Yini Li: Shamisen

As a Music Major student, I chose Shamisen(三味線)as my CIP project. This is a traditional Japanese instrument, and it brings me to a new music world.

My Shamisen teacher is Iwasaki sensei. She is an elegant Japanese woman who teaches shamisen and koto (琴), which is another traditional Japanese instrument. In the classroom on the second floor of Greenwich House which belongs to Iwasaki sensei, She often leads group practices with her shamisen, koto and shakuhachi(尺八) students, and I am glad to be part of them.

I still remember the first time that I went to practice. That was a group practice. Iwasaki sensei was holding a shamisen and singing a Japanese traditional folk song, while her koto, shamisen and shakuhachi students were each playing their own parts. There were about six students in that room, and all the students except me and another girl from KCJS were in their sixties or seventies.

“いらっしゃいませ。” this was the first sentence that Iwasaki sensei said to me. One of her students, a friendly-looking obaa-chan, gave me a cup of juice and some cookies. Everyone in the room was so nice that they asked me to help myself if I wanted to drink more or eat more. Their kindness relieved my anxiety being at my first practice and made me feel at home.

Shamisen is called Shamisen(三味線) because it has three strings. Comparing to instruments such as guitar and violin which have more than three strings, shamisen, having fewer strings, may seems easier to handle, but it was hard for me because I haven’t played any string instruments before.

The score of shamisen surprised me since it was different from any other Western music score that I had ever seen before. The notes were written in a combination of kanji for the first and second string and Arabic numbers for the third string. Instead of using scores written in contemporary form which do not include kanji and thus is easier to understand for beginners like me, Iwasaki sensei insists on using the score of traditional style. I like the traditional form of score very much; the style of score made me realize that shamisen has its own music system, a different way to perform music.

I joined the group practice with other Iwasaki sensei’s students. As a foreigner learning a new instrument, it was very hard at first. Sometimes Iwasaki sensei instructs me with Japanese music terminologies that I do not understand, but luckily, everyone within the classroom is willing to help me. One of the obaa-chans always helps me with toning and fingering; Iwasaki sensei often patiently explains how to play shamisen in the right position; another obaa-chan teaches me how to read the kanji notes. Therefore, I am almost never lost in the practice.

I participated in some group practices in the evening, and Iwasaki sensei always invited me and her other students to have dinner together. During the dinner time, Iwasaki sensei was always willing to chat with me about my life in Japan, which made me feel so warm. I enjoyed the dinner time with Iwasaki sensei and other students very much.

I think it would be hard for me to continue learning shamisen after I leave Japan. However, learning shamisen with Iwasaki sensei is an experience that is worthy to memorize throughout my lifetime. It is always hard to start to learn something new, but I managed to do it thanks to the help of all the cordial people that I met in Iwasaki sensei’s classroom. Thanks for everything!

Martha Levytsky: Klexon

I have recently begun participating in Klexon, an English learning circle with members ranging from college students to working men and women. The meetings take place most Tuesdays for 2 hours. They just held a Hanami Party on March 31st, which I participated in. I have been really enjoying my time at Klexon and definitely did not expect it to be as friendly and relaxed as it is. Through the circle, I not only met interesting Japanese college students from around the area, but English speakers from Australia and Sweden. The format of the meetings are structured and everyone is handed topic suggestions, but we all end up talking about a large variety of things from movies to languages. During the first hour, the English speakers remain in their seats while the Japanese members spend at least 5 minutes just introducing and chatting with us before switching to the next English speaker. Afterwards we all sit in a larger groups and have general discussions together.

The Japanese members’ English speaking skills are quite varied. Some can speak quite well and are therefore a bit more open and talkative, while others may have just begun their studies and are not yet confident. As I speak to them, I definitely see what I looked like both in September and now, which only makes the meetings a lot more relaxed for me as I try my best to speak slowly and keep the subjects light.

What I have noticed in most of my 5 minute conversations is that there is a lot of talk about working. The employed Japanese members tend to say that they are “working men.” In Japanese this would sound just fine, but it’s always a little odd when I ask if they are currently in school, and they reply “no I am a worker,” or a “working man,” in English. Though they say this proudly, in America it would be a bit strange. Generally someone would say “I work at such-and-such a place,” instead of simply, “I am a worker,” because the latter has more negative connotations.  I am not sure what the connotation is in Japan, or why it is said this way. Also, for about 3 meetings now there has been a lot of commotion about someone finally quitting their job and moving on to something better. This must be a coincidence that they all happened to quit around the same time, but it is always followed by “I have found another job!”

There is also an interesting response to questions about hobbies. When I am asked what mine are, I usually respond with a slew of random things that I do to pass the time at home from reading to playing video games. Yet almost every time I ask a Japanese member, they simply say travelling. In America travelling isn’t really a hobby as it isn’t something you can just do every day in your spare time. I never ask about this as I don’t think my English would be understood. I’m not quite sure what to make of this.

Yet all in all these meetings are always polite, with a lot of laughing, and a surprised “Ehh??” or “Oohhh!!!” to most of what each member says about themselves in a group. These definitely keep the energy quite high! There is also never one person left out in a group discussion. Everyone is always very aware of who hasn’t gotten a chance to speak, which makes it a very friendly environment. If one person hasn’t spoken in a while, someone in the group will turn to them and begin a new topic of discussion with that person. One of the Japanese members just got a job at Doshisha and we always happen to run into each other, so it’s great to be able to say hello, though a bit strange to suddenly be supposed to speak English!

