Post #2000! Special Discussion: Making “friends” in Japan, successfully?


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Hi Blog. To commemorate today,’s 2000th blog post since 2006 (yes, it’s been almost five years since went daily as a blog), I would like to devote the next day or two to an important discussion regarding assimilation.

I got together with some old friends for beers some time ago (we do this whenever I’m in town), who all together have a combined tenure of more than a century of experiences living in Japan. We’re all English-native Caucasian males, for what it’s worth.

Our conversation suddenly took an interesting turn when one of our group asked a poignant question:

“How many of us have any Japanese friends with whom we can get together like this and talk as much in depth?”

There was a long pause, and we all realized, when it came to Japanese males, the answer was zero. Yes, zero.

We all said we had made Japanese female friends (we are guys, after all), finding J-women more curious and open-minded than their male counterparts (and that included relationships that weren’t all physical).

But not Japanese men.

Several theories abounded. One was that Japanese men in general make their friends in school, and view other males as rivals and competitors from that point on in life, as they climb the social and corporate ladder. Japanese men are thus some of the loneliest people in the world.

Another was that Japanese men just weren’t all that interesting. Not only are they completely work-oriented (as opposed to women, who also had social lives outside of mere drinks after work), they seemed to keep their personalities closely locked up inside, only showing a professional or socially-attuned mask to the public no matter what. So conversations inevitably went boring (notwithstanding the incipient language barriers), basically boiling down to the food and chopsticks questions if not the occasional comparative culture stuff, but nothing that would make for an interesting conversation about life in Japan or in general.

Yet another was that people did initially make male friends, but months or years later, realized that their “friend” was basically out for the “gaijin experience” (kinda like the Jimi Hendrix Experience).  Felt like they had a curious cultural succubus (in male form) voyeuristically leeching off them as a gaijin, instead of a true friend out to share life with them. So they toned it down or broke it off.

Whatever the reason, the fact that ALL six of us despite an extended period felt that we had made NO particularly long-lasting friendships with our Japanese male counterparts was shocking. I thought I’d ask Readers if they have similar or different experiences, and your theories why.  People who also can speak to the female-female side of the experience are of course welcome to comment.

Keep it nice and constructive, please. It’s an essential question when it comes to issues of immigration and assimilation. Arudou Debito

85 comments on “Post #2000! Special Discussion: Making “friends” in Japan, successfully?

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  • Great topic! This has been my experience exactly after eight years here. Lots of girlfriends and female friends, but no serious Japanese male buddies.

    I usually meet Japanese men at my work. We do the going out for drinks with other co-workers and “Wow, you are great at chopstocks” thing, and that’s about it. I thought this would change as my Japanese language skills got better but it didn’t. This seems to be the common experience among *my* North American friends too, none of whom have had real Japanese male friends after years and years of living here.

    I think there is some truth in the theory about Japanese men not being interesting. In truth, I haven’t met many Japanese males that I really had much in common with other than work, work, and more work. Nobody I would really love to chat with for hours and hours.

    I think it might also be possible that the Western version of “a good friend” just doesn’t exist here. Men are focused so much on work that they barely have time for their families, let alone outside friends who just share common interests. We may be looking for something that doesn’t exist — even between Japanese men.

  • Hi Debito!

    I live in Otaru, and I find what you share to be the same for me in Otaru/Sapporo,. When I lived in Tokyo, I found
    it very easy to make friends with men or women. Generally People in Tokyo I found were quite real about being friends-and not suddenly canceling for clearly ridiculous reasons after making plans or other forms of “Tataimae” you might find in Otaru/Sapporo.
    The “Honne” in Tokyo was pretty clear, and People much more interest in shared activities.Pro-active as verse to in-active approach to friendship. This of course is just my experience and MHO. I have been married here in Hokkaido for 4 years and 1 year in Tokyo. There is so many avenues to talk about in relation to the oddities of life in japan, but i’ll stop here!Thanks! jeff

  • I don’t know dude, you’re been here waaaay longer than me, but most of my friends that are Japanese dudes don’t speak English at all and we still talk about stuff like that.

    But, I do think that I make a more deeper relation to dudes that have lived or want to live abroad. Shizzle

  • As your frequent “HO” illustrates, Japanese men largely see the world differently than well, most other people.

    I lived in Tokyo for 10 years. Many male acquaintances, but no friends. Was it me? Or them? Try both. I found myself unable to relate to the Japanese males I encountered through work, social activities, business, etc. But in all fairness, maybe they thought the same about me?

    Many Japanese men just do not hang out with women, unless they are dating.

    This could prove to be an educational discussion. It will be interesting to see what HO thinks…

  • I am so happy you posted this. 

    My profile: Made regular trips to Tokyo at least once a year (avg. Stay 4weeks-2months). I did this for about 5 years before moving to live in Japan. Been living here about 4 years. I am not high-level fluent, but make out ok in Japanese. 

    I should also mention that during my first 1.5 years living here, I went out of my way to befriend Japanese males, only spoke Japanese, and mostly frequented places and events that were 99% japanese.

    In almost 9 years of Japan experience, my only significant relationships have been with other foreigners.

    In fact, when the big quake happened, several of my American friends I havent spoken to in 5+ years tracked me down and asked about me. Not one of my Japanese friends here reached out. None. And when I reached out to them, although it was quite obvious that they were upset, I could tell that my inquiries as to their well being seemed awkward for them. 

     Like you guys, I ‘have’ made deep connections with Japanese women, but eventually even these are revealed to be mostly shallow. For a while I thought something was wrong with ‘me’. But then I began collecting stories from other people (Japanese and foreigner alike) and I began to realize that this isn’t even specific to foreigners. As you said, most Japanese men (and, to a lesser extent, women) are quite lonely here. I think it’s part of the cultural construct. I also think this is connected to the abnormally high suicide rates here. The huge “human disconnect” here is only slightly worse for foreigners, Japanese mask a lot of emotional and social disconnect by participating in many group activities. But “acting” like you’re part of a group doesn’t mean yiu are truly emotionally connected to that group. And no matter how “different” Japanese people are, they are still human, and still subject to the emotional needs and care that most humans experience. Much of that is neglected here.

