Yupei Guo: Koto Lessons

Right from the beginning, I knew that I wanted to involve myself in Japanese music – I had always held an interest for traditional Japanese music, yet always lacked the time and energy to serious pursue it. I was soon lucky enough to be introduced to Iwazaki-sensei’s Japanese music studio, and thus began my CIP playing the Japanese koto.

Having played the Chinese equivalent of the koto for ten years, I began my lessons expecting somewhat of an easy ride. However, the differences between the two instruments were far more pronounced than I had thought. Japanese music tend to follow an entirely different scale, standing in sharp contrast to the major scale that is omnipresent in the Chinese music I was used to playing. The minor scale that I encountered so much in my koto pieces was what gave Japanese music its unique “sound” – a sentiment of reserved melancholy; furthermore, the octaves are not set and I was astounded by just how many notes can be played on merely thirteen strings, and for the first few weeks I struggled painfully, even with words of encouragement from my kind sensei.

My classmates are all seniors above the age of sixty, and upon my first session I was intimidated, assuming that they would not be interested in talking with me, or would despise a foreigner. Nevertheless, throughout our interactions I was able to pick up some confidence and practice my newly-acquired skills of keigo and aisatsu. For instance, for the first few weeks, I made the mistake of saying “soudeshouka” when trying to acknowledge someone, and was promptly met with friendly laughter by my fellow classmates – it took me several weeks (and a lot of blunders!) to realize that the correct response, to show interest in someone’s conversation, would be “sou nandesuka” – “soudesuka” or “soudeshouka” actually implies disinterest (rather like the English “interesting”) – and is terribly rude. Having thoroughly embarrassed myself, I nevertheless actively used my newly acquired skills in our next conversation, much to the delight of my sensei. In another time, my sensei said “otsukaresama” to me, congratulating me after several hours of hard work, and I, in a panic, did not know what to say – I’ve learnt in class that saying “otsukaresama” to a senior is terribly rude, but I also wanted to demonstrate my appreciation of her tireless instructions – again, observation of classmates taught me that in this case, “arigatou gozaimasu” or even “kochira koso” might be considered socially acceptable responses. It is through instances like these that I finally put my keigo to use, and finally gain footing in sounding like a real Japanese person immersed in a Japanese society.

Outside of classes, we often have dinner together. Initially, I have considered my classmates to be worlds apart from me, yet throughout conversations, I realized that we may have a lot more in common. Surprisingly, even if we share difference surface level cultural traits -such as language, food, customs, history – deep down, we share similar ways of thinking. I have been surprised constantly at just how contemporary, liberal, and open-minded my classmates are – my previous stereotypes of Japanese people being conservative, reserved, and almost xenophobic have been completely shattered. In other words, koto lessons are far more than just music classes – they have guided me into a fascinating community and have shattered stereotypes I didn’t even realize I held.

Laurie Wang: Cell Biology Research at Kyoto University

For my CIP this semester, I decided to participate in two activities. The first was to volunteer once a week at the iCeMS Science Communications Group, where I worked as a translator and helped with bi-weekly event preparations. The second was working at the Hosokawa Lab of Kyoto University for the  Molecular and Cellular Biology Institute for Frontier Medical Sciences. From these two, I got to experience two sides of Japanese work culture: that of the office environment as well as the freer laboratory setting. However, since I spent the majority of my time working in the lab, I will spend this report describing my experiences there and save iCeMS for next semester’s blog post.

Upon coming to Japan, I researched some labs on my own and eventually settled on the Hosokawa Lab, which mainly focuses on the mechanisms of Endoplasmic Reticulum Associated Degradation (ERAD) and the roles of chaperones and lectin function. After sending the first nerve-wracking email to Hosokawa-sensei,  I was very ecstatic to hear back from her that I could participate and continue cell biology research in Kyoto despite my one year’s worth of Japanese abilities. We exchanged emails entirely written in extremely formal keigo, which was a challenge to me at the time. Soon enough, I was invited to visit the lab!

My first meeting almost failed to happen – I somehow ended up in the East building (the lab is in the West – thank my poor navigational skills for that), and ended up having to ask two researchers where to go. I was quickly ushered into their office as they dialed the main reception to ask which building I was to head to. From there, a reception worker picked me up from the opposite building and took me directly to Hosokawa’s office. Throughout this process, everyone used keigo and thanked each other politely, and I followed suit, though inside I was already panicking inside. If I can barely use keigo to find my way around the Kyodai campus, how was I going to do that officially – on a daily basis – in a lab?

To my surprise, this worry never came into fruition. First, I was taken aback by just how welcome and cheerful  Hosokawa-sensei was from the first time I stepped into her office – she was a character far cry from the more reserved and serious personality I’ve come to expect from older Japanese women. She wore jeans, had unruly hair, and throughout the semester joked about the news, especially regarding the 2016 U.S. election together, with me. She was also the only woman in the lab other than me out of the eight members total, which both 1) stood out to me because I’m used to more women researchers in biology in America, and 2) impressed me because she held the greatest seniority and leadership in what seems to be a male-dominated field in Japan.

