Features - June 3rd, 2005

We all need somebody to lean on, says Charlotte Warren

I REMEMBER SAYING to a friend a few months into my life in Japan, “You know what? Someone should make a soap opera about a group of people like us. You know, about ten or eleven ESL teachers living in a mid-sized town somewhere in Japan.”

“What a soap opera set in Odawara?” she said, skeptically.

“Think about it. You’e got a group of a dozen or so people, all different  backgrounds and age groups. They’re all thrown together and more or less have to spend a lot of time in each other’s company. It is like a mini United Nations. They’ve got their “Local Haunts,” you know, the bar where everyone goes, the place they all work. And you wouldn’t even have to keep inventing long-lost cousins and fatal car crashes to explain the turnover of actors and actresses, because people here keep leaving at regular intervals anyway…”

That was four years ago, when I was living in Odawara. In Tokyo, of course the “friendship scene” is a bit different, but a lot of what I said back then still holds true.

Japan is a place where it’s easy to make friends, but keeping friendships going takes a bit more effort. Most of us, when we first arrive, don’t have much in the way of Japanese skills, and instinctively turn to other westerners for friendships — work, especially, can provide us with a set of ready-made friends. If you came here with a partner, you should consider volunteering or trying to find a job, if only to meet people. “I had no job to come straight into, so it obviously made meeting people harder” said relocating spouse Suzanne of her first few months in Japan.

The big downside to friendships with other foreigners living in Tokyo is that people tend to leave Japan after a while. Suzy from Australia said, “I have only been here ten months but already a couple of friends have left Tokyo to return to their home country.” The up side of this, though, is that if you are conscientious about keeping in touch via email and letters, you can end up with friends all over the world.

Not surprisingly then, for many of us our relationships with Japanese women are likely to be at least as important as those we have with other foreigners. However, these may take some time to develop, especially as foreigners tend to be treated as “outsiders” to a greater or lesser extent. Josie from Australia told us “I also sometimes feel that I’m just being used to practice English, which makes me feel a little uncomfortable. The friendships I have with Japanese women seem to be largely superficial,” and many other women echoed her remarks. Focusing on finding people who have interests in common with yours is the key here — after all, this is what friendships are usually based on! A lot of young Japanese women like to take lessons in cooking, ikebana, tennis or yoga, or just go to the gym — check out your local town hall to see what’s on. Don’t rule people out because of their age group, either. Maybe it’s because a lot of Japanese women in their twenties live at home with their parents and lead (by our standards) sheltered lives, but a lot of foreign women in this age group have found that they actually seem to get on better with slightly older married women. If you make a little effort to get to know Japanese women, you will be rewarded — as April from the USA said, “Japanese women are very loyal friends and can be counted on.”

Ultimately, though making friends in Japan is not so different to anywhere else: “It’s always hard finding new friends but you just have to go out, not be shy and start talking to people” as Suzanne said. And give it time. During your first few months in Japan, why not take advantage of the opportunity to have a little “me” time — have day trips by yourself, go to the places you want to go to. Friendships will naturally follow.