Nia Lambert: Koto and Shamisen Lessons

This past semester, I decided to continue studying Koto, which I had been playing for roughly half a year at my home institution.  As a result, I initially came in with the expectation that lessons would be pretty much the same as my typical group lessons.

In the end, I believe private lessons provided me a unique opportunity to not only learn more technical tricks but also to gain a deeper understanding of music and discussing music in Japanese.  Reaching those realizations, however, was initially very difficult.  On my first class, especially, I was amazed that after all of my hours and hours of studying Japanese, I didn’t understand a word my teacher said.  I later came to realize it was because she used Kansai dialect.  If she hadn’t been playing the Koto with me I would have had no idea what she was asking me to do.  I was overwhelmed, and even wound up making silly mistakes like saying 行ってきます(ittekimasu=I’ll be back, but used only when you leave your home) after class.  However, this language barrier forced me to listen even closer and to constantly ask questions, which thankfully made me more comfortable with my teacher.

Around half-way through the semester, I met a Japanese friend who is studying English and preparing to study abroad next semester.  He takes really diligent notes on all the English phrases, idioms, and words that he hears pretty much all of the time.   From looking at his notes and its benefits with his language study, I figured I would give it a try for my CIP.  It was by far one of the best decisions for my studies.  Not only did it let me keep track of new vocabulary and phrases, it helped me pay closer attention to general speaking, be unabashedly inquisitive when I didn’t understand, and opened up different conversations that in turn taught me interesting everyday objects and phrases.  For example, tying string into a bow or “bunny ears” is called 蝶々結び(chyou chyou musubi) or a butterfly knot.  During my newfound confidence I also began studying Shamisen.  This new study unexpectedly lead to a plethora of conversations about different materials, finger and plucking styles, and words to describe the moods associated with certain note changes.

Through my CIP I’ve been able to understand far more Kansai words likeもういっぺん, わからへん、ちゃう、ええ instead of いい、and so much more.  Currently I’m working on 春の海 (Haru no Umi), a very difficult traditional koto piece, and look forward to learning more about the different cultural and linguistic words and phrases associated with traditional Japanese music.


Two of my Sensei's more expensive 撥(ばち)or picks for Shamisen.  The white  one is made of elephant tusk and tortoiseshell.

Two of my Sensei’s more expensive 撥(ばち)or picks for Shamisen. The white one is made of elephant tusk and tortoiseshell.

This is an antique shamisen from the the Edo period.  The face painted is an お多福(おたふく)面 or mask of a homely woman.

This is an antique shamisen from the the Edo period. The face painted is an お多福(おたふく)面 or mask of a homely woman.

This is the koto my sensei lent me to practice throughout the semester.   I have it in my 和室(わしつ),or Japanese style room, in my homestay.

This is the koto my sensei lent me to practice throughout the semester. I have it in my 和室(わしつ),or Japanese style room, in my homestay.


Ling Xi Min: Volunteering at Kyoto Museum for World Peace

I had the privilege of volunteering at the Kyoto Museum for World Peace as part of my weekly CIP activity. The arrangement was that I would go to the museum every Tuesday to volunteer for a period of about 3 hours after morning classes, where I would carry tasks including translation (between English and Japanese and occasionally German), research and miscellaneous jobs like digitizing the museum’s postcard collection (from the 1920s).

I had never worked in a museum before, let alone a museum in Japan, and to some extent I did not know what to expect, particularly with regard to how much language ability I would require in order to function and contribute effectively. Thankfully, in spite of being one of two people in the museum who could speak fluent English, things turned out as well as they could have. I think that how much one can contribute in these contexts depends as much on how one deploys one’s skills as what skills one has (which for me was a middle-schooler’s Japanese, native-level English and some limited research experience). The reality for me was that my Japanese was not good enough to write descriptions for the permanent exhibition, and probably will not be for a while. The speed at which I read and processed Japanese language research materials was also obviously slower than that of the Japanese staff. What I did instead for translation tasks, was to take the target passages in English, translate them to the best of my ability and leave the rest to the Japanese staff. Though I initially worried about the appropriateness of my translation, the curator explained to me how they saw it: it is far easier for the Japanese staff to fix broken Japanese than it is for them to read English. And though Japanese-language research materials could obviously be parsed faster by Japanese staff, what I could bring to the table was specialized knowledge and new interpretations of data related to what I had been studying in my home institution. Communicating ideas in academic Japanese to my hosts was not always easy, but it could be done with a dictionary and vocabulary list.

