Making Friends in Japan

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.

“Okay…What for?

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 an 18 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.


138 Replies to “Making Friends in Japan”

  1. Woa, that was something. Nice blog, BTW. I read some incredible posts here (that history you saw some guy being beaten and tried to stop the fight, it was thrilling!).

    1. Ah, thanks much. I’m glad you made your way here. Yeah, that was an experience I’m hoping not to repeat any time soon.

  2. Great post as always.
    Started reading your blog before coming to Japan. Now after almost a year here, I can totally relate to most of what you’re writing.
    I think the “deep conversations” and worthwhile hobbies are a bit of a western thing. I haven’t seen that much in other parts of Far East either, although only in Japan people seem to be sort of proud of pronouncing their hobby is sleeping.
    Anyway, one question. I don’t hang out at izakayas much, but you seem to like it a lot and a sociable guy like you should make tons of at least Japan-style friends over time. Not the case?

    1. Well, uh, yes and no. I have a phone full of nomi-tomo, guys and gals that would be fine to grab a beer with.

      I love izakayas because the food, drink, and atmosphere all suits me. (I don’t think I’m the only one.) And it’s easy to fall into a conversation with other patrons. The strange thing is that the conversation never really progresses. We talk about work. And how old we are, and whether we’re married, and the foods we like, and our hobbies. And we talk about America, and Japan. And that’s about it. If we meet again, and sometimes we do, we’re already out of topics.

      Occasionally, and I mean really rarely, I’ll meet someone who can actually carry on what’s known as “a conversation.” Where we’re not really talking about anything; we’re just talking, you know? And if that person’s cool then sometimes we become friends. But yeah, it’s pretty rare.

        1. Hey, easy with the racial jokes. It’s okay to call someone white or black, but yellow is over the line. I don’t know why, but it is.

          And to answer your rhetorical question, about ten times a day.

          1. I have noticed that calling someone yellow makes me squirm more than saying “black” or “white”. I guess the same goes for “red”? Maybe because the latter two are not overused as the former.
            I was surprised to hear that Japanese people have no problem calling themselves or other southeast Asians “黄色い”.

  3. You hit the nail here. Call me the English major I am, but one of the most important qualities of a friendship or relationship is the ability to have deep and meaningful conversations. I was comfortable and safe and in good spirits in Japan, but knowing that finding those rare people meant finding true exceptions, for friendships and relationships, is the base of my hesitancy to live there for good. Then again, how many provoking conversations do you have in the West? More, but maybe not many. It’s intimate. So what matters? Keep asking, right.

    1. I forgot to add: to an English PhD, Keio,

      “I feel even if I became perfectly fluent, I wouldn’t have deep conversations here.”

      “You’re quite right.”

  4. I was greeted by an old lady in Kyoto instead. She was no taller than 145 cm, wore way too much lipstick and shouted “welcome to Japan!!! ” and hugged me. Every morning. Crazy baba, but cute I guess.

    I feel that there is a big difference between Japanese friends in Japan and Japanese friends overseas. While overseas you’re not as exotic and they’re more likely to have conversations about things that matter more than tangerines. I also feel like they get more… Human? Less like robots, after 6 months overseas or so. I still can’t escape the “wow you’re so good at Japanese!! ” though.

  5. Hi Ken, You express what I think but don’t have anyone to tell. After 10 years in Japan, I left in 2013. I have 2 Facebook friends in Japan and they message me once a year, if i message them first. Drinking buddies? Galore. Tennis pals? Yep. Close, intellectual and intimate connection? Yeah, right. I think we establish those kinds of connections at a time in our lives when that kind of thing is really important – in college. Some of my best friends to this day are the ones I made in college. But I was in my 30s and 40s while living in Japan. I’m grateful I found ANY drinking buddies or tennis pals. What living alone in Japan for ten years taught me was how to be alone and find the value in it. You’re right – they’re not deep folks. Chasing the ghost of a close connection with someone was futile – like sidling up to the Borg. But then there is always the exception. The Japanese surfer dude with perfect English who goes by the name “Memo” and lives on the northern coast of Yamaguchi. We would sit at Gusto Restaurant for hours talking about philosophy, history, politics, ethics and human nature. He drove his flatbed with a piano on the back out into the woods many times and let me fall asleep under the stars while he tickled the ivories for the fauna. In 10 years, one cool dude. But now I’m back in New York where everyone is medicated, guzzling Red Bull, and packing. Oh how I miss the sunsets atop Ohirayama.

  6. to me it is actually the opposite. i got lots of friends here, who are more than just drinking buddies. we meet on a regular basis, do this and that and talk and whatnot. and those are real conversations. my friends arent interested in foreigners at all, quite the opposite, they dont like foreigners being at the places we are. and i think it was not really difficult at all to get them, it just happened more or less by accident. i also never hear all the stupid questions most people seem to hear, or have to speak english.

    on the other hand, i didnt have one date here in five years and i dont have any foreign friends. and that is not intentionally, i actually wouldnt mind a foreign friend at all. so maybe i did everything wrong, or everything right, i guess.

    though whenever i meet foreigners (which doesnt happen very often), the complaints are usually the same and none of them seems to have japanese friends, its usually a partner, foreign friends and maybe work mates.

    1. That’s interesting. I’d even go so far as to say strange. Can you shed some light on where you met these guys, and what you usually do together? You have male friends, but haven’t had a date in years, and never get asked the questions I get every day…how’s this possible? I don’t like to pry, but it might help to know your age, home country, and what city you’re in now. Because I’m definitely missing something.

      1. Yes, I have experienced exactly what Ken describes, and I’m sure that is the typical foreign experience but my experience is much like Gorden, although my long term stay in Japan has gone through many different stages.

        I think it has a lot to do with how you meet people.

        I’m into music, both as a fan and as a musician. I have a friend that goes to many of the same gigs with as me and we are typically the only foreigners. People just speak Japanese to us naturally, and we never get the standard questions, many of my Japanese friends don’t know where I’m from, my job etc. We are all there for music and friendship comes through that. These people are wonderful, friendly, open minded and relaxed but they are in a sense outcasts from “normal” Japanese society; many are heavily tattooed and most have poor paying part time jobs. I get to met a lot of young Japanese women so dates aren’t an issue but often the hours they keep and their chaotic lives make proper relationships difficult.

        Until a few years ago I had only a few foreign friends but I started playing in a band with other foreigners and got to know a lot of the foreign indie bands. Now I’m meeting more of the Japanese that are seeking foreign friends, and the English bubble expats, but there are plenty of cool people to meet.

        1. This is my experience as well. Being into hardcore punk really weeds out the people who do all the normal Japanese people things. Along with that, when you go to shows regularly, you actually see these people on a regular basis. Japanese friends who do not go to shows I only see a few times a year, MAYBE. I’m in a band where I’m the only foreigner. This is even better to me because people see that I’m in this band with Japanese people and they stop assuming the normal shit. That’s pretty cool to me.