    On a personal level, although I still find many Japanese women quite attractive, in the last year I have found myself dating mostly foreign women–from all different countries. Life is too short to pretend I don’t need/want a full connection to a woman. I still try to date Japanese women, but I lean towards the ones with international experience that extends beyond just tourism. As for the men, I’ve largely given up trying to be their friends–with ONE exception. I find that the guys in their 60s and 70s are often VERY cool and fun to hang out with as buddies (I’m 36). Strange, but that’s my experience. 

  • I don’t know, my Japanese mates are just as normal or abnormal or average or weird as anyone else. Not sure where this particular entry is coming from- food for thought. Perhaps because I’ve edited all the boring people out of my social life.

    As I’m non-corporate, I have a bunch of different social circles. I have crazy drunk Karate mates and we have a great time, I have mates from different walks of life and they are just mates to me. Because they are Japanese their frames of reference are different from my western mates. I treasure them, but I don’t feel having close Japanese mates is especially difficult is it?

    Obviously you need to have good Japanese for Japanese mates who can’t speak your native language. And they have often different frames of reference.

    But those great mates or friends have come through shared experiences- hobbies or shared interests or strong agreements about certain ideas or points of view.

    I do really get the point about weeding out the ones who want a pet gaijin though. But you can spot them a mile off (or a kilometer off if you will). Yes some of those.

    And definitely status-conscious guys and those that believe the rubbish that’s thrown at them by the mass media. Never get beyond the pet-gaijin phase with those people (particularly those educated to be emotionally stupid- academics and mid-level bureaucrats, etc.)

  • I see your point – 20 years and counting and i have more female ‘friends’ than male (thanks to my wife) But I do have male friends that I cna call in for a drink or a chat. I also play Mah-jong which I’ve done from day 1 – this could have a major impact on your discussion. Pachinko – horse racing or mah jong will bring you your best mates! I talk about anything with my 3/4 best Japnese buddies (haven’t left the same area for 20 years though …)

  • I think the question is “Why am I friends with the people I am friends with?” And I suppose the answer is that you share a language, a certain cultural heritage, a set of circumstances etc. – you probably look more like each other than you do compared to the locals! I think it’s as simple as that, really. I have two good Japanese male friends, one of whom I lived down the corridor from in Bangkok for two years (hence the shared circumstances) and the other is my Japanese teacher.

    Does that make sense?

    I don’t wish to offend anybody but I think the “they are boring”-type says more about the person who says it than it does about Japanese men.


  • beneaththewheel says:

    Good question.

    In my experience, making Japanese guy friends is easiest with a shared hobby. My friend joined a local soccer team, and made tons of friends with the guys on the team. At a bar, talking to a guy, we found out we both like punk music and the conversation went from there into other things. Work friends seem more like an obligation and as you said, the mask cannot come down easily (I feel similarly in many work situations).

    I’m not sure if this is a Japanese thing or a global thing. When I think about the foreign friends I made in the past, they were of my English teaching days, and always friends of friends. In the Englsh teaching community in my area, many people become friends regardless of differences (as there’s the big similarity of being a foreigner in Japan). You can put next to no effort, and automatically have lots of acquaintences, and everyone wants to make new good friends. If it’s back home, everyone already has their good friends, and it’d be much harder. I think the ease of meeting foreigners has made introverted little me have a harder time to make an effort with people who don’t automatically cling to me just for being a foreigner. Is it the same for all English teachers in Japan? All expats in Japan? All expats in general? I’m not sure.

    Then, when I think about the Japanese girl/friends that I have made, they have all made a major interest in foreign culture. I don’t think that representitive of Japanese women, but it’s representative of the majority ones who want to talk with me blindly (i.e. at a bar). Where are the guys with Western interests? Not sure. Talking to my foreign ladyfriends maybe? Flirting is easier than small talk. I think it’s a global trend though that women are more interested in foreign languages than me. I don’t have a link to back that up though.

    Anways, having just started grad school (in Japanese), I hope to be able to make more male Japanese friends.

    As a final aside, here’s someone’s blog entry from a few months back about the topic. It’s of a different focus, but related:

  • bornagain says:

    Agreed, great topic. After 13+ years here, I have zero Japanese male friends. I did have some good times working with some Japanese coworkers, but never became friends. I think its a cultural thing, most Japanese I know dont socialize like you see in HK or the U.S. The “eigo dekinai” is the usual excuse but also most Japanese are very guarded people. I find it to be a very tiresome effort and usually not even worth it when making friends with japanese males. I see Im not alone.

  • Making friends with Japanese people is the same as making friends with any other people – if you share interests it happens naturally. I love music, so I hang out and jam with other people who love making music.

  • I have lots of good, solid relationships with Japanese men. These relationships are usually deeper and more interesting than the ones I have with Japanese women. I’ve been here for 34 years and am pretty much bilingual. If you ask me, this whole thing depends on your Japanese ability. I am saddened by the stereotyping going on here of Japanese men. Given that this whole site is supposed to be about getting rid of discrimination against NJ, I find it very odd that you are more than happy to encourage racial profiling of Japanese men.

    — No I’m not. Chill.

  • Being a shallow and a very private person myself, my relationships with Japanese males are on par with most of my relationships with Japanese females and non-Japanese people. I like it this way.

    However those people who ‘defend’ the Japanese male along some relativist strategy of ‘they are the same here as anywhere in the world’ are really missing the boat.
    Jean Pierre Lehman wrote a brilliant article in the Japan Times about 10 years ago about the social interactive failings of Japanese males in a global world and how they were fossilized into some sort of mid-1960’s time trap, and that Japanese women were excelling in the modern business world and leaving their male counterparts behind.
    I’ll look for the article, when I have time.

    They, Japanese males of a certain age, definitely remind me of my grandfather’s generation, who were born into an Edwardian Britain, in the way they relate to others outside of their work and family circles.

    I notice with some of the young Japanese males, those under 30, that they seem to break with the mould, but still ……..

  • OsakaGurl says:

    Great topic Debito and congratulations on post 2000!!!

