Is Japan a Lonely Place?

“Remember that place I used to live, on the 5th floor?”

If this was Emi’s way of asking if I could ever forget her tiny, damp apartment where we spent several nights a week cross-legged on the floor powering through tins of mackerel and cans of malt liquor, the answer would be a resounding Oh hell no.

“Oh hell yeah,” I answered resoundingly. “That place was the best.” And of course by “the best,” she knows I mean “the worst.”

“Well, I just found out my sister lives around the corner. We passed her house every day for two years and never knew it.”

“And this surprises me why?” I asked.

“Because she’s my sister,” is what any reasonable, Western person would’ve said, instead of just “huuh?” but then I never dated Emi because she was endowed with oversized reasonability. Anyway, it’s no secret that Japanese people know basically jack shit about their own friends and family.

Is Japan a lonely place?

So recently, a reader named Chika asked, “Why do people say Japan’s a lonely place?”

Maybe that’s an overly-obvious question for a country where young men lock themselves in their bedrooms, eating instant noodles for a week, I don’t know. Anyway, people say lots of stuff, like alcohol’s a depressant, and I’m pretty sure that’s not true since the only time I’m depressed is when I open the fridge and there’s none of it. I really gotta remember to buy the tall cans.

Whatever, once you get over the fact that you’ll know virtually nothing of substance about anybody close to you, Japan’ll start feeling pretty normal.

Lonely in Japan

So will you be lonely in Japan? Well, if you’re nutty enough to consider moving here, or possibly already have, let me break it down for you:

1. You’re going to, uhh, a foreign country. Hey, it’s hard enough to make friends in your own land, much less someone else’s.

2. No matter how good your Japanese is, it’s tough to be more than a talking dog. Like, nice trick, but everyone knows you’re still a dog. It might be worth considering how foreigners are treated in whatever country you’re from too.

3. You’ll quickly fill up your phone with Japanese “friends,” names, numbers, and photos of hundreds of folks you’ll eventually realize you know nothing about.

4. The longer you’re here, the less you’ll have in common with gaijin. All those people hanging out in Irish bars will start to seem weird. Actually, they are weird, but anyway, good job; now you don’t fit in with them or the Japanese.

And yet, somehow none of that matters. Because somewhere there’s a dude whose brilliant idea is to pull a sled across Antarctica all by himself. He’ll spend months alone in the snow, negative sixty, freezing his ass off in a cramped, frozen tent, and if even if he makes it back alive, someday he’ll be at a party saying, “I skied across the coldest continent on earth and now I’ve got no toes” and everybody’ll pause for a second and then be like, “Okay, who wants more fruit punch? Celery sticks? Spinach dip?”

And still, for whatever reason, he spends his life savings, books a flight from Chile, packs up his sled, and does it anyway. Now, I’m in no way suggesting that Japan’s on par with that kind of adventure, only that, well, if you wanted to know if a solo polar expedition was a good fit for you, moving to Japan might constitute a pretty accurate preliminary test.

Alone in Japan

So today I was rushing back to my apartment when I passed this French café with “vegetable quiche” scrawled in chalk on the signboard out front. You had me at hello. I cracked open the door and peered inside. Sunlight slanted through lace curtains, illuminating round yellow tables full of little old ladies chatting over tiny cakes. Music was playing softly in the background. It was The Hokey Pokey, in English. You put your left foot in, you put your left foot out. You put your left foot in, and you shake it all about. Japan’s so freaking weird.

I put my left foot in. Now, I know you’re thinking, Whoa, isn’t Ken Seeroi really more of beer-and-ramen kind of guy? And yeah, you’d be right to ask that. But since Seeroi Sensei’d been locked in his apartment all week with short cans of beer and large cups of instant noodles until his blood alcohol and sodium levels approached critical levels…well hey, desperate times call for desperate measures. Plus, I fucking love quiche.

I slid the door wide open, and my silhouette in the entranceway produced a reaction like that movie scene where the cowboy parts the swinging doors and the whole saloon goes quiet. Blue-haired ladies with mouthfuls of cake stopped in mid-chew. Somebody dropped a spoon. The woman at the cash register looked like I’d just come to rob the place and seemed to be fumbling for a silent alarm button under the counter.

I walked up, and in Japanese said, “Vegetable quiche?”

She glanced around nervously, then her eyes fell in the direction of a thick slice under a fragile glass dome, shimmering in a ray of sunlight .

“What’s in it?” I drooled.

“Vegetables,” she replied.

“Well, good enough. That and a cup o’ coffee.”

“Cream and sug…?” she began hesitantly.

“Just black,” I replied, and she seemed relieved.

Of course, she forgot to mention that this particular vegetable quiche was enhanced with hunks of bacon, but since ham’s basically a vegetable in Japan, I let it slide. I carefully ate it with this wee wooden fork and a midget-sized cup of coffee listening to “The Hokey Pokey” on loop, and it was all pretty great.

