If you’re going to learn the Japanese language, it’s always going to be a better experience if you can have some interaction with Japanese people. Language just isn’t the same without culture, and culture just isn’t the same without language. When you’re not living in Japan, it becomes difficult to get both of these things. This article focuses on the different clubs and organizations that may be in your area that offer a Japanese culture experience (and maybe some language too).
No Language Clubs?
There are plenty of Japanese language clubs probably run by Japanese people out there, but when it comes to culture I don’t think language clubs are the best option. Sure, go to these and learn… but I’d recommend something else for the culture part.
My theory is this: When you’re learning a language in a language club (or class) the culture aspect becomes kind of watered down. It’s more about teaching the culture (if it’s taught at all), rather than experiencing it. You’re there to learn the language, after all. The goal of this article is to give you opportunities to live the culture, so I’m going to steer clear of things that directly involve the Japanese language.
Instead, we’ll take a look at groups and clubs that don’t actually think about the culture. In fact, the clubs are culture. These clubs are generally pretty packed with Japanese people. That means they probably speak a decent amount of Japanese, too (if that’s also your goal). The main thing, though, is that they don’t notice their Japanese culture seeping out of every pore. It’s just natural, and that means it can rub off on you more easily as well.
Japanese-Related Clubs For Japanese Culture
These are the Japanese-related clubs that I think give you the best opportunity to live and breathe Japanese culture. This means they’re run by Japanese people, their membership is largely Japanese, and they haven’t been “Americanized” (or “Europeanized,” or whatever). Of course, I can’t guarantee these things about each and every club in your area, so you’ll have to do some investigating on your end. That being said, I’m sure all of these clubs will provide you with Japanese culture to some extent. Doing things you enjoy is pretty important as well.
Let’s go over the clubs / groups that I think are good. Maybe you have more suggestions for the comments, below?
In most of the taiko groups I’ve seen, there have been a lot of Japanese members. Not only that, but taiko drumming feels so Japanese. Lots of yelling. Lots of loin cloths. Lots of spending a lot of time as a new member doing the same thing over and over and over again (hit that drum, kohai!). I think taiko’s great, and it’s an incredible workout, too. Have you seen the muscles on taiko drummers?
Most medium to large cities have a taiko group, though it’s not something that most people realize exists. If I wasn’t focusing so much on kendō this is what I’d probably be starting. The group mentality is great, the music is awesome, and the Japanese culture is top notch.
Kyūdō is the Japanese version of archery. Generally it tends to be too “slow” for Western people, who are more used to noticeable advancement and feedback in something they’re doing. In my mind, that right there makes kyūdō pretty Japanese in nature. You’ll spend many many months practicing even before you shoot an arrow. Kyūdō isn’t for everyone, but it’s definitely one of many opportunities to experience Japanese people and culture even when you’re not in Japan.
Kyūdō can be found in most big cities, though clubs tend to be pretty small. If you happen to have a dojo in your area, you’re probably pretty lucky, though I think it’s definitely worth looking into. In terms of the martial arts from Japan, only kyūdō and kendō have retained their Japanese feel outside of Japan. I’m not saying other martial art dojos aren’t Japanese or traditional… but in general these are the two that have the most Japanese people participating (and therefore feel the most Japanese to me). Of course, there are always exceptions.
I wrote about kendō quite a few weeks ago, and I’m totally biased towards it being awesome. It depends on the club you go to, but in kendō the sensei tend to be Japanese, a lot of the membership tends to be Japanese, and the culture of the clubs and dojos tend to be quite Japanese as well. The philosophy behind what you’re doing is more focused on making yourself better through training (once again, depends on the dojo) rather than defending yourself or anything like that, making it feel much more Japanese to me.
Kendō tends to be a little more popular than most of the other clubs you’ll find on this list. You’ll usually find several kendō dojos in large cities and even some in medium cities as well. Growing up we had to drive around a half hour to the nearest kendō dojo, but I think it’s totally worth it, if you can. The people tend to be really helpful and the culture you’ll gain, especially over time, is very helpful to your Japanese and outlook on life.
I was lucky enough to get one tea ceremony private lesson with a family friend who does this. Afterwards, she told me that the single cup I had was worth $150. If I still had that $150 tea in my mouth I’d probably have had to do a $150 spit take.
Jokes aside, I don’t know if there’s anything more Japanese than tea ceremony. It’s certainly not something that’s going to be for everyone, but think of all the great tea you’ll get to drink (may hurt the wallet a bit, though).
Tea ceremony classes can generally be found in larger cities. At the very least, I hope you’re able to experience it on the receiving end. Everything is so beautiful and tastes really, really good.
Shodo, aka Japanese Calligraphy, is something you always see at Japanese culture fairs. But, did you ever stop to think that you can join groups or take classes on it? This is a great way to combine both the language and the culture. You’ll be around Japanese people and you’ll be learning to write in Japanese. Sure, nobody will be able to read what you write, but that’s not the point. It still gives you a deeper understanding of kanji and Japanese.
I’m not entirely sure how popular shodo clubs outside of Japan are, but I keep running across them so they must not be entirely rare.
Ikebana – Flower Arranging
Definitely more something the gals do, but don’t let that stop you if you’re a dude who likes arranging flowers. It’s hard to deny how incredible the arrangements are. Like many of the other groups or clubs, flower arranging has a very zen feeling to it. While you do the task of arranging the flowers, you’re looking into yourself – it’s quite a spectacular art, I think.
I’ve seen ikebana groups quite often showing their creations. I imagine that they can be found mainly in larger cities, though you never know, perhaps you’ll get lucky. Although this article is mainly focused on groups (culture, people!), I know there are also a lot of 1 on 1 tutors out there as well doing ikebana, should that be your only option.
And Don’t Forget The Potlucks!
The potlucks are probably one of the best parts of joining a Japanese-related club. At the potlucks you get entire families out. Also, everyone “lets their hair down” so to speak and you can get to know people better. Food and drinks bring people together, no matter what culture, and this is a great way to share that culture as well.
Oh, and did I mention the food yet? Oh so good. Anyone who hasn’t been to a Japanese potluck (or just Asian, for that matter) is really missing out. If you’re going to join one of these clubs for anything, do it for the potluck (and the culture, and the learning).