Jessica Laufer: DESA

This semester, I participated in the Doshisha Exchange Student Association for my CIP activity.  I elected to do DESA as my CIP because I thought it would be a good way to make Japanese friends while here in Kyoto.  I was initially worried about spring break in March, but I was pleasantly surprised to find out that there was still an abundance of activities planned for members.  Some of this semester’s most memorable activities were the Biwako snowboarding trip, and the sightseeing and sumo trip to Osaka.

As a student living in an apartment rather than a homestay, I do not have a host family with whom I can practice my speaking skills.  Participation in DESA became an excellent way for me to use Japanese outside of the classroom and in everyday conversation.  I started DESA as just another member of a campus circle, but I was extremely pleased when people I met through DESA started inviting me to hang out outside of official DESA events.  While speaking Japanese can oftentimes be quite difficult, I have been able to make meaningful friendships during my time in DESA, and I have been receiving complements on my improving conversational skills.

DESA has been an extremely fulfilling CIP, and I think that it was a great fit for me.  DESA has been a great way for me to make friends, improve my speaking skills, and to travel around Kyoto and surrounding areas.  It is disappointing to have to leave as the new school year starts and DESA gains new members, but my participation this semester has been a rich experience and I am looking forward to my final DESA events as my time in Kyoto comes to a close.

Lauren Makishima: Volunteering at Nico Toma

I think the biggest difference I’ve noticed between volunteering in America and volunteering in Japan is definitely the sense of responsibility that each volunteer has towards the group.  I think that sometimes, in America, especially within the college community, people just choose to join volunteer groups at random, coming and going at will.  However, at Nico Toma, it seems that most of the volunteers at Nico Toma have had personal experiences related to the Kyoto University pediatrics ward.  In any case, it is clear that, while the atmosphere may be very cheerful and light, they are all very devoted to this particular group.  Though this may just be a result of the nature of the volunteer group, I feel that Japanese volunteers are much more dedicated to their tasks.

I’ve also noticed that the volunteers at Nico Toma are very particular about small details.  Each detail of the project at hand is discussed by the group, down to the color and thickness of the pipe cleaners used to make the handles for the tiny bags that will hold candy to be distributed at the children’s art exhibition.  While in America, these details might be overlooked and considered irrelevant, I found it refreshing and fun to work on simple things so thoroughly, since our hard work made the final products something that we could all be proud of.  Furthermore, I found it interesting that this level of attention to detail was a given in any project, be it pricing used goods for the bazaar, or coloring next month’s calendar, or hanging up seasonal decorations in the children’s ward.

Overall, while I may not have necessarily been accepted as a fully fledged member of the group, I did enjoy my time at Nico Toma as much for the insight into Japanese culture as for the empathy for and awareness of these children’s situations that I feel I’ve gained, even if only a little.  At the risk of sounding cheesy, I hope that I was able to help these children even if it was in a small, indirect way.  Thank you, Nico Toma!

Xinru Li: Aikido in Kyoto Budo Center

Choosing Aikido, a Japanese martial art, as my CIP is one of the smartest decisions I made this semester. I have been practiced Aikido for 2 years in Brandeis and now I have a different experience in Kyoto Budo Center. I feel so lucky to practice Aikido in a traditional Dojo with people who are really into it.

At first, I was worried about whether doing Aikido will help me to get involved into a Japanese circle or improve my Japanese. After talking to students who was in KCJS last semester, I realized that I wanted to do something interesting so I could enjoy myself and learn more. So, I started to do Aikido two or three times per week. When I went to the dojo for the first time, I was shocked that there were so many old people and I hardly understood their Japanese because of their strong accents. Luckily, Aikido does not need too much spoken language. Basically, one learns a technique by watching sensei’s demonstration and practicing with different partners. This means you have to adjust your techniques according to the partner’s stature or strength. There is not competition or match in Aikido. All you need to do is to learn from your partner. Even though I have trouble understanding their Japanese at first, most of them are so experienced that they can show me how to improve my techniques.

Compared Aikido Club in Brandeis and Aikido dojo in Budo Center, etiquette is more strict in the Budo Center. I don’t even remember how many times I say arigatogozaimasu(thank you very much) and onegaishimasu(please teach me) in each practice day. Also, thanks to Aikido here, I can sit in seiza for a longer time. To some extent, etiquette connects us and makes us closer in here. When I follow the rules in Aikido dojo, I become a member of the group. Then I talk to the members there and make friends with them. During this process, I improve my listening and understanding of Japanese culture.