And as the sun went down on another day in the land of the rising sun, I saw my shadow on the floor—a giant foreign guy quietly eating vegetable quiche chock full of bacon, cradling a tiny white mug of black coffee, alone in a French café buzzing with old Japanese women chatting over English music, and nobody batting an eye. I have to say, I’ve never felt more at home.

75 Replies to “Is Japan a Lonely Place?”

  1. I saw Chika’s comment, and hoped you’d tackle this one.
    I know a couple of non-Japanese for who may have integrated much better than average, but I find Japan fairly hard to make real friends in.
    When I see comments online that say “I’m a foreigner and I have loads of Japanese friends” I wonder whether that’s really true, and they much better at this than I am, or if they are misjudging the situation somewhat.
    I often find that when a colleague I am close to moves away, we lose touch pretty quickly.
    My wife is from here, and most of her friends are from college or earlier, so maybe it’s us, or maybe it is harder than some other places.
    It’s my first comment, so let me say “Thanks” for all the excellent pieces, Ken, and add that “Japan’s a scam” is the clearest take on the country that I’ve ever seen.

    1. Ah thanks. Japan’s certainly lead me to question the meaning of, well, damn near everything; but in this case, the word “friend.”

      I think I’ve come up with a working definition.

      In Japan, it’s pretty easy to find Japanese people to hang out with. And you’ll learn plenty of facts about them.

      Like I’m at a bar, and the Japanese guy to my right says, “You like Japanese beer? Really? Me too. I’m from Gunma prefecture. I’ve got a wife, two kids. I enjoy watching Western movies.” And I’m like, Uhh, great, you just told me basically nothing.

      Same first meeting, same bar, with an American: “You like Japanese beer? Yeah? Well anyway yesterday I was drinking one on the can when my wife threw open the bathroom door and caught me watching porn and went ballistic and tried to flush my iPhone down the toilet.” And I’m like, “Dude, same thing. My girlfriend threw mine out the window.”

      That’s it in a nutshell. Which is to say that making friends involves some level of self-disclosure. You’ve gotta share a real part of yourself. Maybe it’s self-effacing, somewhat private, or even embarrassing. But that gives the other person an opportunity to do the same. You open up and let the other person in a little. And maybe nine out of ten times it goes nowhere. But in the remaining ten percent is the opportunity to bond with someone you can actually relate to, and form a level of trust.

      In one minute with a typical American, I know that person better than a Japanese person I’ve known for years. This isn’t about language, but culture. Don’t get me wrong—Americans have their own set of problems, but the one area they excel in is self-disclosure, for better or worse. At least you’ll get to know them. Japanese folks, eh, not so much.

      1. Thank you for this comment.
        I have just understood why I never had a friend in my life. Not that I am going to try now, anyway.

        1. Because you’re not hanging out with enough Americans? Maybe try that. Or start with some Canadians and New Zealanders and work your way up.

      2. This is my second attempt at commenting. Thank you for the delightful book. It’s refreshing to see Japan through a humorous lens. I will leave for Narita in about a year. Like you, I want to study Japanese. I’m in my early 40s. Not the typical student. Life is to be lived. What can I say? Loneliness is an epidemic in Japan. I don’t have the answer. I have acceptance. I will never know my eventual Japanese friends, even those of the fairer sex. That’s okay. There are things they definitely don’t want to know about me. It would change their opinion of me, whatever that may be. Now reverse that.

        Maybe we’ll have a can of suds, or three, once I’m settled.

        Shine on, brother.

        1. Thanks for the comment, and for buying the book.

          I’m always interested in people’s experiences of Japan, both initially and after they’ve been here for a couple of years. So much depends upon where you live, the job(s) you take, and the people you happen to meet. So good luck and keep in touch.



    2. Well put! And a great read 🙂

      I’ve been here (in Tokyo) for almost 30 years now and yeah, I agree with the article – including the analogy to the solo expedition to the South Pole. In my case the situation is actually worse as I’ve been here so long I can say the long-term friendships are shallow and can be very disappointing. It’s odd I feel more connected with people I met in preschool / friends from my kindergarten days (overseas).

      Further my fiancé whom I actually had known for 12 years left me without a proper explanation – yes, he was Japanese. I don’t recommend getting engaged to Japanese guys as they are moody and secretive. He locked me out of the house one day and yelled at me through messenger to make a “proper exit” saying things like “you’re a disease and a thief” – no idea what he is referring to as I never took anything from him. Never have I experienced anything like this with a westerner. Like the article correctly states “you know jack shit about the family and friends in your life”. This is Japan and my family back home is shocked to hear these things but somehow I’m not anymore.

