Martha Levytsky: Klexon

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alison Reed: Calligraphy Lessons

My CIP has been one of the best experiences that I’ve had while in Japan. I didn’t expect much from it, because I chose it at the last minute when my original ideas didn’t work out. But now I’m glad, because I don’t think I could have planned something better.

For the past two months, I’ve been going to lessons almost weekly to learn calligraphy. My teacher and her daughter are very kind and patient with helping me understand. Of course, I’m way behind the other students who have been learning since they were young, but I was surprised with how much I’ve learned since I started, thanks to my teacher.

Almost all of the students are younger than me, most being in middle school. There are two sisters who take their lesson at the same time as me, and because they live in my neighborhood, we usually walk home together. One is in college and the other is in high school. We are planning to go out together soon, so that they can show me some of their favorite places in Kyoto.

Through my CIP, I was able to observe and learn about more different aspects of Japanese culture. For example, we learn in class how to properly greet and thank people, but I was never sure how Japanese people learn those things. In the United States, I learned most of them from my mother, but in my calligraphy class, I observed my teacher instruct the younger students on how to thank her and how to behave in the classroom. I also saw that many of the students needed repeated reminders from the teacher in order to behave properly. I thought this was interesting because when I was growing up, no teacher would have reprimanded me for not having good manners, but would have talked to my parents about it instead. It was interesting to see how the teacher played a part in socializing the younger students in the class.

At the end of April, the teacher has planned for a going away party for me. The teacher, her daughter, some of the students and I will all go out to dinner. I’m excited to have a chance to have fun with the people I’ve met there, and also to thank them for everything they’ve done for me.

My CIP was not only a lot of fun, but I also learned a lot, met wonderful people, and started to really feel like a part of my community. I think I lucked my way into a great experience, and I’m so glad that it all worked out so well. I want to continue learning calligraphy when I go back to America, but I will never forget my first teacher and my first lessons.

Colby Sato: Shodou, Learning Kanji

Studying under Mr. Chisaka has been a gift. Mr. Chisaka started my first day by having me write my name. Satou, Jirou. Embarrassingly, I did not know how to write Jirou. So my sensei looked it up in his book of characters, considered the variations on it (I love seeing variations on Kanji. This is so interesting to see.), and wrote an example for me. From this, I practiced writing my name. I probably went through about twenty tries, and by the end, I had one that I liked.
This is how most days go. I want to write a certain character, usually one that’s on the Kanji test for the week, and I practice writing it for an hour to an hour and a half. Between sheets, I sometimes practice strokes I find difficult to make, and I compare the one I just did with Sensei’s example, looking where I wrote the character differently. Through this process, I become more aware of how sensei fit all the strokes together, and the energy and flow in each stroke.
At Shodou, sometimes young kids come and practice their writing. One time, a five or four-year old girl spent 30 minutes practicing た. I thought this was impressive that a child that young was studying calligraphy. In America, calligraphy is considered a very academic hobby. I’ve heard of young children studying violin or baseball, but not calligraphy. I asked my teacher about this, and she explained that handwriting is very important in Japanese culture. People are judged by their handwriting, and when highschool juniors apply for jobs, they must hand-write all of their cover letters. Not only do they handwrite their cover letters, but Japanese students often apply to a lot more companies than Americans, sometimes between 50 and 100. This explains why the mother would bring her child to Calligraphy.
I asked my calligraphy teacher how I could study kanji, and he recommended reading children’s books. He brought some books to calligraphy class. What first struck me was not the Kanji, but the drawings. They’re very graphic and scary, especially for Children’s books. There were pictures of Kapa, Oni (demons), and zombies. What made the drawings even more disturbing was the style of illustrations. Lines were thick and blurry, and made use of very strong, dark colors. I’m sure not all children’s books are like this, but I’m so used to seeing cute illustrations in advertisements, these drawings really surprised me.
But back to kanji. The Kanji in the manga had furigana written next to them. It seems that rather than simply memorize lists of Kanji, children can learn Kanji by reading. I think this is a much better way of learning, because even if I don’t always know what the words are, I can get an idea, frame by frame, of what’s happening.
Japanese children have multiple ways of learning characters. They can learn through formal study, or by reading manga and short story books. In contrast to this, in Japanese class, we learn Kanji by memorizing lists and reading essays. When I return to the states, I think I’ll try learning Kanji by reading children’s books and manga.

