Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE column, August 2, 2011, “The loneliness of the long-distance foreigner”, about the difficulty for NJ to make long-term J friends


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The Japan Times Tuesday, Aug. 2, 2011

The loneliness of the long-distance foreigner

Courtesy http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/fl20110802ad.html

A few months ago I had beers with several old Japan-hand guys (combined we have more than a century of Japan experiences), and one of them asked an interesting question:

News photo

“After all our years here, how many close Japanese male friends do you have?” (Excluding Debito, of course.)

We glanced amongst ourselves and realized that none of us hadany. Not one we would count on as a “friend.” Nobody to whom we could talk openly, unreservedly, and in depth with, about what’s on our minds. Or contact for a place to stay because our spouse was on the warpath. Or call at 3 a.m. to announce the birth of our latest baby. Or ring up on the spur of the moment because we didn’t want to drink alone that evening. Or who would care enough to check on us in the event of a natural disaster. Not one.

This occasioned much discussion and theorizing, both at the table and on my blog later (see www.debito.org/?p=8933)

(A quick note to readers already poised to strike with poison pens: None of the following theories are necessarily mine, nor do I necessarily agree with them. They are just to stimulate further discussion.)

One theory was that Japanese salarymen of our age group are generally boring people. Too busy or work-oriented to cultivate outside interests or hobbies, these one-note-Taros generally “talk shop” or resort to shaggy-dog stories about food. We contrasted them with Japanese women, who, thanks to more varied lifestyles and interests (including travel, language and culture), are more engaging and make better conversation partners (even if, my friends hastily added, the relationship had not become physical).

Another idea was that for many Japanese men, their hobby was you. By this, the speaker meant the culture vultures craving the “gaijin shiriaiexperience” or honing their language skills. This was OK in the beginning (especially when we first got here) but it got old quickly, as they realized we wanted to learn Japanese too, and when they weren’t willing to reciprocate. Not to mention that we eventually got tired of hearing blanket cultural explanations for individual issues (which is how culture vultures are hard-wired to see the world, anyway).

Another theory was that after a certain age, Japanese men don’t make “friends” with anyone. The few lifelong friends they would ever make were in school; once they entered the job market, all other males were treated as rivals or steps to promotion — meaning you put up a mask and didn’t reveal potentially compromising personal information. Thus if Japanese men were going to make friends at all, they were going to make them permanently, spending enormous time and energy imprinting themselves on precious few people. This meant they had to choose wisely, and non-Japanese — generally seen as in Japan only temporarily and with unclear loyalties — weren’t worth the emotional investment.

Related to this were issues of Japan’s hierarchical society. Everyone was either subordinate or superior — kōhai or senpai — which interfered with friendships as the years marched on: Few non-Japanese (NJ) wanted to languish as kōhai, and few Japanese wanted to deal with a foreign senpai. Besides, went the theory, this relationship wasn’t something we’d classify as a “friendship” anyway. Conclusion: Japanese men, as opposed to Japanese women with their lifetime coffee klatches, were some of the most lonely people on the planet.

Another suggestion was that this was just part of how life shakes down. Sure, when you’re young and carefree you can hang out willy-nilly, spend money with abandon and enjoy the beer-induced bonhomie (which Japan’s watering holes are very good at creating) with everyone all night. But as time goes on and people get married, have kids, take on a mortgage and a nagging spouse (who doesn’t necessarily want you spending their money on your own personal fun, especially if it involves friends of the opposite sex), you prioritize, regardless of nationality.

Fine, our group countered, but we’ve all been married and had kids, and yet we’re still meeting regularly — because NJ priorities include beers with friends from time to time. In fact, for us the older the relationship gets, the more we want to maintain it — especially given all we’ve been through together. “New friends are silver, but old friends are gold.”

Still another, intriguing theory was the utilitarian nature of Japanese relationships, i.e. Japanese make friends not as a matter of course but with a specific purpose in mind: shared lifestyles, interests, sports-team fandom, what have you. But once that purpose had run its course — because you’ve exhausted all conversation or lost the commonality — you should expect to lose contact. The logic runs that in Japan it is awkward, untoward, even rude to extend a relationship beyond its “natural shelf life.” This goes even just for moving to another city in Japan: Consider it normal to lose touch with everyone you leave behind. The thread of camaraderie is that thin in Japan.

However, one naturalized Japanese friend of mine (who just turned 70) pooh-poohed all these theories and took me out to meet his drinking buddies (of both genders, mostly in their 60s and 70s themselves). At this stage in their lives things were less complicated. There were no love triangles, no senpai-kōhai conceits, no “shop talk,” because they were all retired. Moreover they were more outgoing and interesting, not only because they were cultivating pastimes to keep from going senile, but also because the almighty social lubricant of alcohol was omnipresent (they drank like there was no tomorrow; for some of them, after all, there might not be!). For my friend, getting Japanese to lower their masks was pretty easy.

Fine, but I asked if it weren’t a bit unreasonable for us middle-aged blokes to wait for this life stage just to make some Japanese friends. These things may take time, and we may indeed have to spend years collecting shards of short interactions from the local greengrocer before we put together a more revealing relationship. But in the meantime, human interaction with at least one person of the same gender that goes beyond platitudes, and hopefully does not require libation and liver damage, is necessary now for sanity’s sake, no?

There were other, less-developed theories, but the general conclusion was: Whatever expectation one had of “friends” — either between Japanese and NJ, or between Japanese themselves — there was little room over time for overlap. Ultimately NJ-NJ relationships wound up being more friendly, supportive and long-lasting.

Now it’s time for disclaimers: No doubt the regular suspects will vent their spleen to our Have Your Say section and decry this essay as overgeneralizing, bashing, even discriminating against Japanese men.

Fire away, but you’d be missing the point of this column. When you have a good number of NJ long-termers saying they have few to no long-term Japanese friends, this is a very serious issue — with a direct connection to issues of immigration and assimilation of outsiders. It may be a crude barometer regarding life in Japan, but let’s carry on the discussion anyway and see how sophisticated we can make it.

So let’s narrow this debate down to one simple question: As a long-term NJ resident in Japan, how many Japanese friends do you have, as defined in the introduction above? (You might say that you have no relationship with anyone of any nationality with that much depth, but that’s awfully lonely — I dare say even unhealthy — and I hope you can remedy that.) Respondents who can address the other sides of the question (i.e. NJ women befriending Japanese women/men, and same-sex relationships) are especially welcome, as this essay has a shortage of insight on those angles.

Be honest. And by “honest”, I mean giving this question due consideration and experience: People who haven’t been living in Japan for, say, about 10 years, seeing how things shake down over a significant portion of a lifetime’s arc, should refrain from commentary and let their senpai speak. “I’ve been here one year and have oodles of Japanese friends, you twerpski!” just isn’t a valid sample yet. And please come clean about your backgrounds when you write in, since age, gender, occupation, etc. all have as much bearing on the discussion as your duration of time in Japan.

Above all, remember what my job as a columnist is: to stimulate public discussion. Respondents are welcome to disagree (I actually consider agreement from readers to be an unexpected luxury), but if this column can at least get you to think, even start clacking keyboards to The Japan Times, I’ve done my job. Go to it. Consider yourself duly stimulated, and please offer us some friendly advice.


