Joseph Martin: Aikido

Coming into KCJS I was still undecided about what specific CIP I wanted to pursue, but I was interested in some sort of physical activity. After searching several possibilities, I eventually discovered an Aikido dojo and decided to give it a try. For the first class I was only allowed to observe. Following this session of observation I began practicing and immediately found myself in a situation contrary to what I had expected.

Having no previous experience in Aikido, I began training at a level far below that of all of the other dojo members. Consequently I made mistakes often, and at times was asked by the sensei to sit in seiza and observe the movements more carefully before attempting them again. Thankfully one of the senior members at the dojo took me aside and began teaching me more basic movements and techniques to help me progress, and through his help I was able to improve a great amount. After the first month I began to feel more comfortable in the practices as I was no longer making fundamental mistakes nearly as often. As a result I was able to place a greater focus on the techniques that the sensei would teach to the entire class rather than being isolated for fundamental work.

While communication outside of the dojo was quite limited, I did have opportunities to practice my Japanese during the lessons. Depending on the sensei, they would either speak entirely in Japanese or occasionally use English to explain certain movements. In the lessons we would partner up with other dojo members and take turns performing what the sensei had instructed us to do. In this setting I was able to communicate with my partner in Japanese and ask questions accordingly, although comprehending their responses posed some challenges at times. Nevertheless, I would ask clarifying questions and felt that this setting was a great way to put my Japanese from a classroom setting to use.

About half way through the semester I also began attending morning zazen sessions in the dojo on the weekends. These sessions were an entirely different experience than the usual physical aspects of our lessons as they were mentally intensive. I found these sessions to be extremely beneficial in clearing my mind of any stress inducing thoughts and always left feeling more relaxed.

The aspects of this CIP that I struggled with the most and never quite mastered were the nuances involved in such a formal class structure of martial arts. In nearly every practice I forgot or was not aware of certain practices of respect, such as the correct time to bow, when to sit in seiza, and how to speak with my partner. In my experience with boxing such formalities were not common practices, and holding this mindset when beginning Aikido caused me difficulties. Regardless, my biggest takeaways from this experience have been that Aikido, like many other aspects of life, requires a constant commitment to improve at a gradual pace. I would advise future students to choose an activity that they have previous experience in due to the time constraints of the semester.

Alan Aquino: La Carriere Cooking School


Last semester I joined a light music circle at Kyoto University. This semester however, because of final exams for the Japanese university students and their semester ending in March, I decided to pivot and instead take once-a-week cooking lessons at La Carriere Cooking School on Sanjo-Kawaramachi. I found out about the school through a group cooking event organized by KCJS during my fall semester.

Interpret this as you may, but classes are split up according to gender. Further, lesson prices are higher for female students than male students. The women have a wider selection of lessons at their disposal, while the ones that share the same content as men often have an extra dish incorporated into them. As a student, I received a generous 25% discount for my lessons from January to April.

The lessons are divided up as follows: Washoku, Yoshoku, and beginner’s skills. Each month there is one Washoku class, one Yoshoku class, and two beginner’s classes. Since I cook frequently back in America, I went into the first month feeling confident about the beginner’s courses, but decidedly more nervous about the more specialized classes.

For the first lesson or two, I would arrive an hour early and painstakingly translate the entire recipe sheets for the session’s two dishes. We were then directed to our demo room, consisting of 8 workstations made for two people apiece. At the start of the lesson, the head chef and his assistant would demo the entire cooking process for the night, referring to the sheets as needed and adding personal tips along the way. We would then be let loose, and working with our assigned partner (who changed every week), we would go through the sheets together and cook, assisting each other as needed.

What I quickly discovered was that I only needed to know the names and Kanji for ingredients unfamiliar to me, while the actually procedure I could pick up by ear pretty easily from the chef. If I ever got hung up on something, all I would need to do is wave down either the head chef or the assistant chef, or simply ask my partner. Yoshoku lessons became my favorites, because they used a lot of ingredients and techniques that I was already quite familiar with back home. In addition, I developed a fast friendship with the chef that always headed those lessons, a Japanese man who cooked in France for a few years of his life. Of all the teachers I had this semester, he was the one who engaged with me the most.