    I might be the only woman posting on this one, though I hope not. I’ve lived on and off in Japan for extended periods of time and here are my observations.

    One, as a foreign caucasian woman, it’s pretty hard to make any close japanese friends. I’ve been told by several of even my close japanese women friends that I could never possibly understand the obligations of a j-single woman, j-wife,and j-mother, etc…

    Two, forget even thinking about making a j-man friend – heh – unless they have had a few drinks. However, when they have had a few drinks, they become a little well, you know – I’m a very tall blond with a bit of a chest, so perhaps a bit intimidating? (at least that’s what I have been told by the older j-men, especially the 60-70 year olds that Harry refers to above!)

    My conclusions about all of this, (and I have been thinking about this a lot lately) in the context of this foreigner against each other, japanese against foreigners, etc… There is so much going on.

    I’ll put this out there and perhaps others can comment. I feel like this is all a competition!

    And here come the big generalizations…(sorry) the NJ-men are necessarily in competition with J-men for a place/space in Japan (place/space encapsulates all lively hoods including family, work, women, etc…).

    There is limited space for NJ-men. This creates competition between NJ-men both with J -men and other NJ- men (and with NJ-men perhaps the most, this compettion is at times healthy, while at other times very destructive as evidenced by the activities/comments of the J-men/women, NJ-men/women and here on Debito’s site and of course the other troll sites).

    This competition between J and NJ-men has been especially shown this week in this line of posts – Its now apprently a competiton of who does more to help the NJ community! Really?

    As for NJ women, well I’m still thinking about this – because a) I am a little biased obviously, and b) because its a sensitive topic, usually NJ-Men try to put me in my place by saying that its women like me that drove them to Japan and therfore Japanese women – what hehe? c) I’m definatley not a feminist and I’m still pretty optimistic about Japan.

    As I am a rather friendly, and actually very non threatning NJ women, I’ll hope you will comment and I’ll just leave this with “why can’t we all just get along…”

  • james grey says:

    Speaking for myself, having graduated from a Japanese university, and having lived here for 10 years, I have a few Japanese male friends, but none of them really close at all. In general I find Japanese men to be rather shallow, childish, narrow minded, and arrogant. They all have said to me at one time or another, something along the lines of ‘gaijin are dangerous, I don’t like gaijin, but you’re ok’.
    Now that Japans economic bubble has well and truly burst forever, Japanese women, on the other hand, are coming to see what a waste of air most Japanese men are since the old financially stable salary man is fast becoming the exception and not the rule. These women are waking up, and looking for something else. They are more open minded and willing to leave their comfort zone.

  • jonholmes says:

    A lot of anecdotal responses to this thread so I ll chip in with a few of my own. I originally learnt Japanese and not Chinese in the 80s because, in the words of one Hongkongese I met at the time “We have our friends and family and feel it is enough” (when I complained I couldnt find a teacher out of the 3000 Chinese on campus who would even exchange a sentence with me).
    Fast forward to another university in 2006 and things seem to have gone full circle; both the teacher and another western student said to me “there is a huge wall up between this year’s Japanese students and us from Nagoya compared to previously”. Anecdotal, but it just seemed to confirm that Japanese students abroad were becoming, or being perceived as becoming, more inward looking as opposed to the Chinese students. I know this is rapidly becoming the latest cliche but it is hard to argue to the contrary.

    Someone above commented “many people become friends regardless of differences (as there’s the big similarity of being a foreigner in Japan).”

    I actually think that basing friendships on nationality is where I went wrong because when I started getting interested in Japan, some aspects of it’s culture (not anime, thank you very much!) and the language, of course I sought out Japanese people. And in retrospect they were, in many cases, not my kind of people. In my naivety I met not a few bigots or wierdos, which I put up with and put down to “cultural differences”. I made allowances because I was desperate to learn the language and was fascinated with Japan. By the same token, not a few of them thought I was a “henna gaijin” for a variety of reasons, not least for being interested in traditional aspects of Japan which they did’t seem to be, and then the fact that I had stepped off the career path in my home country, etc etc. So to some extent they were right; I wasn’t a conservative stereotype of a western businessman or whatever; I was a bit eccentric or “kawateru”, as they put it.

    However, after a couple of years I learnt to be more selective of my friends, regardless of nationality. I deliberately ended a few high stress “friendships” with Japanese people I had met because, well, we were not really friends. I had wanted to meet Japanese people, and their friend had introduced them to me so I suppose they tolerated this “henna gaijin” out of a sense of obligation and patience. We just did not have that much in common at all.

    Thats what I learnt; shared interests regardless of nationality lead to long-term friendships far more often than ones in spite of the differences; the latter just raise stress levels as you (or they) “tolerate” you as a pet gaijin/nihonjin sensei more than genuinely like you.

  • Fantastic discussion. Oh, I really would have wanted to read about this when I moved here seven years ago.

    I can really relate to Harry’s experiences. Even before coming here I started thinking there might be something wrong with me, because I couldn’t make good Japanese friends for the life of me.

    I think we’re asking for something they don’t know exists. Pity them, and pity us too if you will.

    Really, I think for most people in Japan, men and women, friendship is meeting for booze or for a common hobby, and only if it’s convenient. No bothering to keep in touch anymore if you move. No getting in touch after the quake.

    The two exceptions I’ve known have already been mentioned in other comments: friends from school or childhood (おさななじみ), and friends from a common hobby you practice often (martial arts, sports)…

    It seems what they really value in Japan is being part of a group. More than being friends with Tarō, Hiro and Ken, you’re part of the karate group or jazz circle. Just try quitting karate and you might be surprised you’re no longer part of their lives a few months later.

    I’d never say blokes here aren’t interesting. I’ve met quite a few of them, but they couldn’t be bothered to keep in touch in the long run.
    The few very good male friends I have are either half Peruvian, or have lived in Spain half their life.

  • musician in Japan says:

    Tamsin has quite a good way of making male friends, at least medium term; through the shared language of music. Just so long as it isnt J pop or they dont use your band as a platform to push J Nationalism in musical form, by that I mean trying to force you to listen to something cheesy just because it is Japanese (one girl tried to push Komuro Tetsuya and Smap on me as the “Japanese Duran Duran”..errr we think not).