As far as other discoveries are concerned, I was mostly amazed at everyone’s utter disregard for keigo whilst in the lab (even the undergrads!). It seemed to me that the norm was apparently to use keigo with others outside of the lab: the deliveryman, and the man who takes orders for lab supplies twice a week, and people you make phone calls to. However, the atmosphere within is much more casual, though still polite (です・ます forms abounded), which made sense to me because the group as a whole seemed very close knit. However, as past students have noticed, this also translated to little socialization with other people of other lab groups, despite it being the opposite case in America.

Throughout the semester, I ended up staying in the lab quite a bit, around twenty hours per week; still, I learned that no matter how hard I work, Japanese PI’s work harder- and for very long periods of time. Usually Hosokawa-sensei leaves long after midnight (“It’s okay because I just live five minutes away!” she proudly exclaims), and comes early the next morning, seven days a week, even on holidays. This of course isn’t to say that all Japanese researchers are workaholics – Tanaka-san, a fellow lab member, apparently likes to take breaks in his day to return to his dormitory, conveniently located two minutes away by bike, to take naps. Furthermore, Hosokawa-sensei herself even took a break one day to take me to see the beautiful autumn leaves in Arashiyama, which goes to show that she isn’t against spending time enjoying herself, but that she truly enjoys doing the work she does.

In addition, there were a couple of other interesting Japanese quirks to the lab that I noticed – taking off your shoes every time you entered a different laboratory, using automatic lights to save energy, and reusing anything and everything that has the potential to be used again. Seeing the dark hallways and crowds of shoes gave me the impression that the facilities in Kyodai were run down at first, but I soon came to appreciate just how much the U.S. can learn from such environmentally-aware habits in the laboratory. Nevertheless, other than these, I felt that doing research in American and Japan didn’t differ as much as one might expect. To this end, I am forever grateful to Hosokawa-sensei, Kyoto University, my labmates, KCJS, and finally, Yale’s Light Fellowship for making this opportunity possible for me. I loved working in the lab, and I hope to continue doing it next semester.  

Ana Borja: Kyoto University Karate Club

Since I had already practiced some karate back in Spain, I thought that coming to Japan was my perfect chance to continue. Therefore, I joined the Kyoto University Karate Club and go to practice most days, although it is a little difficult to coordinate with classes. And, even though especially at the beginning it took quite a lot of effort to figure out what I had to do at any given moment (since the Japanese terms for karate were a mystery for me when I arrived) and had to put all my effort into somewhat following everyone else, I would say karate has usually been the highlight of my day ever since I came here.

Through karate I have not only been able to make most of my Japanese friends (since I spend so much time with them), but I have also learnt a great deal about the Japanese culture. After all, karate is embedded with different traditions and norms which originate in Japanese culture and philosophy. By bowing with my teammates before and after class, following seniority rules and reflecting upon the purpose of learning karate (as well as by talking every day with my new friends), I have come to feel more integrated in Japanese culture, and have come to understand parts of it which would have been obscure to me otherwise.


George Chen: Kyoto University Animation Club

This semester, I joined the Kyoto University animation club, which primarily is an interest group for students interested in various types of animated TV series and films. Meetings primarily consisted of casual, informal get-togethers in small groups, discussing various shows and films. Many of the members, incidentally all guys, seemed to be interested in TV series like K-On and Gurren Lagann more than films like those by Hayao Miyazaki and Shinkai Makoto. So, while our exact interests were more distant than I thought they might be, I learned several things, not directly related to the club’s content, about how Japanese club life and relations go about.

The club was very informal, with a flat organization, and various people used distal and direct-style speech, which seemed to be mostly personal preference rather than senpai-kouhai relationship. Coming and going into the club room, which was in a science building, was fairly informal, and people just gathered with various interests, playing games, introducing shows, or debating the merits of various programs. The most important take away I had was that not all Japanese clubs used a hierarchical senpai-kouhai relationship, and this was rather dependent on the type of club’s activity and intensity. In my case, the anime club was not intense, but very welcoming and a nice place to discuss shows that I enjoyed with other like-minded, Japanese students.

Clearly, if you are looking for an intense, structured, hierarchal club, other circles would probably be a better fit. But if talking about animation in an easy-going clubroom sounds interesting, the circle could be worth a look.

Abby Hu: Niconico Tomato

For my CIP, I volunteered at Niconico Tomato (Link), an organization focusing on creating events for hospitalized children at Kyoto University Hospital. I went to the volunteer office every Thursday to help with event preparation and occasionally participated in afternoon workshops to play with children. My tasks included making holiday cards, delivering items from the basement to the playroom, taking photos during the event and cleaning up after events ended.

