Friday, March 09, 2007

Friends in Japan Pt. 2

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:

My Nippon

Being A Broad

A discussion on The Mail Archive

ESL Teacher's Board

The Japan Center


Anonymous said...

Hi. I've lived in Japan more years than in my own USA. THe thing I've learned about Japanese friends is that they make their inside circle of friends in junior and senior highschool. And possibly college. This is the group they keep close to for the rest of their lives. They really don't want new close friends--just acquaintances for fun is their goal with us gaijin!

Shari said...

I think those are good points. Though I have known Japanese people who have made good friends through their work, I know they all do keep their friends from high school and elementary school close to their hearts at all times, even when they live far apart.

I don't really have any problems with Japanese people who want only to keep gaijin as acquaintances for fun. I think it's rather understandable and perhaps a more realistic assessment of a potential relationship with someone from a very different culture. However, I don't want to be one of those people for them. It's just not how I'd prefer to spend my time. If someone wants to really talk though, then I'm interested regardless of nationality.

YETTE said...

i learned a lot from this post. i suppose in my case, since i'm asian, i don't really stand out and people just act "naturally" in front of me. maybe that's a good thing then? but so far, all my contact with japanese people have been nice during the 6 months i have been there.
take care!

Michael said...


Again, as with Pt 1, I am in total agreement with you. The experiences I've had in my 2 1/2 years going on 3 in Japan roughly correlate.

As an aside, I came to Japan on JET with the attitude of saying "yes" to any experience thrown at me. As this is a safe country, it's not that dangerous. When I came the 2nd time as a study abroad student, my attitude was more focused "no English, learn Japanese and make business connections". When I left Japan the first time, I was sent off by many friends, this time (I leave in 2 weeks) I won't have anyone sending me off. My advice to anyone reading this is to adopt the first attitude and not think to hard or deeply about relationships in the country :-).

Shari said...

yette: I think not looking so obviously like a foreigner does help a lot. Even if they think you are foreign, they regard you differently if you are Asian. People are "nice" but there's this other element of them wanting something from you in some cases which can be wearying.

Michael: I think not looking too deeply is good advice. It's the easiest way to have "friends" (though I'd call them acquaintances one pals around with). I hope you achieved your goals while you were here and are going home satisfied!

milton said...

This is one of the most interesting commentaries I have read in a long time. Like yourself, my wife is my friend. Unlike you, however, we are friends more from habit than because we are soul-mates. Since we have been married I have had only one friend besides my wife. I have had ample opportunity to make friends, but most of my relationships are too superficial to be anything close to friendship. It seems to me that cultural differences aside the chances of finding a friend are never very good.

Shari said...

Thanks for your kind words, Milton. I think that a large part of finding friends is luck but I'm a believer in fate as a facilitator of what might be. That is, I don't think fate dictates what will happen but it offers opportunities which you may choose to take advantage of or allow to fall by the wayside.

That's not to say that kindred spirits are everywhere but I have encountered more than one in my life so far. Unfortunately, I can't say that a person who is a kindred spirit now will remain one forever. I've lost a few friends simply because we've fallen so far out of sync.

Sometimes though, the situations you find yourself in are too limited to really find people you can make connections with.

Fendy said...

Hi Shari! I can agree pretty much agree with you on the whole with your observations. I gather that you have lived at least 5 years in Japan having been able to develop such a sound observation. I teach English at a high school here in Japan and have lived here for about 7 years. In my current job, there were only one or two Japanese-speaking teachers in the school who were able to make inroads with the native-English speaking foreigners that went beyond friendly formality.
I like your idea about acquaintances vs. friends - very true. Friends are hard to come by. I don't mind so much, but my Japanese wife holds that against me. Oh well, can't please everyone!

Shari said...

Hi, fendy, and thanks very much for taking the time to comment (and for doing so in such a kind fashion).

I've been here close to 18 years now. I know that sounds like a lot but the time has flown for the most part and it was never really a plan. The situation just sort of played out that way. Our original plan was for only 5 years!

BTW, I've often felt teaching at a high school requires a lot more bravery than teaching at other places. If you ever blog about your experiences, let me know as I'd be curious to read about them in detail.

Anonymous said...

Have you ever considered that your difficulty making Japanese friends (and your difficulty understanding their ways) might have something to do with the fact that despite living in Japan for 18 years - a lifetime for some - you display only a superficial knowledge of their country and negligible interest/fluency in their language? That's certainly the impression I get from reading your blog.

Shari said...

Ah, my good friend "anonymous" is back with another ad hominem attack and another display of poor reading comprehension.

Please accept my sincere apologies for burdening you with the task of reading my blog which appears to lack insight and understanding in your opinion. However, if you read the other links I posted by several other bloggers as well as comments from people married to Japanese people, you'll see that they concur with me about my conclusions. Are you saying all of us lack insight into Japanese culture?

I will make one thing clear to you (which would have been clear if you actually read what I wrote). There's a difference between being unable to make certain types of friends and being uninterested in doing so.

