So at this time of writing I have lived in Japan (specifically Kyoto) for almost two months now, experiencing so much in so little time. From visiting Tokyo, Kobe and Osaka to eating a wide variety of Japanese foods to even having an almost awkward encounter with a female staff worker at an onsen, these are just some of the things you’ll never get a chance to truly experience back in your home country. But while all these things are nice and dandy, sometimes it’s nice experiencing these things (except for the awkward onsen encounter) with other people, especially with local Japanese friends who have more knowledge of these things than you do. “But wait,” you ask, “how hard is it to make a Japanese friend?” Well, my friend, the answer to that is pretty complicated so today I want to talk about this topic and share some of my experiences with trying to make Japanese friends.
One of the things that almost every foreigner coming to Japan will have to deal with is the language barrier and this especially holds true when trying to make friends in Japan. If, for example, you are lost and you want to ask someone for directions on how to get to a certain place, approaching a Japanese person while speaking in English will not be your best bet. Chances are, they are just going to quicken their pace and walk right past you because they probably know little to no English at all. However, if you try asking for directions using the very little Japanese that you already know (e.g. “Sumimasen, [INSERT NAME HERE] doko desu ka?), the other person will more than likely go out of their way to help you, even if you might not understand what they are saying to you in response.
Either way, this leads in to my first point on how best to make Japanese friends…
Learn to speak Japanese
This one goes without saying, but in order to make Japanese friends, you need to make an effort to learn and speak the language. At the moment, my level of Japanese is very basic (Elementary I Japanese, to be more precise), but whenever I get the chance, I always try to speak as much Japanese as I possibly can, even if it comes out as a broken, jumbled mess most of the time. As I said, not only will people be more willing to talk to you, but it also shows the other person your respect and willingness to speak in their native language.
I currently have a language partner that I meet with weekly where we try to teach each other English and Japanese respectively (we both have the same sensei so she asked if I would be willing to be a language partner to one of her students). There’s no set structure as to how our meetings work, but basically I help her with her grammar and spelling and she helps me with my Japanese speaking (side note, I realised that I liked her, but it wouldn’t work because she’s going to study abroad soon). This is not only a good way to practice your Japanese with a native speaker, but it’s also a good way to make a Japanese friend as well.
Join a club or society
If you’re planning on going to Japan to study abroad then joining a club or society at your school or university is sometimes the best way to meet Japanese people as you’ll be engaging in some sort of shared activity with one another. Sports clubs, for example, can sometimes help to take away the language barrier as you don’t necessarily need to speak with one another when doing a sport, unless that sport requires some sort of communication – the same could also be said with a hobby club, especially something like ballroom dancing.
In my case, I’m part of my university’s drama club, which is also part of the English Speaking Society. As the name suggests, this is a society for Japanese students to improve their English speaking abilities, one of which being in the form of drama. So because I did drama back when I was in school and am a native English speaker, I thought that this would be the perfect club for me to join. However, being a foreigner in a club or society is a bit of a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you’re the cool, foreign English speaker who can help the other Japanese club members with their English and how to correctly pronounce certain words. On the other hand, because the majority of members are Japanese, they will mostly speak Japanese with one another and then you will just awkwardly stand there and nod your head as if you know what they are saying to each other.
Don’t worry, it’s not all doom and gloom on my side as I did manage to make a Japanese friend in the drama club. We both started at roughly the same time and we immediately clicked with one another after meeting for the first time. The other day, after drama practice, he treated me to some okonomiyaki (a Japanese-style savoury pancake) in Osaka and that immediately sealed the deal for me.
Attend as many social gatherings and events as possible
These usually come in the form of university-organised events (for example, my university has a student lounge that runs monthly events like hikes or barbecues), social gatherings amongst club members, community events or even a social gathering hosted by one of your friends who may know other Japanese people. Now for someone like me, who is both an introvert and very shy, it can be hard to put yourself out there and try to talk to others, but from what I’ve seen, Japanese people tend to struggle to make the first move too, especially with foreigners who they might want to talk to or get to know. So sometimes, you’ve got to make the first move yourself and who knows? You might hit it off and make a new friend (or something more, if you’re lucky)
Making Japanese friends is not so different to making friends back home, however, because you have to deal with barriers such as language and culture, it can make the process a lot harder. In the time I’ve been in Japan so far, most of the friends I’ve made here are other foreigners either living in my dorm or in my class and naturally this was going to happen because a) most of us speak English and b) most of us come from similar (i.e. Western) backgrounds. I would like to make more Japanese friends very soon and work up the courage to invite them out to do activities like going to the cinema or doing karaoke (you know, all the fun things you usually see amongst friends in anime), but for the moment, I’m happy and content that I at least have two Japanese people I can consider my friends.