      1. Sorry to hear about that, Jo. Heavy story, but thank you for sharing.

        “Moody and secretive,” yeah, sounds familiar. I know an unfortunately large number of people here to whom those words could apply. Honestly, I know more about some readers of this site than I do Japanese women I’ve lived with.

        Funny how you get used to things though.

    3. Lol I have had my comments in Quora moderated twice for saying something like “Japanese are difficult to befriend, they don’t respond to messages, they will threaten the relationship for little things, they like to keep things at the surface level, they tend to put their friends in little boxes (like game buddy), they are busy with work, and they tend to value their old buddies over new friends.” I literally see a bunch of people say that the only foreigners who lack the ability to make friends are losers with low social skills, but maybe thats me…

      1. I don’t see anything in your comment that would prompt moderation, but then I tend to avoid social media, and arguments in general.

        My experience in Japan is that it’s all but impossible to make real friends here. But I’m sure others think differently.

        To resolve such differences of opinion, we’d first have to define “real friends,” consider who we’re comparing Japanese people to, include what language(s) we’re speaking, what “we” look and sound like, where we’re interacting with others, and even determine what we mean by “Japanese people” at all.

        That’s all just a bit too much trouble. I think it’s hard to make friends in Japan, and if anyone feels differently, great. Let’s move on.

        I will say that watching a heap of Japanese movies (not anime or fantasy films) is an excellent way to get insights into the culture. By observing people’s interactions there, one can probably draw some conclusions.

  2. “silhouette in the entranceway produced a reaction like that movie scene”
    Yeah, sometimes we get that in our own country, but I guess in foreign country its much more incisive. At least they didn’t call the police (or the button under the counter failed)

  3. As a foreigner who has lived in Japan for about 6 years, my best advice to “making friends” is to become a regular at a local restaurant or izakaya. Eventually you’ll make nice with the staff and the other regular customers, and if you’re lucky, you’ll start getting invited to their outings and after work parties, etc. At least, that’s what happened with me. At least once a month I go drinking with a revolving number of the “piatto friends” , a group of about 30 regulars from local Italian restaurant with a charismatic owner (who left us last year, may he rest in peace). I suppose not just any place will do, so look for a place where the staff/owner welcomes the regulars heartily and with genuine happiness.

    1. When it comes to “making friends,” it’s not the “making” that’s the problem, it’s the “friends.”

      It’s no problem to find people to go drinking with, especially if you’re young and look “foreign.” But actually knowing those people, that’s the rub.

  4. Yay, new update! And only a month from the previous one, wow.

    I actually thought about you and your blog earlier today, when I discovered this new Netflix show “Aggretsuko”. It seems like just a cute little animation thing at first but it’s actually pretty dark and refreshingly blunt about the hell of Japanese corporate culture. Maybe worth checking out?

    1. I saw Aggretsuko last night and thought about posting here about it! The head producer is not Japanese, I noticed, but it seems to be an honest and funny portrayal of office life for women in Japan… with cute animals.

      Does feminism exist in Japan?

      1. Feminism in Japan? Bwahahahaha
        Most Japanese people think feminism means, “A feminine woman who is only happy to cook and clean for her man”

    2. I think Ken doesn’t like anime much. Specially the ones about pirates! I’ve heard about this anime, but never checked. Seeing it here again made me check it. Nice, specially when she snaps!

    3. Hey, thanks. I watched an episode, and wow, way too close to home. Pretty much captures everyday life in a Japanese office. If I ever leave Japan and look back, it’ll probably be amusing, but for now, a stark reminder of the reality I’ve gotta face tomorrow morning.

    4. Watched it too and it was pretty fun.

      My wife (Japanese) said she couldn’t watch it though, too sad. So … uh … trigger warning I guess.

      Also, I know I’m being overly critical here but I didn’t like the ending.
      The anime does nicely illuminate the life of a typical OL and how hard it is to flee from this gray and mostly hopeless life.
      But the ending disappoints, because in the end nothing changes … (still worth watching IMO)

    5. Just finished binge-watching Aggretsuko. In Japanese (with English subtitles) of course. Laughed my freaking butt off. Thanks for the tip about this show. The Netflix English Dub is pretty cringy though, I switched to another website halfway through the first episode so that I could watch it in the original Japanese. Much better, thankyouverymuch.

  5. I think it helps to be an introvert. I could probably do with a couple more friends, but I just joined a jiu-jitsu club and everyone there has been really nice so far. Not friends friends, but people I can talk to before and after trying to kill them will do.

    1. I’ve heard before that it helps to be an introvert in Japan. I’m not sure where that leaves me. I consider myself an “extroverted introvert,” meaning that I am generally amiable and gregarious in social situations, yet I tend toward solitary activities and prefer smaller, more intimate social settings.