Debito Arudou’s new novel “In Appropriate” is on sale (www.debito.org/inappropriate.html) Twitter arudoudebito. Send your comments to community@japantimes.co.jp

65 comments on “Japan Times JUST BE CAUSE column, August 2, 2011, “The loneliness of the long-distance foreigner”, about the difficulty for NJ to make long-term J friends

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  • As a suggestion, I think that your idea that male friendship bonding patterns are different than those of female bonding patterns has merit, based on research in the academic literature for other countries.

    Since you are in a university, you might check with sociology or psychology associates to see what research has been done for Japanese adult males.

    There may be studies already done on how Japanese men develop relationships.

  • I’m not a long term resident of Japan, yet, but I think your discussion has merit and I wanted to contribute. I live in the inaka of Tohoku and I’ve only just begun to make what I would consider Japanese friends. In the case of two, maybe three individuals, I would definitely say that we are on the road to the true friendship you described in your article. I concede, perhaps I haven’t reached the point where the shelf-life of the relationship comes into question, but I don’t feel as though the guys I’m hanging out with view it that way.

    I think that the most logical conclusion you presented was that people run in circles of similar interests in similar locations. The more that I go to one bar, the more I get to know the people there, the more I play darts or games with them and the more I feel like I’m becoming their friend. My dad used to say that people are creatures of habit. I think that in Japan, finding the people with similar habits as you helps develop friendships faster. I also think that Japanese people, culturally, move more slowly than Westerners. I get the impression that waiting and allowing the relationship to build slowly instead of rushing it (as many Westerners do when they first come into a new environment) is part of the Japanese way of making friends. Since a lot of Westerners don’t want to put in the effort or become discouraged after such a while, I think that we end up going back to the easier, Western style relationships. Then again, I could be completely off.

    Additionally, I think that your age/lifestyle point also made sense. I’m 24. Many of the guys that I hang around don’t have families, a girlfriend, or much in regard to responsibilities. They all have jobs, but with only mom and the family to return to after work, they choose to go out and meet people. They also are around the age when a lot of people move to Tokyo or Kansai for a decade before returning to Tohoku to take over the family plot. With all of their normal long-term friends gone, they might be more willing to engage with anyone interesting.

    I think the combination of the two is most likely. My parents (Caucasian) still work and the vast majority of their friends come from work or their past. The barflies they meet never make it over for a BBQ or fishing, but the people they’ve known since high school, university or work do. I think that some of the suggestions that you had involved looking at the Japanese as though they’re something separate and different from the rest of humanity when, really, we’re cut from the same genetic cloth. People need friends but they may be comfortable with the ones they have and may not be willing to invest the time it takes to make a friend who could leave in a year or two or with whom communication is less than easy.

  • I think that location has a lot to do with it. I have seen no “Japanese Only” signs in Miyazaki for a long, long time. I was once refused service at a night club here more than 20 years ago, but that changed immediately after a couple of my businessman/friend/eikaiwa students talked to the manager. (A few months ago I went back to the same nightclub and it was filled with Tokyo Giants foreign baseball players in town for spring training.)

    I know that there are places in Japan that are less foreigner friendly. In this city, however, my Japanese friends are incredulous when I tell them that there are places in Japan that refuse service to foreigners (or people who look like foreigners). They refuse to believe that such places exist. It’s not in the realm of their experience.

    Perhaps it is because I live in a friendlier place, it is easier to make friends. Or perhaps, as Debito noted, because I have just turned 70, some barriers to friendship have been lowered. But I was making friends here when I was Debito’s age.

  • I’m very curious to see how this ends up in the Have Your Say column. By the way, has The Japan Times ever given you any indication that they plan to remove your column? It seems that with every article you have at least two people asking that you get removed. Has The Japan Times actually considered this or is this just hot air from some readers?

    — Hot air. Columnists around the world get this kind of stick. Part of the job description.

  • Mark Austin says:

    Excellent, thought-provoking article, Debito. You’re right–it is a “serious issue”; at least, serious in the sense that it deserves to be pondered over.

  • From where I see it, Debito, you seem to have covered most of the bases here. I’ve been in Japan on and off since the mid 80s, so I can certainly confirm much of what you said from my own experiences here. My earliest years were spent in a “gaikokujin bar” which was roughly half and half Japanese and NJ drinkers. Even so, I couldn’t really say I became firm friends with many of the Japanese there. I concur with Debito that older men are easier to befriend as they have largely moved beyond the restraints of company and nagging wives. My Japanese wife was initially incredulous that I would insist on socializing with my friends most Saturday nights. When I pointed out that the alternative was to waste the evening watching garbage on TV or sleeping, and further, that I was home early almost every other evening, she backed off. Perhaps the fact that it was her second marriage and I was providing for her two daughters helped persuade her that she was seriously out of line.

    The hypocrisy of many women in Japan saddens me. They enjoy their social networks and yet often try to pressure their menfolk into giving up theirs. I should add this is not only a Japanese phenomenom, and surely one more reason for the rise in divorce and middle age male suicide.

    Some of the problem is the transient nature of the Japanese male, as he is shunted about the country at the whim of his company for whatever reason they think it necessary to relocate their employees at the drop of a hat. Some have suggested this might be a deliberate policy on the part of the Japanese companies who seek to prevent their workforce from bonding too solidly by never letting them stay in one place long enough to.

    Another is the fact that many Japanese males plead poverty. This is clearly nonsensical in my experience. It takes only 5 or 6 thousand yen to have a reasonable evening out or drinking session. That is all I spend most weekends. Those same men who happily blow a thousand yen a day on lunch could easily economize and have enough left over for at the very least a couple of drinking sessions a month. I am saving for the time when I can leave Japan, so I spend as little as humanly possible and yet manage to have a drink with my trio of western drinking buddies almost every Saturday. It’s all down to what you make your priority really.

    I’ve already covered some of this on the previous blog regarding this subject, but I feel many Japanese men seem either not to want many close friends, or simply give up the idea as hopeless. I know one former student who I keep in touch with on Facebook. He said he scarcely ever manages to link up with his old friends, he is married, with two kids and in his thirties. I imagine his workaholic lifestyle (self-employed software engineer) has something to do with it.

    Japan is a very lonely place for NJ. It is one amongst a number of reasons I no longer wish to remain here a day longer than is necessary.

  • Mark in Yayoi says:

    “Another is the fact that many Japanese males plead poverty. This is clearly nonsensical in my experience. It takes only 5 or 6 thousand yen to have a reasonable evening out or drinking session.”

    Blackrat, I wouldn’t call it nonsensical if these men’s wives are forcing them to turn over their paychecks and live on a daily allowance of Y1000 or thereabouts. If they don’t have full control of their salaries, then effectively their “salary” is whatever their wives allow them to keep.

  • About the above- “this might be a deliberate policy on the part of the Japanese companies who seek to prevent their workforce from bonding too solidly”- this made me remember a bizarre publishing/printing company in Ginza I used to work for in the late 90s.

    I always thought that drinking with colleagues was a Japanese custom, so I was surprised after accepting the invitation of one Oji san colleague at the above company, when my nosy American boss took me aside and said “it is against company policy for the colleagues to go out drinking together”.

    Apparently, this was because someone might get drunk and say something disrespectful to someone else, causing bad feelings the next day. After some thought, this does indeed fit in with the whole “Neo Confucian thinking taken to extremes” approach in Japan, i.e. absolutely no chances taken with anything that might lead to the slight possibility of a face-losing situation. The company also was absolutely traditional in every other respect, women wearing uniforms, serving tea and bowing to guests etc. And it was in Ginza, the “Old Money” side of town, near Kabukiza. Despite this, the president used to insist on taking all the foreigners out and mildly harrassing the female, blonde employees, but I digress.