Since my blog appears to contain no valuable content for you, I'm uncertain as to why you continue to read it.

Anonymous said...

I've just stumbled across your blog and am unfamiliar with the entirety of your writings, so I apologise if my (admittedly limited) impression of you is an inaccurate one.

However, my comment was a genuine response mainly to your "Friends in Japan" posts as well as the others I've read, and although the nature of your response was perhaps to be expected I didn't intend to attack you or negate your point of view. It was a sincere question, and one that you chose not to answer (your prerogative).

Nowhere in my comment did I say that you or the other bloggers/commenters lack insight and understanding, as you claimed in your assessment of my opinion - which quite frankly makes your accusation of my poor reading comprehension rather hypocritical.

Am I right in inferring that you've lived in Japan for 18 years, and have made a conscious choice not to gain fluency in Japanese, either written or spoken? As an 8-year resident of Japan, I'm just curious. If I'm mistaken, I apologise for making incorrect assumptions about you. If I'm not mistaken, then I think my initial question is a valid one.

Shari said...

Anonymous: You said that, "you display only a superficial knowledge of their country". This would indicate that you believe I lack insight. Superficial = surface or lacking in depth. No depth = no insight.

If you meant something else by "superficial", please explain. Also, if you have some insights because your Japanese is superior, please feel free to offer them. I'd be very keen to hear what I'm missing about Japanese friendships in your opinion because of my "superficial" take on the situation.

However, I don't see how you have any basis for saying my understanding is "superficial" if you have only read a few posts and don't have a broader picture of my understanding of the culture. Keep in mind also, that this is a blog and it serves my purposes. It isn't a forum for regurgitating all I know about Japan. There are plenty of other resources for educating people in a more organized fashion than my blog.

Additionally, the entire premise of your question was incorrect. Your question was, "Have you ever considered that your difficulty making Japanese friends (and your difficulty understanding their ways)..." This question assumes I have difficulty making Japanese friends. The truth is, I do not. I could have all the Japanese friends I could hope for and more than I have time for. My writing makes it clear that I simply do not want friendships on the terms I'd have to conduct them on (Japanese terms).

You seem to imply that your question was about my Japanese language abilities but it certainly was not. This is tantamount to saying, "do you beat your wife because your mother rejected you?" and saying the question you asked was "did your mother reject you?"

You did not ask about my Japanese abilities in your initial post. As for my Japanese abilities, you are right that they are not fluent. If you believe this makes me unqualified to offer my observations and experiences in Japan in my blog that that's your prerogative.

By the way, I have received other "anonymous" attacks. I'm much more impressed by people who give their names and their own blog addresses.

M.J. said...

Oh man, what a dork. I hate rude guests. I really enjoy reading your insights Shari, and it's obvious that you know a whole lot more about Japanese society than most of the idiot gaijin around (including me).

Shari said...

Hi, m.j., and thanks for your kind words and for taking the time to comment. It's very appreciated. However, I very much doubt you fall into the "idiot gaijin" category. ;-)

I don't mind if people disagree with me or know something I don't or correct my inaccuracies. In fact, I welcome it. However, when someone is only interested in personally attacking me or judging how I live my life, that's another issue.

An anonymous person has twice posted with a personal attack and no information in rebuttal of things I've said and I've posted the comments in (a perhaps misguided) interest in balance but I'm drawing the line on that now.

M.J. said...

Good! This is your place, and these are your opinions. I (and no doubt your other readers) really appreciate your forthrightness and honesty about detailing your life and times in Japan. And man I hate those gaijin who try and one-up others like that (I speak more Japanese than you, have more Japanese "friends" than everybody else, etc). I think they are pathetic.

Ahem. Topic. I love my Japanese friends dearly, but sometimes I wish they could get over my being a gaijin! It's as if I'm a gaijin first, and a friend second. I know you know what I mean. But then again, the concept of "friendship" does seem to be somewhat different here. Not better or worse, just different. Perhaps they genuinely have trouble categorising us in the appropriate friend box.

Shari said...

You clearly have some good insights, mj. I especially like how you say that the concepts are "different" but not better or worse. This is something I have attempted to embrace (and hopefully succeeded in doing so) for many years. Sometimes it's hard to pry yourself away from ethnocentric judgements but it's important to try.

BTW, you should start your own blog! I'd be very happy to read about your experiences.

Cass said...

In my experience, how well you speak Japanese has almost nothing to do how well you will make Japanese friends.

Both of your 'friends' posts were great, and really summed up a lot of the things I've been feeling about my social life in Japan. I have my (Australian) boyfriend for the deep, intellectual conversations, and a posse of casual friends (Japanese and foreign) who are always up for a good time, but those casual friends never really progress to people I feel close to, they way they seemed to back home.

Unless you speak fluent Japanese, you can also end up living pretty far away from most of your friends, and don't get as many opportunities to just hang out.