I kept all of the recipe sheets that I was given, and intend to use some of them again in the future when I’m cooking for myself. Over the course of the semester, I’ve learned a great deal more of Japanese vocabulary, gotten to know some new techniques, and interacted with people from a variety of backgrounds but united by a passion for cooking.

Alan Aquino: KyoDai Light Music Circle コンペイトウ


I wanted to join a light music circle not only to improve at guitar and learn to sing in Japanese, but in small part due to the influence of Kyoto Animation’s K-On. Along with a healthy dose of other slice-of-life anime, joining seemed like the perfect way to inject myself into Japanese university life. At Doshisha, we KCJS kids really stick together. Fusokan and the cafeteria are our own little islands, and it’s difficult to break out of this bubble to interact with Japanese students. I was introduced to the circle thanks to the help of a Kyoto University student that I met during orientation, and after a few emails and twiddling my thumbs for the circle to get back from summer vacation, I dropped myself into the fast-speaking, slang-slinging world of Japanese college students.

コンペイトウ meets once a week every Wednesday in Yoshida Building 4 at 7:30pm, though they’re not meetings in the traditional sense. Rather, they’re live shows, showcasing two cover bands made up of members of the circle. Half of the fun are their ridiculous names like Bump of Chicken, My Room is Dirty, and Nicke L. Back (a metal band). The genres range from anime songs to thrash to punk rock. An impromptu stage area is created by unbolting desks and chairs at the front of the room, and the group shares a handful of amplifiers, monitors, and a well-worn orange Yamaha drum kit. Once the lights dim, the opening band begins, tearing through a full setlist of covers with a gusto and talent that’s hard to match. After a quick break to change equipment, the headliners come on, skillfully shredding their way through another set, and then one more as an encore. The first time I went, I thought that the final act played so well that the crowd couldn’t help but ask for one more song, but after subsequent visits, I realized that the circle always asks for an encore no matter how the band did.

That first night, I went with one of our CIP mantras in mind: sometimes it’s good to be just an observer, and other times it’s best for you to jump straight in. I kept weighing those options as the evening went on, finally getting my chance during equipment cleanup at the end of the concert. Even the club members who are a part of the circle just to listen help pitch in to move equipment and put the classroom back together. It was at this time that I jumped in without being asked, and before long, inquisitive club members noticed me and began striking up conversation. I’ve met new people every week, but one thing that happened every time, without fail, was how cool people thought it was that I was from Las Vegas. They seemed quick to accept me too, even with my meager A-Class-level Japanese. At times, they could pick up that my fluency was still quite slow and adapt, while others they would speak at fluent speeds and I strained to keep up, afraid of asking them to slow down. I think that knowing a handful of Japanese rock bands helped me a lot, as everyone seemed surprised that I knew some of their favorite groups.

Dropping myself into those situations has certainly helped my Japanese and my perception of Japanese culture, though. Where I before dreaded (and to be honest, still dread a little bit) having to use and decrypt keigo on the fly, it was only after my early email exchanges that I began to appreciate how respected you feel when your respondent replies back in keigo. Listening to a variety of native speakers has helped me to be able to usually be able to pick out the main points of what they say, even if I don’t completely understand. The “every student pitches in to clean up” thing, which is regarded in foreign countries as the epitome of Japanese schooling and something that every nation should aspire to, is perceived as completely normal and not worthy of any special attention here in Japan. My host mother had a good laugh when I explained America’s strange fascination with that.

My time in コンペイトウ hasn’t been without its faults. Joining a band hinges on being a part of their mailing list, which even after giving email to supposedly the correct person, it wasn’t until three weeks later that someone realized that I hadn’t actually been added. Other than that, the circle doesn’t facilitate practices; it seems like once you get into a group, you do everything on your own before signing up to perform. At this point in the semester when the error got caught, with finals, papers, and winter break looming, it doesn’t seem like I’ll actually get to participate until next semester. Even then, with the semester ending in March, I’m not sure how much time I’ll actually get to have being an active member of the circle. For paying their membership fee and bringing my guitar from America with high hopes, several months of music appreciation isn’t exactly what I signed up for. I also feel like I would be getting more out of it, or at least better able to voice my concerns, if my Japanese were a lot better than it currently is.