Jamie Suzuki: Kyoto University Ballroom Dance Circle

My CIP, Kyoto University’s Ballroom Dancing Club, has been both a dance and a cultural experience. I look forward to going to practices every week for two reasons. First, it gives me a chance to dance, something that I have been missing since coming to Japan. Secondly, I get to meet new Japanese students and communicate with them on a weekly basis.  Some practices have been more challenging than others, especially with the language barrier, but since the other members are so nice and helpful, overall, it has been a great choice.

The first thing I noticed was the difference between the dance classes I take in America and the practices here. In America, the dances are taught in a much more interactive way. Students are allowed to take time and figure things out on their own and the dance material is presented in verbal and visual means. At the practices here, the material is taught mainly through verbal ways. This could be because there is only a little bit of time to learn a lot of material; so much of the practice time is done with a partner. This disparity made learning some of the dances, especially the ones with complicated footwork, much more difficult than anticipated.

Even though I picked up the movement slowly, the other members were always willing to help me and never seemed to become frustrated. It is a mix of me asking for help and them offering it when they saw me confused. Although there was a language barrier, they used a lot of non-verbal cues to help. How well they treat me and have welcomed me into their group completely combats this stereotype that Japanese people are closed off or shy. Each member of the group has their own personality. The more I get to know them, the clearer their differences become. The idea that Japanese is a homogenous group is completely wrong. There are members who are always making jokes or members that are sassy. I have enjoyed meeting all the different personalities and watching them interact with each other in a culture that is typically portrayed as quiet and agreeable.

Thanks to my CIP, I have had the chance to get to know my new Japanese friends outside of dance practice. I went to a their end of the year celebration with them and had a great time. I have really appreciated how curious they have been about American culture because it helps me feel comfortable when I want to know about their culture. The majority of parties in Japan occur in restaurants or at a nomikai. There are not any wild parties that American culture has become accustomed to. Instead they are more intimate and focused more on getting to know one another and having conversations. My favorite type is nomikai where you can just sit and enjoy conversations with many people. I really appreciate this change because it gave me an opportunity to really get to know the other members.

My CIP has been one of my highlights of studying abroad. It gives me insight into what it is like to be a college age student in Japan. Without my CIP, I may have never experienced what it is like to be a student in Kyoto. It has also taught me a new talent that I hope to continue in America.



Aelita Parker: DESA (Salsa!)

Aelita Parker

At salsa, aside from the dancing part, which is consistently enjoyable and has quickly become what I look forward to most on my Friday’s, I’ve gotten such an incredible opportunity to observe an entirely different side of Japan and Japanese. Here there’s no keigo, no bowing, and no real boundaries between sexes. Sometimes I’ll see two women dancing together or two men, and when I see a man and woman dancing it’s a completely different world of interaction. Even when people don’t know each other there’s an immediate familiarity and comfort that you can see in everyone’s complete lack of abashment. It almost feels like a different country in the drastic differences. My understanding of Japanese male female relationships (in a complete simplification) was one where the women sit at different tables then the men when there’s a gathering, where the woman cooks and washes dishes (for the most part), and when you meet someone new you do so with a bow and 「はじめまして」. Not to say that I see no love or joking between couples, but the inequality almost feels built in many times, especially with older adults. Café Rumbita however, has given me such a completely different view, one that expands my view not only of this group of individuals, but also of Japanese and Japanese society in general.

I think in our human need to define and explain, to make sense of people and situations, many think of Japanese and Japan in very narrow terms. We associate collectivism with a lack of uniqueness or personality, and while I didn’t need Salsa to tell me that’s a false and unfair label to place on a whole nation, Salsa gives me proof of that untruth every week. Because the stereotype of Japanese adults is one that can be hard to break, I’m so glad I’ve been in so many situations that completely contrast my previously conceived notions. Here there’s no hierarchy, just lots of spinning and Latin music.

Normally when I meet adults in Japan I get really nervous, trying to review all of the keigo I know in my head before I’m forced to say it. What I’ve noticed here though is that even with people I’m seeing or meeting with the same time, the interactions are much freer and more natural. Sometimes I dance with friends from DESA and we joke in Japanese and spin around with no attention paid to form, and other times I dance with 45 year old men who’ve taken their share of classes. No matter who it is though I don’t think I or they feel any apprehension, or think twice before asking to dance. It’s interesting that something you might peg as being outside of most people’s comfort zones, is the most comfortable place I’ve found myself in Japan, and I think other regulars would agree with me.

