Japan Times HAVE YOUR SAY Column offers reader feedback to my Aug 2 JBC column on “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Foreigner”, how difficult it seems to make long-term Japanese friends


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Hi Blog. Here are some comments from Japan Times readers regarding my August JUST BE CAUSE column, “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Foreigner”, how difficult it seems to make long-term Japanese friends. Good stuff within, as well as the prerequisite hate mail. A friend commented that I’d probably still get hate mail if I posted a cure for cancer! 🙂 Have a read. Arudou Debito


Tuesday, Sep. 13, 2011

The Japan Times


The loneliness — or otherwise — of the long-distance foreigner

The Japan Times received a large number of readers’ emails in response to Debito Arudou’s Just Be Cause column published Aug. 2, headlined “The loneliness of the long-distance foreigner.” Here, belatedly, are a selection.

News photo

The elephant in the room

This topic is something of a elephant in the room for most foreigners I know, including myself. The number of close Japanese friends we have between us is close to zero — and not for want of trying on our part!…

Rest at http://search.japantimes.co.jp/cgi-bin/fl20110913hs.html

9 comments on “Japan Times HAVE YOUR SAY Column offers reader feedback to my Aug 2 JBC column on “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Foreigner”, how difficult it seems to make long-term Japanese friends

  • Pretty balanced bunch of comments except the last one from William Newman (ironic pen name, as he claims to be an old Japan hand) which was disappointing in spouting the old “If you want to make it in Japan, put up and shut up, and crumbs from the table will naturally trickle down” -comment in parentheses mine, his original text being:

    “He has gained much notoriety from many such confrontations, and so a public identity and a career. Along the way, he sacrificed perhaps any possibility of building long-term, viable relationships with most Japanese people”.

    I dont buy this, and I know Debito doesnt. Its also a kind of racist generalisation that William is espousing here, as if “We Japanese the Borg Collective all think group-think, and therefore the infamy of that pesky Debito Gaijin is known the length and breadth of the land, so lets all give him the cold shoulder!”

    I also resent that William is implying that if we all reinvent ourselves upon arrival in Japan (not unlike Charisma Man) and go around as humble, obsequious, fawning apologists constantly saying “sumimasen” for being allowed to exist in this wonderful land, we will somehow be “given” a woman, or a long term friend. What is this, the plot from “Shogun”?

  • I think ‘normal’ friendships are difficult in Japan. You will, to an extent, always be seen as an outsider, foreigner, etc by many people, before anything else. This has its benefits of course, because as an outsider, you have certain freedoms which most Japanese people do not. This is something which Donald Richie has often talked about.
    The difficulty for many NJ who have learnt the language and assimilated in many ways is accepting this. It is not easy and it is certainly depressing to think I lived in Japan for ten years and did not have one real male Japanese friend, apart from acquaintances I met through my wife. Perhaps one way forward is to establish ground rules early on about language etc to avoid people who want ‘friendship’ to learn English or hang around a foreigner. Someone I know had a good Japanese friend but established early on that he could only be friends if they spoke both languages, rather than English all the time. Once they established this, they got on fine but they had to establish it first.

  • This time the responces were not about the article itself (how is it written, presentation of factual material, etc), but mostly inspired by the topic and your analysis of the possible reasons for not having Japanese friends personal stories. This is good, because not everyone is a critic, and the overall attitude is positive- no personal attacks or bashing , with one or two exceptions. Means that people actually took time to sit and calmly read and think over your article, to compare it with their lives, and to think about improvement, if such is possible.
    I myself couldn’t comment even if I wanted, because my problems with making friends are mostly personal, and because , after 10 years on Japan,I still can’t say for sure if I have figured out the Japanese concept for friendship.

