How to Make New Friends in Japan
Monday, April 1, 2019
The Ultimate Guide to Making Friends as a Newcomer in Japan
Forging friendships is never easy, and add to that the cultural and social divides and you’re headed for scenes out of the movie Lost in Translation. But friendships also define experiences. So while starting from scratch and making new friends when arriving in Japan can seem like a daunting task, the effort is definitely worth it. Some may have the instinct to insulate themselves from all the newness and get lost in social media, Netflix, and skyping with friends back home, but a 2015 analysis picked up by the Washington Post showed that (the) “…absence of social connections carried the same health risks as smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day. Loneliness led to worse outcomes than obesity.”
Embrace the adventurous sprit that brought you to Japan in the first place and overcome the challenges of making new friends in a foreign country. The key is to strike a balance between local Japanese friends and foreign friends. It’s common knowledge that as a foreigner it may be hard to get friendly with Japanese people and here is a breakdown of the most common rationales. Researchers use the word relational mobility to describe the flexibility a culture allows for making new friends. Japan typically ranks low on this scale (2018 publication here). As a foreigner you may often be stereotyped and breaking those stereotypes can take time. This has to do with the Japanese cultural concept of uchi and soto, that literally means inside and outside. Inside people are family and close friends, and everyone else is outside, and familiarity, comfort, freedom to express opinion all boils down to if you’re uchi and soto. Having good language skills and playing down the “Gaijin-card” are the two best ways to set yourself up for success. If you can hold conversations (even if they’re shallow) you’ll be able to open up a lot of options for yourself.
Foriegn friends can easily sympathize with the woes of being a gaijin and not understanding all situations, that kind of comradery is priceless when feeling homesick. And in Japan, people gather from all over the world so especially in cities it’s not difficult to find people who come speak the same language but have completely different life experiences, and that leads to a richness is thought and opinions on how to deal with difficult situations.
Japanese friends will provide a different aspect to feed your social needs. Because they grew up in Japan they can help to navigate the social structure, local customs, or figure out if you’re purchasing shampoo or conditioner. Once the ice is broken don’t be surprised if you find yourself drinking sake to the late hours comparing our bosses or trying to understand why Japanese relationships are so different from your personal views.
Local relationships will often give you the best look inside a culture and give you a deeper understanding. A 2018 RICE study shows that deep foreign experiences enhance the concept of self-clarity due to self-discerning reflections. For those looking to come to Japan and find themselves – here is encouraging news. This level of introspection can provide a range of benefits, from enhanced life satisfaction to lower stress levels and better productivity. Congruently, there’s a greater sense of purpose which people can use to pursue a career that best obtains the lifestyle they’re after.
There are many ways to make friends in Japan and in an age of social media and the Internet it’s pretty easy to meet people. To ease some anxiety, there are many ways to go about meeting people prior to your arrival in Japan. You can build these connections and foster some friendships, so that by the time you arrive you have a base to operate.
Your Guide to Making Friends in Japan
- Human Resources in your company
- Facebook Gaijin/Expat/Foreigner Groups
- Facebook Sayonara Sale Groups
- Gaijin Bars
- Hobbies and Interests
- Language Exchange Apps
- Japanese Language Classes
- If you’re moving within a company, talk to Human Resources (HR) about people that may already be over there. It’s easy to reach out to them and ask questions to start learning about what you just committed to. Also, some companies have programs to help integrate people from abraod with other people in the organization at your new destination in Japan (social groups or company sponsored events).
- Facebook has a plethora of foreigner friendly groups (e.g. Tokyo - Expats in Japan & Kobe PR ambassadors) all over the place in Japan, so join them and go to events or sart reaching out to people. It’s direct, but often times people will go out of their way to help somebody out who’s new. Similarly, you can look in meetup.com or couchsurfing for group hangouts to attend once you get into Japan. These will have a mix of Japanese and foreigners, so it’s a good way to find more bilingual Japanese friends.
- Sayonara sale groups on Facebook (e.g. Tokyo, Kyoto, & Kobe) or Mottainai groups like Mottainai Osaka. Japan is a transient place and people are constantly putting their things up on this multiple facebook groups for sale or to just give away. If you need a sofa, find somewhere to buy one and chat up the seller about their interests to see if they can introduce you to new people. This tactic can be tough to navigate because often times the seller is under pressure to leave, so use caution and social awareness.
- Gaijin bars – they’re everywhere in Japan, so it won’t take long for you to find a place to become a regular. You’ll often see a mix of people there from newbies like yourself, to seasoned veterans or locals looking to practice their English. For people that don’t drink, you can still go in for something non-alcoholic as a way to meet people.
- Whatever hobby or interest you have, see if there’s a Facebook group or shop that help support you hobby. If you like board games or bicycles there are shops to go to that support your interest. And through common interests friendships can be formed.
If you’re interested in really diving deep into the Japanese experience from day one here are some ways to do it.
- Using applications like memrise, duolingo, babble or language exchange like HelloTalk. These work well if you already have a plan in place for how you learn a language. Learning key phrases to get by first is a good place to start, then look into the top used words and learn some grammar to go around those words to make yourself understandable. Next, practice, practice, practice – its okay if you make mistakes that’s how you learn! For this learning style, immersion is key – include movies, television shows, and music with English subtitles to get a feel for the language.
- Some companies offer help with language learning by offering courses or tutors. If this doesn’t apply for you there are language schools or language exchanges (sometimes free or requiring payment). This route will really depend on your city, so you will have to do some research to find out what is available. Some locals will set up their own language exchange groups in coffee shops or other open spaces to practice.
Ultimately living abroad will change your perspective in some way and your friends abroad will greatly shape the experience. A balanced approach to international and local friends gives you the best opportunity to explore 2 different worlds. Something else to keep in mind is that your previous relationships with those back home will change. It’s important to maintain these in some capacity – contact once a day / week / month(s) depending on the importance of the relationship. Scheduling regular calls or regularly exchanging messages will help, but you won’t be able to keep up on all of your relationships because you will need to allocate the time to creating new ones It’s your journey and you will have to figure out what is the best approach for you to stay happy and healthy.
The months leading up to your departure will fly by as you plan out your life in a new country, but once you arrive it will be worth it. You made it across oceans to get to Japan and with a little extra work you’ll lead an interesting and diverse social life.
About the Author
Just a guy who likes to travel around the world and wear flip flops when it's too cold.