      I’m looking forward to, if not the possible loneliness, the solitude Japan may provide. I’m excited to be completely on my own in an entirely new place where I don’t know anyone. As much as I’ll miss my family back home, the prospect of essentially starting a new life is liberating.

      My only hope is that I can find some good books in English, as reading is one of my favorite aforementioned solitary activities. Or, I suppose I could go the Ken Seeroi route and zealously study Japanese, instead. Then, I wouldn’t have to live in solitude any longer, as I would then be able to share drinks and stories with old Japanese men. That sounds nice, too.

  6. Has anybody had luck finding friendship with less conventional Japanese people, like artists, musicians, skateboarders, funky stall-holders…? People who are already kind of outsiders.

    1. I second this question. I’ve seen the “quirky” Japanese type on TV, etc., but perhaps the few quirky ones that exist are the ones that make it on TV…

      1. A foreign guy I’m close to is very friendly with a quite bohemian couple he met over 20 years ago. They have a few eco-focused businesses, and looked after him when he had just arrived here.

        So, yes, it does happen, but hasn’t in my own case.

    2. Maybe. I’ve been “friends” with artists, writers, radio personalities, fishermen, farmers, firemen, and a few people who rode skateboards, skis, and surfboards. It’s just like any country I guess, only I’ve never really known them. Sorry, what was the question?

  7. I’ve had the same manager for over 10 years. I know which prefecture he’s from, that he is married, I know he has at least one son because he took a day off for his graduation ceremony but I don’t know whether it was for elementary, junior high or senior high, I know roughly where he lives. That’s about it.

    One thing I miss is hanging out with friends at home. That is so rare here.

    1. Word.

      What you said about your manager applies to about 100% of the folks I know here. As I hinted at above, it’s easy to mistake knowing facts for actually knowing a person. Truth be told, I know a number of readers here better than the people I work alongside of, and it’s not for lack of trying.

  8. “2. No matter how good your Japanese is, it’s tough to be more than a talking dog. Like, nice trick, but everyone knows you’re still a dog. It might be worth considering how foreigners are treated in whatever country you’re from too.”

    Yes and no.
    Certainly in “first contact” situations Japanese tend to treat you as the “other” first and foremost (see also the sociological term “othering”).

    But then in my old company I never felt like the “gaijin” – or at least not after a while. Maybe I can say I earned the respect of my Japanese colleagues? I don’t know. But I feel after working closely with some of my colleagues over the years (fighting, having lunch and celebrating together) I had a real human bond to many of them and now, 9 months after I left the company I still have sporadic contact with some of them – and I am sure I will be warmly welcomed once I manage to organize a business trip to Tokyo.

    That being said, as actual “good friends” I would only count one, maybe two persons I met in Japan. And then there’s my wife of course 🙂
    But then again I think I have only a handful (literally five maximum) of “real friends” in total anyway. (Does that mean I’m introverted? I don’t know.)

    “4. The longer you’re here, the less you’ll have in common with gaijin. All those people hanging out in Irish bars will start to seem weird. Actually, they are weird, but anyway, good job; now you don’t fit in with them or the Japanese.”

    This is definitely true. After my master’s program and maybe even during that time (so two, three years in Japan) I felt the urge to socialize with other “gaijin” almost never. I never hung out with the “hub” crowd anyway though 🙂

    1. I also read somewhere on the internet how people tend to really only make friends for life up to and including university.
      Once you have a job and a family (optional) you don’t meet people in the right environments too often and you don’t have too much time at your disposal, which makes it difficult to make friends.

      This is obviously painted with broad strokes, but I think it’s still a valid point. I definitely met a lot more new and interesting people (and had the time to really get to know them) when I was a student.
      Now I really only socially interact with co-workers (whom I don’t necessarily want to meet in private life too), my family and some old friends. And I think that’s perfectly normal.

      1. That’s interesting, because personally, I made a whole lot of friends after college in the U.S., and a few “foreign” friends here in Japan who are as close to me as family. I’ve done the same thing for years now, so I don’t think it’s due to age.

        But you do hear that said when it comes to Japanese folks: all of their friends are from like middle school.

        Actually, I tend to think that’s one of those things you “read somewhere on the internet.” People certainly form friendships as adults in Japan as well. I’ve even got a bunch of Japanese friends in their 70’s and 80’s.

        So it’s not the ability to form connections in Japan that I’ve ever questioned. It’s the depth of the connection, regardless of when it began. I mean, half the Japanese ladies I talk to don’t even know what their father’s job is, or whether their sister has a boyfriend or not. And that’s family.

  9. Will throw my analysis into the pot here (longtime reader, love the blog Ken). I think there’s a few factors for why we hear Japan is a hard place to make friends:

    1. The type of person who moves to Japan probably has something to do with it. Weaboo, introvert whatever. Add that to how Japanese also perceive western foreigners as assertive and I think there might be an expectations for us to take the lead in friendships. Can be difficult for the mentioned personality types.