  • Anytime I encounter the term “bashing,” as I did with a couple of these letters, I usually stop reading and move on because the writer has just extruded for me the very essence of his or her mindset, i.e., that any criticism related to Japan–no matter how well-founded, relevant, or pointed–can automatically be trivialized or dismissed out of hand as either baseless, excessive or gratuitous. In other words, the writer has just signaled in an unmistakable way that he or she in incapable of rational thought on the issue and is not to be taken seriously.

  • I have been ruminating on this column for over a month and finally decided I wanted to post a few comments.
    First, I think that postulating that an inability to make friends with the locals in the same way that you think you would in your home country is an immigration or human rights issue is a mistake. I don’t see any evidence of that. For it to be an immigration issue, it would have to adversely affect the experiences of the majority of immigrants to Japan, and therefore downgrade Japan’s reputation among those seeking to immigrate here. I don’t buy that, especially since the majority of NJ residents in Japan are from East Asia and, from what I have read, have similar friendship patterns in their own countries. I’d also question whether most immigrants to Japan are coming for social reasons. As far as I know, economic, academic, and other opportunities are the driving reason for most people who choose to immigrate to Japan, and would someone deprive themselves of those opportunities because they can’t expect the same type of friendship with the locals as they would at home? Not in most cases.
    For this to be a human rights issue, there would have to be proof that Japanese people systematically treat NJ differently than their Japanese friends. I don’t see that. Many Japanese people compartmentalize their friendships as noted in your column. This happens to a lesser extent in my home country as well. I don’t sit around the bar with my biker friends chatting about raising bilingual kids in Japan, and I don’t go out to all-you-can-eat Chinese food buffets with my gym buddies in Canada. I guess it’s similar to how in my home country we have GPs but in Japan we start off at a specialist. A little more classification is just what happens in this country. I think it’s disingenuous to be upset not to develop a friendship that does not exist in the culture, or if it does, it is rare.
    I guess that I am not sure that the friendship issue is a “cause,” as you seem to by publishing it in your Just Be Cause column. It might be an issue for many but is it something to be dealt with by changing the nature of Japanese friendships, or on an individual basis for NJs who consider themselves friendless (changing one’s own expectations of friendship, making friends with other NJs in the same boat, seeking out Japanese outliers who feel the same, etc.)
    One of the things that bothered me about this column was the characterization of Taro Salaryman as being boring but Hanako being fun-loving and adventurous. Just look at the statistics- women in this country work so little that they are the only ones with time and money to do so! Taro works 90 hours a week and gets a small allowance which he ends up using to go out with his co-workers instead of friends, while Hanako is off having lunch with all her other housewife friends, chatting at school drop-offs, and going to PTA, which from my experience has nothing to do with the children and all to do with socializing for the mothers.
    I know that anecdote does not equal evidence, but as others have been sharing their personal experiences I will as well.
    My life has gone through major changes during my time in Japan. From carefree temp worker to wife to fulltime career track salarywoman to mommy to working mom. As my life changed, so did my way of socializing. I needed different things, and met different people to whom I could relate more. My friends, Japanese or not, were not usually on the same page as me, either, so I have drifted back in and out of deep friendships. I got married earlier than most friends so stopped seeing them as often, but as they start to enter the same cohort I have rekindled friendships I thought may have been long over. I am the only fulltime working mom in my circle of NJ friends, so I tend to spend more time with moms from daycare who are the only ones who seem to understand where I am coming from. The only people who have been through thick and thin with me the entire time, whether they want to or not, are my husband and his immediate family.
    The one thing I have learned over time is that true friendships, compartmentalized or not, can’t be one-sided. I have to put in effort, and this is where I fail and I wonder if other NJ commenters here might too. My priorities are my husband & kids, then work, and my friends come after that and I don’t have the luxury of being able to say yes to many invitations. I know that can put people off, so I try really hard to make the friendship stay even if I can’t make it to a playdate during the workday or a drinking party when my kid has the flu. I ask my friends about their lives, try to keep up at least by texting, and remember their birthdays, and as much as I curse them I keep up the nengajo and personalize them every year. I also know that as much as I hate the gift-giving culture here, it matters. I find that although my NJ friends who have Japanese husbands are good at that but the men are not so much, whether single or married, and that can turn some Japanese people off. Of course it shouldn’t be about buying friendships, but as much as making my husband lunch when I hate it shows him I care, (and him rubbing my feet when I know he can’t stand it!), little gestures like handing out home baked cookies to the neighbours or giving visitors my extra eggplant show people that I am thinking of them and that I will make the effort. It might not count for much if you do it, but I think it’s a big black mark if you don’t. So I make the effort for people I care about and appreciate it when they do the same, and store up all those extra handtowels for giving out at Sports Dar and school bazaars.