It is April now. I can see cherry blossom near Budo Center every time I go there. Even though there is less than one month left to enjoy cherry blossom and practice Aikido, I will remember this wonderful experience and keep doing Aikido in the future.

Sam Allen: Volunteer Circle

For my Spring semester CIP, I participated in a Volunteer Circle composed of students from all of Kyoto’s many universities. I knew that I wanted to get involved in some sort of volunteer activities, and that I would like to do so among peers of my own age. But what really caught my interest was their slogan, posted on their website. Through volunteer activities, this circle aims to “Create warm, family-like relationships with everyone we meet”. I was impressed by this sentiment, and realized I wanted to be a part of such a circle.

After attending the orientation meeting, I was a little nervous. This circle is only composed of Japanese university students, and I was worried that misunderstandings on my part would get in the way of their usual volunteer activities, and I wasn’t sure how kids at the elementary school we volunteered at would react to a foreigner.

However, when I went to try out the volunteer activities, I found that I didn’t have to worry all that much. Aside from reading kanji, I was able to communicate with everyone fairly well, and at my first activity, where we picked up trash around Kyoto with another volunteer group of elderly Kyoto locals, I was able to make friends with the other first timers.

Having officially joined the circle and assumed my nickname “Haribo”, I began attending the weekly planning meetings. There, we discussed our future volunteer plans, including the contents of the activities as well as assuring the safety of the participants. While I wasn’t able to contribute much at first, I enjoyed being a part of the discussion, and little by little, I started talking with other members.

My first activity at the elementary school went far better than expected. Rather than be nervous around me, a foreigner, one of the boys wanted to play with me exclusively, and, seeing us play, the other children joined in as well. The actual activity was a simple cooking lesson, where we made okonomiyaki and fruit punch. While some of the boys were a little rowdy during the explanation, everyone seemed to enjoy the activity. Under the guidance of the other member in my group, a senior in college, the kids cooperated with each other and everything went smoothly. From then on, I really felt part of the group. Little by little, I was approached by other members, and rather than feeling as an outsider in their group, I felt that I had a place to belong.

The second time around at the elementary school, I played tag with the kids, and then we went inside to make picture frames. While the kids in my group were really wild, and would often run around, distracting other groups, we somehow managed to keep everyone under control. It was a little troublesome, but a worthwhile experience.

At this point, I was invited to the “Graduation Party”, where the efforts of the seniors who would be graduating were acknowledged, and the underclassmen thanked the seniors for their guidance and support. I was glad to be there – while I never realized just how big the group was (over 50 members!), I had become close with one of the seniors, and was thrilled to be included.

Of course, this transition to a full-fledged member of the group did not take place immediately. I would try to make conversation with the people sitting next to me before meetings, and I made sure to remember names and chat with the people I had met. More than anything, my actual participation in the group really got things moving. Once the members saw that I was actively participating in the activities (and was able to communicate), they felt more at ease carrying on a conversation with me. It certainly wasn’t easy, but once I got a feel for the activities, continuing to participate every week allowed me to build connections with my peers.

I’ll be sad to have to leave so soon after finding such a wonderful group, but being a part of this circle even for a short while enriched my semester. Regardless of nationality, I was able to find a place where I was able to touch other people’s lives, even in a small way, and, in return, form warm, family-like relationships with my fellow volunteers. I know I’ll never forget my experiences in this circle, and I hope to keep in touch with the friends I’ve made.

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.

Lauren H.: English Teaching Assistant

It’s a little hard to give you all an update on my CIP since the school has been on break for the last few weeks. Instead, I’d like to talk about my observations of Japanese high school life and the high school system, since I can go into more detail in an English blog post.

I wish I could sit in on (and understand!) some of the non-English language classes, if only to see if their as boring as people tell me they are. I know I already mentioned this in my last blog post, but it really shocked me when I asked my high schoolers what their favorite subjects were, and they looked at me like this was an inconceivable notion. They truly don’t seem to enjoy any of their classes, and the kind of system that shuts people down like that is pretty concerning.