I’m trying to keep my chin up. Getting put on the spot in conversation, without the aid of a conversation script or a dictionary, isn’t something that the formal teaching of a Japanese class can really prepare you for. You can only get better at with a lot of practice. At the start of the semester I was pretty concerned with speaking perfectly and figuring out the right words to use, but now I’ve loosened up and just speak as best I can, talking around what I’ve forgotten or what I don’t know, experimenting with new words and expressions that I’ve picked up from friends and from class.

Studying abroad here in Japan for a year makes me feel as if I’m living a double life. Truly, I’m shelving my life back in America for a few months, and injecting myself into something new and unfamiliar. Everything has a parallel — English for Japanese, my real family for my host family, Doshisha for Penn. But コンペイトウ doesn’t really have an American equivalent for me. I don’t have a group in America where I can let unwind for a few hours, talk excitedly about music, get insight into a foreign culture, and listen to two bands kill it once a week. I’m hoping that in time, hopefully soon, I’ll get to be up on stage in one of those too.

Sebastian Pratt: Football Crazy, Football Mad

I dreamed of boarding my homeward bound flight, a renaissance man, proficient in countless traditional Japanese arts. The prospects of representing my country in kyūdō, quite surprising my family with a Christmas shakuhachi performance, and, abandoning my awful handwriting for my newfound shodō brilliance provided me with a reason to actually look forward to the end of this semester. Save for a dramatic turn of events, these arguably lofty dreams look to be well and truly crushed.

Advised, by the powers that be, not to try my hand at an activity I had no experience in, I regretfully crossed off pretty much every possibility on list. I’m an Englishman. Football is my inochi, how spectacularly original. I stalled before reluctantly accepting that my CIP was to be football. After much research, aided significantly by Yamaoka-sensei, I trotted down to the Kamogawa one fine Saturday morning. Despite not finding the one I had been hoping to, I ended up joining the team that was training there. I say with questionable certainty that this team’s name is Nyū Borā; my understanding is that it came from some Italian phrase.

Football is, in theory, a very rewarding CIP. Unfortunately, I was only able to attend the team’s Saturday training sessions, and even then I missed a bunch of them because sometimes there were matches and other times I was getting lost elsewhere during my travels. A team sport whose squads consist of usually 20+ members bound by banter and strong camaraderie, football does provide a solid opportunity to make Japanese friends.

To my relief, the team seemed to jump at the opportunity to count an igirisujin amongst its members; coming from a football-crazy nation helped. Even though they did not add me to their Line group, the players welcomed me with varying enthusiasm, but enthusiasm nonetheless. Many were eager to befriend me in the hope that my English be contagious. I shared meals with a few members, and became as close as my Japanese permits to the only other Doshisha student in this Kyodai circle. Though at times it was tough to keep up with the Kansaiben and speed of speech, conversation was manageable because, unsurprisingly, all of the members were happy to talk about football. There is a strong sense of hierarchy and seniority and an absence of honorifics. Amusingly, when the ball flew into the river the newcomers were expected to retrieve it, and one actually disrobed and entered the water. Upon approaching the team, I was immediately directed towards el capitano, who would often express his surprise at my use of honorifics in emails. This is not different to what one would expect in any other country.

My CIP was enjoyable despite my infrequent attendance preventing my participation in the matches. I made some acquaintances, understood a joke here and there, and tried to improve my embarrassing casual Japanese.