      2. well yeah i can try to explain and hope it isnt too confusing (or too boring).
        i also dont want to come off as someone who thinks he knows more than others, i actually think that you are always spot on about what you say about japan, my life here is just different, i guess that is that.i also dont want to sound like everything is or was easy. sure, i got a nice life here,but finding employment was a different story,it took me three years and over 2000 rirekisho to get my first full time job and now i got to look for a new job and contacted 800 companies since august/september with limited success. also i admire everyone who gets along with limited or no japanese, that didnt work for one day for me… so somethings might be easy, others are not… its all about the balance, i guess…

        anyway, about me, i am from germany,35, working in fashion business (bless and curse)… my friends are not related to fashion at all and i never meet people from the fashion industry, since i usually dont like them and i try to keep myself far away from any scene, or movement, or whatever similar things. first time i came to japan was in 2001, because i wanted to visit a musicians museum that was rumored to be shut down (im listening to japanese music since 96). and i am livinging in shibuya btw.

        my friends are both male and female and of various backgrounds and ages. car mechanic, salaryman, film industry, from 27 to about 50/60. i actually got two circles of friends, one i cant really remember how it all came together, i just met my (now)best friend by accident and some friends are friends of him, or got to know him around the same time as i did (the remaining ones). the other ones i met by randomly going to a bar on my first weekend after i moved. the barkeeper and me had some similar taste in music, got along with each other, went to different places and she introduced me to other regulars (which all turned out to be long time friends). now we go to some other place, for some reasons, but thats another story.

        we do different things actually and maybe not to unusual, we spend holidays like new years or christmas and birthdays together, sometimes we had movie nights, did work shops, some small scale events, farming related stuff, or went to a hut on a mountain, or in the woods, sometimes they/we charter a bus and go to events somewhere else… just common things i guess. i cant join every time, because i work on weekends, though.

        why i dont hear the stupid questions? i dont know. of course i get asked if i eat this or that, but to me its more like “do you want to eat xy” instead of “can you eat xy” and that might also be because people know i dont eat everything. few weeks ago someone i know for years asked me where i am from, for the first time. they usually say i am one of them and thats why they dont care much (that doesnt mean we never talk about how things are in europe), when i say they shouldnt talk the way they talk abut foreigners when i am around, because clearly i am a foreigner and i would never try to be japanese. with my best friend, we rarely have anything else but deep conversations.

        about dating, i cant tell you why… my friends say women who would date foreigners wouldnt date me, because im not foreign enough (which is hard to believe, i am not japanese and i dont look asian at all) and women who dont date foreigners, well seems to be difficult. my boss said something similar actually, he said because i am not outgoing and dont have any obvious relation to japan (the things japanese expect of foreigners), our customers dont know where to put me and are reluctant (which changes when they just try and talk to me).
        i also get introduced to people quite often and there is hardly any problem at all. once they try, people usually like to talk to me.

        i dont know if that really helped, you, i think i was just lucky in the end.

        1. Wow, that was an excellent answer. Maybe it’s luck, as you say, but it sounds more like you’re the kind of guy who’d send out 2000 resumes or contact 800 companies. And since I know how hard it is to learn Japanese, in addition to English, I’m pretty sure that you’re the kind of person who’s going to have success no matter what you do, through sheer persistence. Props to you, seriously. I think I’m gonna have to try a bit harder.

          1. yeah i got to try harder, too… the resumes sound impressive maybe, but to me it really isnt… i am used to it and i think i dont have any other chance, i got to keep going until i find a new job, whatever it may be…
            and successful, maybe somehow… i think i could, if someone gives me the chance. i cant open my own company here, though i actually think i could be somehow successful with it, based on my experiences with japanese customers and all the other experiences i had here, but i just cant and somehow sometimes i just dont dare..

            anyway, the friends didnt come through sheer persistence at all, otherwise i wouldnt have them,or i wouldnt have them anymore. it is somehow about the same interests (though one group of my friends doesnt share my interests at all), but i think it is just about your character. and i am also sure that everybody can find friends here. maybe expectations are too high and people are too picky, or people just dont go out enough. or often people only want japanese friends and that leaves them disappointed,not to mention that its stupid to choose friends by nationality.
            there are enough places where japanese people are willing to talk to foreigners, or are even looking to get foreign friends (fun fact: there are enough foreigners that dont want such japanese friends, for whatever reasons, so its often peoples own fault, i think).

            or as brett did/does it, just going to places where people with similar interests hang around (of course, btw,nothing is easier than finding places that are full of japanese), his advantage is also playing music (i would love to have a band,but i would never go on stage), so its pretty much easy to get in contact with people, not to mention that japanese people love entertaining foreigners (entertaining in a more broad meaning, not only as artists)… so there are a few ways to do it, you just have to start somewhere and get out of bloody starbucks…

            1. Leave Starbucks? You mean like go to Doutor instead? Tully’s? I dunno, seems risky.

              One thing that’s clear is you’re okay with being cast as the foreigner. For some reason, that never sits well with me. Maybe it’s my American upbringing, where you’re supposed to treat everyone equally…and then discriminate against them. So there’s some irony there too.

              I recognize this is a mental block I need to get over, but I tend to bristle when people make a point of singling me out. Japan’s seems a much easier place if you’re okay with being the “foreign friend.” Now I just need to be okay with that.

          2. i also dont like to be treated in anyway different then anybody else… yesterday i went to the post office, because i had to send some post cards for work and the dude at the counter spoke broken english to me, even though i spoke japanese to him, doesnt happen often, but that is one of the things that are annoying. not only that they just assume no one speaks japanese, its also that people wont get better at speaking japanese, when no one lets them speak japanese. and that is not to be excused by politeness. so im really not okay with being treated like a foreigner, as mentioned, i dont like any kind of attention, so just treat me like any other dude. my education was also different, i was always taught that all people are the same and that it is unfriendly and humiliating to judge people by colour/race/anything but character… i dont like being the foreign friend, but i actually never am the foreign friend. maybe you got to to look for other people… whenever i feel that people like me because i am foreign, or people talk to me just because i am foreign, i quit any contact.

            the starbucks thing was just a metaphor, apparently most foreigners just stick to the same places, like starbucks, or shibuya crossing or the other popular spots. nothing wrong with that, but i dont see the point in being in a foreign country, when you just dont leave youre home zone, like you did in your own country… many people complain about how boring their country is, but in the end its never about the country, it is the people themselves who are boring…

  7. I love racial jokes. Would a Japanese take it lightly if he makes fun of me and I respond by making fun of him?

    1. I’m sure you know that it wouldn’t register. If a Japanese person says you have great chopstick skills or asks if you can drink green tea…and you respond by asking if that person can use a fork or drink coffee…they’ll just laugh. That’s just crazy talk.

    2. I’m glad you got a doze of how Black people feel when they get treated similar way by Whites. Welcome to the world of minorities. What a learning experience to reflect on when you return to America where Blacks are treated very badly

  8. Very discouraging. It’s such a shame since I would love to experiece all the colors, sights, sounds, smells and tastes that Japan has to offer for the rest of my life. But thinking about enjoying it all alone makes me sad. In my opinion shared happiness doubles the happiness. Looks like it’s nearly impossible to have that in Japan.

    1. I certainly didn’t write it to be discouraging, although I do think we should be a bit realistic.

      Understand that you’d be a first-generation immigrant, and that’s not always an easy spot to be in. You’ve probably met plenty of these folks where you’re at. Maybe they looked different from the prevailing population, or spoke with thick accents. The Russian guy, the Nepalese guy, the Native American guy. A lot of times people don’t want to hang out with them, for whatever reason. Assimilation is a challenge for immigrants in every country.

      Looking at the U.S., even setting aside recent immigrants, it’s clear that “people of color” and white people (who’d be, I suppose, colorless) don’t always mingle all that well, despite having both been born in the same country. So that’s just reality. The world’s not quite yet ready to be the bridge of the Starship Enterprise.

      The other thing to keep in mind is that Japan is not a very open society. It’s just not. Especially, and ironically, if you’re Japanese.

      One way to get what you want—and this is the route chosen by many—is to get a Japanese girlfriend or boyfriend. That’s comes with its own set of challenges, but it’s certainly one option.

  9. Nail on the head.

    Japan is a place where everything and everybody has a place, and there are decided-upon ways in which things in those places interact. If you’re cool with being slotted into the “lost tourist” or “clueless English teacher” role then you’ll have no issues making tons of “friends”. You fit into the system, people know how to interact with you, life’s harmonious for everybody.

    But the second you start speaking any level of decent Japanese or the second that Japanese people can’t teach you about some inane part of their culture or what “Japanese rice wine” is, that is the second that you cease to fit into the system. And when something doesn’t slot into the system Japanese people just can’t handle it. System Error. Cannot Compute. Cue darting eyes and terrified confusion.

