In the previous post, I addressed the situation with foreign friends in Japan (at least in my case). In this second part, I'd like to address the somewhat more complicated and potentially dangerous topic of Japanese friends.
Most Americans grow up being told that all people are equal and therefore the same at heart and that you shouldn't reach any conclusions about someone based on superficial designations such as ethnicity or appearance. When you arrive in Japan, you will rapidly discover that not all people embrace that notion (and you'll realize it's not necessarily true).
The first thing you discover, particularly if you work at a language school, is that the vast number of Japanese people will be judging you and reaching conclusions about you based on stereotypes and sensationalist news reports they hear about life abroad. They won't question the validity of those stereotypes nor consider applying them to you an insult. Their motives are not the least bit malicious. They simply don't grow up in a culture which frames this behavior as unfair or "wrong". It's a way for a culture which is largely homogeneous to find a mental springboard for dealing with foreigners, who they are often rather intimidated by.
You'll find these presumptions are the first barrier to forming solid friendships as it's hard to break some of the conclusions being made about you. As a small example, I've told friends, students and coworkers many times that I never eat hamburgers or steak and bread is not a part of every one of my meals but they can't process this in light of their rock solid knowledge that all Americans are sitting around eating burgers, fries, steak, potatoes and bread at every meal. They also think we all have guns and are shocked when I tell them I didn't have one nor did my husband.
When you first arrive, you don't know that your character has been pre-assigned, of course. Japanese people are friendly and nice and you have an almost endless supply of people who want to spend time with you. This is great for casual friendships and socializing. You can have a light, good time with your students and what few of your coworkers that aren't so overworked that they have time to go out and about with you. If you like, you can call these people Japanese friends.
The problem is that, at least for me, friendship goes deeper than this. Socializing and having a good time is the stuff of acquaintances. For a friendship to develop, it has to move on to another level. Friends talk about their lives and know each other in greater depth. I once read an article which said that Japanese people want different things out of friendships than many westerners and that they value people who do not ask too many personal questions. I don't know if that is true because you can't believe everything you read but it doesn't sound too far-fetched based on my experiences.
There are other cross-cultural issues such as the tendency on the part of Americans (and possibly other native-English speakers) to give opinions and debate them as part of our relationships with friends. We also have very different humor. Japanese people also value "cheerfulness" and remaining positive far more than most Americans. Frankly speaking, many Americans like to complain and criticize, especially about the government and larger issues. Most of the Japanese people I've known have little interest in such topics and some have actually gotten agitated when queried about them.
The main problem my husband and I had, especially early on in our stay, was that people were wanting to spend time with us only because we were foreign. It felt like spending time with a foreign friend was one of those things Japanese people could tell their Japanese friends about the next day like going to Guam (only without the obligatory souvenir purchases and distribution). To offer a good example of this, I'll tell you about one of our experiences.
On one occasion, my husband invited a student he thought was interesting to go to a restaurant with us. She was relatively young but he found her mature enough when he spoke with her in lessons. When he and I met her at the restaurant, she had brought along 5 of her friends (of course, she didn't tell us this was going to be the case).
Rather than have an interesting conversation over okonomiyaki with his student, we were the centerpiece that amused 6 tittering girls who spent most of the lunch talking amongst themselves. When they did speak with us, it felt more like a kid running over and touching something he was afraid of for the experience and then quickly running back to his parents now that he'd triumphantly braved the dangers. This was disheartening and humiliating. We felt used and betrayed.
If you're here long enough, you can add to this type of experience to a string of total strangers who will approach you as you wearily head home from work dying to just rest and ask to converse with you in broken English. You reach the point where you can't know if a Japanese person wants to be your friend because you've got red hair and blue eyes or because you represent a free chance to practice English or because they really want to know you as a human being.
Chances are usually pretty good, especially if you make friends with students, that it's always going to be about novelty and free English practice. If you eventually work in an office, the odds of making a good friend with a Japanese person increase, especially if you either learn Japanese or your coworkers speak English well. The chances you'll be good friends will improve more with someone who has lived abroad for awhile as such people tend to be better able to bridge the cross-cultural gaps. Those who have been abroad long enough to actually be "contaminated" by a foreign culture are all the easier to be good friends with as they are more likely to be open about their lives and opinions.
The biggest barriers to deep friendships though are often rooted in core cultural differences, values and communication styles. One of the mistakes people make early on in Japan is believing Japanese people are "shy" or "timid". The truth is that they aren't expressive or overtly opinionated. They tend to keep more to themselves. This isn't shyness. Shy people don't get up in front of strangers and belt out songs in karaoke. They don't go through their neighbors' garbage and berate them for not sorting it properly. There is a different cultural imperative at work when personalities are developed as compared to the United States.
Japanese people also rely a lot on unspoken communication. They don't feel the need to say everything that is on their minds to you and expect you to understand what they are thinking or feeling from non-verbal clues. They will also be attempting to interpret what they perceive to be your unspoken feelings based on cues they think you are offering. On more than one occasion, I've had students reach conclusions about my feelings which were completely wrong because of this tendency. Americans like people to be straight with them. A Japanese person is unlikely to be so with you because they feel it would insult you or embarrass them.
If you couple a person with a tendency to be assertive, expressive, brash, and opinionated with a person who tends to be passive, introverted, overly solicitous of the concerns of others, and reluctant to express displeasure, you don't exactly have a recipe for a good relationship. Chances are that if you make headway in a friendship and do something offensive accidentally, you'll never know. Japanese people don't like to criticize their friends or get into confrontations. They'll likely just find a graceful way of backing away from you and you'll never know what you did wrong. (Note: This has not happened to me but it has happened to a few of my friends.)
That's not to say that you can't get along or that all Japanese people are the same. It just means that there are serious cultural barriers to forming deep friendships which are very hard to scale.
The Japanese friends I have and have had tend to be those who have lived abroad for awhile. They're the type that are willing to talk about their lives and the ones most likely to complain about their jobs if they are your coworkers. Obviously, you can make friends with Japanese people who haven't lived abroad but you can't expect the friendships you have to be the same as the ones you might have at home since Japanese friendships and communication are different from western ones.
I'll finish by saying that my perspective is mine alone and I'm not offering my perceptions as facts. I'm sure other people have had different experiences and that will shape their views quite differently from mine. As with all things in life, your mileage may vary.
There are a few other perspectives on making friends in Japan at these URLS:
Being A Broad
A discussion on The Mail Archive
ESL Teacher's Board
The Japan Center