  • “Debito himself, a hero to Japan-bashers everywhere, is far less heroic to long-term foreigners in Japan who have integrated more fully and more meaningfully into the local communities where we have lived, and who have been more embarrassed by his activities than inspired”

    Says who? Im a long term foriegner and I cant agree with this goof or any other of the trash over at tepido. Its repulsive to me, the daily hell I go through and then to have some NJ support it. I dont agree with all of Debito but he is the only place I can go to and find people who “get it” instead of some goofball apologist who is still at a newbie stage, both intellectually and socially when it comes to Japan. I wonder where some of these people live at? Its not Japan bashing, its victims who have been bashed, who wish to talk about it in order to keep or even find their sanity. As far as a Japanese “friend” goes, there are those foriegners who really really wish that those Japanese they know are their friend and that act of kindness is sincere. As I said, they are very naive people who fall for that, its a honey trap and an effective way to control people. These things are very elementary to observe in Japan for us long termers, so no, Im not one of the apologist.

  • “As I said, they are very naive people who fall for that, its a honey trap and an effective way to control people. These things are very elementary to observe in Japan for us long termers…”

    I think it is naive of people on both “sides,” to think their own experiences are de facto representative of the one and only possible reality and, therefore, negate any alternative experiences.

    I’m willing to believe that there are NJ who have found Japan to be inordinately unconducive to developing close friendships with Japanese people and there are NJ who do have genuine friendships with Japanese people in Japan.

  • My wife says that it is very uncommon for *Japanese themselves* to make real friends among other Japanese once they become adults. Therefore, I think this issue has nothing to do with being foreign or not.

    She says that Japanese develop very tight dependencies/relationships during the school years, and tend to maintain those friendships through adulthood. This is made easier in Japan by the tendency for people to return to ‘jika’ (hometown) during holidays or after having children. During working life, bonds are formed with colleagues but this relationship is based on ‘tatemae’, is affected by hierarchy issues (position, dept., length of time in company, etc) and therefore rarely develops to true friendship. Of course, most workers have no life outside of work therefore little chance to make friends elsewhere.

  • Zc,

    Re: school

    Part of my 10+ years here were spent as a student of a Japanese university.

    I had many friends at the time, sharing laughs and cries for years. My closest friend refereed to me as brother. So did the rest of the family.
    We were close, or so I thought up until graduation.

    See, once university was finished it dawned on me that I had been the token foreigner all along. No one calls or mails after. Or even answer mine.
    Some other friends maintain that most Japanese parts way after university, or are too busy with work, but this simply isn’t so: my friends still keep their circles and meet regularly. There’s just no point in having the token around anymore, they have the choice of not to, now that we’re not bound by university.
    I’m not even invited to the bigger reunions. It’s all Japanese exclusively for those.
    But I have seen the pictures 🙂

    Even the last few days leading to graduation it had dawned on me, as some of the friends I thought were close had reverted to their initial state of interaction with foreigners. After 4 years together they asked me if I could use chopsticks, or eat ramen. Guess they couldn’t wait to turn properly Japanese.

    Something equally ridiculous was that I were told this would happen. I just didn’t believe it at the time. Not for me, anyways, I were with “liberated” people at a liberal university.

    That said it could be different for others. I certainly hope so.


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