    Japanese are suspicious of anything that doesn’t fit into their way of seeing the world (which is why people just ignore ヤンキー, ニート, and other types who have given up on the whole Japan thing) and if you as a foreigner decide “idiot ALT” or “clueless tourist” are not for you, good luck finding a way of interacting with people that doesn’t end in confusion or awkwardness. Because just being a normal dude will never work when you’re white. Or black. Or just not-Japanese.

    (This isn’t to say every single Japanese person is terrified of not knowing what to do in a given situation, only 99% of them. My pot-dealing ex-girlfriend was pretty good at not giving two fucks about anything, but then again she was a pot-dealer.)

  10. “You can have a ton of friends and still be lonely.” I have to agree to this especially in Japan. Just like you said, it’s easy to have Japanese friends who share your hobbies. But you’re right too that deep and personal conversations are not their thing. Conversations remain on the surface level with cultural differences as their favorite topic. I think if people want a more personal type of friendship, find another foreigner.

  11. Wow, another great CM with a tinge of regret and dash of sadness. I begin to wonder how the Japanese have accomplished this almost complete isolation of their people from all other nationalities, cultures and races. It’s as if they have devised a foolproof means of retaining their cultural identity and preventing any other nationalities or people from influencing their own society to any degree.

    Funny… knowing how Europe and America are currently being culturally over-run with foreigners while our own governments deliberately confuse, lie and misinform the people (as the wealthy take over every part of western society). THE Western cultures are being erased and re-written by the PC police, including: our religious beliefs and social mores, class distinctions, our education system, our military history and national pride.

    It’s good to know that the Japanese are immune to this type of national de-branding. So when the one-world-order/global-warming Bilderberg/Rothschild/Rockefeller people finally take over, the Japanese will be the last people on the Earth that can still act like they have national spirit… Ganbatte, Y’all.

      1. LOL, that’s so true, didn’t think about that one. You really are a wise man Ken, that was a great response and in just one sentence you made me feel that you understood and saw more than I was able to envision. I’m not worthy Sensei, but I will continue to read and learn. Maybe I just need to drink more… hmmmm!

    1. Ever heard of sakoku? To begin with Japan is a relatively small country and it has a lot of mountains. Big part of their lives even before sakoku was being a pirate and terrorizing whitu piggus and other Asians. Even later during the modernization the moto was to apply foreign ideas the local way. And they got even more salty during and after the war. Thing is, they seem to remember history on a cultural level, which is not a bad thing.

      1. Yo Gentoo, I did read about the Tokugawa edicts and their effects on Japan, including the possible origins of the term “Gaijin” and the Shogun’s views on the “white hairy devils” and commented on them on this blog October 2013:

        Quote from blog entry –

        [It’s an anti-Foreign anti-Christian psy-ops campaign created by the Shogun of Japan Hideyoshi Tokugawa in 1597. He compared Christians to oni that possessed the minds of Japanese youth and that became the term “Ijin” meaning foreign devils to describe Christians and he used it to began his anti-foreign, anti-Christian policies to limit his perceived belief that foreigners were unduly influencing Japan. It is rumored that Hideyoshi blamed the Christians for his failed invasions of Korea and lack of support from his Daimyo and was leery of the Christian Spanish that had conquered the Philippines. That later culminated in the Tokugawa exclusion edicts of 1635 by Iemitsu Tokugawa, which shut Japan off from the rest of the world for over 100 years. The term “Ijin” was later changed to Gaijin, a more generic name and finally to gaikokujin as a more polite way of addressing the foreign demons after Japan was re-opened by Admiral Perry to international trade.]

        I read about that in several papers on the internet that was translated into English. Note how Wiki ascribes Gaijin to a term used in the 1300s and doesn’t reference the use of the word “Ijin” by the Tokugawa Shogun as he began anti-Christian actions several years (35+) before his family issued the “Sakoku” edict, which was specifically linked to a purge of all Christians in Japan. Apparently, he didn’t like the white hairy devils and thought they were the cause of many Japanese setbacks during this period (Christian Daimyos did not support the invasion of Korea for instance). He also believed that the Spanish were going to invade Japan like they had done to the Philippines.

        IMHO, Wiki mitigates the negative connotations of the word Gaijin… more PC police action no doubt. BTW, that Sakoku edict was actually in place for over 200 years (e.g., so if you had a bible for instance, you were executed or if you left Japan with some Christians and then came back, you were executed; or if you made friends with a Christian who was ship wrecked on Japan, you were executed), and was enforced longer than the US has been a country… hmmmmm! And to this day, there are still fewer Christians in Japan than almost any other country in the Far East and most in the Middle-East if not the majority of the world, including China, Saudi Arabia and North Korea. AND that is in spite of 70+ years of Christian missionaries that have been going to Japan since WWII ended trying to convert the population. I truly believe it’s just an undeniable part of Japan’s cultural heritage to dislike and avoid attachments to foreigners (especially white Christians) and that the people of Japan will not change anytime soon – case closed. BTW, I’m not religious and was just amazed when I read up about the failure of Christianity to convert the Japanese since WWII and to this day believe that Japan’s aversion to all things Gaijin is the main reason the US and Japan still aren’t comfortable as military allies.

    2. I think it’s because they’re so closed off to other cultures, but they”re willing to appropriate EVERYTHING. We’re too worried about cultural de-branding to realize that our culture is dying as a result, while they’re sure enough in their identity that they don’t worry.

      … Kind of like how you’re surest of a straight guys sexuality when he doesn’t get bothered over getting called gay. They’re sure of their masculinity, so they don’t worry about anybody else thinking differently.

  12. A couple of things I’ll add to Ken’s excellent article.

    People tend to get pigeon holed into roles, your work friends, your local drinking buddies, sports club friends etc, and these boundaries are rarely crossed. I’ve worked for my manager for 6 years or more and I only vaguely know that he’s married and has at least one son.

    Something I especially miss is that it’s rare to go to other peoples’ home. Ken often mentions if you don’t have money you end up staying at home. Inviting friends over for pizza and a movie doesn’t happen much, so if you’re broke and stay home, you’ll be alone. Your friends, work collegues etc are likely to quite spread out, people met at central points and then go home to far flung homes. My apartment is spacious, very central and close to the station but the only visitors are women that are staying over night.

    Of course many homes are quite basic and even just one visitor is kind of intimate.

    These are generalisations of course, I do have close friends from work, I know their family, and I’ve visited their homes. I have friends that reguarly invite people over for dinner or parties, it’s just this is a lot less than we’re used to.

    Things are different outside the major cities but that brings a whole load of problems with it.

  13. Hey Ken,

    It looks like you’re still diligently replying to posts on this thread, so I’m going to assume this is the best place to ask this question. I’m afraid it’s going to be a bit of a mouthful, so I’m going to pop over to my local, American, fish-sausageless 7-11 to grab a can of malt liquor first. Okay done.

    First of all, your blog is amazing. In addition to your incredible writing and humor, your Japanese commentary is refreshingly accurate and free of sugar coating.

    I speak pretty good Japanese, and was actually a JET CIR for a year a while back. I’ve been reviewing a lot lately and also have a circle of Japanese friends to speak with in the US (I consider them close and sincere but almost all are here temporarily). I made my first trip back to Japan in a few years recently, and by the end of it I was physically upset to leave for the US. The amazing food, onsen, and trains really did a number on me. I’ve since been seriously considering returning in full knowledge of all the drawbacks.

    I also work in tech in the US, and basically all the salaries on offer in Japan are varying degrees of crap in comparison. I’m getting increasingly sick of software though and am not particularly thrilled to continue with it here or in Japan. It’s like I’m wearing a US golden handcuff and a tech industry golden handcuff, and removing either results in at least a halving of salary.

    So I guess my questions are: What drove you to leave tech? I gather that you did that before moving to Japan, but I don’t see much discussion of it on your blog. Any more thoughts on the topic than “more mousepad, less bikinis”? I’m especially curious because it seems like you went through the same thing as me in some ways. And, any tips on how to decide for or against taking the plunge? I’ve basically been pondering it daily for several months and am remaining on the fence.