    2. Making close friends after you leave school gets harder and harder regardless of location (recent NYT article “making friends in 30’s” comes to mind). I’ve met Japanese people who transfer to my company partway through and say it’s difficult for them to make friends too because people usually make good friendships with those who entered the company with them after college (同期, douki).

    3. Finally, and i think most importantly, different cultures. Different cultures have different concepts of what relationships are like, and supposed to be. I have a feeling that the Japanese don’t think that deep conversations necessarily equate to close relationship anyways. They might have a point – how many people have you had deep conversations with back home whom never turned out to be more than an acquaintance?

    Anyways I guess I’d just like to finish by say that I think blaming it on the Japanese is a cop out (and boy have I done my share of blaming!) and that things are more complicated than they seem. Like is suffering and all that, and maybe the Japanese choose not to sugarcoat it with superficial relationships.

    I hope that didn’t come off as too patronizing. Have a great golden week everyone!

    1. Thanks for the in-depth comment. The sentence that stood out was “I think blaming it on the Japanese is a cop out.”

      Whenever I’m confronted with a situation, I always ask: Is it just me? Am I the crazy one? (The answer being yes more often than I’d prefer.)

      Or is it the people around me? Is this limited to my workplace, my neighborhood, my country?

      Or is it the whole world? Does this problem exist everywhere, and I just never noticed it before?

      In this case, when it comes to the difficulty of making friends in Japan, I’ve gotta say Yeah no, I don’t think it’s a cop out. It really is a Japanese thing.

      Back to your first point: if anything, it’s probably hard for anime geeks and real introverts to land a job in Japan. Language schools specifically select people who are funny, personable, outgoing, and good-looking. They need teachers who are comfortable producing hours of conversation every day. Of the hundreds of “foreigners” I’ve known here, a large percentage were cool, sociable folks capable of making friends anywhere. But the longer they stayed, the less entertaining they became. Basically, you start noticing and conforming to the societal norms. (Which hit much harder if you speak Japanese.) I’m pretty sure this is a factor in why many language schools only hire from overseas. They’d rather fly someone in from Nebraska, secure visas, bank accounts, and apartments rather than hire an experienced teacher from right down the street in Shibuya.

      And then you hear the long-timers’ familiar refrain: I don’t have any friends. Hell, even Japanese people say it.

      Now I’m not trying to be negative. There’s certainly a level of friendship on offer here. I’m just not sure it’s very satisfying.

      1. “…if anything, it’s probably hard for anime geeks and real introverts to land a job in Japan. Language schools specifically select people who are funny, personable, outgoing, and good-looking.”

        Well, now I know why the JET Program accepted me.

        1. Oh, there was supposed to be a sarcastic smirk emoji after my above comment. Without it, I just seem boastful. How did people ever convey sarcasm in writing before the emoji??

          1. /s is what I see on the innerwebs, at the end of sarcastic posts – for the benefit of the irony impaired.

        2. That reminds me of the time I was having coffee and a expat and a Japanese man sat next to me. The expat was a nerdish bespectacled young chap wearing a t-shirt and blue jeans. The Japanese man dress shirt, trousers and laptop bag. It turns out the the expat was an English teacher that was about to get canned. Sitting next to me I had to choice but to overhear the conversation. The Japanese man: “Can’t you be more like so and so?” Names expat teacher who I assume is charming and charismatic. Nerdy expat: “No I can’t!” Gets canned and walks out in a huff. The Japanese man pulls out his thinkpad and starts looking at resumes looking for next savvey show-stopper that will help retain students. Fuck I hate that industry and I’m a professional Gaijin.

      2. I agree that some times these pre-conceptions are based in a kernel of truth, so it’s not necessarily a “cop-out”. A lot of my personal experience and anecdotes jibe with what’s been mentioned in the articles and in the comments…eventually, in aggregate, that’s a trend…

        I’m very much an example of the social, outgoing “foreigner” that started to close in as I started to subconsciously adapt to what was around me…one caveat though, I have been told that my persona changes pretty significantly depending on whether or not I’m speaking Japanese or English or Spanish.

      3. Note on youtube there are videos of people who learned both Chinese and Japanese and yes they say that making friends with Japanese is more difficult than Chinese (, and Richard Conrad of culture hacks talks about it being hard to make “deep” friends in Japan, but yeah stereotypes. Expat insider 2021 put Japan near the bottom despite its low crime because of the difficulty of befriending Japanese people because of their unique culture and preference for work (

  10. i read an article the other day about Japanese pensioners stealing so they could be arrested and actually have someone to talk to in prison (and reduce cost of living)

    i also have a theory that we all get a bit more lonely in some ways after 30 because we all have less time for hanging out, families and making new friends, creating memories is just hard 🙂

  11. I made the mistake of having a couple of penpals from Japan. After learning a few facts about them, including the fact that they all seemed to abhor Koreans and the Chinese, they would all stop writing. I guess they ran out of material….

