I have lived in Japan since January of 2015, and I have found it both extremely fun, and at times difficult to work my head around the process of making friends in Japan. There are many factors to consider including Japanese culture specific culture such as honne and tatemae, as well as a cultural difference in timing.
In this post, I ‘ll go over my experience making friends in Japan over the last 7 years.
Is it easy to make Japanese friends in Japan?
It’s different…the way of making friends is certainly more formulaic in comparison to the west. I feel that this is one of the great barriers to forming relationships in Japan for westerners. Spontaneity is not a concept that has a strong hold in Japanese culture.
Relationships are typically segmented into varying levels within the Japanese social structure, with strong consideration to where people stand within a kind of ‘social-progress-bar.’ In order to become friends with somebody, first you need to become acquaintances. Then after ‘X’ amount of times meeting you may become friends. Then you may graduate to the titular ‘good friend’, and then ‘closer friend.’ In essence, you level up through various milestones .While the way I am attempting to describe this may be a bit overdramatic, I don’t believe it is an exaggeration to say that most people think this way regarding relationships in Japan. In general, westerners may come across as being too pushy or trying to rush things when meeting new people in Japan. This issue of timing is a pretty complex one, and is something that I have heard many expats mention here as a factor that makes it particularly difficult to make friends as a foreigner in Japan.
The biggest difference is in the timing of things
I have spoken before about the phenomenon of switching to casual Japanese, from the more polite form of Japanese. This more polite Japanese is used as a default the first time you meet somebody, and people will graduate to more and more casual forms of the language as time goes on. The funny thing to me is, there isn’t any clear time that this change takes place. One day, someone will just decide to ‘slip’ a little casual Japanese into the conversation and see how it goes. Actually, I talk at length about this topic in the video below.
There is this sense in Japan that you are constantly ‘closing distance’ over your different relationships. Your social standing with another person will determine the level of honorific Japanese you use, the amount of time between when you meet, and the kind of things you will do. One of the biggest things that surprised me when I first moved to Japan in regards to making friends with Japanese people as a foreigner, is how far out people will set plans with somebody they first met. I’ve heard a lot of other expats talk about this in Japan as well. Say, for example, you met somebody in June, and you wanted to invite them out for lunch. I have met many people who would open their schedule, fumble around with the pages for a few seconds, and then suggest we meet in August. 2 whole months later! At first I assumed they didn’t want to meet and were just blowing me off, but the more people I met, the more I heard that they were doing this with people they genuinely liked, and even people that they wanted to date! This is just the norm in Japan, it seems. When people ask me what I miss about living in The United States, I always say that I miss the spontaneity. In order to make friends as a foreigner in Japan (or even just as a Japanese native), it takes a lot of patience, and even more planning. Which is why you will need a planner, or a techo (手帳) in Japanese.
Japanese people love using their planners…a lot
The amount of time between initial meeting and subsequent meeting is one of the reasons why the techo yearly planner business is booming in Japan! Okay…I don’t really know if the industry is booming, but I really wouldn’t be surprised. Of course it depends on the personality of the individual, but I have seen people fill these absolutely to the brim here, with different hour-long plans stretched out for months-to-come. It’s a pretty intimidating prospect for me, because having my schedule planned out more than a week in-advance honestly just stresses me out. Eventually I learned that keeping a schedule would make things a whole lot easier. You don’t have to have your schedule completely full, just because you decide to keep a schedule. I also think that there are a few things one should keep in mind when living in Japan, if they want to make friends with Japanese people, and if they want to learn the Japanese language and succeed in general. Mainly, that it is always good to write things down! You want to make Japanese friends? Write down their name, how to write their name in Kanji, and when you are planning one seeing them next. You want to memorize Japanese? Document, document, document. Writing down everything you want to memorize, everything you want to do, and everyone you plan to meet is a good way to keep the minutia of life ( a life that you are now living in your second language) organized and less overwhelming.
How to make Japanese friends in Japan?
In my experience, the best way to make Japanese friends is to be patient, friendly, and to enjoy every encounter for what it is. Despite Japan’s emphasis on over-planning, Japanese people generally feel comfortable around somebody who can have fun in any setting.
I wrote about this a bit in my article What Do People Do For Fun in Japan? The Concept of “Nijikai”. I think one of the most important things is to create an environment where everybody can have fun, and then graduate to something more specific with friends that you have known for quite a while. This is a very important aspect of making friends in Japan. The overall group is more important than any smaller cliques, which I enjoyed in a lot of ways. In Japan, people try to get along with each other, even if they don’t have anything in common. This is one of the reasons why probably 90% of all Japanese friend gatherings are spent eating good food. There aren’t too many people who don’t enjoy eating great food right? Typically, more unique things will happen at the nijikai, which you can read about at the article I linked above.
It it easy to make expat friends in Japan?
This is a question that I am attempting to answer myself more and more recently. Before I moved to Japan I had heard how easy it was to get trapped in an ‘English bubble’, where you only have foreign friend and always speak English. Hearing this, I kind of pulled in the other direction. Almost all of my friends were either Japanese, or where non-native English speakers from countries like South Korea, Malawi, and so on. i have dabbled in the foreign community here-and-there, and my experience has been that people have either been extremely nice, or extremely elitists. There are ton of different reasons for foreigners to be elitist here. Maybe your Japanese is better than someone else, or maybe you have a job where you make more than most people but can’t even speak Japanese. I think most expats in Japan secretly hope to achieve some kind of acceptance or assimilation in Japanese society, and we all face constant micro-aggressions and small rejections that can add up if you let them. I think this may be why people build up some kind of insecurity that comes off as elitism over time. That being said, I have met a lot of nice people, and now that I lived in Tokyo it should be much easier to make other expat friends. My biggest advice for making foreign friends in Japan is to just let people be who they are. Some people will never want to learn Japanese. Some people will care about how many years you have lived in Japan and judge you for that. You really need to just let people live their lives, with all of their insecurities and all. You can only control yourself, so taking the effort to focus on your own actions is really the best course of action.
While it can be challenging making friends in Japan, I would definitely say that the reason I am still living in this country is the friends I have made, and how much I love talking to people here. If you can get through the hurdles, I think it’s worth it.
If you are interested in reading more about my life in Japan, making friends, or Japanese culture in general, please check out the articles below!