    And I remember my first corporate teaching job where the students did take me out drinking, did get drunk, did drunkenly squabble amongst themselves in front of me (one slightly pushy woman calling one slightly introverted guy a pervert), and then the next day guess who got replaced due to their embarrassment at what an outsider had seen? Yes, thats right, Johnny Gaijin Sensei got canned. So I guess the no drinking policy might have an advantage after all. Still, this is a teacher/class scenario, not a colleague/colleague one.

    Pretty anti-social for a Japanese company, though. Takes the company out of the word “company”.

  • I have been living in Japan (Tokyo) for only 2 years, working with international companies with pretty mixed NJ/J staff. Most NJ socialized with other NJ colleagues, and the same was mostly true for Japanese who were mostly socializing with other Japanese. I always felt that in NJ/J mixed work environments companies could do more to bring people together, but that might just have been an issue with the companies I’ve worked with.

    Furthermore, to me, the infamous nomikai after work always came across as an obligation and not as a genuine way to get to know each other. Speaking the same language and sharing hobbies certainly helps, but generally I too found myself befriending mostly Japanese way above my age.

  • I am a NJ woman living in Tokyo for more than 25 years, with friends of both sexes, and I have only recently been able to accept the whole “shelf-life” notion. I have had many close female friends. Close confidents, companions. And then one day, I would get dropped. Now I am seeing that, the context for our relationship has changed, become invalid, (ie our children went to different schools, we changed workplaces, etc) and so their interest in me as a human being dropped too. The big chill.

    For them it seems quite natural, but for me, this is actually quite painful. And as time goes on, I find myself more reticent to repeat the experience, although I always seem to. But I don’t hang on any longer. I just realize it’s that time, and sigh, “so that’s it then.” and I move on. But I find myself getting less attached, and more wary. I don’t share of myself so much.

    It’s a very cold feeling, I must say. Because it comes so abruptly. Sometimes I wonder if people here feel “love” and attachment in the same way.

    I think a lot of NJ men get a shock when they divorce their Japanese wives and expect to have continued contact with their children. And they are given the cold shoulder. They find themselves very clearly out of the loop. Suddenly they are complete outsiders. There is not much chance to continue, or meeting is made awkward. Because the “context” is no longer valid (in Japanese view, they have failed their role as a father as a contributing family member) their actual identity as a parent is no longer recognized. Of course they are, and always will be, a parent, but that doesn’t matter. I do think it is hardest for those individuals. Often because even though they may be married to a Japanese woman, in fact those guys are often not so familiar with Japanese ways. So it comes as a surprise to them. And breaking up with their wives often means losing their children as well. That’s sad, both for them, and for their children.

    One of my least favorite aspects of life here. But, I’m somewhat resigned to it.

  • beneaththewheel says:

    (in Japan for 6 years, and married)

    Few things come to mind that I think about important to consider. The first is about people’s relationships with their wives. Sometimes my wife doesn’t like me going out every Saturday because she wants to go out with me on Saturday (on a date or with friends). Some people I know treat their wife as someone they’re almost not allowed to socialize with or introduce to their friends (sometimes because they’re flirting Saturday nights). To me my wife is my drinking partner and best friend. This isn’t to say our relationship is perfect and we don’t argue a lot, of course we do. I’d argue a lot with anyone I spend more than 40 hours a week with. Add financial issues and it’s amazing if people don’t argue a lot.

    The second is where people are meeting people. At a foreign bar I’m guessing foreigners are mainly going to make friends and Japanese people are not. Similar in a company with foreigners and Japanese: the foreigners are out of their natural setting and want to make friends to have friends, the Japanese have an established life from junior high school friends all the way up to university friends. I don’t think they’re any different than anyone in their home country. Companies with high foreigner turnover rates also work against the foreigners.

    The third point is Japanese ability. I can safely say the reason I don’t have many Japanese male friends is because my Japanese ability isn’t good enough to make small jokes, do word play, make references or whatever else I do when shooting the shit in English. The Japanese male acquaintences I have either I speak to in English (which I feel puts a barrier in the friendship) or in Japanese that starts to be grating for both after an hour or so of talking.

    So for myself personally, if I feel the need to have a close Japanese friend (and honestly, putting effort into making a close and healthy relationship with my wife is time consuming as it is), it would involve having something in common with the person (with foreigners it can sometimes be as simple as “we both live in Japan” or for a slightly deeper connection “We came to Japan around the same time”s) and being able to speak to them in Japanese well enough to not say “what’s that mean?”, “how do you say that again?” “why are you wearing a cat on your head?” etc. every five minutes or so.

  • When my Japanese husband and I lived in the States and Europe, we had much richer social life than here. And the biggest difference is that nowhere else was our social life so gender-specific.

    Abroad we were able to attend parties, go to clubs/bars (and actually interact with other guests), etc. as a_couple_. Work and school (grad school) parties were event where you could bring your significant others and make him/her a part of the circle of colleagues and friends. In Japan, from what I’ve seen, this is either not expected or it’s actually frowned upon. In my husband’s case, for example,I am not even allowed to go to his work related “parties.” I don’t really mind that, I just think it’s very curious because he did the same job in the States, until last year, and the situation was completely different. It’s not so pleasant to always have to readjust your spousal status when it comes to your man’s work.

    Even when, rarely, “family parties” were held in the past when we lived in the inaka, we were expected to form separate groups: men on the one side, women on another. It’s how it appeared to be natural for almost about everyone, expect the two us (still freshly married, after living outside of Japan for some time). And this gender based separation would take place even if we had a BBQ party on the campground, on the beach, any open space!

    BTW, I don’t think it’s (only) the women who are hypocritical, as somebody put it in a post here. Women with small children and esp. those married to men, like my husband, who move a lot (due to his often work transfers) around the country and abroad, tend to be very lonely and isolated. Constant care of kids (lack of kindergartens doesn’t help), their education, a full load of housework that only the wife “has time” to take care of, part time work, etc. leaves very little time and opportunity for meeting other people willing to spend time. Add to that that for a foreign woman it’s even harder as not many people are willing to put up with “culture clashes” and a possible linguistic barrier. While men regularly go out after work, which is considered to be part of work for them in this country, I am yet to see a man who would be completely OK with his wife going out for drinks after she finishes her work, and then also goes out to a bar/club on a Saturday night, for some additional socializing. Not to mention hostess bars that many people don’t see anything wrong with men visiting for a nijikai or sanjikai, but I doubt they would be understanding of married women going to a host bar and spending 1 man yen for a couple of drinks with a male conversational partner.

    — We are getting off topic regarding “making friends”. Please bring it back.

  • “Blackrat, I wouldn’t call it nonsensical if these men’s wives are forcing them to turn over their paychecks and live on a daily allowance of Y1000 or thereabouts. If they don’t have full control of their salaries, then effectively their “salary” is whatever their wives allow them to keep.”

    Like I said, it’s all a case of priorities. I jointly control the money in our household. My lunch consists of free coffee and a couple of rice-balls. I seldom spend over five hundred yen any given weekday. Any “salaryman” on a thousand a day limit would still be left with enough for a couple of drinking sessions a month if he chose to be prudent with his spending. My brother-in-law once mentioned he has no friends and doesn’t want to be bothered to find any. Somebody mentioned that Japanese tend to be careful to get too close to people as being a friend entails willingness to go out on a limb for them.