One important lesson this CIP taught me was to be realistic about my Japanese ability and keep short-term goals realistic. For me, it was sometimes tempting to aspire to native-level Japanese in the long term without figuring out all the small steps along the way or whether I even needed native-level Japanese to function meaningfully in a particular work context. I never imagined that something as simple as a vocabulary list would help so much – especially in a workplace where specialized vocabulary, more than grammar, is key. Having measured goals really helped me to make the most of my time at the museum and identify the ways in which I could contribute to the team.

A lot is said about the purported differences between the Japanese and non-Japanese work environments – that the former requires a greater attention to formality and hierarchy than the latter for instance. This is perhaps true to a degree, but what I encountered was not a rigid environment where everyone wore suits and bowed to their superiors at a set angle. Rather, people were in general quite relaxed. Hierarchy was not entirely eliminated – there were clearly staff with managerial responsibilities – and it was not fun and games all the time, since there was always work to be done. But in all, the whole system seemed to work out reasonably for most if not all. I think that while it is always good to have an idea of possible cultural differences between oneself and one’s hosts, what is equally or perhaps more important is to be observant of and sensitive to one’s specific context, rather than come in with a fixed idea of what one expects to find. Much like anywhere else, Japan is a big place, and there are all sorts of people and organizations, some of which will resemble the stereotypical Japanese work environment more than others. For me, the museum was a happy balance between the new and the familiar, and I especially owe a lot to the patience and open-mindedness of the staff I had the privilege of working under.

Regina Hong : Volunteering at the Kyoto Institute of Technology Museum and Archives

One of the key reasons I had in applying to KCJS was its CIP component, particularly since I hoped to gain some experience volunteering and offering whatever skills I had to a museum. The path to obtaining this museum volunteer opportunity took some turns however; I was told that it was rather difficult to get a volunteer placement with a museum but remained reluctant to give up on this, and Professor Henry Smith, the former director of KCJS suggested that I could contact an acquaintance of his at the Kyoto Institute of Technology Museum and Archives, Namiki Sensei (the director of the museum), who offered me the opportunity to volunteer at the museum.

Every Monday, I would catch the train after lunch to Matsugasaki for a three-hour volunteer session. I worked mainly with two colleagues who arranged various tasks for me. These tasks were largely administrative; I might sort out and scan posters one day, catalogue and translate Chinese posters the other, and place letters of notification into letters for mailing on another day. One might think that such administrative tasks would not have “really” shown me what working in a museum is like, but I think that that might have been the point – the backbone of museum work often consists of simple but tedious administrative work.

These administrative tasks also provided a lens through which I could view the relationships that the museum had with their clients, and the work culture of the museum in general. Two particular incidents come to mind. The first was when I was sorting the letters notifying the museum’s patrons that there was a new exhibition on architectural models coming up when I noticed that they had been personalised, with the addressees’ names handwritten and a short line or two explaining the relevance of the museum to their organisations or interests. This was presumably done to encourage greater visitor turnout, although I think that it also highlights the care that the museum took in thinking about how to personalise these invitations. While I do not agree with essentialist descriptions of a “Japanese” work culture, I found this to be a unique aspect that I had not seen before at the other places that I had interned at in Singapore. It is unclear if this was a thing unique to museums in Japan or if it is a hallmark of museums in general but I think that it is reflective of the regard that this particular museum holds for its relationship with its clients.

The other incident was when there was a mistake with the phone number printed on one of the posters for an upcoming exhibition, necessitating the manual blanking out of the misinformation using correction tape. Although I had been assigned the task, my two colleagues worked with me, and other colleagues came over from time to time to help out. Contrary to the stiff rigidity I had been expecting, the work culture at the museum was wonderfully relaxed, with my colleagues being quite at ease with Namiki Sensei (I once jumped up to greet him when he walked into the room to speak to us but my colleagues remain seated and they began to chat casually). My colleagues took care to remind me to go for a break at 2:30 pm every session, and would offer me delicious snacks from the staff pantry. They were also keen to speak to me on a variety of topics, and always patient whenever I had any queries.

In terms of advice, I would say that, however cliché, one’s attitude in the course of a CIP activity that involves volunteering is key. To make that statement less ambiguous, I think that there are two key components to this attitude. The first is having an open mindset, and the other is being aware that it is less of what the opportunity can do for you and what you can offer it. Although I am a history major, I had never had prior experience with art history and had never thought I would work in an art museum. I admitted as much to Namiki Sensei while expressing interest in learning more about art history, and he took this into account, reassuring me that there was work I could do even with my lack of experience, such as translation. As such, I stumbled into this volunteer opportunity not knowing what was in store, but emerged from it with a new interest in looking at posters and thinking about their historical significance.

I also walk away with an added appreciation for the culture of omiyage. Bringing omiyage back from one’s travels is a very effective way of creating a conversation topic, and on a practical level, also helps feed hungry colleagues on their breaks!