Making & Maintaining Friendships in Japan

Friends are important, especially when you’re trying to adjust to a life in a foreign country.  One issue I often hear from other foreigners who spend any amount of time living here is that it’s hard to make close relationships or friendships, especially with Japanese people.

To some extent this is a valid concern.  Making acquaintances in Japan is really easy because Japanese people are usually friendly, polite, and curious about getting to know foreigners.  Then for some reason it seems pretty common that foreigners will eventually hit a wall and never move the friendship beyond that “acquaintance” stage.  Japanese and Western culture differ in many ways, so it shouldn’t surprise you that the Japanese approach to making new relationships is also slightly different.  Once you learn to recognize and consider a more “Japanese” approach to meeting people, it’s a lot easier to make and get closer to new friends here.

Get Studying

No hard feelings intended, but not having adequate language skills is definitely going to hinder your ability to make meaningful friendships.  Japanese culture (and Asian culture in general) is still very keen on the concept of inside group, outside group.  If you look like a foreigner, you’ll automatically be put in the outsider zone before you even have the chance to open your mouth.  Japanese have their own assumptions or good and bad stereotypes about foreigners, just like anywhere else.  If you don’t speak the language, it’s easier for Japanese people to focus on the differences between you and them, instead of the common ground between you as fellow human beings.

Everyone feels tired after work, Japanese or not.  If you’ve been living here some time you probably like some Japanese foods, dramas, music, etc. that many Japanese wouldn’t expect you to like.  You might share the same opinions as many Japanese do on some of the current social and political issues on the news.  By achieving conversational fluency, you’ll be able to communication to Japanese that you aren’t so fundamentally different from them.  Making friends is a lot easier when you establish some kind of familiar connection with someone, no matter how simple it is.

Be patient and don’t get discouraged- learning a foreign language takes daily practice and time.  A lot of foreigners I know get stuck in the foreigner community trap.  They don’t speak the language well, and they can’t seem to get past that acquaintance stage with Japanese friendships, so they stick to the safety net the local foreign community offers.  While there’s nothing wrong with getting to know other foreigners in the community, your Japanese isn’t going to get any better by speaking your native language all the time.  You’re also not likely to meet many new Japanese people, either.

However, my biggest issue with getting too involved with the foreigner community is that most of the foreigners you meet aren’t going to stick around more than 1-2 years.  It gets tiring putting a lot of effort into relationship only to have to start over again and again and again every couple of years.  You write or talk a little after that person moves on, but communication eventually fizzles out or you become just Facebook friends.  As you can plan on most Japanese people sticking around in the country for life, and as I expect to be a lifer myself, it’s way more appealing to me and other lifers to learn how to speak the language to make friendships with other Japanese people.  It’s also really hard to get an true look at Japanese society and culture when you’re only associating with other foreigners living here.

Cultural Differences

If you expect Japanese people to initiate a friendship, you probably won’t make many friends.  Even some of my most outgoing Japanese friends admit that they don’t really know how to start a conversation with a foreigner, even if they want to try to speak English (or insert foreign language here) with them or are curious.  Until you get to be really close with a Japanese person, assume that you’re going to need to be the one inviting them out and making time to initiate calling/texting/e-mailing/etc.  At first this was hard for me to accept, because I’m naturally shy.  In the past, even if I were able to get up the courage to talk to someone first, eventually I would expect them to take the lead from there.  Needless to say I didn’t get very far making new friends, and I started observing how Japanese people at work and around me interacted with one another.  Just like with anything you set out to accomplish, just putting in the effort and sticking with it counts.

Something I noticed right off the bat is that Japanese people tend to group friends based on type of relationship or interest and rarely mix these groups together except for milestone events like weddings, funerals, etc.   This makes sense when you consider your average J-girl/guy probably isn’t big on revealing their inner thoughts or emotions to a crowd.  Doing so is usually viewed as a vulnerability or weakness in Japanese culture.  By separating friends into groups, a Japanese person can show their true self to others, but since each group of friends only gets to see a small piece of that true self, he or she isn’t left feeling vulnerable that one person knows everything about them.  This contrasts sharply with the Western idea of friendship, where ultimately you hope to connect with at least a few people who will become your best friends and completely know, understand, and (ideally) accept and love you unconditionally.  However, the result in the end is pretty similar.  When Japanese need support in a certain area of their lives, they’ll usually go to that group of friends that accepts and understands that side of them, just like back home I would go to my gal pal BFFs for that.