    1. Your situation does have parallels to mine. Maybe I don’t talk much about my previous life because, strange as it may seem, I don’t really feel this blog is about me. I’m more trying to describe the experiences I see happening to a lot of foreign people in Japan, of whom I happen to be one. But since you asked…

      Yeah, I was in tech for a long time. I had a great job, flew around the U.S., programmed stuff, managed stuff. But that got kind of boring, so I took a job that involved both technology and Education. Internetty stuff.

      Which was an even better job. Private office, cool car, pretty girlfriends, great apartment in a great city, lots of cash, and tons of excellent friends. But you know, life’s one time only. That’s just my personal philosophy, and in a lot of ways not a very smart way to live, but there you go. Some people climb Everest. I moved to Japan. I’m not good with heights and cold weather, is all.

      I’d come here a bunch of times, had Japanese friends, and spoke a reasonable level of Japanese. I’d also read a stack of books about Japan and talked to people who’d lived here, all of which reinforced my belief that it was the land of dreams.

      What I found, of course, was that Japan is a very real place, with plenty of good, but also bad. Whenever someone talks too lovingly about it, I’m tempted to say, Sure, but name ten things you can’t stand. Because if you can’t immediately rattle off a list, you surely don’t know the country.

      Which isn’t to say it hasn’t been fun as well; only that it’s not some glorious Shangri-La. I guess this site pretty well chronicles that. The only question remaining is, Would I do it all again? Eh, probably. But I’m kind of dumb like that, so maybe I’m not the best person to ask.

      Hope that helps in some small way.

      1. Really fascinating reply. I always pegged you as being around your mid-30s, but with that sort of career-background, perhaps you’re a bit older? Would you care to divulge that or prefer to stay a bit more anonymous?

        1. You callin’ me old? Bitch, please.

          Sorry, just kidding. But okay, I started programming when I was maybe 12 or 13. And—and this is so me—I did it for like six hours a day. Pretty hardcore stuff. Of course this was before discovering girls and beer, so I had heaps of free time. By 16, I was working part-time as a programmer, and by 20 I was a seasoned pro. I’m certainly not the smartest dude in the world; I just started young and had a bit of a knack for it. Wish I’d started learning Japanese at that age. Ah, but then again, probably all for the best.

          Anyway, the funny thing is, I never really wanted to work in tech. I really wanted to be, no shit, an English teacher. People just kept giving me better and better IT jobs. Now, I’ll admit I do enjoy coding. There’s something really rewarding about creating something from scratch and spending weeks working through all the problems until it’s freaking perfect that really appeals to me, but there’s that caffeine-infused buzz that just feels unhealthy, sitting there staring at the screen for hours, don’t even want to get up to pee because you’re so engrossed in this mental exercise. God forbid somebody should try having a conversation with you. So yeah, I was pretty happy to make the switch to Education. Moving to Japan, well, maybe that took it a bit too far, but it’s been good too, mostly.

          Back on point, I do have two other things to mention to folks looking to take the ultimate plunge, i.e., Chuck it all and move to Japan. The first is, save as much money as you humanly can. Sell your car and take the bus for a couple years. Don’t buy any new clothes. Track all your expenses. Skip haircuts and grow a long beard. Move here—if that’s what you’re planning—with a cushion of cash and use it judiciously. That could play a huge role in how good a time you have.

          The second has something to do with 90%. Think I’ll write that next. Don’t touch that dial.

    2. I also want to work in a software in Japan, but hopefully while working I can somewhat improve my Japanese!

  14. Perhaps his, “When you peel a tangerine, does the skin come off in one piece?” was his way of asking, “Are we just random bits of dust floating in a vast universe?” (or, conceivably, “How can I get [your] phone number?”), ’cause, as you know, things are different here.

    Twenty plus years ago, on my first stint living here, I was at a (ex-pat) friend’s house for a party where he had invited a mixture of locals and foreigners, and I was talking with a Japanese guy as we were eyeing the food, and he spotted and then held up a small individually wrapped square of Kraft Philadelphia Cream Cheese, and asked in all seriousness, “Do you have these in the United States? It is very popular here.” Next came the discourse on the uniqueness of Japan’s four seasons, again spoken of with such reverence and sincerity, yet it was the shallowness of that conversation that has stayed — and been repeated, to infinity and beyond — there have been very few surfaces capable of being scratched, I’ve found. Fortunately my friend’s ex-pat lifestyle came with sufficient cold beverages on hand, making subsequent dips in the millimeter deep, 4 bedroom, full dining room, 3 full bathroom, two terrace, Daikanayama rental wide, conversational pool then and on subsequent occasions bearable.

    Now back for a second go around, I’m waiting for the inevitable, “Do you have Shake Shack back in NY?” conversation, but sadly I have to now pay for my own beverages, the apartments are much smaller, and most people seem to be more engaged with the flashing colors moving on their phone screens than taking an interest in the humans next to them.

      1. I now have this image of the old Reese’s peanut butter cup commercials — you’ve got coffee in my watermelon/and you’ve got watermelon in my coffee — with respect to some new canned coffee product made with filtered watermelon juice undoubtedly now in product development somewhere in this archipelago and destined for vending machine greatness, advertised by Tommy Lee Jones.

      2. My personal favourite is when they asked me, whether we had rice from where I was from. And another time when a Japanese person said, that I must be a genius, that I am able to communicate with a native speaker in Japanese. Btw Ken, what are the stupidest questions that you have been asked by Japanese people?

        1. It’s hard to pick winners from the pantheon of stupidity to which I’ve been subjected. Like a Play Doh machine, the newest dumb questions just push the previous ones out.

          And as time has passed, I find I get fewer questions and more statements, as if they were pronouncements of fact. This week I learned that “foreigners” don’t like the taste of miso, and that they can’t digest seaweed as well as Japanese people.

          “Is that right?” I asked. “‘Cause I eat about five onigiri a day, all wrapped in nori, and washed down with wakame miso soup.”

          “Well, you can’t digest it as well as we can,” was the answer.

          “So all the mozuku in vinegar, dried kombu snacks, and hijiki salad…

          “Your intestines are different. That’s why foreigners eat meat instead of rice and seaweed.

          “But don’t Japanese people eat a lot of meat? Yaki-niku and niku-don and cha-shu?

          “Japanese people can digest both. Maybe not before, but now they can.

          “They are a testament to evolution,” I observed.

          So there you go, Darwinism in overdrive in Japan, while the rest of the world just sits around like cavemen. Well, there’s no arguing with science.

  15. I can totally relate to what you are saying about having nothing to talk about with Japanese “friends.” Just like you said; you have the cultural comparisons, talking about work, then food and then what… I mean I tried telling stories but when I finish telling a story everyone just kinda looks at you and there is that wonderfully awkward silence until we all start talking about food again. From my experience in Japan I have found that the men are usually really into something as a hobby, and if you can connect to that part of them you can talk about something else for once. It might be weird though…

    Anyway amazing blog!

  16. Ken-as usual, loved reading your post.
    As a soon-to-be 40, white guy from England who studied Japanese at Uni, lived there for 7 years ( 1 at Uni, 6 as an eikaiwa bunny), who has lived back in the UK for 12 years working for a Japanese corporation’s UK sales team, and married to a lovely Japanese lady, I had a few thoughts…

    “Hobby”….hmm….that word that was my bane while doing the eikaiwa dance… I guess the problem is that it has been taught to them as an all-encompassing English word to cover ‘ what stuff you’re in to’ and ‘what you like to get up to in your free time’.
    If someone asked “ So, what do you like to do on your days off?” and you answered “ I love having a good lie-in, then pop out to the shops for a bit and grab a bite to eat on the way home” well, that sounds pretty good to me. Calling it a ‘hobby’ obviously just sounds weird though..