Guy Tada: Yosakoi and Kyoto Sightseeing

Because I switched my CIP in the middle of the semester, I experienced two very different atmospheres and learned a lot about Japanese relationships, especially in a group setting of young adults. I originally joined Yosakoi dance circle in the hopes of bonding with peers over our love of dance. Every Thursday evening by the Kamogawa River, we would practice for three hours and learn a dance each week. Everyone was very friendly and polite to me at first, but after a couple weeks it struck me how distant everybody seemed to be relationship wise—everyone used nicknames to address each other, and even when I asked their real name they would tell me their nickname. Also, during water breaks, people would break up from their formation and divide into little cliques, usually formed by school year. It was hard for me especially as an outsider to break into these circles and bond with anyone. Their politeness only went so far, and thus, there were very awkward times where I would stand around while people talked to their cliques around me.

In addition, because the circle had over one hundred members (and they were not required to come to every practice) there was a lack of unity across the entire circle I felt. Even when learning dances, the veterans would split off to learn a new piece while the first years would learn last year’s piece. There didn’t seem to be much social interaction between first years and veterans, and when there was, they would speak in a very polite manner. The members would use the same polite form with me no matter their age (granted we weren’t friends by that point) but what they meant as politeness I took more personally as a way of distancing themselves from me. Even right after they would speak formally to me, they would turn to their friend and speak in a very colloquial speech pattern – emphasizing the social gap between us.

After a point, I felt like I had observed as much as I could from the experience and wanted to try something more intimate and accessible. Thus, I joined a Kyoto sightseeing circle! This circle was much smaller than Yosakoi and was certainly nice in that I got to explore more of Kyoto, including sites such as Kinkakuji and Kiyomizu Dera. The members were all very polite and friendly, often trying to explain information about the sites we were visiting while walking. Like Yosakoi members, they used formal speech when talking to me, but I was also a year above them, so that may have been a contributing factor. And even though there were only twenty members or less, social conversations seemed segregated by school year as well.

Although I didn’t go to this circle as much as Yosakoi since I switched later in the semester, I did take away one major lesson from both experiences. It seems to me that for Japanese students, a lot of their friends and close bonds come from the circles they’re in. I’ve seen various friend groups from Yosakoi hanging out in the shokudou or around campus. And two members of the sightseeing group are even dating right now! Overall, I’m appreciative of the experience I’ve gained and definitely have a more nuanced idea of Japanese relationships.

Ryan Hull: Doshisha Animal Life Circle

If I were to summarize my experience with the Doshisha Animal Life circle into a single (albeit hyphenated) word, such a word would be “eye-opening.” From start to finish, I can say with sincerity that my opinion of Japanese culture, especially that of young people here, has drastically evolved from a generally positive yet uneducated perspective to a conflicted yet informed view on their lifestyles. Via my various interactions with said students (or lack thereof), I can conclude that Japanese students are passionate about their circles, but less so regarding new – read: foreign – members of these organizations.

When I entered my first two meetings alongside a friend from KCJS, I was initially stunned by the small size of the club. I would later find out that nearly no one at the University knew that my circle existed, which I likely should have researched before jumping into the fray. Regardless, the first couple meetings were attended by only a few people, and were fairly quiet. I was impressed, however, by the enthusiast manner in which I was greeted by the president of the organization, both electronically and personally. Via social networking, she expressed her excitement to meet both myself and my friend, and in person, she gifted to us small Japanese candies and confections. This, in conjunction with how kindly the other members reacted to our entrance, led to my initial hypothesis that Japanese university students were eager to accept foreign students into their midst. However, as I will elaborate upon later, this was the warmest response I received all semester. The first two meeting ended on disappointingly anticlimactic notes, as the members sat and discussed administrative manners for about an hour and a half for both sessions. Regardless, I was able to gather that university organizations here are held to a high standard of organization.

As the next few meetings passed, I began to observe a pattern in the students’ behavior: they would appear very excited to see us when we first joined the meeting, but after this initial excitement, would begin to divide into two distinct groups. Said groups consisted of the men, who did not attempt to make conversation with us, and the women, who attempted to keep us involved in the conversation but didn’t exactly succeed. However, it was the thought that counted in this situation, and it was appreciated. I began to hypothesize that a) perhaps Japanese students, especially the males, needed some time to adjust to foreign students entering their organization, and b) that Japanese university students are emotional and financially committed to their extracurricular activities – my friend and I were blown away when every single member of the organization purchased an optional custom sweater that was not exactly inexpensive, in order to support their circle’s financial state.