    Certainly, the “cutting off” of old relationships is very abrupt here. I lost an evening English class recently due to the difficulty of finding a classroom following the earthquake (venues were closed for a couple of months.) The leader of the group bent over backwards to arrange everything for a couple of years and seemed like a friend to the other members and me. Since the group folded, I haven’t heard a word from her and she promptly joined another class somewhere else. This is something I have come to expect over the years. Sheila said “It’s a very cold feeling, I must say. Because it comes so abruptly. Sometimes I wonder if people here feel “love” and attachment in the same way.” I wonder that too. Maybe to the Japanese, we NJ come across as excessively clingy and sentimental.

    Sheila’s comment (above)about the divorced fathers is sad but true in my experience. My wife has two daughters from her previous marriage (to a Japanese). I made it very clear I was perfectly happy for the girls (they were 10 and 13 when I moved in with their mother) to visit their father whenever they wished. After a year or so, they virtually ceased seeing him, seemingly by their own choice. My wife, to her credit, for she had endured a lot during her first marriage, encouraged them to maintain contact, so I can only assume it is something so deeply ingrained into the culture here that perhaps even their father sensed he no longer had a role apart from providing child support as agreed for their education.

    — “Maybe to the Japanese, we NJ come across as excessively clingy and sentimental.” Cf., “wetto” vs. “dorai”.

  • PS: A foreign woman married to a J guy, about 10 yrs in Japan – mostly in the countryside, only 2 yrs in a big city.

  • I honestly don’t have any real friends at all any more, and I’ve been in Japan for 19 years. One reason for this is that my former hardcore drinking buddies became fathers, and once their children were born, they wanted to spend all their spare time with the kids rather than with me. I didn’t change; they did.
    Or maybe I’m just an antisocial old fart…

  • I find that without a shared cultural background it is very difficult to create deep bonds. By shared cultural background I mean things like growing up watching the same tv shows, playing the same games, laughing at the same comedy shows. Without things like that you might as well be trying to make friends with a spaceman. It even applies to younger, or older people from the same race and country as yourself. Try mentioning Goon show episodes with a 20 something, and you will get a blank stare. So it’s not so much a Japanese thing, as a complete lack of shared cultural background that prevents them and us from becoming close friends.

  • I agree with you Debito on this subject. Coincidentally, I have been thinking on similar lines for a few months since I noticed, all of a sudden, that I don’t have any J male acquaintance who I can call a friend, despite living and working here for 12 years.

    So it was good to read all the possible theories mentioned in your article and it’s quite interesting to know that I’m not alone to think on these lines. I would be interested to know what a regular J male has to say on this subject.

  • I have lived in Japan for about 20 years and this is the issue that makes life here the most difficult.

    I was interested in Sheila’s comments about the shelf life of friends. I had two friends in the city where I previously lived. When I went back to this town they always seemed happy to get together for drinks and carousing. I thought that they were the exception to the NJ/J can’t be friends rule. On my last visit one of them didn’t show and the other was quite distant. When I returned home to my current city and wrote to them they ignored my emails..which I know is the way to say kiss off here. I spent months/years wondering what I had done/said wrong. Maybe the shelf life had expired on that relationship and I just didn’t know.

    Another example..I joined two sporting groups in an attempt to make friends. In the first group they basically ignored me. Not always but often… They would talk to me if they needed to but only if necessary. I witnessed other Japanese members entering the group being invited to parties etc. right in front of me but I was not asked.

    With the other group I went to training sessions and competitions for at least a year. Each time I went it was like they had never met me before. There was never any residual familiarity. I went to drinking parties etc. but when I saw them again it was as if they had never talked to me before. I remember one day showing up to practice. I went over to greet them, they greeted me and then turned their backs on me and resumed their conversations.

    I quit this club and the president of the club called me back and asked why I had stopped coming to practice. I told him it was too lonely and too tough on my ego to be ignored. He told me he would talk to the members to get them to be more friendly. I later discovered the reason he wanted me in the club was he thought it made his club more “cool” to have a international member.

    When I compared how i was accepted to new Japanese members it was clear that the reason I was ignored was because I was foreign.

    I have had these experiences so many times over the years that I find myself deeply distrustful of Japanese people. Even when people are very friendly I suspect it it just because they are looking for a foreign pet. It is hard to not be incredibly cynical after having the same experience so many times. I know I have dealt with feelings of paranoia, what did I do wrong, what is wrong with me over the years. The only thing that has kept me sane is knowing that it is pretty much a universal experience for the many NJ that I know.

  • What strikes me in re-reading your article and the comments is that long-term life for an NJ in Japan requires a type of emotional sterility or loss of emotional consortium.

    Many would view such emotionally sterility as definitely undesirable.

    As such, one may ask, is there a self-selection bias in place with regards to those who do stay in Japan for 10 or more years?

    Are they people who feel more comfortable with a less emotionally available and open society?

    Also, it is unclear, but I assume from your article when you asked the question:

    “After all our years here, how many close Japanese male friends do you have?”

    that the question was only posed to straight men. Is that true?

    However, would the response be different, and how, were it posed to gay NJ men living in Japan?

    Also, since you are highly educated, are your friends also?

    Are there distinctions in male friendships in Japan based on educated; are Japanese blue collar workers different in their friendship patterns?

    — Re: “…the question was only posed to straight men”. Reread the article again, where I write: “Respondents who can address the other sides of the question (i.e. NJ women befriending Japanese women/men, and same-sex relationships) are especially welcome, as this essay has a shortage of insight on those angles.”

  • @ above re As such, one may ask, is there a self-selection bias in place with regards to those who do stay in Japan for 10 or more years?

    I ll come clean- after a year and a half of high “social pressure” in London in the late 80s, I moved to Tokyo deliberately for a “quiet life.”

    So, guilty as charged.

    What I mean is, lets say I m carrying a couple of suitcases along the street in London back then, or up the stairs in the subway (no escalator) and invariably some wag would comment “ooh, that looks heavy, did your wife kick you out?”

    But not offer to help.

    I preferred Tokyo at the time because I knew having visited beforehand that no one bother me, they would ignore me.

    Of course, after a year or two of this quiet life I wanted more friends. And then it got difficult, for all the reasons above. On the other hand, I m still a bit anti social so apart from the “friends” disappearing after their shelf life” whicih took me about 10 years to figure out, I am sort of dealing with it.

    I understand it, but I dont like it or accept it. (No third “Japanese cultural acceptance” stage” for me, after the “honeymoon” and the “annoyance” stages).

  • Debito:

    Regarding gay men, I may have been unclear, but what I wondered is whether your “Old Japan Hand” buddies are all straight.

    Yes, you are soliciting info through this article from gay men, but what about the men you did talk to? Are they all straight?

    Do you talk to any gay NJ men in Japan who have been there for long periods?

    Jon’s point does seem to suggest that it may be that those who are in Japan for long periods self select for being on the tail of the distribution curve with respect to companionship needs.

    If that is so, there may be interesting insights one could draw from such a group of men.

    Are they more or less socially or psychologically functional than a normalized population?

    Do they express any differences in terms of mental health issues, for example?

    It might, for example, be interesting to compare NJ men in Japan for long periods with self-imposed hermits, and see whether similarities or differences exist?

    Similarly, does your much lower need for companionship have any positive or negative health consequences, other than mental health?

    — I have talked to NJ gay men about this issue.

  • I think if you have a good job with a good salary, or have tenure, you would be willing to overlook the fact that you have no Japanese male friends.

    I do think that people who stay longer tend to be more introverted and not outgoing, and may tend to fit in more.

    I had a friend but he got to busy with his job in Tokyo at the Thai embassy. I do think I was just free English practice to him at times.
    He found an American to talk to who lived near him and then I wasn’t needed anymore and was dropped.

  • 7 years in Japan here, split between the deep country, suburban areas, and now Tokyo. Single, university educated, professional job. (I have worked in education and the service industry in the past)

    I have certainly experienced friendships vanishing, especially when moving. Leaving the east coast of Hokkaido for the Sapporo suburbs cost me a large number of close personal “friends,” although given some of the discussions and the article, I may be the one in the wrong questioning the validity of the friendships….perhaps their time had simply come.

    That being said, I still sometimes get contacted by former English students (my teaching days are over, but my keitai address and phone number remain the same)–often now in university. I realize that meeting them as children and myself as an “adult” (currently 32) puts a very different spin on the relationships, as I don’t expect us to become close friends (it’s often challenging enough to get them to drop “sensei” since to them, the relationship is still the same).

    But I did make at least one lasting male friendship that survived my leaving Hokkaido–he’s 3 years younger than I but spent his entire university education in the US (we were introduced since the school was quite close to my hometown) and had done extensive working holiday trips to Australia. Our friendship was started based on the ability to make smalltalk about shared experiences, but it grew based on simliar interests, then later philosophy–it blossomed like (almost) any friendship I had before coming to Japan.

    It’s true that the distance puts a strain on our relationship (the same could be said of my close friendships left hanging for 7 years while I’ve been living abroad), but we manage to meet in person at least twice a year and things continue as if we had never lost touch.

    Maybe this is atypical–my friend is certainly not your “typical Japanese” (whatever that is), although he still can surprise me with his “Japaneseness” as much as I surprise him with my barbarian viewpoints from time to time. But I feel lucky to have met him all the same.

  • @ above re “As such, one may ask, is there a self-selection bias in place with regards to those who do stay in Japan for 10 or more years?”

    An astute question.

    I think that in a way, you may be right.

    Although I can say that I am not the same person I was 25 years ago.

    At the time, I felt safer with distance. The cultural partitions, the interpersonal partitions suited me just fine. At the time it was easy to confuse an encounter with a warm body and imagine I had stumbled upon a warm heart. Now I can tell the difference. Now I crave relationships with warmth and substance.

  • I am a female with over 20 years here. I used to have a lot of friends, both J and NJs. That was until one day I ran into very serious problems. The first ones to turn a blind eye were the other foreigners though unlike in your story. The only one to stick by my side was my J friend for many years to come. Unfortunately she moved away. We kept in touch for many years but eventually lost contact. That leaves me with zero friends. My husband is my best friend but obviously I worry if something would happen because I don’t have anybody to help me, so help me God.

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    Awesome Debito! All great people have critics, so don’t pay no mind to the bad press, negative reviews, and hate-blogging of those that have ‘bought-in’ to the lie, and want to keep their heads down and play ‘the white man’.

  • What Selena says about “obviously I worry if something would happen” fits in well with Western health literature, in which, especially in older ages, men and women with few emotional supports tend to die more rapidly.

    Because Western men typically do have fewer friendships than women, this does disproportionately affect them in Western countries.

    Given what may be a self-selected population of long-term NJ men (and perhaps women) in Japan, one wonders whether, in later years when friends anyway tend to die, the health outcomes for NJ men are poor.

    A question that arises is: in the West, because men live shorter lives, there are fewer of them in older age groups. This scarcity tends to make them more valued by women, and thus they often do have some built-in advantages of romantic attachments in later years.

    Would this be true for older NJ men in Japan as well? This might serve to compensate for the loss of emotional attachments among fellow men.

    However, it might also be that the dynamics of straight romantic relationships between NJ and J are so unique, that there is no such effect.


  • Charuzu’s post (#30) reminded me of an old man I used to see sitting at the counter bar every Saturday afternoon. I regularly had a pint in one of those Irish “theme pubs” after my classes and before meeting up with friends. He was Caucasian, probably in his 70s and seemed to be partially deaf. He was always there sitting alone, slowly sipping his way through a pint of Guiness. He spoke no Japanese it seemed, or chose not to and my attempts to strike up a conversation were met with a wan smile and then he turned back to his book. He generally had a second Guiness then either just left quietly or once or twice, phoned home to say he was on his way. I could never get over how lonely and isolated he seemed.

    I don’t want to be that man twenty years or so from now, that’s why I won’t be in Japan when I am anywhere near being an old man. “No Country For Old NJ Men” to parahprase a recent movie.

  • I think the location can also play a role in the type of relationship you can have. I live in Okinawa and the culture is a bit different. Socializing is very important here. I also have made good friends with some people in Fukuoka from a year spent working there. We keep in touch and get together when possible.

  • I managed to make quite a few Japanese friends when I first landed in Tokyo a year ago because I stayed in a social apartment. Although I moved to Kanazawa earlier this year i caught up with a bunch of them on my holiday trip back to Tokyo. Of the 10 or so friends I’d call 3 of them close friends that would be there for the 3am news or offer a place to stay without a second thought.

    I would certainly think though that if I’d just met people through work or out socialising it would have been a lot harder. When I moved to Kanazawa it was a different story. I was in an apartment by myself and met people a lot more slowly. Through work connections and also through a mutual friend in Tokyo. In Kanazawa after about 4 months I have 3 close friends that are good for a yarn, a drink and exchanging concerns or deeper feelings than just shop. Actually shop doesn’t feature too much. It is certainly different to the friendships I have back in Australia. All of my male friends here are about 5-10 years older than me. Even 30 years older. I haven’t actually made any guy friends my age (30).

  • Been Living in Japan for 3 years now and so far I only have one person of the same sex who I can consider a friend.
    Even so he isn’t a regular Japanese but someone who spent several years outside the country in his youth, maybe that has something to do with it.
    I think all your theories have some truth in them and I have noticed that retirement age Japanese are more outgoing and social.
    Anyway, no solutions just agreeing that there is a problem.

  • I’ve been here 7+ years now as an English teacher, which is a short time for some, and I’ve had male friends come and go. But often I’ve felt that it’s a work/family thing, where they are just too busy to hang out with friends after their baby is born. More recently, I moved cities and found that the drinking circle I had isn’t really around anymore.

    Actually, changing jobs and moving within a couple months (not far, still on the Tokaido line for that matter), I don’t meet the old town friends, Japanese and non-, nearly as often.

    That being said, there is a group of Japanese and NJ who get together for futsal once a month. People come and go, but the core has been together over a decade and seems to be holding strong. It’s not exactly every weekend, but the sport would be the glue that binds us.

    As a last thought, it seems that the more overseas experience Japanese men have had, the more likely they are to be close friends with NJ men here. Which seemed to be true when I did study abroad in Europe, and for me was true in the US as a college student. I’d lived abroad, so I went out of my way to befriend foreign students I came into contact with.

  • My experience is a Japanese friend here in the UK, so not quite the same context, but the utility theory of friendship explains ours well.

    We became friendly several years ago when we met at a Japan cultural exchange club and it turned out we were both mountain bikers. We’d go out riding together at weekends but that was all. Then my bike got nicked and I heard nothing from him for a couple of years until I was able to replace it and he saw pictures of my new ride on Facebook. Occasionally we’ll go out riding once more. But under no circumstances do we ever socialise. On the one occasion I went out to watch a world cup game with him and his friends I very much got the impression I was intruding, so biking it has remained since.

  • Darek Gondor says:

    I can identify and agree with many views in the article and posts here, and I dig most of your commentary, which is sharp, informed and honest. I too have a few good Japanese friends but none who I speak Japanese with, even though I am conversational and have some good platonic friendships in Japanese with Japanese women.

    To understand this better this conversation needs the opinion of a Japanese guy!! Anyone want to send this thread for comment to their Japanese guy friends …er… colleagues??

  • I have had a similar discussion about”having no friends” with my brother back in the US, and I think the same fundamental concept applies: when you’re an outsider anywhere, it takes time and effort to get inside. One other compounding factor in Japan is that a lot of NJs jump from job to job due to contract term limit constraints. (I’ve been here 12 years and have lived in 5 different towns and cities.)

    The issue you raise is interesting and highly relevant. It is one of the many points my J wife has raised. She told me I needed to make more friends my own age, and while I have no problem making acquaintances and jam session buddies at the local bars, almost everyone I can bare my soul to is not Japanese. (Actually, many of them are foreigners I met in Japan and have since moved on by virtue of me never leaving….)

    That being said, I would say I have a few real native Japanese confidants. The one spent so much time living abroad that I would consider him more of a cosmopolitan than a “real” Japanese, and one is a female friend I met in the States when she was on study abroad. But the others are friends from my pre-marriage days. In true Japanese style, we rarely communicate except by nengajo, but every few years or so we catch up when I am in their cities on business and reminisce and talk shop.

    The Fukuokan

  • I came across this thread a bit late, maybe someone is still reading it? I found these contributions quite comforting, reading that I am not alone!

    I think that the conformism in Japan is the reason that a lot of these experiences are so similar to each other.

    I had one “friend” in Japan, who would play the same sport as me. I’d frequently give him rides and we had a chance to talk. He had gone to University in the US, so he could speak good English. When I first met him, he was single. At one point I asked him if he ways eying any ladies, which he vehemently denied. At that time, he had already been with his new girlfriend for 6 months. I learned on facebook about the wedding after it had happened, and after that I barely ever saw him again privately. I guess I wasn’t useful to him anymore.

    So, yes, this was my best Japanese male “friend” in 5 years in Japan. On most work-related social occasions I felt more as if people saw me as a curiosity than a person genuinely worth interacting with. If any conversation would happen, it was very reserved and shallow. This situation was completely unlike in any other country I’ve ever been to or lived.

    I also share the opinion that the overt importance given to hierarchy plays a role in preventing friendships. While I’m relatively young (30s), I’m in a leading position at my workplace, and that visibly scared some folks away from interacting with me in a causal manner, men and women.

    As for Charuzu’s question, I also think that there is self-selection for individuals who want to stay in this kind of social environment for a long time. I see three classes – those who live in a bubble, which works quite well for the large US military communities – those who complain a lot and wanted to leave “soon” for a couple of years now – and those who don’t seem to be bothered by the social isolation, either because of their stoic nature of because they have convinced themselves that the xenophobia/social isolation is an original part of the culture.

    I have also seen a lot of contrary cases, people (like me right now) who leave well-payed and (at least on paper) interesting jobs because they want to leave Japan.

  • I’m a NJ female, 29, living in Japan w/ my japanese hubby for 7 years. I feel like I’ve lived most of my adult life in Japan (even went to seijinshiki here), so maybe I’ve been integrated a little more thoroughly. But I think there are a few things on making Japanese friends more than just being ‘collected’ (that really does get annoying, doesn’t it?)

    1 is, just like mentioned previously, how well you understand cultural references. It’s the same in the US, I think – when I was in elementary/junior high school my parents refused to let us watch TV, and I was terrible at making friends. Then all the sudden, we were allowed to, and … it was like a whole new world, I suddenly knew what everyone was talking about and could joke with the other kids, it was great!! 😉 (don’t tell my parents though.)
    It’s the same thing here. You have to understand Japanese well enough to understand the references on TV/newspapers, go out of your way to watch/read them, and be able to joke about them, or be forced to be the lone kid on the outside of the circle your whole life.

    2 working at a japanese company, preferably the same one for a long time really helps. They get used to you, and if your japanese is good enough they stop looking at you as ‘foreign’ so much. I’ve been working at an online game company for three years now and have a lot of good friends here. But… it’s true, I think friendships do have a shelf-life here, I’m not sure how many of my work friends I’d still be in contact with if I quit. Ironically my best friends here are Korean and Taiwanese. 😉

    3 get a hobby you can share with JP people and look on *JP* forums for ways to join them. like if you play guitar, check ‘バンド募集’on google and apply, that kind of thing.

    Anyways I guess my point is, if some random japanese guy were in your company in the US on a short term contract to teach japanese, didn’t get your jokes, hung out with mostly other japanese people, and didn’t share any hobbies with you, would you become really close ‘call at 3AM to tell your baby is born’ kind of friend?

    — Thanks for your feedback, but I don’t think you’ve read other people’s feedback all that closely. We’ve brought up just about all the issues you bring up all over again above.

  • Very interesting article, and generally fits well with what I’ve come to experience myself: it is far easier to make friends with females, than with males (Japanese). Good stuff, keep it up!

  • (Disclosure: 4 years in Tokyo, lived off-and-on inKansai for more than 10 years before that)

    It’s hard for me to judge, because when I lived overseas I always had more female friends than male friends, and the same is true in Japan. (I am not sure why your definition was restricted to male friends to start with, but…)

    Most of the male friends I have are from work, with 1 or 2 from my graduate school, but I certainly have a few. Then again, I am white, but not really typical NJ by any other measure.
    1. I normally never speak English, so nobody will befriend me for English lessons.
    2. While I don’t hate NJ, I don’t hang out with them on purpose either (i.e. if NJ are 0.2% of the population and half your friends are NJ – isn’t that a bit odd?)

    I have less guy friends than female friends in Japan for similar reasons to overseas: Usually girls like to talk about all kinds of stuff, whereas guys I know were interested in cars (or trains), computers, and maybe girls (but not in a way that would actually get them any). Granted a lot of Tokyo girls are interested mainly in what you can buy them at LV, but I steer clear of those types. On the other hand, I would add that making legitimate female friends has been easier for me overseas than in Japan because (at least in Tokyo), a large percentage of girls are expecting something more. f.e. my ex-girlfriend went to an all-girls high-school, so to her guys were the thing you snuck out at night to have fun with before heading back to hang out with your female friends.

    — Registered NJ IIRC are 1.6% of the population.

  • Funny, great read!!

    I’ve been here in Osaka 18 years, and can say that my NJ friends mostly split, and my male Japanese friends have stood the test of time for the most part: people outgrow each other, and if you don’t know one or the other’s personality well, is it TRULY friendship, regardless of country?

  • Oh, and to add:

    Knowing each other’s languages does help to a great extent as well, as many have said: the “Gaijin no shiriai ga hoshii” people are strange to Japanese as well, just as those types would be weird back in our countries, no?

  • Now rather late in the day, so please let me go off topic to a “metacomment” on this thread; It was indeed a pleasure to read the article and its comments, but I got least as much pleasure from the tone of collaboration and respect (for each other and for Japanese people, in all their wonderful diversity) that permeated the discussion. The cartoon at the top probably helped to set the mood, but thanks, Debito, for a highly mature (avuncular?!) piece, creating the framework for such a stimulating and rewarding exchange of experiences and ideas.

    Count me in as an enthusiastic member of this positive, empowering community!

    — Thanks! Even more feedback from the Japan Times HAVE YOUR SAY column here. http://www.debito.org/?p=9366

  • I’m a white, male, early 30s, been in Japan for nearly 6 years, in Tokyo, with no male Japanese friends. I’ve made friends, but haven’t kept them, or perhaps they haven’t kept me. Most of them were not friends, but acquaintances.

    Tokyo is a big place and a lot of people have long commutes. This can get in the way of friendship making. I’m pretty hesitant to visit people who move to a different train line, and I’m pretty sure it’s vice-versa. I’ve met some great people who live a couple of train lines and a bus ride away. Good luck getting me out there. Bye bye friend!

    I’m an English teacher, and at every school I’ve worked at there is are plenty of English speaking staff to support me, which in turn, ends up distancing me from experiencing Japan and becoming assimilated into the culture, where friend-making would be possible.

    The importance of the group-colleague-friendship blocks another avenue of friend-making — as I don’t work with Japanese males, I’m not part of a Japanese-male group, don’t finish work at the same time, and so don’t make friends.

    There are a lot of bars where friend-making is possible, but I’ve recently stopped going to most Japanese bars as the clientele often wants to ask me about my life story but offer nothing on their end. The bar could be filled with culturally aware artists but more often than not there’s someone there who I haven’t met before that wants to know my life story. It gets tiring having the same conversation again and again. And in fact it’s not a conversation but rather a series of reactive questions — the person asking me for my life story is only doing it as a reaction to my presence. I’m pretty sure Japanese people don’t have this conversation with each other upon being introduced.
    So I go to some NJ-bars and meet up with a mixture of people and don’t have to rattle on about why I moved to Japan and if I can or cannot eat natto.

    My lack of Japanese conversation ability is perhaps one of the largest hurdles. I can read menus and can exist as a customer and make reservations and what-not, but I’m not so good at following a conversation from topic to topic. And usually find that Japanese people will limit their conversations to certain topics in my presence. The other day I was at a house party and when I entered the room, the men stopped talking about abolishing the Emperor system. They didn’t change the topic, they just stopped talking. I’m also not familiar with Japanese discussion techniques so I limit myself to being a passive observer. Which is fine! It’s kind of a treat to watch something Japanese unfold before my eyes. A lot of foreigners will make a lot of stupid jokes and derail the conversation. I’ll just let it roll and hope that my quiet presence will allow me to witness something Japanese, even if it’s being limited due to my presence.

    I think in places like Hiroshima it’s easier to befriend people. I’ve been to Hiroshima twice and the people tend to be a little more open and direct than in Tokyo. Just an observation made from a passing-though mind-set, but a lot of Tokyoites say that people from Hiroshima are scary because they are too direct. Perhaps this directness from Hiroshimans matches Western conversation templates, whereas the amorphous agreeableness from Tokyoites can be distancing.

    I also find that due to the fact that there are so many salarymen with no real life skills in Tokyo make it difficult to find interesting male friends.

    I have plenty of female Japanese friends though.

    When traveling in Korea, I found Korean men to be very friendly, but Korean women to be somewhat off-putting. In Sumatra, I found the men there to be quite engaging and the women would only speak to me if there was a man present (religious reasons). So it’s not as though I’m only making Japanese female friends because I’m a sex-crazed Charisma man. I would like more male Japanese friends, but I don’t know where they are.

  • takayoshi says:

    I am turning 50 this year, and I must say that what you have written about is very familiar to me; however, I live in the San Francisco Bay Area in California, USA. I have lived here all my life and have only a handful of close friends, if that. I guess that’s better than none. I do keep in touch with various friends, colleagues, and acquaintances but usually only with very short fleeting emails, texting, Facebook-ing, etc. In fact, people in general, don’t really talk on the phone all that much; they seem to prefer email and texting, maybe because phone calls can take a lot of time. Nowadays, instead of directly receiving a photo from a “friend,” he or she will simply post the photo on his or her Facebook page, and expect all of their “friends” react to, comment on, and/or “like” it (yuk).

    I am wondering if this phenomenon of “abrupt disappearance of friends” can be partly attributed to socio-economic conditions in both the U.S. and Japan. Life in the U.S. and Japan has changed greatly over that past few decades. Wages have stagnated, which has lead to an increase of the work-load for the worker. No longer is a working-class, single-earner able to support a family, own a home, go on vacations, etc. Education doesn’t guarantee appropriate, good-paying work. In other words, people in general are incredibly busy trying to make ends meet. I might be able to hang out on various nights during the month as long as I don’t have to put much effort into it; I’m burnt at the end of the week and too busy during the week. I might be able to arrange a get-together with particular friends maybe once a year. We’ll go months and months in advance to try and arrange something; it’s almost impossible if a friend has kids.

    That brings to mind older individuals that seem more likely to establish and keep friendships. Yes, it is definitely due to not having to deal with kids, the pressure of having to support a family, and dealing with a “salary-man” type job. Some are already retired; some are close to retiring. That makes a huge difference in one’s ability to maintain true social connections. It takes time and energy to build friendships. Time and energy many of us just don’t have. And by “time,” I mean appropriate and convenient time for both/all parties. For example, I’m writing this at 1:30 AM; you know why? Because I finally have time to do this. It would be nice to call one of my friends in place of this activity but that friend went to sleep a few hours ago, and at that time, I couldn’t call because I was too busy doing something that needed to be done then because it couldn’t be done at 1:30 AM. I hope my message about this problem is getting across.

  • I have been pondering over this article since it came out in JT. Almost a year has passed and I still don’t really know how to put this into words; There are so many variables involved.

    Right, I am aware that I am not really ‘qualified’ to comment here since I am a Japanese male, born and raised in Japan, and Debito explicitly said that only NJ long timers are welcome to comment, but I still think that I have some insight that might be useful to those who are interested in the topic.

    Also, I think I have to add that I don’t really have close Japanese male friends too. But I know that it’s more to do with that fact that I get alone with girls better than guys since I have somewhat ‘feminine’ interests like dancing, different cultures, cooking etc.

    Anyway, here are some of the points I want to make.

    1. Cultural proficiency

    I have met quite a few people who speak Japanese as their second language and I have noticed something: while some of them speaks quite fluently (grammatically correctly), and even though they seem to think that their Japanese is nearly perfect, they (SOME of them) sound like they fail to grasp the kind of ‘cultural code’ in the Japanese society. While what they are saying is totally intelligible, I can’t help feeling that there is something not quite right (uncomfortable) about HOW they speak. It’s quite hard to describe this because this is something really subtle.

    I know it’s bit a cruel to say this, since some of them put considerable effort to learn the language, but I imagine that it’s rather hard for them to make friends with ‘regular’ Japanese people. I suspect that it’s not easy for Japanese people who are not familiar with other cultures to relate them.

    This is not a news but Japanese is a kind of language that has different level of expressing politeness and people are particularly sensitive to the way things should to be said. (Which is why I feel frustrating when I speak Japanese since, being raised in Japan, I internalized those social codes which often prevent me to express myself the way I want to express.)

    Please note that I am not saying that Japanese is a ‘difficult’ language since I believe every language has its own difficulties. And I am BY NO MEANS saying that only ‘Japanese’ can speak Japanese; it simply isn’t true. I have met people who get both the language and the culture right. I particularly remember two guys (French and Italian) who are not only great Japanese speakers but also highly intelligent and have interesting jobs. I have a huge respect for then.

    But there seems to be certain number of people who just doesn’t get it however long they are in Japan (or any other country). It seems like they are somewhat incapable of getting out of their old way of thinking and open their eyes to the different perspectives of people. Those people may be linguistically proficient in L2, but not culturally proficient.

    I also met Japanese guys who speak English or French quite fluently but, again, don’t seem to get the culture codes in the countries where the target languages are spoken. (Well I don’t deny the possibility that I might be the one too. And chances are, if am the one, I don’t even realize it because, if I could, I would have realized it already! (Got it?) We can’t see what we can’t see.)

    2. Open people

    You can still make local friends even if you are not culturally proficient if that person is interested in different culture. And if girls tend to be more curious to other countries, boom, it’s easier to make friends with girls!

    But I believe that many other people have mentioned this, so I won’t go into detail.

    3. Culture specific barrier

    I also think that there’s at least one cultural element that makes difficult to make friends in Japan: it is not really common for Japanese to invite someone new to their existing friend circle. I have realized this when went to France and lived for a year. I was fascinated by the way people invite new friends to parties. I had plenty of opportunities to meet my friend’s friends, which made me really easy to get to know both local and non local people.

    Most of the people don’t do this in Japan and I think that this alone can make pretty difficult to make new friends comparing to the societies that are more open. And it’s not exactly a surprise that sometimes it’s difficult for Japanese themselves to make new mates.

    4. Discriminations

    Apparently, racial/ethnic discrimination exists in Japan. (As Debito’s blog shows.) And, as someone who deals with Japanese people everyday, I am afraid to say that it is not too rare for ‘regular’ Japanese to have some form of discriminatory feeling towards NJs (here, I mean NJ, not just Western people) and I feel highly uncomfortable every time they make a insensitive comment.

    Fortunately, I have observed the cases where ‘regular’ Japanese people have figured out that they can just talk normally with a NJ person and they end up having a ‘normal’ relation. However, I haven’t been in many situations where ‘regular’ Japanese meet a fully integrated NJ-looking person, so I don’t clam that this is something I really know.

    5. Do you really HAVE TO make local friends after all?

    I think not. There’s nothing really wrong about not having local friends. Besides, chances are, if you don’t have local friends, you don’t really have that much in common with them right? (I mean, something fundamental like your perspective of life, your important values etc. and not just hobbies.) I don’t think that you want to have friend with who you can’t be yourself. At least I don’t

    Well, OK, I think it would be COOL to make local friends anywhere and prove your adaptability or street smartness kind of thing. But hey, I also think it’s cool to be a rock star and tour around the world. But I won’t blame you if you are not a rock star. As long as you’ve got good friends to share your life, does it matters weather they are locals or not?

  • Now the fun part. Let the Japanese part of my brain work!

    BTW, I’m the same guy from the previous comment (48) where I implied that if you have hard time making Japanese friends, it MIGHT be because you don’t get the Japanese social codes even if you are reasonably proficient in the language. I know some people don’t like this idea. But even if you hate my last post, trust me, you’re gonna love this.

    Do you know where all the lonely Japanese males go? Yes, online anonymous message boards! It turns out that we are just googling away from those guys. If you one of those people who have installed Japanese module in your brain, just google ‘tomodachi no tsukuri kata’. For those who haven’t (yet), don’t worry, I’m going to translate some of the bits. It’s your lucky day!

    *these are the translations of some of the comments found on a Japanese message board. All of the comments are (supposedly) coming from Japanese guys.


    – I seriously don’t have friends. Well I only have 2 ‘friends’ I talk to on messenger.

    – I lost all my friends from university. I managed to keep 10 friends from high school who I meet rather often. But it doesn’t seem like there’s going to be any new friends.

    – It’s not like I wanna make ‘more friends’. I just need a few people with whom I can talk openly about everything. I can’t be myself with people from work or schools because there’s too many things involved other then the pure friendship.

    – I just wanna have someone I can have dinner with on weekends. Then we would say things like: ‘how was your week?’.

    – I have learnt recently that you don’t wanna get too close with your co-workers. It seems like they don’t say what they really think even if we go out together. I did something I shouldn’t have done recently and now I feel awkward at work.

    – I can make friends with girls but somehow it’s difficult to make friends with guys.

    – About the time I hit 25, I found it’s easier to make female friends than male friends. It’s strange because I used to think that I couldn’t possibly make friends with girls.

    – It’s easier for me to make hobby friends. Or, I don’t know how to make any other types of friends. But once you quit that hobby, you don’t see your hobby friends any more.

    – Everyone seems to makes ‘walls’ by themselves even though they wanna make friends deep inside.

    – You guys don’t have friends because you think that he’s not your friend if he is not useful to you. Nobody wants to be around you if you have that kind of mentality.

    – How about going to one of those hobby clubs?

    – You guys are thinking too much! You just have to find someone who has similar interests.

    – What is the purpose of life? What is a fulfilling death? Why don’t I have any friends?

    – It seems like that my friends circle is completely replaced by a new one every 2-3 years. Is there something wrong with me? (replay: it’d be better like that. If you frequent a small number of people for a long time, you will end up having a narrow view of the world. Also, you’re gonna always have to keep your ‘old’ self with them so you can’t change.)

    – How do I text someone who I haven’t seen for a while? (reply: tell he how you are doing and invite for him for a dinner. If he won’t reply in 2-3 days, you’re gonna delete his number.)

    – Come on guys, there are many people who make friends after 20. Be modest, greet people, don’t say bad things about people, work or study etc. This may seem cliche and you’ve heard this million times but it really is a first important step to make friends.

    – Could you tell me how to make friends? (replay: you need to have a courage to take the first step. And the patience to build up the friendship) (replay: OK… I give up.)


    Apparently, I you have close friends at all, you are better off than most of those guys.

  • Baudrillard says:

    @ Yuta, comment #48 point #1. “Cultural Proficiency”.

    YOu mean well, but please stop buying into or peddling what in fact is fascist dogma. Its a leftover from Imperialist Japan and Tokugawa shogunate era thinking; a lack of behavioural diversity.

    That is, if someone learns a language, we have to act in a certain way too. I have been thinking about this ever since someone came for an interview and said she had basically refused to learn Japanese because of all the “cultural baggage” she would be expected to accept as well, especially as a woman.Ie. trying to pander to an impossible and in fact out dated or even minority held stereotype that a woman must be subservient, quiet, etc.

    Of course NJs who speak fluent Japanese are going to bring a different perspective, a different usage, a different behaviour of the language. This is known as “enrichment”.

    And there is nothing more pathetic or disgusting, in my view, as an NJ bowing and apologising, trying to act more Japanese than the Japanese (or what he/someone thinks is Japanese) to a Japanese audience laughing at him, not with him. Said western guy I witnessed was fluent in Japanese, he had not a trace of an accent, but he behaved like a fool, a joke. He became an object of curiosity, I do not think he made real friends.

    Why cant people just be themselves while speaking Japanese? It is a tool for communication, not an instrument of oppression or enforcing conformity. Remember that.


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