What has caught my attention was how professional Niconico Tomato is. The professionalism of the organization can be seen from the following aspects: the attitude in which members approach their work, the variety of workshops and activities, and the attentions paid to those hospitalized kids. Members always take their tasks very seriously. For example, when the group was making Halloween cards, if any minor fault occurred, say the double-side tape stuck out a little bit, members would take trouble to fix it until the component they were in charge of looked perfect. Workshops range from science experiment session to balloon modeling session. Besides workshops, the organization also incorporates large-scale events such as bi-annual bazaar and Christmas café for fundraising purpose. The variety of events enables kids to explore their interests and to enjoy their ward life more cheerfully. These children definitely mean a lot to Niconico Tomato. The organization shows its care by updating the photo wall weekly with photos taken from events, displaying paintings and calligraphy pieces done by kids and designing a yearlong work plan in advance to ensure everything proceed smoothly. Although having participated different volunteer groups in China and in U.S., I have never seen such a high level of professionalism as Niconico Tomato has achieved.

How has such a high level of professionalism developed in Niconico Tomato? Based on my interview with the founder and my observations, the professionalism comes from members’ sincere love towards those children who are suffering from illness and the solidarity among the group. Starting from a small group comprised of only the founder and several of her friends, Niconico Tomato has attracted many more people who expressed interests in bringing happiness to hospitalized children and the group has become an 80-people team in the past 20 years. Among the 80 people, half of them have volunteered to design and lead workshops, making workshops available to children almost every weekday through out the year. In addition, these members deeply dedicate themselves out of pure love. For example, during the Halloween parade, a 50-year-old member wore a Godzilla costume for the entire afternoon and played with children in order to cheer them up. Later she told me that the costume was too warm for that day yet witnessing how children smiled when they saw her made her effort completely worthwhile. In addition to members’ good intentions, their solidarity helps achieve efficiency and complete wonderful works. The event preparation always splits into smaller tasks; each member voluntarily takes their parts and works very hard for the team purpose. The constant efforts from each member congregate and enable the group to operate in an efficient way. Overall I feel impressed by what Niconico has achieved and proud to be part of the team in the past four months.



日によって、私の役割は違います。例えば、ハロウィンが近づいていますから、先週の仕事は子供にハロウィンのカードを作ることでした。一人のメンバーがもう今年のカードをデザインし、見本も作ったので、彼女はみんなに役を割り振りました。 私のタスクはカードの表にある窓の周囲に両面テープを張ることでした。また、ある金曜日に、「ぷくぷくバルーン」というイベントで、先生が子供に魚や亀など、簡単にできるバルーンの作り方を教えました。私の仕事は写真を撮ることや子供を手伝うこと、プイレルームを片付けることなどでした。


スタッフブログ http://nikotoma.jugem.jp/





Joseph Lachman: Voluteering at the Aiai House (Social Welfare Corporation)

An important part of the KCJS program is the Community Involvement Project, CIP, which encourages students to engage in an extracurricular activity where they will be much more submersed in Japanese culture outside of the classroom. Examples of potential CIP activities include Japanese archery, tea ceremony, martial arts, sports, farming, international exchange circles, and various kinds of volunteer work among other possibilities. It was difficult at first I think for many students to find a fulfilling activity before expanding our networks in the Kyoto area. While it is significantly more difficult to find an activity in the spring due to many Japanese universities being on break, the fall semester overlaps well with the Japanese school year, making it simpler to find activities which will fill the CIP requirement. However, I think the value of the CIP depends primarily on individual students’ efforts, and the fact that universities are mostly on break during this time can lead to students finding even more valuable CIP groups.

For the first semester, I was unsure at first what kinds of activities would be available for me, and chose tennis as a safe option, as the group meets regularly, and with my skill level I would be able to adapt relatively quickly. In retrospect I would say there was nothing wrong with this decision, but I feel that overall it held little value for me as a cultural experience compared to other possible activities. After a few weeks I began to find other ways of integrating myself into the community, such as Taiko lessons, English instruction, and volunteering with disabled youth and kindergarteners. I enjoy tennis, but it has limited value as a way of learning about Japanese culture compared to these other activities.

Currently, my primary extracurricular activity is volunteer work at the Aiai House, a social welfare corporation where staff members take care of youth with disabilities, which span a large variety of physical and mental handicaps. I was fortunate enough to be introduced to the staff here by the woman at whose house I teach English once a week. I can say without a doubt this has been the most worthwhile experience of my year abroad.