The next two weeks brought new realizations regarding Japanese student culture. I began to spot a striking similarity which the circle bore to Japanese corporate culture – the length of time needed to make executive decisions regarding the club’s future. As in Japanese corporations, this circle took awfully long to decide on the simplest matters, due to the necessity of having everyone’s consensus. In fact, so much time was spent on making decisions that, coming from an American perspective, not much progress was ever made during these meetings. On a brighter note, I was able to conclude that while not always inclusive, Japanese students remain unfailingly polite – although a community had yet to form between myself and the other members, I could always ask questions and felt comfortable speaking up.

As the organization’s first major event of the term drew nearer, a new ambience began to envelop the organization – that of intense, physical work. Finally, I began to see tangible results of the students’ decision-making, notably the creation of arts and crafts needed to make the circle’s booth at the event look its best. However, as with many aspects of Japanese society, this came with a caveat. Because the Japanese students began to enter a mode of tight focus as their plans came together, they began to speak less and less to each other during meetings, and naturally, less and less to myself and my friend. While I was using my meager art skills to help craft various decorations for the display, I would attempt to engage in conversation with a few people, only to be answered with brief responses. I began to hypothesize that though students seemed to chat frequently and openly during informational or planning meetings, work meetings were a time for just that, and not much else. Looking at the situation from a happier perspective, I noticed that the students were visibly pleased with work, either because a) I was a foreigner, and they didn’t exactly know what to expect, or b) they genuinely appreciated that I had done my best and admired the results. In all honesty, I had expected quite the opposite: large amounts of criticism until my work was perfect.

In the penultimate week of my Community Involvement Project and as my final meeting approaches, I feel that several of my former hypotheses stand true and are only strengthened by the experiences I have had with the members of the Doshisha Animal Life circle. As mentioned earlier, I stand by my belief that it is difficult for Japanese students to accept foreigners into the activities of their circles, let alone become close friends with them. This belief is only further solidified by one glaring disappointment: even though I participated in the preparation for the previous festival which the circle had a booth at (which I could not attend), I never received an invitation to participate in the largest circle event of the year – Doshisha Eve, at which I ran into the members in an uncomfortable situation. In fact, I was never actually informed that the organization would be participating in the event, leading me to the conclusion that perhaps I did not make clear my intentions for joining the circle upon first meeting its members. Stemming from this disappointment,  I remain able to say that Japanese students, though passionate and dedicated to their circles (as can be seen by the Animal Life circle’s relentless attempts to sell its hot chocolate at Doshisha Eve, and large financial investments by nearly all its members) remain unsure of how to accept foreign students into their midst. In hindsight, I would have attempted to make my intentions of joining the circle quite clear upon first meeting the students, so as to avoid an awkward situation like that of Doshisha Eve. These intentions would include being involved in the students’ activities outside meeting times, so that I would be better able to observe these students in more relaxed settings. Regarding my experience holistically, there are many social aspects which I would have altered, but I believe that I benefitted from my experience educationally in that I was exposed to the intricacies of the deceiving culture of Japanese youth.

Grace Xu: Doshisha Piano Research Society

At the beginning of the semester, Director Mason introduced the Community Involvement Project (CIP) to us as, rather generally speaking, a mini-ethnography project. We were all to try our hand at being ethnographers – to find a circle or club activity and act not just as participants but also as observers, doing our best to formulate hypotheses about our activities and the communities we were to supposedly study, making note of cultural practices and rituals while we attempted to learn them ourselves.

If producing an ethnography – or practicing ethnography – was the end goal of the CIP, then I must be completely honest here and admit that what meager observations and experience I have gathered seem wholly insufficient for anything resembling ethnography. After spending most of the semester trying (and failing) to do as Director Mason suggested – in other words, trying to find a circle that I was both passionate about or at least interested in and revolved around a skill/subject I had some talent for – I ended up joining the Doshisha Piano Research Society out of (mostly) frustration and a lack of better options. Looking back, I think that these negative feelings I held during my entrance into the circle were the root cause of my lack of success, so I would like to reflect a bit on my experience here in case it might be of use to aspiring ethnographers among the future KCJS students.