    In terms of visiting people’s houses there, well yeah I guess it’s not so common. I always felt it was probably down to three main reasons, though could be wrong…(1) If you live in any pretty decent sized city, the houses/flats are genuinely rather on the small side, and not exactly conducive to a good gathering…(2) There are SO, SO MANY great little places to go out and have some damn fine food, tasty beers, all at reasonable prices- there is almost no need to actually hike round to someone’s joint- you can almost trip over much better places to have a laugh…(3) Seems most Japanese have this fear of people coming round- perhaps shame at their living space, or worry about a bad impression? That and the fact that when you DO invite people round, they suddenly want to stay up all night the day before cleaning/polishing the whole place so that it is so spotless it looks like a showroom before they’d consider opening the door to someone?
    Admittedly, (1) & (2) are a bit different the more ‘out in the sticks’ you might live.

    With regards to the deep conversation, I guess it could be true- but be careful not to have the old rose-tinted glasses on. During my years since I got back, I’ve made a few new friends, and lots of acquaintances too through my job. As a general rule, conversation still seems to be pretty much dominated by football( soccer, obviously), work, Men/Women issues( delete as appropriate) , TV/Film?Music chat, and then after enough brews, general bollocks and gibberish. Perhaps it’s more about our age and circumstance than cultural? I can remember those days as a teenager/ uni student when you might stay up for like 3 days debating the universe, but that just doesn’t happen now no matter where I roam.
    I think another issue in terms of an emotional connect is more cultural though. Japanese people for the most part seem to be uncomfortable with / unsure how to and overall, not used to opening up their hearts to others. My reckons it comes from the way they are brought up/ educated, but there’s always a slight, yet perceptible distance. If my best friend here came to me with a problem/issue, he/she would usually open right up, giving me like EVERY detail( no matter if it might reflect embarrassingly on themselves) and totally allowing me to give advice/ lend an ear/ a shoulder to cry on etc. as they wished. With my Japanese friends, we can have some awesome nights out, great laughs etc. but hardly ever have I really got deep into their private lives. The girls are a little better at talking ( although some have said it’s because I’m a foreigner, and that they would never discuss in such a way with Japanese guys…) but still not so much- Even when my wife’s friends confide in her, it always feels a little like they have given the broad strokes, but left out the filling, the nuance, the fibre. So, there are many ‘grey’ aspects even after hearing a story, that would probably have been fully embellished over here.
    Perhaps a lot comes from a deeper cultural difference, where there is less empathy, more feeling of ‘shame’ for any weakness, and an obsession with ‘迷惑’ that seems to really constrain them emotionally?

  17. Ken! I always can’t wait for your new pieces because they are so much related to me! Its like if I were speaking to myself. I have been in Japan for 7 years, and I have 0 Japanese friends although my Japanese is pretty much fluent. At the beginning of my journey when I lived in guesthouse, there were a couple of weird Japanese dudes who seemed not to fit in the local society… and I was actually kind of friends with them. For some reason, they were kind of people with whom you could talk for hours. But as usual… life made me to move on from the guest house while they stayed there… and then we just lost any contacts. I have tried for a while to be friends with other Japanese met on the way… but for reasons you described above I couldn’t. I just mentally don’t fit in. I get bored 2 minutes after I talk to a Japanese person. So as you can imagine… my friends and acquaintance circle is rather foreigners living Japan. Happy bubble I would say…

  18. An article that’s equal parts hilarious and sobering, like a blow to the head with a squeaky clown hammer. Extremely well-written.

    I’ve lived in Japan as a foreigner, but my experience is profoundly different. Why? Because i’m of Chinese descent, and speak good enough Japanese that cashier clerks and wait staff can’t tell i’m not local. So i can fly under the radar if i want to, but the moment i reveal my foreignness things start getting weird, much of it exactly how you described, but with the locals being somewhat more… confused. Oh and i also come from a country most know next to nothing about, so perhaps there is less pre-judgement there. Perhaps.

    I’m sure the experience morphs accordingly if you’re a foreigner of Japanese descent (wow what a can of worms, that one, going by what my friends say), or other permutations of language X appearance X cultural background.

    One comment about your point that Japanese aren’t good at deep thinking: i don’t agree, and i point to some of their anime, films and books, which are amazingly philosophical and challenging. I would say that your lack of encounters with deep thinking in everyday life are due to, in typical Japanese fashion, an unspoken code of which situations are appropriate for these sorts of conversations, and WITH WHOM. You’d probably need to find out when and where you can indulge your passion, and get the right people to accept you.

    Also, you’re obviously a very strong N (intuition) personality in the MBTI personality index, and as a fellow N who went through an education system similar to Japan’s, i can assure you that the inclination to discuss and challenge ideas transcends education, just like how intelligence transcends education. So perhaps your attribution of cause to education isn’t fully accurate.

    1. Like a blow to the head with a squeaky clown hammer…oh, that’s good. Wish I’d thought of it.

      On this notion of deep thinking, and whether or not Japanese folks can do it, I’ll agree that I have close Japanese friends who can have serious discussions. But what I don’t see much of is the ability to solve problems or weigh pros and cons.

      I’ll admit I painted “deep thinking” rather poorly, as some sort of whimsical, college-freshman musing. What I really meant was the ability to grasp both sides of the argument on serious social and global problems. For example, the fact that Japan’s got a pretty massive pollution problem. The air is frequently yellow or gray, and the ocean is full of bits of plastic and nuclear waste. Forget sushi, I’m terrified just walking through the seafood section of the supermarket. But okay, what are some things that could be done? I can think of a dozen ideas just off the top of my head. But when I ask the well-educated Japanese people around me, it’s like I’m quizzing Winnie-the-Poo. Silly bear, blaming China’s not a solution.

      Should the U.S. have gun control? Would Japan be better off with more guns? Should pot be legalized? If it happens overseas, can Japan be far behind? Abortion is common in Japan, yet often vilified in the U.S. Which position is right? These aren’t pie-in-the-sky discussions. They’re policy issues that demand consideration, and many Westerners could quickly generate a list of ideas both for and against each one, and argue either side of the issue. I just don’t see any level of reasoned debate occurring in Japan.

      Instead, there’s Poo, sitting around eating honey and staring at his balloon…

      1. This is in reply to both Ken and Daniel. Just discovered this blog and am really enjoying the frank and thought-provoking discussions going on here about life in Japan. I’ve been in Japan for over 20 years and would like to add my two cents as well.

        I am an American of Japanese descent, so my experience has as Daniel put it another “can of worms.” People didn’t know what to make of me and when I first came here, I was often told that I didn’t look “American” enough to be hired as an English teacher (at that time, only whites and blacks were considered American). But even when i was in the U.S., some of my own countrymen/women would say to me “Where are you from?” and when I answered “California,” they’d say, “No, where are you REALLY from?” and “Wow, you speak English well.” So people like me got the same kind of stupidity whether we were in our home country or our ancestors’ country. Fortunately, the incidence of both kind of experiences have decreased to some extent so some progress has been made in both countries.

        In regards to the inability to do “deep thinking” or having a reasoned debate– well, I agree with Daniel because I have a handful of friends that I can do this with (not that different from my experience in the U.S.). It is a matter of where you meet people as someone earlier had mentioned and a measure of how close you can get to someone. Of course, there are some extremely shallow people here as there are in any country. I used to think pretty much the same as Ken and other people commenting here about the inability for “deep thinking” but, thanks to my own friendships and having the opportunity to deal with young adults in my job for many years, I have come to the conclusion recently that it is not so much a matter of inability but lack of opportunity to practice this skill (after all, harmony is deeply valued among the older generations and they are keenly aware of that) and a sad sense of “akirame” (what’s the use of this kind of discussion and getting worked up about things when nothing is likely to change?). I’m afraid that the latter one seems pretty strong among my students. Although some of them enjoy exchanging ideas and discussion of pros and cons that we do in my classroom, I think that for them it is more an intellectual exercise and one interesting facet of Western education. For many of them, it is something that they may never be able to make use of in their working lives. And recent political trends and changes in educational policy do not make me hopeful of any positive change.

  19. I think for japanese it tends to takes time to have a deep friendship because japanese people avoid こまる、めいわく, to make a mistake or to show or give something that is not perfect to someone else, they go to great extents in order to avoid these.