Though, of course, I’ve heard equally bad things about the American public education system, so I should really stop judging the Japanese system. Growing up, one of my childhood friends was too smart for the classes he was in, and his boredom and frustration caused him to just give up on doing schoolwork altogether, until he had terrible grades when really he should have had amazing ones. But the thing is, people like that, in the U.S., can get a second chance. He eventually wound up at community college, got a 4.0 there for two years, and transferred into UC Berkeley. Frankly, he saved a ton of money on tuition for the first two years, and now he’ll get a degree from a world class university. Not too shabby.

People here don’t seem to have those kinds of chances. There’s not a lot of room for alternative paths. It makes me think about the Ghibli movie, Whisper of the Heart, where the main character, Shizuku, decides not to focus on schoolwork and to pursue her dreams instead. She’s lucky enough to have parents who encourage that kind of thinking, but even so they warn her that she will have no one to blame but herself if not getting the right test scores ruins her life from then on. And her sister gets angry because she believes that you only get options in life if you play by the rules—only by getting into a top notch high school will the main character have multiple doors open to her.

On another note, one other thing that really took me aback was the discovery that the class with whom I’ve interacted the most, a group of middle school girls whose English teacher is actually an American guy from Wisconsin, is considered the advanced/special English track class. That surprised me for two reasons. First, honestly, they didn’t seem that much better than some of the younger students in the normal track. They knew more vocabulary, but they practiced talking about nearly the same things as the younger kids. Maybe that’s not something to be blamed on them, but on the course syllabus and the rigidity of the way the Japanese education system teaches English. Second, the girls had always struck me as extremely cheerful and outgoing, almost to the point of obnoxiousness (like I said, discipline in the middle school section is pretty lax) but it turns out that they, as a class, are kind of outcasts at school. During a break between classes, most students flooded the hallways, chatting with friends at lockers or visiting friends in other classrooms. But these girls all stayed in their one little classroom, talking to each other. When I asked one of them why they did not also go out into the hallways, she told me that they don’t really have other friends. Very sad!

Henry Mantel: Aikido

For my CIP I decided to continue taking Aikido classes. Classes are Mondays, Thursdays, and Saturdays at the Kyoto Martial Arts Center near Heian Jingu. It’s between my home and school so it’s a very convenient location. So far it’s been a lot of fun and occasionally a great workout. Like last week when I got to practice with the older students and got thrown more times than I could count. I took classes last semester as well but it’s been a better experience this semester mainly because I know all of the other students a bit better and I can actually interact with them. I still have difficulty understanding them sometimes but I know enough to comment occasionally.

I had my ranking test a couple of weeks ago. I had to perform a few of the more basic moves and I passed, even though I tripped over my instructor’s feet on the last one. But I passed and I should be getting a certificate for it sometime soon. I think that would be the best souvenir I could bring back. Aikido is a lot like dancing in a sense: it teaches you great body control and I’m more flexible now than I’ve ever been.

The instructors are really good. Since I’m a relatively new student I usually practice with the assistant instructor and he’s a lot of fun to practice with. When he demonstrates the moves I do my best to resist but I never win. The harder I try the harder I just end up falling flat on my back. It’s really impressive sometimes because even when I try my hardest I know he’s going easy on me. All the moves are designed to use as little force as possible so no matter the size and strength of the person you’re up against you will be able to stop them. Aikido’s main philosophy is to be able to defend yourself without injuring anyone, even your attacker, so it’s the perfect martial art for pacifists. Every move is basically a circular movement and it’s really surprising how effective they are occasionally.

There are a lot of black belt students. A few of them must be over seventy years old but they all have really strong cores. The best students are pretty much steel rods wrapped in rubber: really flexible but immovable at the same time. I usually practice with the younger students but I occasionally practice with the older ones and those are always the better practices because they go through the moves much faster and they are always willing to offer advice. I definitely want to continue Aikido when I get back to the US if I can find the time.

Sarah Rontal: English Teaching Assistant

For my CIP this semester I have been working as an English Assistant at Kamigyo Middle School, just a ten-minute walk from Doshisha’s campus. Since our semester does not quite fit with Japanese middle school semesters, it has been about one month since I last volunteered there. Since then I have stayed involved with Japanese communities on a smaller scale: going to events with my host family, meeting with my language partner, and making new Japanese friends through other KCJS-ers. Though my CIP has been less active this semester than last, I feel that I’ve been a more active Kyoto-an this semester than last.

