People say Japan’s a lonely place. But people say a lot of things, including that America’s the greatest nation on earth. Well, they do have a lot of eagles, cheeseburgers, and guns, so I guess it must be true.
Anyway, recently a reader asked if it was hard to make friends in Japan, to which I’m tempted to answer “well, yes and no.” But since that’s the world’s most dickish answer, I’ll just go with “yes.” Yes, it is, for a few simple reasons.
By way of illustration, let me first tell you about my good friend, Imada-san. We’ve been naked together many times. Maybe in the West, men don’t bathe together much, but really, how can you call somebody a friend if you haven’t seen his junk? Eh, maybe it’s a cultural thing. Anyway, moving on.
So the other day I met him and his wife at the station. She loves to speak English, since she used to live in the greatest nation on earth. The trouble is, I can never remember her name. But then I’ve never seen her naked either, so clearly she isn’t that good of a friend. So I just call her Imada-san too, which is very convenient.
“Imada-san,” I greeted her in English, “how’s it going?
“I’m going shopping,” she answered proudly.
This seemed to perplex her. “It’s my hobby,” she said.
You hear that English word—-hobby—-a lot in Japan. And what I really wanted to say was, You folks have some strange ideas about what constitutes a hobby. How about stamp collecting or gluing together model airplanes—-because those are legitimate hobbies. Shopping, walking, eating, sleeping? Sorry, but that’s what you do to live. That’s called “existing.” Therefore, not a hobby. But what came out was,
“Oh, that’s nice. Well, have fun,” and Imada-san and I went off to drink beer. Hey, you gotta pick your battles.
So we went to a sushi restaurant and met our other good friend, The Tanuki. He’s the one with the enormous balls. I confirm this every time we take a bath together.
“My wife’s out shopping,” said The Tanuki.
“Best hobby ever,” I replied, “next to drinking beer. Let’s get some fish.”
And we sat at the corner of the counter and ordered a massive platter of sashimi and three big mugs of beer. Imada-san called the waitress over and asked her to select fish for him and put it on his plate. He’s a little fussy like that. He wears checked sweaters, that kind of guy. So she took his chopsticks and carefully lifted slices of fish from the platter onto this little blue-rimmed plate while he sat there like a four year-old. Then we slammed a bunch of beer, ate all the sashimi plus an order of french fries for some godawful reason, then went off to sing karaoke. Imada-san’s wife joined us and sang a bunch of English songs, we drank vastly more beer, ordered some edamame and a margherita pizza, then everybody stumbled to the station and we bowed a bunch and then poured ourselves onto separate trains.
Imada-san and The Tanuki are my great friends. But I don’t even know either of their first names. And although I’ve been to The Tanuki’s house once (wife not pleased), I don’t even know Imada-san’s address. We simply don’t have the kind of relationship friends have in the West. It doesn’t even seem to be on offer. Maybe if you’re in college, hang around Japanese folks who’ve lived overseas, or have a Japanese partner it might help, but I wouldn’t hold my breath.
Lonely in Japan
Now, I’ve moved to a bunch of different cities, both in the U.S. and Japan. I’m a little ADHD like that. And in a new place, it’s easy to be lonely. That’s the default. Because you’re leaving everything you know, all your security, all your old friends, just to try out something new. Some people aren’t cut out for that. And unless you have a lot of money, you can quickly find yourself living alone in a cruddy, dark apartment without the proper funds to go out and enjoy yourself. And that can suck.
But it’s easy to make friends too. You just go out, talk to people doing your same hobbies of shopping, walking, eating, and sleeping, and pretty soon you have folks to hang out with. Even language isn’t much of an issue. There are plenty of Japanese people who enjoy practicing their limited English on you. You can be another sort of a hobby for them, if you that’s your pleasure.
But here’s the rub. You can have a ton of friends and still be lonely. Meeting people isn’t the challenge. Making friends that you actually like, who are willing to listen to your perspective, support your dreams, and share your values—-that’s the challenge. Transporting yourself to a place where everyone is different by default isn’t likely to help much.
Understanding Japanese People
Now, I’m going to be a wee bit judgmental here. I know that may come as a shock since I’m normally amazingly well-balanced, so brace yourself. But let me just say it: Japanese people kind of suck at deep thinking. They have virtually no practice in the sort of bantering debate and dissecting of issues that fills college dorm rooms in the West. They’re nice enough folks, but if it came down to a Google Interview, I wouldn’t wager much on them. Having taught in both elementary schools and universities, the reason seems apparent. Japanese kids study like mad for exams. High school is all about sitting still, listening (or not) to the teacher, and filling in the proper circles. But unlike the West, where it’s easy to get into college but hard to get out, in Japan, it’s the opposite. Once they enter college, their education largely stops. Japanese university (based on the four I’ve taught at) appears to be comprised of two years of screwing off followed by two more of job hunting. Students aren’t challenged to explore ideas or alternate ways of thinking. So the graduates who emerge are capable of following rules, but retain the reasoning skills of a 17 year-old.