The Aiai House is divided into two floors. The residents on the 2nd floor are for the most part less disabled than those on the 1st floor, and in fact the 2nd floor residents work with the staff to operate a bakery once a week to raise money for the Aiai House. While their capabilities are limited, each one of the residents has a job in this process. The activities at the Aiai House keep them physically and mentally stimulated while providing them with a means of bringing in a small amount of money for their families. The staff members regularly conduct these kinds of activities that go above and beyond their duties in helping to keep the residents healthy and stimulated, kindness reflected even more so in the fact that they give this time for relatively small compensation.  I have also felt this kindness ever since I started volunteering, as staff members have even invited me for dinner at their homes on occasion, and always go out of their way to involve me in conversations. One of the staff even offered to have me stay with her family during the New Year’s period when she heard that I would not be allowed to stay with my home stay family. Over time I have also become a recognized member of the staff in the eyes of the residents, and I feel grateful to have earned this level of trust with them. In some ways, I am also glad that the novelty of my being a foreigner has subsided, meaning I can experience more natural interactions not as heavily influenced by my foreignness.

Over time I have noticed my attitude and perspective with regard to the group changing and maturing. I sometimes almost forget their disabilities, in the sense that I see them simply as other friends who just communicate differently. Spending time with them has helped me understand their individual personalities and methods of communication, which are far more complex than I had anticipated. Understanding the personalities of people with disabilities also gives deep insight into the fundamental differences between American and Japanese mindsets. For example, one of the people I help take care of on the second floor cannot speak, but is highly insistent on following manners, and will not be satisfied until she is sure every person says “itadakimasu” before eating, and “gochisousamadeshita” after finishing. I feel very lucky to have met this group, and plan to continue my volunteer work with them until I leave Japan later in the summer.

While there are many ways in which my study abroad experience has been enriched by this volunteer work, above all, the relationships I have forged at the Aiai House are the most valuable thing I have come away with in my time here.






Joseph Lachman: Kyoto University Graduate Student Tennis Circle

Kyoto University Graduate Student Tennis Circle

The Kyoto University graduate student’s tennis circle has been an interesting experience so far for me. Recently, it has become more difficult to hold practices due to poor weather, cold, and busy schedules. Despite some of these minor setbacks, I have still enjoyed enriching cultural experiences as a member of the group.

First of all, I am the only foreigner in this tennis group, and furthermore, I am the only undergraduate student, making me the youngest by several years. As a result, the first source of confusion that surfaced was with regard to formality. In terms of tennis experience, I am relatively advanced compared to most of the group members, but of course, I am younger than all of them, and a new member of the group. I was unsure how to address people at first, and it was difficult enough trying to remember a large number of new names. However, the group seems to adhere to a rule of addressing people by their last names, although I seemed to be the one exception to that rule, since I requested that they call me Joseph.

The group seems to have a healthy mixture of skill levels, although I wish the more experienced players would show up more often. The composition of the group changes significantly each week. I attended one dinner party for the group as well, and to be honest, I didn’t recognize the group at first, seeing so many new faces.

I would definitely recommend a tennis group for exchange students of all levels. The sport is not based too heavily on verbal communication, so it’s possible to enjoy the practices without a lot of unusual vocabulary, and there’s time between rallies and after practice to socialize with the other members. Also, tennis is one of the sports in Japan where a very large proportion of the terms are borrowed from English. “ナイスラリー、Nice rally” and “ナイスショットnice shot” can be heard countless times throughout practices. The phrase in Japanese you will probably hear more than anything else is, “すみません、excuse me/sorry.” If you hit a good shot that your partner had trouble getting back, you apologize. If you miss a shot because your partner hit it well, you apologize. In other words, no matter what your skill level and relationship to your partner, you apologize. It can be excessive at times, but overall the cordiality is nice, slightly amusing, and still preferable to rudeness.

After nearly a full semester as part of this group, I am for the most part a regular member of the group, and treated as such. One incident that gave good evidence for this was a conversation with some of the other members about hockey in Japan versus America. I was asked about teams in America, and if there was a team in Seattle. I mentioned that we have a minor team, the Everett Silvertips. The “Everett Silvertips” is a terribly awkward phrase to say in katakana Japanese, so I left it as is when I mentioned it. The others looked slightly stunned for a moment, explaining to me that they occasionally forgot that I’m a native English speaker, since I hardly ever used English during practices.

It seems that tennis can be an enjoyable extracurricular activity, regardless of Japanese skill level. If you’re looking for immersion into Japanese culture, I might recommend choosing something more traditional. In retrospect, I think it might have been more valuable to use my Taiko drumming class as my CIP, English tutoring, or volunteer work with disabled Japanese youth. However, it is still both interesting and useful to gain a new perspective on an activity one has only viewed from an American perspective, and see how it has been adopted and tailored for Japanese society, including ways in which it reflects aspects of Japanese culture, while still retaining foreign aspects as well. Since I will be continuing at KCJS for the spring semester, I plan to look into other potential CIP activities, but will most likely still continue practicing with the tennis circle.