This concept also applies to the dating and relationships as well.  A lot of Japanese couples only have a few things in common and are perfectly okay with that; they don’t feel like their partner needs to be a special person who they connect with on everything.  They may not even spend that much time together, but still be completely happy and comfortable in their relationships because they know and share at least one side of themselves with their partner that is unknown to anyone else.  My relationship with Mr. J is a lot like this.  We love each other, but we’re both OK not being each other’s first go-to person on every single issue we face in life.  If you think about it, that’s a lot of pressure to put on somebody.

Of course it’s possible for Japanese people to make best friends in the Western sense, but it seems like this is often the result of that person being more “Westernized” or by letting things take their natural course instead of actively deciding to be and trying to involve yourself with someone until you both reach that best friend stage.   So in that regard, your best shot is to get in with a group of Japanese people you share common interests with and involve yourself in the group until you eventually hit it off with someone really well.

Once you make a Japanese friendship, no matter if you’re acquaintances or best friends, don’t be surprised if you don’t see each other frequently.  Friendships here usually aren’t dependent on how much time is spent together.  But, because friendships here usually demand very little of your time, when a friend does invite you out you have a bit of a social obligation to go if you’d like to see the relationship continue on.  This might mean going out for the sake of your friend, or the friendship, even if you’re really not feeling it.   In the U.S., I saw my close friends and besties all the time, so it wasn’t really a big deal if I refused an invitation to hang out because I knew there’d be another next time soon enough.  Since invitations don’t come as often here, you might find your friends stop inviting you out the less you readily accept their invitations to spend time together.

Another thing to note is that due to the hostess/guest relationship when someone visits your home, and the fact that Japanese accommodations are on average small, don’t be surprised that house parties, sleepovers, and invitations from friends to come over and hang out/have dinner aren’t as common as you might find it in the West.

Paying Attention to Social Cues

If you want Japanese people to see you less as just a foreigner and more as a friendly face, you’ll definitely need to understand and play along with some Japanese social cues.  Japanese people like keeping harmony, and voicing your opinion when it differs from the group can sometimes come off as bad manners.  To avoid making this mistake, try not to be too opinionated yourself when you’re in a group.

At some point if you’ve been hanging with a group of Japanese people for some time, someone might let their outward mask slip and let you in on another small part of their true self than what they’ve never previously shown to you or the group.  Take this opportunity to be there and show support with a positive response, because if you make them feel comfortable about what they’ve shared, they’ll be more likely to confide in you/the group at a later point.  This is your chance to become closer friends.

In turn, I don’t suggest confiding serious problems to Japanese people you’re not already good friends with or who haven’t been too forthcoming themselves so far.  Like I mentioned before, revealing your true self is often considered a weakness, and you might end up leaving the impression that you’re not emotionally stable.  It could also lead to gossip, especially in an office setting.  When/If you do decide to share something personal, try not to show too much emotion with it.

For example, don’t start raising your voice and making angry faces when letting off steam about your boss or a situation that upset you.  Japanese people tend to take it personally, and instead of being able to sympathize with your feelings, might come away with the feeling you’re upset at them instead.  I admit this can be really hard at times.  My poker face is awful and my voice tends to get louder the more emotional I feel, so my husband and I sometimes have misunderstandings because of it.

Finally, and perhaps one of the biggest social cues to pay attention to, is drinking culture.  Alcohol is like the lube that gets Japanese people relaxing and socializing.  Basically anything said while under the influence of alcohol is “forgotten”, or more like forgiven, the next day.  This social attitude affords Japanese some free ground to say what’s really on their mind.  (But watch out, because it doesn’t always work the same way for foreigners.)  Refusing to go out for drinks, if not handled well, is like blatantly refusing friendship or any kind of deeper social connection with that person.  I know this seems a bit dramatic, but I’m serious!

I’m definitely not a big drinker, and you might not be big on alcohol yourself, but in the Japanese social world this doesn’t matter.  I still go to drinking parties as a social obligation and if possible (i.e. when I’m not driving) have at least one or two drinks.  And hey, even if it’s a dry night for me, it’s never dull watching the antics of my co-workers or friends put on when they’re slightly intoxicated.  Not to mention that means I’ve got the upper hand being the only one that remembers everything the next day.  😉


…And that’s about it!  It’s not the end all be all of how to go about friendships here, but just some points that have worked to my advantage and I’d suggest considering.  This post wasn’t meant to peg Japanese or foreigners one way or another, but just point out some behavior on both sides I’ve seen come up more than once when making friends.

If there are other cultural issues you’d like me to explore, please leave me a comment below!

– J

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