    A couple of examples
    Me “Imai Miki’s “I miss you” wow, what a deep meaning!(Said ironically)
    J guy: (without a trace of irony) “mm, yes it is. (Singing) “I missssu yoooo”.

    J guy calling me about a music ad: “We like Matsuda Seiko. Like her, we want to be successful in USA”.
    Me: “huh? She came back in tears after not doing so well, it was on the news..”
    Him: (defensively) “Err, guess again, guy! Her single was near the top of the, errr, West Coast Disco Charts, etc”

    Other times I ve had successful relationships with Japanese male musicians, but after a while they ve kind of drifted off, never to respond to email again, to focus on their own projects.

    I thought this odd, and unfriendly, thinking we could at least meet for a beer or just say hello some time, or then I started to feel that I had offended them in some way, until I read the following on a site called “”:

    “Japanese may consider it rude to prolong a relationship once it’s original purpose has been achieved”.

    I m still trying to get my head around this-why would they think it rude? I supose they think its pushy in an odd way, completely at odds with a western style friendship.

    But if true it certainly does explain the “disappearing” friends and band members I ve had over the years (the ones I havent offended, I hastily add before some wag pops up and suggests it was because I had “done something wrong”).

    — Re Duran Duran: I also think not!

  • Tony In Saitama says:

    I am honestly stunned by this question, especially coming from Debito. I could understand it coming from someone who did not understand the language and culture very well, as many people in such a situation have told me that they find Japanese socialising through English to appear somehow false, which I have observed in the past to be mostly a result of the Japanese “acting a role” due to their limited English, rather than just being themselves.

    In my own case, I would say the ratio among my friends is about 50 – 50 male to female, as I have never noticed any tendency one way or the other, and probably about 9 to 1 Japanese to foreign.
    If I had to rank my friends here, the top five would include three, maybe four Japanese males.

  • I have been in Japan for a number of years and I do have some Japanese male friends. I am not friends with them because of English language or because they want a gaijin experience but simply because, like any other friendship, we get along well. We just happened to share some common interest; appreciation for beer, women or pro wrestling. I think that it’s quite possible for Westerners to be friends with Japanese but just like any other friendship, it takes a long time to build. I’m not sure why it seems difficult to find some friends here, except for the fact that when we arrive in this country, we are at an age where we naturally have less friends and we tend to always be so busy. In my opinion, Japanese guys are just like any other guys. Being friends with girls is a completely different matter, obviously!

  • Agree fully w Tasmin – I have several close Japanese buddies, along w other nationalities, that grew out of shared interests. Also agree w Harry – many of my buddies tend to be older guys, I’m 34. But that I find to be true also of friends of other nationalities. Must be me…. 🙂 of course if we count, female friends far outnumber the male ones but that’s normal too isn’t it?

    I think you guys are reading too much into the coincidence that all of you happen to have zero j male friends. Maybe you all have a similar social context, if you allow me to be bold, being relatively isolated from urban centers and therefore the more international japanese male or female populations? I think big cities everywhere tend to be better melting pots vs smaller communities anywhere. While there’s no denying small town Japan is probably more internal/insular than some other cultures, I don’t think it’s particularly extreme.

    Cheers, p

  • @Jeff. I wish you were right when you say “Generally People in Tokyo I found were quite real about being friends-and not suddenly canceling for clearly ridiculous reasons after making plans or other forms of “Tataimae” you might find in Otaru/Sapporo.”

    Sadly, it hasnt been my experience in Tokyo. Which is why I will only meet people either near my work or near my home. Been let down too many times when I went out of my way to a location of their choice.

    There is no excuse for it what with cell phones, but actually this is what I perceive as one of the negative results of cell phones since the 90s; people can cancel or be late at the last minute now by just sending a text.

    I hate to say it but as a “gaijin” one is way down the list of priorities for some-not all- people. First comes work, then socializing with colleagues, then the family and/or school friends etc.

    One time I got a text from someone cancelling due to “work” then 5 minutes later I saw her walking into a local bar with her colleagues. So I called her phone, she came out and saw me and said something like “oh, errr I don’t know how to explain (that socializing with colleagues is a form of work that takes priority over “private choice” friendships)”.

    Feel free to disagree; it was just my experience in Tokyo, but I ve heard some truly ridiculous excuses in my time.

    — Okay, we’re starting to get off topic by slicing things down by region, so everyone please remember to relate things back to the original point.

  • I have a follow up question, how many very close male friends of any nationality or culture have you made since University? I think it is tough to develop that kind of trust as one gets older and it may not be a cultural difference after all, or at least its a factor which coupled with a larger or smaller degree of culture-barrier may make it difficult?

    — Me, lots and lots.

  • First off, I’d like to congratulate you on your 2000th post. Secondly, I would say that it all depends on the person. It might be really hard to strike a conversation with the average salaryman but increadibly easy to talk to the guy at the local store. The guy friends I have are mostly from shared interest groups such as being in a acting troupe or a men’s choir. I think once you have a single thing in common, the ice can break and a friendship can start.

  • My after a decade in Japan theory.
    Some of Japanese males are interested in making friends with us, white males.
    But the unwritten rules of friendship here are complicated not to mention the language, especially if you try and speak Japanese.
    Humor is different, izakaya Japanese is a completely diffent language.
    But let’s supposed you manage to overcome these hurdles. Then there is another one: Japanese males are very sensitive. If you say the wrong word, if you get too emotional, if you talk about the wrong topic then it is the end.
    You would need a councellor next to you when you hang out with a Japanese male just to do the right steps not to hurt his psyche.

  • I hadn’t really thought much about this but I think that others’ experiences resemble mine- to have a close friend you have to have a shared experience and a common frame of reference – for example a hobby or beliefs or something.

    It seems just the same as anywhere really. I do feel though there is an issue of programming here. There is so so so much pressure in the education and media to emphasize and build walls between Japanese and gaijin. For example, in Karate, I have great mates and yet to others I will always be the gaijin.

    I remember recently at work, we had the fresh meat in so I took a couple of guys in the section out for lunch. I’d been chatting along with them fine and they seemed to be getting past the gaijin entertainment scenario just fine. Then someone older in the office spotted what was going on and decided to invite himself to lunch and so all normal conversation stopped; I’d try to talk about something and the worker in his 30s sought to re-establish the rules; so we were back to “can use chopsticks” and him explaining that “they do this and that in his country.”

    The juniors got the idea and by 14:00 I was safely gaijinized- the pet in the corner, back in the box. (But not quite, one of them is very good at keeping the mask up, but we do chat normally when others aren’t looking).

    I say this because I think despite all the crushing pressure in Japan to gaijinize foreigners, a lot of people can and do think for themselves and are more than aware of what is going on, though many don’t of course.

    But I realized how difficult it is to have any form of really decent relationship with someone at work- there you all are thrown together in some concrete box wearing your silly salariman uniforms and going through the motions of all the silly rules and rubbish for your salary whatever- and you’ve got nothing in common with each other really.

    What I am trying to say is I think it’s even harder to make friends or find friends at work for me than it was at work in the country I left behind because of the extra pressure to exclude gaijin and the extremity of the social and corporate programming here.

    I hope that makes some sense.

  • Making friends with Japanese people is not so difficult if you participate in activities where like minded people gather for a common purpose. I have circles of friends from my involvement with the local Toastmasters club, my condominium’s management committee, and various drinking and karaoke places I frequent. I also had circles of friends who I met through my Japanese cultural studies — tea ceremony, flower arranging, calligraphy, etc.

    Obviously, there are problems with language fluency and I often find myself playing dictionary with any in-depth discussion. Nevertheless, there are Japanese people with whom I meet, socialize, and converse on a regular basis. My conversations with them are more interesting to me than conversations with English native speakers who only want to talk about surfing, teaching, and chasing after women.

    — We don’t get much talk about surfing up here, pity.

  • James Portoeus says:

    Debito, How’s things? Interesting topic you have here.

    Something about me: high school in Japan for a year followed by a full degree from Kyoto University.
    My major was politics. And I was the only blonde kid in my faculty.

    My view is slightly different. In Japan as we all know, we have a hierarchical society here to deal with.

    So what does this mean?
    Basically that you are either douki, kohai or sempai.
    You can be friends sometimes if you are douki, as with the hobby thing some people have already pointed out

    However if you’re a Kouhai you are in somebody’s clientelle (as in Ancient Rome terms) or if you are sempai they are in your clientele. So you can bet a Japanese male is asking himself which one is he and which one are you. That’s why you see a lot of guys pandering o their sempai. They want to make it clear they are Kouhai. Remember, not long out of feudalism here and their feudal system was dismantled from the top, not fought and overturned from the bottom up.

  • Jeff Korpa says:

    Hi Debito.

    “Whatever the reason, the fact that ALL six of us despite an extended period felt that we had made NO particularly long-lasting friendships with our Japanese male counterparts was shocking.”

    I have a theory that I think might explain this situation – of the male Japanese friendships that you and your acquaintances have, are any of them based *exclusively* in English?

    I ask because I have hade made friends with Japanese males lasting 14 and 7 years (would you consider these long-lasting?). These friendships have real substance (the friends of 7 years even helped to line up an interview for me with a life insurance company in Tokyo), *but* they are based completely in English; there is no interaction in Japanese whatsoever.

    My theory is that it is the Japanese language itself which is the barrier to accessing deep, quality friendships. As to why 日本語 might be the cause of this phenomenon, I suspect that the answer, quite literally, lies in Japan, namely socialization – with English (or some other non-Japanese foreign language), the slate is clean – there are no Japanese language-based notions or experiences coloring the individual’s thought process and behaviors during the process forming and maintaining friendship (e.g. 建て前 vs. 本音 or サークル活動 and クラブ, etc).

    Your thoughts?


    — Quite possibly. For me, however, I had much deeper relationships with Japanese with whom I communicated in Japanese than in English. The conversations were far more interesting and complex in Japanese. That said, I still have a bit of trouble feeling, over the long term, like they were empathetic “friends”. Sooner or later, we’d get hung up on cultural explanations instead of interpersonal ones.

  • In my experience, internationally-minded men and women tend to take very different paths in Japan. Men tend to go to university here, get into a good company or government agency, and do their international time in the context of that job (either as grad school or as an overseas posting of some kind, or both). Women tend to leave Japan earlier, go to university somewhere else, and then (if they still want or need to) return to Japan for their career. Both strategies make a lot of sense when you consider the way Japanese and foreign employers hire people and the sort of rampant gender discrimination that exists in most Japanese companies. One side effect (maybe) is that women are more comfortable with the sort of “free-form” socialization that Americans take for granted, since this is how they have to make “friends” in the absence of the more structured Japanese university/workplace/sports team context.

    It’s also possible that us men are simply kidding ourselves about all those women being our friends.

  • Moses Alucard says:

    Well, to answer this question one has to look at it from the Jpns male perspective.

    As everyone should know, rank & status are paramount in Japan, in regard to interpersonal relations.

    So- are you his sempai or his kohai?

    If you’re his kohai, you’ll probably end up no more than the pet gaijin.

    If you’re sempai, well, who the hell wants a gaijin sempai? It’s degrading! So you will be avoided on that account.

    To put it simply, gaijin are outside the conventional jpns social heirarchy, and therefore are a contemporary form of social “untouchables”.

    Sad, but true.

  • Eric Johnston says:

    After 23 years in Japan I can say that I have three or four good Japanese male friends, all of whom I met long ago, and none of whom is in the same profession I am. But I’m not the type of person who makes good friends easily, so I can’t say that I’ve been particuarly disappointed. Obviously, I have lots of good acquaintences, as do most people who posted. Cultural reasons like the forging of a group mentality at a young age (and the view that males outside your group are competitors to be, if not feared, then at least viewed with caution)also strike me as having a lot of truth. And I suppose it depends on what one’s defination of a “good” friend is. Mine is somebody I can talk to about serious issues and who will, and has been there, for me when the chips are down and vice versa. The length of time between conservations is less important than what we do say and, more importantly, do when we contact each other.

    Still, like a lot of other people who posted, I’d be very interested to see and learn more about this subject.

  • Others have pointed already out the obvious: shared interest and openness towards each other are requisites for friendship. Just one line about me: I live in Hokkaido since 17 years; in Japan for 19. Married since 22 years with a Japanese; 4 kids.
    My male Japanese friends can be categorized in 3 groups: work-, hobby-, and church-related. All my friends have in common that they either have lived abroad or have a foreign wife. The topics we talk about vary, but when I write that we talk about science or work, this means that we talk about it from a personal perspective. It does not mean the day-to-day administrative type of talk. What I find interesting when looking at this group of friends: four out of of six are older than me.
    One is my former boss at Hokudai. I left his group 11 years ago. We talk mostly about science and family.
    One is coworker at my university. He had a life changing operation, and we live near each other. We talk about work and family.
    One is scientist at Tohoku U. We talk about philosophy, faith, science, and teaching.
    One is cycling buddy and church member. The things we talk about are obvious.
    One is a former banker, church member and daihyou of an NPO. We talk about faith, family and NPO stuff.
    One is legally not Japanese, but he came 50 years ago as a 2 year old and speaks Japanese as mother tongue. Church member and we talk about everything.
    One took Japanese citizenship in his 30ies (if I remember correctly). Does that count as Japanese for this discussion?

    This makes half a dozen of people. Of course there is a blurry line between friend and aquaintance, but I find it hard to have more than around 6 close friends.

  • I have been in Japan about nineteen years and have no close male friends. I think the cultural differences make it hard to become friends.

  • Its maybe just a technicality, but all of your friends you were together with actually HAVE a Japanese friend.
    Debito, you did not commit any fallacy, because you mentioned ‘caucasian male’, but your friend who asked the question
    Quote: “How many of us have any Japanese friends with whom we can get together like this and talk as much in depth?” Unquote
    blundered BIG.
    Interesting that it escaped your attention.

    — No it didn’t. But all of these people have known me since before I naturalized. They still have a bit of a time not calling me “Dave”. Anyhoo…

  • Douglas M. says:

    What a hot topic!
    I also had a similar conversation with four non-J friends, all of whom have been in Japan 10+ years like myself. All reported few or no significant friendly relationships with Japanese men. I was partly relieved that I was not alone, that the problem wasn’t “with me” so to speak. But I was also saddened by the rather sobering fact.

  • My best friend since 1989 is a guy named Tsukasa… he is closer than my brother. He does live in the USA however since 1988, but we go back a long way and connect like family. Through him, I have been introduced to many japanese males over the years and have had no trouble remaining good friends with them. I think it is an individual thing. Perhaps the fact that we know each other outside of Japan is a key factor?


  • Here are my stats for reference: 27 year old white American female, lived in Japan 4 years.

    I usually found it easier to hang out socially with J men than J women, and the people that I look most forward to seeing next time I’m back in Japan are, with one exception, male. Conversations with J women usually seemed to revolve around romantic gossip, which I’m not terribly interested in. My male coworkers one the other hand covered a variety of topics and were less likely to try to match-make me with common acquaintances…

    However, like several others have mentioned, I usually enjoyed hanging out with guys at least 10 years older than me the most. There was definitely a “little sister” vibe going on, but that’s fine with me, and I would expect a similar dynamic back in the US.

  • When I was in Japan, I did what poster #9’s friend did, I joined a local soccer club.. one of my british friends who was on the team introduced me to it. Mind you, I joined the team because I wanted to play football, not meet new friends. Played lots of games, went out drinking, karaoke, etc. Lots of fun, but I wouldn’t say any of the J-players and myself became close mates.. a few of them, who spoke decent english, and I still keep in contact with through emails from time to time.

    I made closer friends with people who spoke english while I was in Japan.. mind you, they were my co-workers so I spent most of my time around them.

    That being said, my wife (who is japanese) has made some close friends since we came to Canada. A few of them she sees regularly for coffee/lunches and they are not Japanese women either.. so perhaps its more of a gender thing than a nationality thing.

  • Michael Weidner says:

    Thanks for posting about this. I probably one of the only foreigners in this country who has gone out of his way not to make foreinger friends. I’m not trying to pat myself on the back here; I’m just letting you know my situation.

    As for the making of friends, I agree, it is a difficult thing in general for foreigners to socialize with Japanese people. Our socialization patterns and methods are much different than that here in Japan even if there isn’t a language barrier to get in our way. That being said, most of my close friends are Japanese males. Being a teacher however, most of my friends are a lot older; I’m 28 and they are usually married and with kids so it the late 40’s to early 50’s range.

    From my experience, we tend to, as foreigners, to make friends quickly and then strengthen the friendship over time. Whereas here, and Japanese men esspecially, strengthen the relationship over time until they become friends. Shared experiences and working together does give birth to stronger relationships that can foster those friendships that you may be looking for.

    But I do agree with the above posters in saying that yes, it does take quite a while to get past the whole “pet” or “weird foreigner” phase that many Japanese people have ingrained into them.

  • A few stories:

    I joined a couple of local sporting clubs partly to make friends and partly because I like to compete. My experience was quite similar with both. At first they were quite friendly but after the initial meeting they basically ignored me. During practices when they talked to each other I ended up standing by myself a lot of the time. I initiated conversations often but they were mostly one-way. I asked questions, they answered and the conversations died. Eventually I caught the hint and stopped going to practices. The president of one of the clubs called me and asked me why I stopped going to practice. I told him it was too lonely to go and be ignored. He told me that everyone really wanted me there and strongly asked me to come back. He said they would try to be more friendly. I heard later from a woman friend who he was friends with, that one of the reasons he wants me there is because it makes his club more noticeable, because they have a foreign member. I returned to the club because of the competitive opportunities but not much has changed. But I am used to it so I don’t really care as much.

    I had two Japanese male friends for several years. The last time I went to see them in a different town, we went out to dinner and I thought we had a good time. After that they stopped answering my emails. I have no idea why.

    Lastly I have a Japanese female friend who is friends with many westerners. She tells me she takes a lot of abuse from other Japanese for being friends with foreigners.

    I have lived in Japan for 18 years and I have talked to many westerners. I would say that 90% of them are lonely.

  • bornagain says:

    I think soto/uchi has allot to do with it as well. As soon as you enter japan society with the intention to live, your now quasi uchi, but not the full thing. As a base worker, UN employee, expat etc, your soto, and will be treated actually better than us uchi gaijin. Ignorance is bliss in this situation. Just observe the foriegn directors of many MNC companies in Japan who dont speak Japanese. The gaijin who take the leap into the uchi will find themselves alienated longterm, while the soto gaijin are shielded from this, and represent something different and refreshing for the Japanese, thus his bliss remains perpetual. The uchi gaijins bliss vanishes and its replaced with perpetual insanity and struggle. He/she tries to cope with it by hunkering down harder, displaying defensive behavior or attacking other foriegners. This strict social structure is part of what is holding Japan back.

  • I remember watching a Youtube vlogger discuss how the Japanese won’t talk about their problems, as if it’s improper to complain about difficulties at work or disappointments with life. For other people, friends are people to commiserate with, as well as just cut loose and have fun with. Perhaps they don’t feel comfortable “opening up” with foreigners because they barely open up with each other? In other words, they can’t discuss their common ground in the negatives of life?

  • I’ve been here almost twenty years. I have had Japanese friends, who tend to be on the whole 10/15 years my senior, but they have run there course. We conversed in Japanese, so it wasn’t a “we want to practice English” dynamic. I agree with what Jack says: I would say that 90% of them are lonely – meaning foreigners. I also think that Jeff Korpa’s observation – “My theory is that it is the Japanese language itself which is the barrier to accessing deep, quality friendships” – is bang on. I have never thought of it like that before, but I am in full agreement.

  • Jack
    I really relate to the suddenly dwindling emails. I read in some study on the Japanese mind (cant remember the title but it was a scholarly work) that “it is considered rude to continue a friendship if there is no objective”.
    I take this to mean being friends for friends sake.

    About the president of the club “He said they would try to be more friendly. I heard later from a woman friend who he was friends with, that one of the reasons he wants me there is because it makes his club more noticeable, because they have a foreign member. ”

    This should be in a cross cultural book as a case study, its so apt in my mind.
    1. He spoke for the group, but it was in fact tatemae, to achieve a (business) goal.
    2. He wants foreigners for “window dressing”, something I first read of in a book called “working in Japan” published 1990.
    3. And, I m a tad cynical, but it seems the powers that be want or need foreign participation for monetary reasons ie. want foreign money or for improving their image as an “international” one, but members of the rank and file could care less, and carry on as normal, making no attempt to help the “gaijin” fit into the group.

    In short, an example at the micro level that is really symptomatic of Japan at the macro level, as a whole.

  • In twenty-five years “In-country” my grand total of “real” Japanese friends (by my admittedly culturally-determined definition of friendship) is…(drum roll)…Zero.

    btw, no language barrier in my case (at least not in many, many years)

    Sure…, I know probably hundreds of Japanese men well enough to have a “hey, hisashiburi, let me buy you a beer” relationship with them when we run into each other, but we don’t call each other to socialize, or even e-mail or FB each other.

    I guess the closest I came to having Japanese male friends was having fairly regular J-drinking buddies when I was living in Shizuoka in my 20s and early 30s. To this day I’m still not sure what the exact status of our relationship was — it’s possible they may have just kept me around for laughs as the goofy drunken gaijin clown (don’t get me started on my Joe Pesci impersonation here…).

    None ever helped me in a fix, or, outside of a wedding or two, invited me to be part of important areas of their own lives. Perhaps tellingly, I lost almost all of them when I became a university professor (they’d first known me as a penniless, J-illiterate self-employed Eikaiwa “teacher”) — it was my impression that they were uncomfortable with what was, in THEIR eyes (let me stress), the drastic change in my J-social status. Suddenly I was not a good fit in their social universe anymore. In my eyes, I was still the same beer-guzzing gaijin goofball I’d always been, but for my old J-acquaintances, I had suddenly become someone THEY felt obligated to treat differently than what they had been accustomed to, and again, they seemed extremely uncomfortable with that.

    I’ve since made no Japanese male acquaintances to replace the ones I lost upon my “status shift”. Current work colleagues are all SUPER introverts apparently satisfied with their own little worlds and networks and not — at least in the ten years I’ve been working side-by-side with them — interested in making me part of those worlds outside of the workplace, and I have long since given up — after myriads declined offers — on inviting them to become part of mine.

    All of my “real” friends — i.e., those I can talk with with the most candor, honesty and depth of feeling, and those to whom I can most reliably go to for help if and when I need it — are fellow gaijin (even non-native-English-speaking and/or non-Japanese-speaking ones I have otherwise have significant trouble communicating with). This has always been the case.

    I do not, however, wish to give the impression that I consider the responsibility for my current state of J-friendlessness to lie entirely with my cultural hosts. I think that, the causality is a two-way street that, more than anything, all… comes down to drastic cultural differences re: standards, criteria, ground-rules, expected levels of commitment, and, more than anything, DEFINITIONS of what is supposed to constitute a “friendship” relationship.

    Rather than go into a lengthy academic analysis (which we can always come back to if anyone wants to get into that), I think it might be best if I offer an anecdote or two from some of my early encounters with what we might term “the Japanese friendship” wall;

    something along the following lines happened to me several times:

    I would meet a Japanese male, either in a work, neighborhood, study or hobby (I’m a plastic model otaku, among other things) setting, and we would begin the opening steps of a friendship courtship dance, if you will. Then he would introduce me to the all-important friend “Group”, and one or more of the members — of longer standing in the group and, of course, Japanese — would express discomfort, in one way or another, at my presence, and then that would be it. Instant reversion to mere “acquaintance” status, Do Not Pass Go, Do Not Collect $200.

