Tips for volunteers

Understanding elders and the Japanese culture

Before interviewing a senior, think about what they’ve lived through during their lifetime:

  • Ineligibility for citizenship as an Asian immigrant
  • Denial of certain rights (owning land, getting medical treatment, voting, employment, etc.) 
  • Could not marry outside their race
  • Internment camps
  • “Asian hate”

This may help you understand certain emotions or reactions that arise during the interview, and prepare you to address them:

  • Humility: If they do not want to talk about themself or feel uncomfortable telling their story, you can redirect your questions to their family unit. Instead of, “What was your favorite childhood food?” you can say, “What did your family like to eat when you were a child?”
  • Shy: If they are not used to telling their story to people, they may need coaxing and reinforcement. Ask questions to get warmed up.
  • Culture: Some will identify more or less strongly with the Japanese culture, often depending on when their family immigrated to the U.S. and where they lived (i.e., elders from Hawaii vs. elders from Japan vs. elders from California).
  • Language: Some seniors may prefer to speak Japanese. Use this opportunity to practice your Japanese language skills. Or contact us if you would like support from a translator.
  • Passivity: Take indirect communication into account. For example, what are they really saying or feeling under the surface?
  • Eye contact: Assess their physical comfort level. Some may prefer you sit at a corner vs. directly face to face; or try sitting side by side looking at the book together. 
  • Pace: Some may require two sessions to complete their book; some may require five. 

Top 10 interviewing techniques

  1. Be friendly and introduce yourself with a warm greeting at the start of every session.
  2. Feel free to skip around the book. Ask easy questions first. Ask the more personal or emotionally demanding questions after a relationship has developed.
  3. Ask one question at a time. 
  4. Be a good listener. Allow silence to work for you. Wait.
  5. Use body language such as looking at the interviewee, nodding, and smiling to encourage and give the message, “I am interested.”
  6. Use verbal encouragement such as, “That’s amazing!” or “Wow, how interesting!” 
  7. Dig deeper and ask for specific examples. Say, “Can you explain that in more detail?”
  8. Ask them to define words, if needed. For example, ask what they mean by the “ice box.” How was it used? What was its purpose?
  9. Ask how to spell names of people, places, schools, etc. and any other words you are unfamiliar with. Make sure all names are correctly spelled.
  10. Be flexible. Watch for and pick up on topics introduced by the interviewee, even if the topics are not in the book. Do your best to capture these stories in the margins.