So making casual buddies, to talk about sports, food, or shopping, that’s easy. But finding people who enjoy discussing ideas—-What purpose does life serve? Are we just random bits of dust floating in a vast universe? How can I get the waitresses phone number?—-that’s hard. Okay granted, it’s hard anywhere. Sometimes I’ve fallen in with like-minded people quickly, just by accident. Other times, it’s taken me years to find one or two. It’s certainly not easy in Japan. It probably helps not to be picky.
Racism in Japan? Please
Then there’s the big, white, black, or brown elephant in the room. Namely, you. You don’t fit in, simply because of small things like, uh, how you look, speak, and act. Nobody’s gets your Homer Simpson jokes, and you’re destined to spend a lifetime wondering why everybody bothers over minutia you can’t comprehend. A Japanese guy once asked me, “When you peel a tangerine, does the skin come off in one piece?”
“Never thought about it,” I answered.
“That’s because you’re not Japanese,” he said.
Ah, just look at your pathetic self, can’t even peel a piece of fruit right. How’re you ever going to join proper society?
It can’t be understated what a big deal race is in Japan. Marking people as “foreigners” isn’t just a big thing; it’s the biggest thing. News teams wander through cities looking for people who appear foreign, just to ask their opinions about “Japanese” things. The population sees on TV and learns in school just how different “You” are. The recent focus on tourism and the Tokyo Olympics has only made things worse, since Japan has decided to push being welcoming toward “foreigners.” I was walking through Kyoto station when an old man singled me out and yelled “Welcome to Japan!” Thanks a lot. Remind me to try that overseas, the next time I see someone who looks or “Italian” or “Chinese.” In Japan, the concept of treating everyone equal, regardless of appearance, is truly a foreign idea.
Understanding Japanese Men
Making female friends is easier, maybe because the relationship is clearer. There’s a mutual benefit, such as I get to have sex with you and you get to do my laundry. See, that’s a win-win. But making friends with guys isn’t so easy. Men have to sort out their position in the hierarchy of dudes. On page 421 of the well-respected Ken Seeroi’s Guide to Dude Sociology, we learn that “Because they’re in competition for women, men tend to hang out with others similar to themselves.” That is, you don’t want friends who are vastly better looking, funnier, and smarter than yourself, because they’ll get all the girls. And to a Japanese guy, that may be you, especially if you speak English and wear your eagle-print t-shirt while clutching a cheeseburger in one hand and your pistol in the other. Oooh, you’re so exotic. Conversely, guys don’t want to hang out with dorks either, because that’s like wearing a bad hat, and again, no girls. And that may be you too in Japan, especially if you speak Japanese and wear those ridiculous wooden sandals. What are you, the last samurai? Put on some Addidas for eff’s sake.
Be my Friend, Please
Still, there’s plenty of people willing to hang out with you, because they want “foreign friends.” Anyone will do, so long as they’re foreign. They’ll be amazed at how well you use chopsticks. And oh, your Japanese is so good. What, you like sushi? Wow. Can you drink rice wine? Oooh. Our English class is having a cherry blossom viewing party and everybody would love to meet a real foreigner. Please join us. Tell us about your home country. What surprises you about Japan? Aren’t the homes small? Aren’t the toilets strange? Of course you’d think so. Let’s be Facebook friends.
So those are both sides. It’s not just that Japanese people might not accept you, but that you might not accept them, unless you really love being the dancing bear. Hey, some people do. Which reminds me of a foreign girl I once met who raved about how much sex she was having in Japan.
“That’s strange,” I said. “I’ve always heard the opposite.
“Oh,” she replied, “you just need to have really low standards. That’s the key.”
So there you go, the secret to having an endless supply of Japanese friends and lovers: exceedingly low standards.
Moses Had the Burning Bush
It was late when I got off the train at my station, and I walked the long shopping street back to my apartment. There were still tons of neon lights and brightly lit paper lanterns, and I was sorely tempted to stop off at one more izakaya for a beer and another go at meeting folks. But since that never, ever works out, I just got a tall can of malt liquor at the 7-11 and laid back on the see-saw in the park, drinking and gazing up at the stars. Sorry, star. Not a lot of night sky in urban Japan. And I asked God, are you even there? Or are we just random bits of dust floating in a vast universe? I really gotta lay off the booze, to be honest. Then as if in reply, I got a message from Imada-san: “Tonight was fun, thanks. Hiking tomorrow? Pick you up at seven.” He really is a hell of a nice guy. Maybe not an intellectual powerhouse, and granted he gets up way too early and wears those infernal sweaters, but he also doesn’t speak English at me or make a big deal about my whiteness. Plus he likes drinking beer, so he’s okay in my book. Sometimes the friends you get aren’t the ones you were looking for, but that’s fine too. At least that what God told me through a can of malt liquor, and who am I to argue with His wisdom.