Because the context that we see adults in (even in America) you generally have to know someone on a pretty intimate basis to really get below the surface, to see more than a house wife or a salary man. Again I’ve gotten to see thoughts and motivations behind certain decisions from family and my host family in japan, gotten opinions on topics ranging from teenage pregnancy to testing in high schools, but for the first time I was able to see the completely carefree, the completely honest side of adults here. One of my favorite regulars is one of the most proactive and brave women I’ve seen, and it makes me wonder if she carries the same attitude with her back home. Is she as demanding, as enveloped in her life outside as she is in salsa? I see Japanese men dancing the Cuban “sexy” style, men in suits with such grace and precision that I can’t believe they’re not doing this professionally.

The other weekend I spoke to a woman who’s maybe in her forty’s for 20 minutes about the differences between LA, New York, and Cuban styles, after which she taught me a few new steps and we danced the marchata. An interaction I never would have believed would happen in Japan if I had not come here. I’m shy as well, so this has been such a great opportunity for me to break out of my shell and completely unfurl.

When I went this past Friday, for the first time, I danced with the teacher Masanori. Maybe an irrelevant side note but that moment was added to my top three favorite moments of my trip so far, and added to my already inexpressible love of salsa and café Rumbita.


Juan Carlos Lozano: English Assistant + Wushu + Nico Nico Tomato Volunteer

So far this semester I’ve participated in more activities than I’ve expected, but I’m more than grateful as one rarely gets the chance to be a part of the Japanese community. The first CIP I chose was volunteering as an English teaching assistant at Kamigyo Middle School. I have considered for quite some time now the option of being a teacher as a career path so this opportunity was definitely one I couldn’t pass up. To my surprise, the first-year middle school students I was set to teach were extremely energetic and pounced at the chance to answer my questions in English. I also received an overwhelming amount of surprised looks when they heard me speak in Japanese, and without fail, I would here 「日本語が上手」. Of course, I responded with the humble phrases I was trained to give in return. I also noticed many of the students’ English conversation skills were pretty focused on set questions such as “Do you like sports?”, “What is your favorite food?”, and “Do you like food?” etc. This made me realize that around this stage of learning English most students’ English has been focused on conversation starter questions or 日常会話.

Also, as the rumor spread that there was an American teaching in one of the classes many of the students on the rest of floor gathered around my teacher and I as I walked through the hallway—it was as if I was a rare species just being discovered. Each student was very shy when speaking to me, but still very excited to learn. In fact, I found their eagerness to learn surprising as I look back at my middle school memories in which students would constantly dodge the teacher’s questions. I also found it very important to encourage (smile and say something like よくできた!) the students whether they answer correctly or not, as it motivates them to try to answer even more English questions. All in all, the students at Kamigyo Middle School have been incredibly endearing and make me excited to volunteer and learn something new every week.

However, since most students are out for the month due to Spring Break, I added the title of CIP to my Wushu (Chinese martial arts) circle. Every Friday I go to Higashiyama to train Wushu with two awesome teachers. One of the sensei claimed the 1995 Wushu World Cup title and is a great teacher! Usually I’m the only participant on Fridays so I’m very lucky to learn one on one. As Wushu is a martial art, respect for each other is definitely emphasized and is expected that students use Keigo with their sensei. Sometimes I feel very relaxed talking to my sensei that I almost forget the formalities altogether. Culturally, I believe respect and 上下 is very important in this type of setting. Also, thanks to my sensei I’ve painfully become more flexible that I ever thought possible!

Finally, I have also started volunteering at Kyoto University’s hospital Nico Toma. Nico Toma has so far been a fun experience that has shown me how much care hospital volunteers put into their work. Although most of the volunteer work has been arts and crafts oriented, every little aspect of our work has gone toward bringing a smile to the kids in the Pediatrics section. However, this week we got to play with one of the kids while we held a bazaar of donated goods and it was extremely fun, although I think I was probably more into the “Breaking the Tower” game then the little boy was. I can’t wait to continue my experience at Nico Toma and hopefully get to meet more kids!

Fengsheng Zhu: Volunteering at NICCO

I have been volunteering as a translator/translation editor in NICCO (Nippon International Cooperation for Community development), a Kyoto-based NGO that has initiated and operated humanity support programs both within Japan and in poverty-stricken regions of the world. While my work does not directly relate to NICCO’s field work, reading and translating web posts and publications actually became an opportunity for me to follow up closely with NICCO’s activities.

Although it is my first time working with an NGO that is involved in international-wide activities, not to mention that it is a Japan-based NGO, NICCO did not strike me as being much different from the domestic NPO’s I have worked with in the States. All the staff are really nice, and the tightly packed office room adds to the cozy atmosphere. And it feels like that they experience the same problem as their American NPO counterparts- heavy workload that keeps them busy throughout the day. But to say that all staff do in the office is working is lying. The social atmosphere in the office is quite relaxed. Maybe also because I volunteer at the office on Friday afternoons, staff tend to chit-chat while snacking on some omiyage-food later in the afternoon. One interesting thing I noticed in inter-staff communication, is that whenever someone leaves the office briefly through the day (for example, to send a mail in the post office), the rest of the staff will say いってらっしゃい, and お帰り, upon the staff’s return. The use of these expression gives a homey feeling to the atmosphere within the office, and which I can take as a sign showing that every staff is recognized as an integral member of the organization.

Since one of the goals of CIP is for the student to become and be recognized as a functioning member of the group that he/she chooses to join, I will talk briefly about my status in this organization. A KCJS 23 Senpai who volunteered at NICCO last spring commented how she still felt like an outsider due to the limited number of work hours as a volunteer as well as a sense that she did not share the same dedication as the staff. Maybe my state right now is not too much different from hers when she wrote the post, another set of wording more accurately describes my experience.

Given that the product of my volunteer work is closely integrated into NICCO’s work, I do not consider myself an outsider. At the same time, however, I do not feel that I fall under the category of “member”, either. For one reason, I am not a formally employed staff, and likely have been in the office for a time period shorter than everyone else in the office. Another reason is that I have trouble locating a proper definition of a “member” in the NICCO office. If being an employee is a more literal and physical definition of a “member”, then the more figurative definition- what it means to be a “member”- is more fluid. The first criterion that comes to mind feels somewhat similar to the literal definition- dedication to NICCO’s work. And the rest seem quite common for an NGO office setting- whether one fits in the atmosphere and the social scene in the office. For the first item, I do not think that the homey environment in NICCO even requires time to fit in; the second item is more difficult to judge, since people naturally form little social groups, and it is hard to say where a conclusive social group even exists, the criterion itself is rendered obsolete in some sense. The criteria listed so far do not form a distinctive guideline that separates members from non-members, yet all of them seem to qualify as reasonable standard for making such judgment. Maybe there are other criteria that I am yet aware of, but nevertheless give me the feeling that I am not a member of the group. It is also possible that nobody qualifies as an absolute member of the group, due to the various criteria that apply. Regardless of the question of membership, I am still grateful that I have been able to fulfill the “functioning” part of the goal, that my work generates at least some value to the organization’s operation.

I consider my CIP experience a good one, given that NICCO is a welcoming organization. Although translating work might seem mundane and it does not require much communication with the staff around me, I still had fun doing the work. NICCO is a good place to experience the professional office setting in Japan, but probably not as suitable for those who seek a lot of on-work communication with Japanese people.

Julia Hirata: Kitanotenmangu Taiko Group

     In the past month I have started to play taiko at Kitanotenmangu shrine. Taiko practices and gatherings have been the highlights of my time here in Kyoto so far. All of the members are Japanese and don`t speak any English so it is a great opportunity for me to improve my Japanese, learn more about the cultural customs, and interact with more Japanese people in a social setting. The members consist of mostly middle-aged men and women and their children. Spending time with a group of people ranging from 5-50 years old has really made me understand the stratification of Japanese communication. For example, when our teacher speaks to his 10 year old daughter he uses casual form and is very expressive in his tone. However, when he speaks to the supervising monks at the temple, he immediately switches to keigo and often bows throughout the conversation. One thing that I was surprised at was how quickly the other members came to use casual with me. I noticed this more with the female members and young children. The taiko teacher’s wife even began calling me Julia-chan. I thought it would take a while to break down social barriers and speak as friends, but after one lesson they invited me to a dinner party and welcomed me in with open arms. The group teacher’s wife added me as a friend on Facebook and showed me videos of her daughter dancing. I sat by her the whole night and we chatted about taiko, school, her daughter and the drunk people around us. At the party, everyone drank and laughed and spoke very informally to each other while joking around. I felt so lucky to be included in the group and treated as a fellow member.
One cultural difference I noticed was the social involvement of the monks at the shrine. When I see the head monk at the shrine during practice, he is always dressed in traditional garb and is always nice but extremely formal. At the party, he came dressed in a western suit and joined in all the festivities. When people got particularly rowdy or drunk instead of sternly lecturing them, he would tease them and speak informally to them. I was surprised that the monk interacted with us so freely in a social setting. I was so happy to talk to him and get to know him over nice sake and good food.