But first, allow me to backtrack a bit. You might be asking yourself, what exactly is ethnography? Simply speaking, the term ethnography refers to a systematic method of studying people and cultures, and is characterized by certain features such as prolonged first-hand study and participant-observation research methods. Leaving aside the more general discussion surrounding the utility and legitimacy of ethnographies as a tool for cultural interpretation, however, I’d like to instead examine a claim by Hoey – that, despite the recurring issue of objectivity in social science research (or in other words, how researchers can ensure some degree of validity and credibility in their work) it is precisely this very human element of reactivity that makes ethnography possible. In Hoey’s own words:

Ethnographic fieldwork is shaped by personal and professional identities just as these identities are inevitably shaped by individual experiences while in the field. Unfortunately, the autobiographical dimension of ethnographic research has been downplayed historically if not discounted altogether[…]The explicit professional project of observing, imagining and describing other people need not be incompatible with the implicit personal project of learning about the self[…]Good ethnography recognizes the transformative nature of fieldwork where as we search for answers to questions about people we may find ourselves in the stories of others. Ethnography should be acknowledged as a mutual product born of the intertwining of the lives of the ethnographer and his or her subjects.

Although I personally may not agree completely with Hoey’s rather poetic description of the relationship between ethnographers and their work, I do agree in the interpretation of the above quote that a deep and personal investment is required in order for ethnographers to be successful in their work. Of course, that is exactly the opposite of the sort of mindset I held entering the CIP, and a large reason why I think truly useful/insightful ethnography is so difficult. The shallow and to be honest, rather superficial observations I made on my meager trips to the piano circle – how, for example, the circle’s club room was tiny and narrow, shunted to a corner of a side campus in a gloomy building along with dozens of other circles, or that despite being called a research society not much research on pianos was actually done in the few hours I accumulated at the circle – reflect more upon myself then the community I was called upon to observe, and if anything show a innate lack of ability for ethnography rather than an admirable, if amateurish effort for social science/anthropological research. I could, for example, posit that the reason why the piano circle is so popular among the university students (there are at least 30 members, judging from the quick glance I had at the sign up sheet) despite there being only 2 pianos available in the circle’s room, is because of a hesitancy to create noise and thus cause meiwaku, or disturbance to one’s neighbors at home. Is this perhaps reflective of a tendency in Japanese culture to put the needs of the group or others before one’s own desires, of a subconscious and constant awareness of the needs of the community over one’s own? And so on.

But more importantly, no effort of mine could conceal such continued and blatant speculation, nor the fact that I wouldn’t even consider myself as having made a single acquaintance from my CIP (does one person who somewhat begrudgingly added me on Line and whom I haven’t contacted once count?), much less any friends or other lasting relationship. I have decided to be completely honest in this summary of sorts and admit that I have absolutely no viable hypotheses regarding this community I unwittingly “joined”. Quite simply, it was a personal endeavor perhaps doomed to fail from the start. On top of my long commute, my decision to take three afternoon electives (for my home school’s engineering major requirements), keeping up with recruiting activities back home and even just enjoying what little time I had with my host family, the additional burden of involving myself in yet another commitment was, I suppose, something I couldn’t help but avoid in order to prevent myself from stretching too thin. Or rather, perhaps it was impossible for me to be successful from the start after so many failed attempts at joining other clubs and with the kind of distant and impersonal expectations I entered with. Perhaps, in the end, it is just as Hoey said: that only in truly deep and intimate involvement – indeed, personal commitment and passion from the very beginning – that ethnographic success can be found.

Sources: Hoey. Brian A. “A Simple Introduction to the Practice of Ethnography and Guide to Ethnographic Fieldnotes.” Marshall University Digital Scholar (June 2014). Available at: