 50’s or 60’s (I never asked directly) and at least one of them was a grandparent. Since they’ve both been practicing calligraphy for at least 8 years, their writing already looked perfect in my eyes, so at first I wondered why they were still taking classes. However, it didn’t take long for me to come across the answer: these lessons were also important social gatherings. The students and our instructor always chatted about anything and everything while during our lessons, and the atmosphere was always very warm and friendly. I could tell that, while the student-teacher relationships were always upheld (by the way they were speaking), they were truly friends as well.

Incidentally, the teacher, too, had grandchildren, and it seemed that she would give them handwriting exercises to work on–as the classes were held in her home, I recall that occasionally her young grandchildren would come into the classroom to have their handwriting looked over. That my calligraphy teacher was keen to make sure that her grandchildren had good handwriting even at such a young age, I believe, reflects the importance placed on handwriting in modern society, where, for instance, resumes are still traditionally handwritten and applicants with messy handwriting are indeed judged to also have a looser character.

Comparing the cultural emphasis on handwriting in Japan to two other countries that I’m familiar with, there’s a similar attitude in China, but America doesn’t value handwriting as highly. My dad, an immigrant from China, was very proud of his handwriting and calligraphy, but he realized that these skills are not nearly as important in America, so unlike my calligraphy instructor, he didn’t feel the need to comb over my handwriting as a child.

As for advice to incoming KCJS students who are unsure about what to choose for their CIP, I would definitely recommend calligraphy as a CIP activity for those who are interested. One of the hurdles for anyone starting to learn calligraphy that ends up turning many people off the art is embarrassment. It can be embarrassing to struggle writing even simple Japanese characters as beautifully as the samples you’re given, especially since you’ve been writing Japanese for years, not to mention that the instructor will say that your writing is 上手 seemingly without regard to how poor it is. However, it’s important to realize that calligraphy is difficult even to native Japanese folks, and, practicing the traditional art of calligraphy can have wonderful effects for your handwriting in general.
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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.

Michael Mauer: Fencing

Ever since middle school, the sport of fencing has been an important part of my life, so naturally I picked fencing as my CIP. The Doshisha fencing team practices every day but Monday for about 2 hours. I’ve only been going to Tuesday and Thursday practices because I have to take a 70 minute bus ride to get to Doshisha’s Kyotanabe campus for practice. Much like in America, practice is composed of some warm-up, followed by free bouting.

Practicing with the fencing club was a great opportunity to learn about Japanese society. For example, like most sports club in Japan, younger members are expected to use formal language when talking to older members. Moreover, members usually only socialize with other people in the same age group. I’ll never forget my first night of practice when I asked a freshman if he wanted to sit together on the bus ride home. He was bewildered that I even considered asking him instead of another Junior (even though I hadn’t talked to the other Juniors yet!).

That said, the most important thing I’ve learned from the fencing club is that no matter how different two cultures are, some things are the same around the world. Sore legs after practice, triumphant screams after a successful touch – these sorts of experiences and emotions are shared between fencers in Japan, America, and around the world. In short the love and dedication we share does not just belong to one culture. It is universal.

Thus, my advice to the students that follow in my footsteps at KCJS is to remember that no matter how strange and alien Japan might seem at times, remember that you certainly have some common ground with the people and culture around you. Explore those similarities and differences by getting involved. Immerse yourself. Even if you don’t know what to say, even if you aren’t confident in your Japanese – dive in head first. I know it might be scary, but I promise that no matter how scary it is, it will be even more rewarding.

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Lauren Levine: Kyoto Walking Circle

For my CIP I knew that I wanted to be in a relaxed environment with Japanese students my own age so that I would be able to engage the other club members as peers. For this reason I chose to join the Kyoto Walking Circle, a club open to students of various colleges around Kyoto, and which meets once a week to walk around and explore different temples and shrines around the city. The club met every Saturday at 1:30 PM (at different locations around Kyoto depending on which temple or shrine we were visiting that day) with occasional night time events during the week.

One thing that surprised was how many members the club had and how much the people that came varied from week to week. At a given activity there could be more than twenty people, but very often more than half of those people would not have come the following week. Since the walking club is a very relaxed environment, attendance is always optional and most people come to events sporadically. This meant that I got to meet a lot of different people, but I often would not see the same person multiple weeks in a row, which made it difficult to stay in contact and become close friends. Still, everyone was really welcoming and friendly, and I enjoyed hanging out with everyone during the club activities.

Another thing that I noticed was that there was not a strong distinction between senpai and kouhai in this club environment. Even though there were students ranging in age from first years all the way to graduate students, most people in the club spoke in short form to each other and treated each other like friends (though some younger members did frequently speak in teinei). When speaking to mw, people usually started by speaking formally during the introductions, but soon switched to casual speak afterward.

Rather than the main distinction in the group being specifically by age, the more prominent distinction was in the smaller circles of friends that formed within the group. Since the group had so many members, only some of whom would come any given week, it was normal for the group walking that day to split into smaller groups of 4-6 while we were all walking. Some groups were all girls, other were all boys, and others were mixed (though there tended to be more guys than girls at the club activities). These were not official groups, but just groups that naturally formed based on friendships because our group was too large to all walk around together.

As a result, each week I would usually only end up talking to about five or six people depending on whichever smaller group I ended up walking with. I usually walked with whoever I started talking with before the activity started. The people in my CIP were very friendly, so I was almost always approached by someone who wanted to make conversation. If not, I would just introduce myself to the person who was staring at me the most. We would sometimes talk about the place we were visiting, but usually our conversations revolved around more general discussions of school, hobbies, and interests.

Overall, I really enjoyed my time as a member of the Kyoto Walking Circle. I got to see a lot of different temples and shrines around Kyoto, and because our club activities were mostly walking, there was a lot of time to make conversation and get to know the members of the circle.

Debotri Chatterjee: Calligraphy

For my CIP, I chose to take private lessons in shodo (brush-style calligraphy). The first time I went over to sensei’s house, I expected to simply talk about future lessons and figure out timings for class, etc. To my surprise, I soon found myself staring down at a piece of washi, brush in hand, with both my host mother and sensei looking on expectantly. I wasn’t completely a stranger to the brush, but I’d never done any sort of calligraphy before in my life. Realizing this, sensei showed me how to make a few basic strokes, and then I was on my own again.

This set the tone for all future classes. I’d come in with some kanji I wanted to practice, or sensei would let me pick a phrase from a massive book of kanji and then I’d try to get my writing as close as possible to sensei’s sample. Shodo is a pretty solitary activity – there isn’t much hand-holding or even teaching, really; all your teacher can do is suggest improvements for next time, and then it’s up to you. Which means that in a typical shodo class, there aren’t too many opportunities for conversation.

However, my shodo sensei wasn’t running a formal class; she teaches shodo because she likes it, and likes teaching people. Because of the informal tone of the class, I didn’t get to practice using keigo at all, but I like to think that I had several very interesting conversations with people from very different walks of life – from elementary school kids, to housewives, to even Buddhist monks! Despite being the new ‘gaijin’ in class, it didn’t take me very long to feel very at home among everyone. One thing I noticed in particular was how quickly everyone dropped their formalities around me and began talking to me in casual speech, as they would to a friend.

What did I learn about the Japanese language/culture through my CIP? There are countless things I could talk about, but one aspect I found particularly interesting is the interplay between the usage of different levels of formality in speech. Using different levels comes easily to me, because my native languages (Bengali and Hindi) have a similar speech pattern (with informal, formal and honorific levels). It was interesting to me how similar the usage of these different levels is, comparing Japanese to say, Bengali. For example, in both languages, I’ve noticed that little children can get away with using informal speech, no matter who they’re talking to, but as they get older, it’s no longer acceptable to, say, approach a stranger and begin talking to them at an informal level. Another thing I found particularly interesting is that sometimes, a means of expressing displeasure/disappointment/anger in these languages is to suddenly switch to a more formal way of speaking. My CIP was one of the things this semester that showed me how to use the knowledge I have about other languages, and channel that into learning yet another, just by virtue of understanding the basis behind the language.

Aside from becoming somewhat decent with my brush, I’ve also learnt so much just by being able to interact with people I normally wouldn’t have the chance to meet. My sensei was one of the nicest and most encouraging people I’ve met in Kyoto, and I appreciate how at home she made me feel. Shodo class was one of the highlights of my week through the semester, and I’m so glad I chose to pursue it.