Sara Allen: DESA (Doshisha International Student Club)

Since the Japanese school semester finishes in mid-March, I unfortunately had to end my CIP as a volunteer at a Kyoto Middle School. For the rest of my time in Japan, I decided to join DESA, a Doshisha University international exchange club. During my first few weeks in Kyoto I had attended a few DESA events so it was a natural fit for me to become involved in DESA.

I found DESA to be an invaluable experience. Although I was able to practice Japanese at home with my host parents, I felt that I was able to talk more candidly with the Japanese students in DESA. Moreover, it was interesting to learn Japanese slang, as well as being able to hear Japanese university students’ thoughts on global issues. Most of our outings were to nomikai’s and izayaka’s (all you can eat and drink restaurants), which are large part of Japanese nightlife. This was a great way to familiarize myself with Japanese drinking culture and also provided a relaxed and friendly atmosphere for us all to get to know each other.

It was interesting to see the differences in nightlife and drinking culture. American university students usually frequent bars and clubs and Japanese students tend to go to nomikai’s in small groups. This more intimate setting allows people to get to know each other since nomikai’s are more relaxed and quieter than the clubs and bars in America.

However, since Doshisha was not in session at the time I was attending DESA meetings there were not as many meetings as usual. Even when there were meetings, the number of international students greatly outnumbered the number of International students.

That being said, the people I did meet, both international students as well as Japanese students, were all awesome people. All of them enriched my time in Kyoto in some way.



Yejing Gu: Social Dance & Calligraphy

Luckily, I have two CIPs, Kyoto University’s Amateur Dance Circle and Kyoto University’s Calligraphy Circle, and I love both of them.

I participated in the Kyoto University’s Amateur Dance Circle for the first half of the semester. This Amateur Dance Circle focuses on social dances, which I had no previous experiences of. Although I learned Chinese dance when I was young and I took dance lessons in college, it was difficult for me to remember step sequences in a fairly short time and dance on high heels. Taking the challenge, I practiced at home by learning basic steps on YouTube and I think I did much better later on. The best thing about this Amateur Dance Circle was that it provided a wonderful way to socialize with local Japanese students. While practicing in pairs, I got to know almost every member in the circle. After dancing, I usually stayed for lunch and talked to them about dances, Kyoto University, tourist attractions, and etc. I think lives of Kyoto University’s students are very enjoyable because they have such interesting circles.

It is a pity that during the latter half of the semester, the practice’s time for the Amateur Dance Circle shrank from three hours to only one hour, which is even less than my commute time. Instead, I joined the Kyoto University’s Calligraphy Circle. The practice in the Calligraphy Circle is very flexible, for I can write whatever I want for however long. I learned Chinese calligraphy before, so I was very interested in their differences. One thing I noticed is that Chinese usually write calligraphy on a table while standing or sitting on a chair, whereas Japanese write calligraphy on a low table or on the ground while doing seiza, which is challenging for me. My legs were usually numbed after the practice. But I appreciate that experience because now I can do seiza for much longer. Calligraphy is probably not an ideal CIP because calligraphy requires the person to be quiet, which makes it hard to socialize. However, it’s not a problem for Kyoto University’s Calligraphy Circle, because they have another activity room for meetings. I usually stay in that room before and after the practice. Circle members always took the initiative to talk to me when I came into the room and invited me to join them. Maybe because I am a junior and most of them are freshmen and sophomores, they use the polite speech form to me. I was confused which form I should use until I met a senior who talked to me in the short form. The experience of this kind of Japanese upperclassmen-underclassmen relationship is interesting and useful.

Based on my CIPs’ experiences, my advice for future KCJS students would be, your CIP should be something you are good at, and it should be easy to socialize.

Good Luck and Have Fun!