Considering it’s the question I’ve received thrice daily for the past 2 years, I still haven’t worked out a proper response to;
“Will I be able to make Japanese friends in Japan?”
If you’re the sort of person who struggles to make eye contact, fumbles awkwardly with their pockets and spends way too much time talking about things like bridges and salmon, then you’re probably fucked.
(Unless you’re at Bridge Convention in Osaka with a premium Salmon buffet. Then YOU’LL finally have the upper hand).
But first off, no it’s not difficult to make friends in Japan. Even if, in my first year, I failed miserably at making Japanese friends.
In fact, after 12 months of living in Japan I didn’t have a single good Japanese friend – I had various acquaintances, but no-one I would frequently hang out with.
This was for two reasons;
1) I was too busy hanging out with other foreigners, travelling around Japan in my car and even using a one of the best dash cams in 2019 to record these trips and also teaching students how to pronounce ‘Environmental’ and ‘Sausages’ five days a week.
And 2) Because I came to Japan with no Japanese (but a strong motivation to learn), I couldn’t communicate.
But I had come with the intention of befriending loads of awesome Japanese people. Yet with my disturbingly limited Japanese, I simply wasn’t willing to have the inevitable repetitive conversations, reduced to sentences such as “I like bread, do you like bread?” and “Japan is good isn’t it.”
And so in my first year in Japan, I invested most of my free time in studying Japanese, so I could move up to higher level conversation, with advanced phrases such as “Maybe I definitely like bread” and “Japan is quite good probably.”
After about a year of study, I was finally read to launch “Operation Let’s Massive Friendship” – an operation which involved ACTUALLY USING JAPANESE in public with strangers.
Suddenly I started to make quite a few good Japanese friends, in fact in the space of two months not only did I meet my best friend Natsuki, but also my girlfriend Aki. From there on in, as I gained a good circle of Japanese friends, I started to lose the feeling of being a long term tourist and actually become a part of the town where I lived. In the same way that I could talk to Natsuki and Aki about life in the UK and outside Japan, they were able to educate me on life within Japan.
I met Natsuki downtown on a night out – we literally bumped into each other in the street and started talking in poor English and poor Japanese. I still recall his shocked expression at seeing foreigners walking down the street (to be honest, even I’m mind fucked when I see foreigners walking down the street here).
We instantly got on due well to our shared interests in 80’s rock music and after an outstanding trip to karaoke, at what can only be described as the world’s most ridiculous bar (a dirty converted attic, filled with broken computers and motherboards, serving surprisingly pleasant Italian-styled food), our friendship was truly sealed.
Since then we’ve met up almost every week and for both of us, it’s probably the highlight of the week.
However, despite our awesome rapport, had I not known Japanese, its unlikely Natsuki and I would have met up again beyond our drunken karaoke extravaganza – simply because we wouldn’t have been able to communicate, as we still spoke mostly Japanese during our night out. And no friendships are particularly fun continuously held at…er…dictionary-point (yeah that works. New phrase coined).
As for Aki, we met at a party held by a fellow English teacher. Again, Aki couldn’t really speak English and whilst my Japanese was awful, I was somehow able to pull off yet another ‘conversation’ – a conversation which gave her enough confidence in my Japanese ability, to feel meeting up again would be fun and or worthwhile.
– We went to an immensely disappointing cafe for the record.
But after I knew conversational level Japanese, I became confident enough to start engaging more in my community, particularly at the town’s local international centre, by volunteering at an English club and attending various events. Someone even signed me up for a Japanese speech contest for foreigners, which I failed in spectacularly in my first year (but somehow won this year).
And more recently I’ve been making friends in the local business community for some projects next year on the video and filmmaking front.
But if you don’t speak Japanese it’s still not game over – there are a ton of opportunities to meet people.
My main tip would be to…
Attend as many parties and social gatherings as you can.
Most couples I know here who include a Japanese guy/girl dating a foreigner, tend to have met at social gathering or seasonal party.
If you’re an English teacher you’ll instantly find yourself in some kind of social network of other teachers. If someone is throwing a party of any sort, be sure to attend the events and you’re bound to meet awesome people and who knows – maybe you’ll even meet the future Mr or Mrs (PLEASE ENTER YOUR FAMILY NAME HERE).
But making friends is fairly easy at such social gatherings, as everyone knows each other some way or another, giving a layer of security in an environment filled with strangers.
But if you’ve got a box full of courage at your disposal, another awesome way to meet people is;
Go out to bars a ridiculous amount.
If you’re not in a social group or don’t want to hang out with other foreigners, pluck up some courage and go to a bar or local pub.
Unfortunately, I had and continue to have no courage – so I never ventured out on my own. But if you do, I can assure you the rewards will be great.
Several of my good friends started going to bars alone two or three times a week and after 6 months, were friends with pretty much half the city (not even exaggerated as there about 100,000 people and everyone seems to know everyone somehow).
Many people do this without knowing Japanese as well, as at bars, drunken Japanese people are far more willing use/speak English (you find most Japanese people seem to secretly know English anyway and it comes out after a drink or two). But if you end up being a regular down at your local bar/pub, you’ll find yourself being invited to other private gathering and social circles, such as other customers birthdays.
But bars are great as Japanese customers are often curious as to who the random foreigner is sitting at the bar. You’ll find people eagerly coming over to strike up a conversation and even buy you a drink.
Finally, don’t hesitate to…
Engage with the local community.
Try and get involved in down at the international center or town hall where you live. They’ll be eager to meet a new foreigner, especially if its somewhere rural where such people are rare.
Taking up a sport or martial art are other great ways of getting into new social circles.
In summary though, I find Japanese people are very keen to make new friends who aren’t Japanese. After all foreigners are still a rarity in Japan and meeting one can unlock the door to the world outside Japan, just as they can unlock the door to your world inside Japan (as Natuski and I have done for each other).
Opportunities will come your way – just be sure to get the hell out of your apartment and make the most of them.
I hope this article has been of some use. If you have any questions, feel free to comment below or message over the Abroad in Japan Facebook page!
At the very least, I’m relieved to finally have an article to hyperlink a lot of people to from now on. From here on in, this article will be my salvation from a life consigned to repetitive email responses.