My job at Kamigyo Middle School mainly involves doing practice interviews with students, though I have also been asked to help out with homework. During the time I was volunteering the school year was coming to an end, so I believe the students had important tests that they were preparing for.

The way we practiced interviews was as follows: I would tell the student to come in and tell me their name, they would read the passage, I would ask them to read the passage aloud, and then they would answer questions. Though most of the readings and questions were quite useful, covering important basic topics, there were a few that I found responsible for carrying stereotypes—those that generalized facts or compared cultures in a light that made the Japanese reader clearly side with the Japanese custom.

Unfortunately, because I only got to volunteer a few times, I didn’t get to know the kids as well as I would have liked (I would have loved to go twice a week!). However, I have learned a few things I hadn’t thought of that would be useful when teaching English to Japanese middle school students. First of all, it helps to be up to date on the current popular movies, anime, etc. – media is one of the easier things for the students to talk about in English and I remember missing out on a conversation with one student because I didn’t know anything about the movie she was excited about. I also found that – despite the idea I’d heard that English teachers should never speak Japanese so as to maintain their English-only image – Japanese was helpful if not necessary for teaching English. If I hadn’t known Japanese I wouldn’t have been able to help with Japanese-to-English translation homework or been able to explain the meaning behind small grammar corrections.

I am glad to have gotten the opportunity to work at Kamigyo Middle School, and I hope I get to go volunteer a few more times before I leave Kyoto!

Chelsea Quezergue:Volunteering at Nico Nico Tomato

My recent weeks at NikoToma have gone more smoothly than the weeks preceding them I think.  Perhaps that can be attributed to me getting over the initial disappointment I harbored about not being able to play with children.  I was under the impression that we [the volunteers] would be doing activities with children every week, but I quickly learned that wasn’t the case.  However, as one of my teachers commented, it is volunteer work after all, and more often than not, volunteers have to do rather less-than-pleasant tasks, so「仕方がない」.  If we did not do those small, tedious tasks—using toothpicks to pick up microscopic cutouts of animals and painstakingly glue them to bite-sized paper handbags; making sure to find a “balance” when arranging goody bags, lest the aesthetics of the candy be ruined, even though the kids are just going rip it open in crazed excitement —who would?

At this point, I know it seems like I’m actually belittling the program with sarcasm, but I’m not.  I’ve grown to genuinely appreciate (if not enjoy) the things we do at NikoToma, whatever they may be, because I know we are providing the volunteer group with help that it needs.  Besides that, it just so happens that all of (or almost all of) the students in KCJS from Boston University participate in this CIP, and this has instilled a certain amount of pride in me about being a part of it.  And that’s enough to make me happy about going.

Tracy Le: Bazaar Cafe

Volunteering at Bazaar Cafe has been one of my favorite things to do here in Kyoto. Every Friday I go to the cafe and help out in the kitchen or as a waitress.

It has truly been an eye-opening experience for me in many ways. For the precise reason that most of the staff at the cafe are volunteers and they come from different countries in the world that Bazaar Cafe is a strange and refreshing experience. On one hand, the working environment is very Japanese – the manager is Japanese, the customers are Japanese – you have to be polite, efficient and attentive; but on the other hand, everyone in the kitchen is speaking a mixture of Japanese and English and other languages and offering unique cultural tidbits at every turn of conversation. The staff have been some of the warmest people I’ve met in Japan. It’s fascinating to hear them speak about why in Japan, or what they think of Japan; their experiences, from common or bizarre, give a glimpse into the Japan from the perspectives of minority peoples, and lets us see the lives of people we would usually not encounter everyday. That, underneath the idea of homogeneity so heralded of Japan’s society, there are many unique lives quietly transforming social boundaries and ideas.

Even on the customer’s side, many are Doshisha’s students and professors and/or regulars and friends of the manager. They, too, have been engaging and interesting people. Some have come talked to me out of genuine interest in foreign students and workers in Japan. It’s a comforting experience.

All in all, I’ve had an amazing time at the quaint little cafe by Doshisha. I try and go there at least once a week, twice if I have time, and I really recommend it as the food’s great and it has a good ambiance for studying or chatting.