    Here’s another version of The Wall I encountered many times (maybe even more than the above scenario):

    All of the steps and stages as per above scenario would be repeated, minus the “objecting members”. All would seem smooth sailing — Eureka! My arrival, at long last, into Japanese society, with full membership in the Almighty Group — when a certain occasion would come along when I was unable to participate in a certain designated Group activity because I had arrangements with other friends, then the first “Group” members became aware of the existence of my “Other” friends, upon which time I would be accused (either openly or implied) of being a “happou bijin” (八方美人), and once again, instant reversion to mere “acquaintance” status, if I was lucky, or complete ostracism, if I was less fortunate.

    After years of this runaround (and, along the way, encountering some VERY relevant scholarly material on J-sociology), I finally realized that my own cultural upbringing and limit on acceptable levels of encroachment on personal space and range of freedom of social movement meant that I was not — and most likely never will be — prepared to make the sacrifices of individual autonomy that are necessary to participate in a relationship of “friendship” recognized as such by Japanese standards.

    In turn, Japanese people seem to be able to instinctively sense that I have a certain boundary of personal space and “comfort zone” or desired range of social movement that I do not want encroached upon by others (hell, even by a family member!), and that this being the case, that I am not a suitable person to approach for, again, “friendship” by the Japanese understanding of the relationship. Where I see THEIR friendships as smotheringly limited, I suppose they see MY friendship relations as being confusingly fluid, scandalously wide-cast, and thus, hopelessly shallow and counterfeit. And never the twain shall meet…at least as true “friends”. And that’s their loss, I think, as much as it is mine.

    But then again, echoing the last line of Jon’s post above, looked at in the big picture, I guess this is a very effective way for Japanese culture to protect its borders from (unwanted/unregulated) extra-cultural influence.

  • Perhaps I’m a special case, but here’s my situation: I was born and raised in Japan, and in my case it’s pretty much the reversal of most other people here. I have several Japanese male friends, but no real long-term foreigner friends here in Japan. I’ve always had trouble adapting to the “gaijin environment,” especially since most of the time they are quite critical of the Japanese culture to a certain degree, much like the discussion you had with your two friends you talked about (not something that makes me feel comfortable). We have conversations and meet up once in a while, and it’s all fun and good. Some of those people I’ve known for several years.
    Finding female J friends, now that’s a whole different story…

  • giantpanda says:

    You know, I wonder if you asked Japanese men as a whole how many true friends that they have, what the answer would be? Isn’t this not a J/NJ problem, but a problem with Japanese society as a whole? From my point of view, a lot of social interaction in Japan involves hiding your true self and true feelings as much as possible. There seems to be an almost paranoid worry that someone who obtains this information could use it against you in future. Moreover, the barrier between professional and personal life is strictly maintained. Colleagues that I have worked with for 10 years only reluctantly admit, and even then, with a great deal of embarrassment or discomfort, when they have gone through such life changing events as a marriage or the birth of a child! This seems to apply even between Japanese colleagues.

    Having said that, an accesssory such as a child or a dog can make a huge difference to your ability to make friends in Japan. My circle of acquaintances expanded rapidly post-kids.

  • jonholmes says:

    I back up Bucky’s group theory, and the wall. You have to make friends with the group and you have to go along with the group, and its usually too much for a westerner to do.
    This anecdote is from the 90s but has stayed with me due to its violence; I was only 23 when I was hired, along with another NJ, (an older person who made her own travel arrangements and who was not affected at all), to work with a group of self styled bohemian artists and sculptors from Tokyo as part of Sendai’s city festival.

    I was enjoying the experience, smiling a bit too much apparently, as one control freak suddenly lurched at me and PHYSICALLY ATTACKED me over dinner for “enjoying yourself too much”. His girlfriend concurred. The group concured. And then, to my surprise, my J girlfriend concurred! Sat a couple of tables away a group of artists from Okinawa beckoned me over. “We saw what happened, it was unfair” they said. “come and hang out with us”. So I did and we are friends to this day, almost 20 years later.

    Now, I had agreed to take part in this art event, so I decided I would take part anyway-at least the first day- but you can see in the pictures I look decidedly serious, which is perhaps what Mr. Group Bully wanted. He himself remained stressed out for the whole event and I really do not see why as everything was arranged by the kind people of Sendai City Hall and local volunteers whom I became friends with; Mr Group Bully just took it upon himself to schedule everything down to the minute and tell us what to do; he seemed annoyed when I even spoke to the local volunteers in a friendly manner. Maybe he thought I should only socialize in the group I came with.

    Things got decidely ugly after the event though, when I thought I d better do the group thing and “show my face” at the hotel room of the main sculptor and friend of mine. I was shocked as all 20 of them were crowded in a circle in his room late into the night. One guy really had it in for me “You one man play!” he said angrily and drunkenly.

    I d actually been gone only 3 hours or so, and despite my apologies that didnt seem to be good enough for him; most of them looked on me as having betrayed the group for another group or solitary activity, and they wanted to stick together 24/7, just drinking and patting themselves ont he back as they viewed the day’s event on video. And then my girlfriend-soon to be ex girlfriend-joined in “You are so selfish!”
    Only the main sculptor, my friend,remained calm, forgiving and aloof; the rest of them all seemed really angry with me. It may be a factor that he spoke the best English.Or that I was actually staying in his house previously. Maybe some hangers on were jealous, I really do not know.

    And it was at this point, confronted by a room of angry people when I really did not feel I had done anything so bad as to warrant such a violent reaction, that I returned to my own room, sans girlfriend who had chosen her national group over me, and took a taxi to the shinkansen station.

    I had fulfilled my contractual obligation but not my obligation to that angry group, but I had at least made lifelong friends in Okinawa.

    What I learnt was that there were no “bohemians” in the western sense; groupism and sempai/kohai relationships remain strong even among corporate drop outs, sculptors, dancers, and even DJ duos. Interestingly, an older producer in his 60s later said the same thing to me about younger DJs “I am surprised they are still sticking to this sempai/kohai system when I d rather just work with the more talented one of the two”. This echoes the comment above from someone, about the older guys being cooler than the younger ones sometimes. If it is generally true, then I d hate to think Japan is going “backwards” or more “inward”.

    This was in the 90s, but I wonder if it has really changed much at all.


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