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Making friends as an adult in Japan

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Making friends as an adult in Japan

The right things to do and say when trying to make friends in Japan.

Kevin Chan

Kevin Chan

Published on 02 Sep, 12:00

Who doesn't like to have friends? Even if you enjoy your alone time (as I do), it can't hurt to have someone you can call to share a beer or go on vacation with every once in a while, right?

But as we all get a bit older, it becomes more and more challenging to make friends, particularly when you're in Japan and from another culture. Here are a few ideas that could help you if you're having a bit of trouble connecting with our Japanese neighbours.

1. Know more

Nothing wrong with learning!
Nothing wrong with learning!

This isn't too surprising, but knowing more about Japan is going to make your life a lot easier. Knowing the latest celebrities and television programs can help you keep a conversation going.

I once made a friend at an ashiyu (foot bath) with a fellow after he asked me, "Are you into DQ or FF?" and I recognized that he was speaking about the every-popular games Dragon Quest and Final Fantasy, and was able to respond in a meaningful way. We still connect every once in a while, even though I'm not nearly as active in the gaming scene anymore.

Knowing about Japanese culture, and particularly about Japanese etiquette, is equally as important. I won't go as far as to call it insight, but being able to recognize subtle social cues goes a long way to endearing yourself to Japanese people in conversation.

From my conversations with Japanese friends, there are things that they feel it'd be nice that non-Japanese understood. Things like:

  • A sharp intake of breath as a way of saying "No", instead of saying the phrase directly
  • Smiling as a polite manner to get in the habit of, not just when you're feeling it.
  • Generally not touching people, since it's not really part of the cultural practice here.

The more you know, the more you know. Does it mean that we won't make mistakes? Absolutely not. But it's a start!

2. Do less

Less is more
Less is more

Another observation that I've spoken with friends in Japan about is how "less" has a much more positive quality than it does in English, for example. There are countless examples of compliments and positive phrases associated with being and doing less, such as:

  • muda ga nai - no waste (in English, it might be closer to "efficient")
  • juubun desu - enough (in English, we'd probably say "perfect" or "That's it exactly!")
  • tarita - also similar to enough (in English, it could be translated as "meeting the conditions"

In the same way, when you're out in public, you might want to pull back from time to time, to avoid being thought of as someone who is wasteful. I remember ordering at least two lunch meals (for myself) every time I'd go out because they were so small. It became a running joke between my friends and me but after a few years, they also told me they were pretty surprised (and not in a good way) that I was always ordering so much.

It felt like I wasn't satisfied with what was given to me, and it was borderline ungrateful. While they understood my point of view (if you're hungry, you're hungry), it certainly was something they had to get over as we continued to build our relationship.

Being less can be a good thing in Japan, and it'll help you connect with your new Japanese friends as well.

3. Be yourself (sort of)

Be yourself! It's the only you that you have!
Be yourself! It's the only you that you have!

The last piece of advice will negate everything we've talked about so far, but only somewhat: be yourself.

Now, you might be thinking, "But Kevin, I am naturally a boisterous, loud-spoken Canadian. That's who I am and there's no changing that!" and that's fine. I mean that. But in my experience, having been here for a number of years and having succeeded and failed equally in developing relationships, certain types of characters will find it a bit more challenging to fit in in Japan.

Personally, I feel that everyone should be themselves, and no other, because that's no way to live, but if you're even somewhat aware that your personality is a bit bigger than what you see around you in Japan, well, take that as a cue to maybe dial it back one or two levels. You can still tell jokes, and laugh, and hug, but maybe choose who you do it with, and not just everyone who you run into.

I can't say I've cracked the secret of building relationships in Japan, but I'm blessed to have made at least a few friends during my time here. Hopefully, these tips will help you along during your time in Japan as well!

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Kevin Chan

Kevin Chan

Kevin is a professional writer with experience in music, education, news media and entertainment. He graduated from the University of Toronto with a degree in English before moving to Japan for work. He's lived all over Japan, spending time in Kanto, Chubu, Kinki and Okinawa.

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