    1. Every interaction with people from another country gives you a little clearer perspective about that nation’s culture and values. Although to be fair, a couple of penpals is a pretty small sample size. There are plenty of folks in Japan you’ll agree and disagree with. That being said, it always pays to be cautious when communicating with strangers. Pick your pals carefully.

  12. Hi Ken, I hope you can some trips to China, Taiwan, Thailand or other more personable places nearby once a while whenever you feel a bit stuck in a funk. Cheers

  13. And thank you Ken for another interesting read (and the comment people, too!). As always, your posts lead to good discussion, and inspire new thoughts. 🙂

  14. “All those people hanging out in Irish bars will start to seem weird. Actually, they are weird, but anyway, good job; now you don’t fit in with them or the Japanese.”

    Easily one of the best pieces you’ve written so far.

      1. The sentiment stated in the sentence above is very familiar though.
        Being back in native Germany after 10 years in Japan I still fell “un-German”.
        It’s complicated.

  15. I have to agree with you 100% on this one. I’ve been living in Japan for over 5 years now, and I have managed to make “friends”. The people I’m closest to though still withhold information that would be considered treason not to share with your friends in my home country. For example, one of my female friends has been secretly dating a coworker for awhile. I know about it thanks to the rampant gossip that gets tossed around in the workplace, but she has never told me personally. She doesn’t know I know. It’s so weird. Another example, is a male friend who is not that close to me, but close to my close friends. He suddenly stopped showing up to our social gatherings without a word. About 6 months later he showed up bearing news that in his absence he had gotten married, bought a house, and was expecting his firstborn. No one had any idea and everyone was shocked. Things like this are hard for me to accept, but you have to accept it if you want to be friends with Japanese people in Japan.

    1. I wouldn’t feel too bad. There are family members who get blindsided by that type of information. Nobody talks to one another in this damn country.

  16. I bit the clickbait and bought the book advertised here on true stories of dating in Japan. Emo voyeurism, yes please.

    When it talked about the rules of dating in Japan, especially for gay men — man, what a bum deal.

    Ken, did you say something about an upcoming post on American political correctness or #metoo, or did I imagine that?

    1. Yes, in a reply to a comment I posted about how it must be a relief to live in Japan away from the incessant political activism and virtue signaling currently tearing America apart, Ken mentioned he would write a post related to that subject. I’m looking forward to it, provided he still plans on writing it.

      1. Uh oh. I was kinda hoping you forgot about that.

        Okay, let me get out this one other thing I’m working on, and then that. I promise.

  17. It really depends on you as a person.

    Are you a very social person who makes friends quickly?
    Are you introverted and don’t like attending social events too often?

    I’ve never had a large number of friends in Japan, but that’s how I like it, so Japan isn’t lonely for me.

  18. Ken,

    Wish I could express myself better in English, but I would basically suggest you to sort of act American but speak Japanese. Forget about respecting the culture too much, interrogate people, demand them to reveal more about themselves. It seems to me that you’re hoping people to take the initiative in opening up the discussion when you’re the one who should be doing it.

  19. “Is Japan a Lonely Place?”

    That is pretty amusing, but have to totally agree.

    On some sense, Japanese people take pride in family bonds – but in another sense, ‘family’ isn’t what we consider it in the west.

    I’m often amazed by the distance and awkwardness my partner has with her Japanese family. Even her core family, it would be hard for her to ask for a favour.

    It’s interesting, but I’m going to definitely make our family a ‘close’ one.

  20. As far as I have witnessed and experienced, anyone who went to live in a foreign country for a certain amount of time will have a broader world view after such an experience and never truly conform with the norm in his own country again. Travelling the world and seeing different cultures does something to us people.
    Having lived in three different cultures for a while and considering this post, I feel like there are problems to obtain real friendships not just in Japan but in more places on the planet. Canadians are very friendly and hospitable folks, so at first glance it looks like its super easy to make friends there but boy it takes time to share the real stuff with the people one would consider calling friends because North American culture has this little superficial stuff going on. Germans may be a bit more similar to Japanese people in terms of distant politeness. It takes a while to go deep there. Croatians have the typical Mediterranean temper and warmth but exposing vulnerable parts of one’s life needs time as well.
    I would go as far as saying this to be a general problem in our world. We work more, have less money, and less time and emotional abilities to build real friendships because of a failing society. We have  so much stuff, access to anything, but deep inside there is a desire for more.  And it all begins with children who grow up in an unstable, emotionally cold Family and who are attending a school system that is failing their needs and strengths. Such children grow up to be unhappy adults with a mediocre job who are unable to bond with others in a healthy way.
    Honestly, the only place I personally was able to find real friendships is church. All my So called friendships from school and university? Gone! Why? Because they just did not care enough to returm phone calls, to meet up and having a real interest in me as a person. And you know what? Actually doing something as radical as this is exactly what is being preached in church  (or should be if it’s not). DO care, take interest in another person’s life, his hurts, her happiness, their needs and character. And love them. Just love ’em. Love is also sacrifice. Without expecting anything back. Without judgement. Without condemnation. But do tell your friend gently and with love and fear and desperation if he destroys himself because that is also part of a real friendship. Even a whole culture can stray off to a place where nobody cares about the other person anymore and where there is so much distance between people disguised as a “cultural thing”. It won’t change the fact that this is far, far away from the truth.