All in all Klexon has been a great CIP experience! I really wish I could have done it all year! =)

Merrick Williams: Klexon

For the first half of this semester, I had been having difficulty finding an appropriate CIP to participate in. However, as described in my last blog, I have for the past month been attending a conversation circle called KURESON. Since joining, I have been to three or four of the regular meetings, as well as just recently a sakura viewing party and BBQ. From here I will be continuing to attend the regular meetings as well as hoping to participate in a strawberry picking outing that should happen sometime in the second half of April.

I have met lots of very nice people there, and since at the meetings the conversation is primarily in English, it gives a very different perspective on the Japanese manner of communicating. Particularly, it is a strong reversal of what is the normal social interaction between foreigners and Japanese in Japan, where the Japanese can speak fluent Japanese but the foreigner, if not fully fluent, is left a little uncomfortable and maybe left out.

Speaking in English with them puts everyone on different footing, where, since they are not fluent, are forced to be more blunt and clear with explanations and answers because they don’t know more subtle or nuanced ways of explaining things. This immediately changes the relationship between the two conversers, as I feel that the Japanese members are forced to open up a little more than they maybe would previously.

However, this then carries over later, when, for example, at the hanami party, when everyone spoke primarily in Japanese, since the ice had already been broken everyone got along very well and chatted with everyone else. To me, it felt like everyone was on more settled ground and were able to mix better, and everyone ended up having a great time.

This idea of hesitance was very present in our conversations in English however, which led to some interesting realizations about the way Japanese people speak about themselves in relation to Americans. For example, whenever they were asked what they do, the usual response is just “I work at a company” or “I’m a student.” In English these are such vague remarks that one almost feels uncomfortable continuing the questioning, but in Japanese is just a form of modesty that is then usually followed by “ah, what company?” or “what college?”

I’m excited to continue KURESON for the next month and continue to participate and meet up with members. It’s been a great experience!









Martha Levytsky: FBI and 交流会

My experience with FBI was short but interesting. The club only met about once a month for a member movie marathon, and otherwise met in different locations for film shoots. With KCJS trips, it was difficult to meet with this CIP. The few times I met with everyone, I had an enjoyable time and would have liked to talk to the members more.

In order to participate in more CIP activities I started joining weekly 交流会. The Japanese members were very warm and easy to talk to. I spoke mostly in Japanese with them, but when they asked to speak English, I found it strangely uncomfortable and could not wait to switch back to Japanese. I will continue participating in 交流会 and hopefully next semester be a more active member in FBI. I am surprised that by going to 交流会 I do not feel like I am missing out on my other CIP. The 交流会 students are much easier to talk to as they are conducting a meeting with the intention of meeting with international students. FBI, while friendly, is a bit harder to feel comfortable in because the students are probably not used to foreign exchange students joining their already close team.

By the end of this semester’s CIP activities, I have discovered that speaking to Japanese students feels fairly similar to speaking with my host parents. I was pleasantly surprised by how warm and welcoming the 交流会 students were and will have to strongly think about staying with them during my spring semester. Though there is a schedule during every meeting, it feels very casual and I enjoy the time I spend with everyone. By talking to the Japanese students I learned various things, such as American stereotypes felt by Japanese students. It was a fun exchange. Each of us had an Ipod or Iphone so we exchanged our favorite apps and games. Our group discussed different hand gestures and their meanings in Japan and America. The gestures themselves were the same but their meanings were quite different. Every student I met was very polite, and offered their own dinner for others. My experience in America and Japan are entirely different, simply because of the polite, open manner of the Japanese students.

Merrick Williams: Hiking and 交流会

When I began the mountain climbing CIP, I was very excited for it. I tried to have some kind of contact every week but it just became very difficult, but right at that time, I was told about a language exchange meeting that took place every Friday at Doshisha, and I have since begun attending that.

Although it is a language exchange program, and most of the members are capable of English as well as Japanese, at the meetings Japanese is by far the more widely spoken language, which is of course preferable to me. I find I learn the most about the Japanese language and culture when the discussion gets away from the more heavily organized discussions and we are able to just talk freely amongst ourselves. Numerous conversations have been had about simple differences we find about American culture and Japanese culture – it was a funny surprise when comparing stereotypes that while Americans often think of the Japanese as short, the Japanese think of Americans as tall. What I am most often struck by is actually the amount of American and Western culture that has been adopted by the Japanese and that they use on a daily basis, both in terms of language and also culture. It is so strange to me that their culture has evolved in such a way that makes it feel foreign but also strangely similar at the same time.

I always also enjoy asking about specific parts of Japanese culture and being able to get answers from similar aged college students about daily life and the smaller aspects of culture that you don’t have the opportunity to learn about in school. These kind of discussions usually lead to comparisons, and it is always fun learning that neither of us know the other’s culture well, and often what either thought was very normal can actually be quite different in meaningful ways. However, in the end, I guess the old cliché is true about how really, as different as we are, we’re really all just alike.

I am excited to continue with this group next semester, as well as participate in the hiking club as often as possible, and continue to forge strong bonds with the people that I meet.

マーサ・レヴィツキー:FBI サークル