  21. testing to see if this one go through
    Hi Ken, great to read your blog again. your blog is one of the very few blogs i remind myself to make sure I read when I have some free times from work, other things ( like drinking, bad moods, feeling shitty about life) and many great distractions such as games of thrones and stranger things. Btw, even though you are in Japan& probably want to immerse yourself in Japanese especially now that you have the new Kiddle with the Japanese woman in hot bath tub :). but you so shouldn’t miss out these tv shows. I just want to say I really like this piece of your writing. It is beautiful. And also it makes me think of 2 people and it kinda helps me to understand them more. first is my Japanese ex, which you are right about the depth of friendship. I think we do have a good friendship still even know we break up but I honestly think i have absolutely no idea about who he is, his heart, how he feels, what he thinks regardless i have known him for ages. He is so super secretly about everything especially money. and at times I wonder what is it so damn hard to say how you feel and what it is that bothers you. maybe it is a Japanese thing. then i think about a good friend of mine being in Japan for Jet programs ( used to be, he went a bit weird and distant after being in japan , maybe he thinks he is too cool living a foreign culture and we are just here in quiet new zealand living our boring life with sheeps and can’t understand what he is going through). he tries so hard to immersed himself in Japanese and be Japanese ( which i really admire on one hand). He said he must be super fluent in Japanese to make proper friends with Japanese people in japan and understand Japanese culture. He doesn’t want to be like those foreigners who doesn’t speak fluent Japanese and can’t make deep conversation with Japanese people in Japanese. on the other hand, It sounds like too much hard work for me. I simply think can you just be in japan and eat all the yummy food and not be bothered too much since you said it will takes bloody ages to master Japanese right? but reading your article, sounds like even you speak fluent Japanese , you will still have trouble of making depth friendship with Japanese people at times. So i hope my mate get a lot of Japanese friends as he wanted to.
    that is all for now, love your writing. will try to check in often.
    ps: if you happen to be making a lot of money in japan right now, do you mind sending me some yummy japanese snacks to New Zealand, because it will be a while til i save enough to make another trip to eat yummy Japanese food in Japan 🙂 ?

  22. So Ken, I am an American lawyer in NJ, serendipitously hooked up with a woman from Japan, her English is good, I went there, she has come here, Skype most days, coming back on Saturday into JFK. She is so sweet, has been good to me, yet not interested in marriage and not ready to move to USA. I am trying to understand her and she me. She thinks that Americans are crude, rough and stinky, which of course makes me laugh (cz its often true), she says that I am ok because when she smells my neck I do not stink. Good personal advertisement/commendation, he does not stink. Oh, and she has an Italian temper sometimes.

  23. Do you think that the Japanese want to make close and intimate friendships, but are held back by politeness or cultural norms?

    Almost all of the popular anime series have a group of protagonists that are the best of friends who would go to the ends of the earth for one another. Of course no one thinks that popular anime is a true portrayal of reality in any regard. But it does makes me think that the Japanese do have a concept of what a real friendship is and that it takes some vulnerability and wall-breaking to get there. Is it just that they don’t act on it?

    1. This is such a big question. I’d say you’re basically correct—most Japanese folks want to have good friends, but the culture isn’t really set up to enable it. Although it’s not really “politeness” holding anybody back—the notion of Japan as a nation of shy, reserved Mister Miyagi-types is comically simplistic. There are more than enough rude, mean, or just plain skeevy Japanese people. Although it’s typically directed at other Japanese folks, and rarely toward foreigners.

      Trust may be the biggest barrier to friendships. Japan is a society based upon rules—just not on the Golden Rule. It’s not a society saying, “Be kind to others, turn the other cheek, let bygones be bygones.” It’s a nation where we tell you “Be nice.” You’re nice. And if you’re not nice, we punish you. The end. So it’s hard break down walls when the person on the other side is gonna sue you for breaking the wall.

      All that being said…it’s important to note that Japan isn’t one nation. The people of Osaka, Hokkaido, Shikoku, and Tokyo are utterly different from one another, so it’s really hard to generalize about what “Japanese” people are like.

      This extends even to one region. Japanese people are, at least by American standards, very international. Many have spent time overseas. A Japanese person who spent ten years in London, although he or she may look “Japanese,” will likely have a very different approach to friendships than those who never left Sendai. I’m constantly amazed at the number of “Japanese” people who have lived abroad for years, or who were born abroad. Sometime the Japanese people who are the easiest to befriend turn out to be the least Japanese.

      1. Hey Ken, long time. Do you think there’s any truth to that thing people say about a Japanese person that’s been overseas so long then when they return to Japan they’re treated different? I spent all my time in Tokyo where the people are pretty internationalised, or maybe the people I spent time with were and didn’t see it. Maybe it holds true elsewhere?

        1. It’s definitely true. A lot of returnees mention this. I talked about this with my girlfriend, and what she said is essentially verbatim what I’ve heard dozens of times before. She spent several years in the U.S., and when she returned she found it hard to readjust, because the way of thinking is so different. After years of being exposed to American ways of behaving, her reaction to Japan was “Why do Japanese people do this?” (Personally, I have the same response when I go to the States. The countries are really opposite.)

          In terms of how she was treated when she returned, she said people would put her down for how she spoke Japanese, or accuse her of no longer being one of them. The thing you’ve got to appreciate here is how big of a deal it is to be a true, pure, “Japanese.” It’s really everything. Everyone spends an inordinate amount of time fretting over who looks, sounds, and acts the part. It falls somewhere between a religion and the KKK.

          Flipping that last observation around, I think black culture in the U.S. behaves similarly. If a white person wants to be, say, a rapper (to pick a stereotypical “black” thing), they face similar challenges. On the surface, rapping is just a way of putting words to music, which anybody can do. But practically, it’s an uphill battle for white people to be accepted in that genre. The obvious example is Eminem, and they made an entire movie about the stuff he went through. True, times are quickly changing, although even now the greatest compliment Snoop Dogg can pay is to say that Eminem’s officially black.

          Sorry, got off track a bit. Anyway, that’s roughly how you’ll be treated if you don’t fit the mold of traditional “Japanese” here—like a white rapper.

          Are the attitudes in Tokyo more “internationalized”? Maybe. Perhaps people have evolved to where it doesn’t matter how “pure Japanese” another person is. Or perhaps they’re just better at hiding what they think. If I had to put money on it, I’d go with the latter.

  24. Reading this I wonder if Chris and Ryotaro (or Chris and Natsuki) from the Abroad in Japan YouTube channel are really “close” friends. I like watching those videos just as much as I love reading this blog, it’s a like a check and balance of opinions on the Japanese culture.

  25. Oh man, I needed that cry-laugh more than you know. Maybe it was the Theraflu, the lack of belief by my boss of my strep throat or my current cognitive distortions about my first foray into the work place of Japan but damn it, hitting it out of the park! Thank you!

    1. Glad to help. Japan’s certainly a challenging place to work. Actually, it’s challenging for just about everything. Probably good if you can alternate between laughing and crying about it. Some countries have therapists for that. Japan’s got izakayas.

  26. Hi Ken,

    Big fan of your writing.

    I was wondering if you had read this old reddit comment that someone posted in response to one of your posts:

    “It’s entertaining, but I think it only really describes the average person.

    I find that outsiders in Japanese culture do not share this behavior, I suppose because they never really fully bought into the propaganda. By outsiders, among the ones I’ve encountered include very smart people(often they have been working together with foreigners in research departments at universities), musicians(especially in more “alternative” genres), rock climbers, and the like.

    On the flip side, Suzuki Tarou that works in eigyou at mid-size company X and ganbaru’s every day from 8-22 then goes to drink with the kacho? He drank the cool aid, he bought into the system, and you’re not going to convince him to believe otherwise now.”

    What do you think about this?

    1. Thanks for the props. I really appreciate it.

      As for that Reddit comment, I certainly agree. There are plenty of people in Japan living outside of the standard salaryman existence. The world needs gardeners, professors, car mechanics, ramen cooks—and Japan’s no exception.

      However, what separates Japan from many other nations is that almost everybody works excessively hard at whatever they do. There’s tremendous social pressure to be perfect, in stark contrast to more laid-back countries. I mean, we’ve all heard visitors remarking about how prompt, clean, and organized Japan is. That’s not an accident. It’s an incredibly anal place, and people are obsessed with doing the best job possible, motivated by fear of consequences. That includes those outside of the salaryman mold.

      It may sound ideal as a visitor, but think twice before you take a job here. You’re not going to be standing around checking Facebook posts. Grab a rag and clean something.

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