    Inviting someone to their house , might be too pushy, or they don’t know when is the right time to leave ,what to serve? , what to bring ? , in other countries, if a mistake happens you iust need a short apology

    Also in Japan there is the unwritten rule of kohai-sempai. I feel men are more affected by this.
    when I go out i see groups of women walking , they walk shoulder to shoulder but when i see groups of men walking , they walk in a line: the leader in front and then subleader behind and so on. always someone is leading and following.

    by the way , great blog and posts

  20. Your blog is awesome. I love it and I hate it. One of the things that I really want to do in my life is live in Japan. So I start researching and find this place. It was like a roller coaster, I read your article on why you should learn Japanese then started learn the Hiragana (I’ll probably be moving on from basic stuff in a few days). A few days after I started I discovered why you shouldn’t learn Japanese, I was in full understanding that it would be the hardest thing I’ve ever challenged myself to do but I so badly wanted it. You took all my hope and crushed it with that article. I didn’t practice hiragana for around a week before I decided to keep going.

    So why I guess I’m saying is thanks. You haven’t suger coated anything and you made think if learning Japanese is what I really wanted. Keep up the good work.

    1. Finally I’ve achieved my goal of being loved and hated in equal measure. Thanks for that.

      So I’m about 11 or 12 years into learning Japanese. At an hour and a half of study per day, let’s see, that works out to…uh…one billion hours. But I guess the language is kind of useful sometimes. I can now ask for a pair of chopsticks at the grocery store and be laughed at, so that’s great.

      If Japanese were an instrument, it’d be the xylophone. People look at you like, yeah, I get that it was hard to learn, and it’s impressive that you took all those years to get good at it, but why’d you pick such a dorky instrument? Electric guitar, drums, saxophone, they weren’t cool enough for you?

      But if that’s your passion, then I support you. I keep working on it every day, so I clearly I see some value in it. For what it’s worth, my advice is to take classes, learn the kanji, and ignore everything you read on the internet.

  21. Hey Ken
    I just want to say thank you for this blog in general. I’m bored to death doing the IT thing in London and always thought of Japan as some kind of green grass holy land. I took a trip there not too long ago, it was very nice. Japan is an awesome place to visit but to stay/work? Hmmm maybe not.
    Your blog brought a bit of balance to the Pro Japan youtubers etc. Not that there’s anything wrong with them but they’re selling a product (the weaboo Japan religion). Oh look at this crazy vending machine! OMG NEKO CAFE!
    Anyway… I’ve decided to try and improve my satisfaction/happiness here, Japanese people just seem so cold.

    1. Thanks for the props. I’m writing something right now on the question, Should I move to Japan or just stay where I’m at? It should be done in a week or so, and maybe it’ll be of interest to you.

      Japan is a nice place. But maybe a little boring, to be quite honest with you. I mean, how many times can you go to a cat cafe? Experience suggests only twice. Personally, I had a great time in London a few years back. I went to a soccer game, ate lots of good food, drank a ton of good beer, and everybody was friendly and cosmopolitan. God, it’s good to be a tourist.

  22. My Scottish professor related this joke in class the other day….

    Three anthropologists, Italian; English; and Japanese, went all over Africa. After they got back home, they each wrote a book. The Italian wrote on “Romanticizing Africa”. The Englishman’s book was titled “How to Civilise Africa” while the title of the Japanese scientist’s book was “Does Africa Understand Japan?” 😉

      1. Judging by the reaction, the lack thereof, of Japanese students in the class, I would say not many. Then again, maybe they are just being polite 😉

  23. Last year, I hosted a couple of Japanese guy students for two days with some friends from my Japanese class. We took them around the city, tried to make friendly conversation, asked them tons of questions about their lives back home and bent over backwards to make sure they were comfortable the entire time. In return, we didn’t even get one question about our lives here. Neither did they try to make much conversation. Though we got a lot of ‘へー!すごい!’ , of course, when we were explaining the local culture. They didn’t even have the grace to look interested when we took them to a museum. But we were bored out of our minds too, to be fair.
    And none of the Japanese guests I’ve had over for a homestay have bothered to maintain contact when they’ve gone back to Japan. Makes me wonder if I’ll ever be able to make friends there, haha.

    1. I had the exact same experience a couple of times when I lived in the U.S. It feels like, while in Japan, Japanese folks feel some compulsion to maintain the veneer of politeness. But once overseas, hey, the gloves are off.

      Of course, there’s a lot of folks in the world, so that’s probably an unfair generalization. But still.

      1. I work in an international homestay office and usually Japanese students are the most beloved.

        However, one family hosting a Japanese student said she noticed food in her pantry disappearing at an alarming rate. While this was happening, the student demanded more food–in particular, yogurt. She ate six packs of yogurt a day, and the homestay mother was having a hard time keeping yogurt stocked in the fridge.

        When the homestay mother went to clean vaccum her room, she peeked inside her closet to find—tada!—all the food from the pantry. She had stocked up on six boxes of cookies and eight boxes of gummy treats and a slew of non-perishables.

        I could *never* imagine this happening in Japan… but like you said, maybe the gloves come off when they go abroad.

    2. In all probability, you wont. I say this as an Indian female who’s lived for over a year in Japan and still has to make any Japanese friends. Well, at least real Japanese friends. Most of them are averse to discussing any issues/ideas at all. What they do seem to have is a real, well..eagerness? for foreigners to actually reiterate some cultural stereotypes about Japan as well as your country. It’s just sad, really. Once the “Ohhh, I’ve heard that you do this in your country , is it true?!” and “How do you find Japan?” questions run out, you run out of topics to talk about as well.
      I had such high expectations from this country. Well, to tell you the truth, it really just is a tad bit too boring.

  24. Your writing is like having your favorite painting turned into words. Seriously. As someone who considers themselves (humbly might I add) to be well spoken, and quick on the whip, it’s quite refreshing reading a blog that has me reading articles I never even came here for. I did not even want to make a comment 4 articles ago but you’ve gained my personal respect; just through your apparent command of the english language, and storytelling, while weaseling in hidden gems of truth and perspective.

    Brown nosing aside, I’m applying for the JET program next november. I interned in Japan doing music festivals, and booking for the military and Japanese nationals and really fell in love with the country/people. I’m taking the CELTA this summer, have mild teaching background, a degree, decent japanese, and an obvious passion for Japan (The worry that grads will just pack up and call it quits after two months was a problem I never would have guessed). I like to think with my background I’ll be a shoe in (what with my charming personality, good interview skills, and the beard and hair of someone in the Hells Angels). Sarcasm aside, I would really like to get your .02 on anything I could do to help get into the program. I’ll probably apply to korean programs as well juuuuuuust in case because aside from JET I don’t want to get stuck in an ekaiwa, but my heart never left Japan.

    Also even in the few months I lived there I can say you’re so spot on with the article. I made friends pretty well because I AM the ‘dancing bear’ by nature. I like standing out with shoulder length hair and a biker beard. Everyone loves to hear about how you build motorcycles, own guns, toured in bands, don’t have to separate your trash in a billion containers 😉 etc. A reoccuring theme in some of your writing is that the Japanese want to see American stereotypes confirmed more or less. I just combine that with actual knowledge and respect for their culture and it got me a long way. Which is also what drew me to JET, it seems like they’re really looking for people who are gonna share culture.

    TL;DR If you find yourself the life of the party in America you’ll probably find yourself as the life of the party in Japan imo.


    1. Nice TL;DR. I couldn’t agree more. When people talk about white guys being popular in Japan or getting girls, personally, I think if they put in half the effort in back home, they’d get similar results. Of course, it’s not gonna happen in Idaho. Miami? Okay, now you’re talkin’.

      But then to the serious stuff. All right, about nailing an interview…since you asked…First of all, develop a nice, fun demo lesson. I’ve never been a JET, but the demo lesson’s a pretty standard interview thing, so you might as well be prepared. The CELTA course should set you up well enough, I expect.

      Next, and don’t take this wrong, but having interviewed a whole lotta folks over the years, I’d say you want to look as normal as possible. Japan’s a conservative place, and there’s a fair bit of competition for good jobs. As a person, the whole viking thing’s cool with me. But if I had to pick between twenty people with good qualifications and sterling personalities, man, I don’t know. Especially for a job working with kids. Without it, yeah, you’re probably a shoe-in, so why chance it? Hair grows back. Just sayin’.

  25. Your post basically summarized why I left Japan. I had a lot of friends and newly adopted family in Japan, but there was no one I shared a deep connection with. It was hard to talk about anything beneath the surface. I thought, perhaps, the Japanese must be so conflict-averse they refuse to talk about issues that would even slightly suggest controversy or debate. Everyone has to get along. Everything has to be peaceful. Everyone has to turn a blind eye to the ugly, terrible and obscene in our world.

    In all my 10 years of learning Japanese and interacting with Japanese people, I have only met one (yes, one) Japanese person I can talk to about topics that challenge the intellect (he was even open to a debate about the nanjing massacre, something most Japanese would never admit to, much less want to talk about it). I met this Japanese person in China. Most of the really amazing, close Japanese friends in my life are the ones I made *outside* of Japan (and usually the ones that are not studying abroad in the United States, that’s just too typical). A Japanese person crazy enough to run off to China or India or Honduras or some other less-than-desirable place usually has an amazing, amazing story to tell (and much more open-minded).

    Again, this post was perfect! Keep ’em comin.

  26. Haha, yesterday a Japanese friend (here in Australia) said that she wanted to move to the Okinawan countryside, but she was worried that she would always be considered an outsider. She said that people would smile and be nice to her, but “real friends is not possible”.

    Hey, when I was growing up in rural Western Australia, it took ten years or so for someone who relocated to be considered a local. And that’s if you were white.

  27. It’s interesting that just reading posts like this is a steam-release for so many who have these or similar experiences here. Just confirming you’re not crazy takes your stress level down a few notches. Mostly what you see in other forums is the aggressive backlash against anyone who dares shine a light on anything unflattering about Japan life. Good stuff, Ken.

    1. Ah, thanks. I see a lot of stuff online either praising or damning Japan. That’s because there’s a lot to like, as well as plenty not to. It seems like the polarizing viewpoints proceed from a notion that Japan’s some sort of special place. And it really isn’t. Okay, it is different. Well, different from the West. Maybe not so different from China or Taiwan. But just like everywhere else, it’s got a mix of good and bad.

      The wonder is that this myth-making happens more with Japan and its people than, say, Argentina. I don’t think I’ve ever heard Argentinians described as, well, anything. How about the Basque? Lithuanians? Those countries need way better PR departments, and I know just the country to help them.

  28. Ken, long-time reader, first-time commentor. More gold here as usual. The higher ed literature backs up your point; collegiate studies pretty uniformly slam Japanese schools for not performing well compared to other leading (rich, industrialized, First World) nations. Japanese universities rank well vis-a-vis most institutions in Asia, and the National Seven Universities are excellent, but there’s a huge drop in quality after that. I think a US analogy would be if America only had the Ivies and a boatload of podunk comm. colleges.

    Question (for Ken and whomever else): do Japanese young people know that they are missing out on the collegiate experience we take for granted in the West? And, would there be a market for Western-style college education in Japan? [I ask because a member of my college administration recently tasked me with investigating building a two-year plant in Japan, and I dunno if such demand exists.] Any of you Japan-watchers have an opinion on or feel for that sort of thing?

    1. I’m trying to wrap my head around what the Western “collegiate experience” actually is. My sense is that Columbia University is pretty different from, say, the University of Arizona. Are we talking about the kind of experience where you openly debate issues in Sociology class? Or the kind where you’re doing keg-stands and jumping off the roof into the hotel pool?

      In general, Japanese people seem to have a slight envy of the West, while simultaneously believing themselves somehow better, in some way. Well, at least we take off our shoes. See how much cleaner we are? Although it would be very exotic not to have to.

      It might help to understand what this “plant” is, of which you speak. Are you manufacturing college students? Because yeah, Japan’d probably be into that.

      1. Ken–thanks for getting back. I can’t speak to the keg-stands, officially. My fellow faculty members would all feign disinterest…even though we all know what happens at the departmental Christmas party. Mostly, I’m talking about the debate/interactive environment in American colleges.

        No doubt there is a wide range of institutions in the US–fair point. But, most colleges (even big universities) do see the small, seminar or sub-40 person classroom back and forth with other students and professors as a vital element of higher education. Sure, some folks land in 300-person surveys like I’ve both taken and taught, but even those have small breakdown or discussion groups, where you’re *required* to at least nominally discuss stuff with a grad student!

        My institution is a community college, and we were hoping to open an international campus. The idea is that we would give our local students a chance to study abroad while still taking our classes and maintaining their eligibility to transfer to one of the 4-year institutions we have agreements with. And, we were hoping to also grow the student body, by allowing Japanese students to take two years of American collegiate classes (and advanced English practice) while staying at home in Japan, before transferring (again, via our direct-admit agreements) to a four-year campus in the States.

        That’s what I’m writing a proposal for right now: to internationalize the experience of American junior college students, who normally have to wait until their four-year to do that sort of thing, and to provide two years of an American degree (and advanced English) for Japanese students right where they are.

        1. My apologies for the late reply. I was on a brief break, but now that it’s Christmas Eve, I can get back to work.

          Your proposal has two exciting components. The first is where you unleash a wave of U.S. undergrads in a foreign country. With limited supervision, alcohol on every corner, and unfettered by social constraints, I can imagine only good outcomes.

          The second is where you bring together a group of Japanese kids who’ve never spoken openly about anything in their lives, put them in a room with people used to free discourse, and expect them to have a conversation in a language they barely comprehend. In front of their peers. Who will then judge them forever.

          Okay, forgive my facetiousness, because I actually like your idea. I do believe the first issue will require a stringent selection process, strict conduct guidelines, and contingency plans for airlifting people out, but let’s set that aside. The classroom environment seems a much bigger concern.

          My experience is that Japanese college students are initially overjoyed at the concept of an “international” classroom. That’s where they get to speak English with white folks. Who doesn’t like that? But two underlying problems quickly emerge. Problem One is that their English—especially listening and speaking skills—is inadequate. I believe you can partially ameliorate this by pre-training your undergrads in how to speak with non-native speakers. (Frequent pauses and avoiding words like “ameliorate” are good starts.) Trying to place the onus on the Japanese students to improve their English will probably not yield great results. Improving one’s language skills takes years; it’s much easier to train your students to simplify their speech patterns.

          Problem Two is the rub, however. Japan as a rule doesn’t have a culture of discourse and debate. They don’t understand it, they don’t trust it, and they don’t see the point. If you speak with your counterparts in Japan, you may notice a pattern. They tend to defer to “foreign” people in “foreign” matters, such as this type of classroom. Your proposals will be accepted and agreed upon, and you’ll feel that you’ve reached an understanding. But a lot of times they’re simply withholding their opinions. They have no vested interest. If the foreign guys want to come in and teach classes, hey, have at it. Whether it’s a success or not makes no difference, since it’s truly “outside” of their world.

          But I digress. The challenge of promoting Japanese students to think and express themselves in a manner foreign to their culture is massive. There are some techniques you can use to promote this in the classroom, but helping them to extend this way of thinking into the real world, well, that’s the true, and difficult, goal.

          I suggest you hire me as a consultant.

          1. Ken–good points, all. Originally, I hoped to build a partnership between my institution and a Japanese college, where we shared requirements, our two student bodies, etc. and granted a shared degree. I talked to one or two academics I know in Japan, and they said that the chance I would find a faculty and university administrators open to change in Japan would depend on a cold front in Hades, basically. If this project happens, I think my institution is going to have to shoulder it alone–which might be better on some level, but would make it much harder to start.

            Oh, and if I get any sweet, sweet admin dollars for this moonshot, I’ll be sure to show you some love. How does “cultural consultant and wardrobe advisor” sound?

          2. Most Japanese high-school students who want to go on to higher education compete to enter Japanese institutions with well-established rankings. For almost everyone, it’s the institution ranking that finally matters, not the student’s subsequent performance (apart from graduating successfully). So you would be proposing an institution with no ranking and a different collegiate philosophy.

            That said, there are already several universities in Japan that offer a more international experience for interested students, with high numbers of students from abroad and courses taught in both English and Japanese. Also, many universities have already set up partnerships with universities abroad for study abroad programs of varying length.

            A final point that needs to be considered is Japan’s declining birthrate. The student population is shrinking, putting pressure on educational institutions to maintain courses or even stay open.

  29. Great post!

    why not create a blog to fill the void? You know something that does not only deal with the pros and cons of Japanese culture but a place where you can perhaps form these friendships? like “Deepthikinginjapan” or “intellectualbanterinTokyo” etc.

    it sounds to me like living In Japan would be similar to say working in a superficial industry like fashion where the talk is all about the surface? honestly, it would be enough to drive me insane. I feel desperately unfulfilled (shows you that I am a white Westerner with few real problems!!) when I don’t have conversations that go beyond the veneer.

    I do think it does have something to do with age, too. I get very bored with mid-age conversations which revolve often around holiday destinations (hotels, food, flights – NEVER stuff about culture, history, religion), house renovations, kids’ private schools all that mundane middle class stuff but I also find that with a very happy and curious disposition I usually (and unintentionally) always move conversations to a deeper level – often people find themselves bemused at how candid they can be with me and I think that is because I am always keen to understand people and always ask them questions about their personal lives as I am genuinely interested in huma experience.

    if the person is guarded or uncomfortable I just move on as I know they are private people.

    Sounds like in japan I would be eternally lonely and would probably get the hell out of there as soon as I could.

    I need depth. I do not care about how many friends I have – but with every one of them is a deep personal connection, we know intimate details of or lives, know the flaws, can be totally honest, debate, argue, weigh up ideas, disagree and sometimes drive each other nuts.

    I dunno, Ken…I dunno how you do it. but you do, and with style.

    How about humour? That also seems to be the common thread with friends here…no humour, no do.

    japanese humour?

    at my son’s parent teacher interviews this week I had the funniest conversation with one of his teachers. left thinking I want to be that man’s friend for life!!!! Happened to be Englsh. I think your humour has an English flavour, too – I would have sworn you were English had you not kept harping (!! that is an English joke that I think you will get) on about eagles and guns and cheeseburgers.

    I really love the way your writing has that cheeky cyclical style where you return to the same ideas. V clever.

    Look forward to your next post.

    PS a very stereotypical and dumb question but do you ever want kids? (This I not a proposal!! Hah)

    seriously you said that the wife, kids, mortgage thing was boring…are you making a conscious decision not to have kids?

    See there I go again with the personal questions!!! still on an IPAD forgive me my typos.

    1. I’m not sure if this is a fair question for Ken to answer, but if you do a Google search for Tokyo draft / craft beer bars, you will get lots of recommended watering holes – happy times!

    2. This may come as a shock, but I’m actually not a beer connoisseur. I just like the stuff.

      When I lived in the States, I drank a lot of craft beers and microbrews, and then a weird thing happened. I just got tired of them. They were all too heavy and too sweet. When I came to Japan, I was happy to just have a “normal” beer, like an Asahi. To me, the standard, big breweries in the U.S. produce beer that’s too thin and pissy, but the major Japanese producers get it just right.

      Not hating on anybody else’s tastes. That’s just where I’m coming from.

    3. Three suggestions from a beer enthusiast living in Tokyo
      iPhone app: craftbeerjapan. Includes beer map
      The sake shop in Tokyo food show, below the Shibuya scramble

  30. Is there an intersection with Japanese culture that could serve as an excuse to give us an insight into your thoughts on programming?
    What’s your favourite language? What kinds of projects do you like to work on?
    C’mon, nerd-p0rn.

    1. You know, honestly, the longer I’m here, the more I struggle to say what Japanese “culture” even is. It’s just everyday life, and completely unremarkable. All that stuff you read, about politeness, harmony, humility, whatever, it’s all just a bunch of…ah well, but that wasn’t really your question, was it? Sorry, shouldn’t have had so much coffee this morning.

      I do think you can make some comparisons between programming and the Japanese language, but maybe not the ones you’d want. Programming tends to be simple and logical, and the Japanese language defies that. With programming, you start with very basic rules, and gradually build complexity, testing at every stage. To learn a programming language, you don’t really need to learn very much. How are variables and constants defined and assigned? What’s the overall structure of the language? Can it be grouped into modules, and how are variables passed? What are the commands for directing the flow? Once you figure out those few things, off you go. I’m sure the type of programming I did is dated, but I can’t imagine it’s too hard to figure out even now.

      Programming requires the ability to understand the big picture; the details, hell, you can work those out later. The Japanese language, by contrast, starts with an alphabet of thousands, much of which is inconsistent. It requires substantial memorization, and intense attention to detail. Some of it makes sense, and some of it doesn’t. The only thing it really has in common with programming is it favors people who are good at sitting in rooms for long periods of time, fretting over inane stuff.

      But back on topic. A few years ago, I really enjoyed working with Borland Delphi. It was a great language. These days, Java seems pretty popular, so I guess it’d be worth spending a weekend learning it. For projects, I seemed to have done a lot of database integration, helping one company’s system to communicate with another. For some reason, I enjoyed that, because it had it real-world impact.

      1. Do we even have cultures now we’re all under the same economic system? That is the belief/survival system that shapes our daily lives.

        As a no-nothing newbie I enjoyed my first stab at Java. The way objects link together seems to mirror the way humans break things down from the general to the specific. And I liked the idea of making little object-robots. It’s modern-day magic, creating something from nothing.

        I’m guessing database integration means that you came along like a superhero when a company bought some third-party software. “Why doesn’t it just work?!”

  31. Mikan and peels:
    Citrus’ skin tends to stick harder to the pulp depending on how old they are. Mikan are often fresh and thus peel off in one go (a rare sign of freshness from a fruit in Japan), whereas other citrus are terrible quality and imported and thus are almost impossible to peel. It’s literally the kind of thing that you only notice if you have only been exposed to terrible quality fruit throughout your life and learn to appreciate the rare exception (or if you’re into baking, since grated lemon/orange peel is an important ingredient in some cakes, which get ruined by the terrible quality Japanese citrus). Way to racialise that, random Japanese dude.

  32. This is our (See “Wife Unit”) ‘s second yearly foray into the depths of Komae & surrounding areas.

    Our Japanese is terrible but we have semi-mastered enough bits&pieces which appear to be workable enough in most any social situation via reading your blog, burning symbols into our brains, & having stumbling-stilted-learning conversations with whomever we bump into., to whit… Thank you for writing of your experiences.

    We learned a lot from you, so please write more!

    We also learned that “Buying Local” in The States” is *Nothing* compared to wandering down alleys and actually “Buying Local”, locally.

    Giving a Mom n Pop some bread for services rendered = Keeping Their Lives Intact.

    Danke Schoen!

  33. Unfortunately being half Japanese, having a decent command of the language, and being almost totally illiterate puts me in the “too Japanese-not foreign enough” category.

    …But I found that joining a club for a hobby that you really enjoy will probably help a *lot*. I’ve had all kinds of interesting conversations with my cycling and photography buddies. Even now that I’m outside of Japan 99% of the year, I seem to waste an awful lot of time BSing with them over the internet, and we make sure to meet up whenever anyone is in the area.

    I also have to note that many people (myself included) experience all these problems wherever they are. IMHO a lot of them are generated by our approach to things more than anything else.

  34. It’s amazing that between your rants about life in Japan and your intention to just be a funny guy you actually still manage to convey so much real wisdom.

  35. Quote: “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.”

    Perhaps this, combined with disappearing after graduation behind the event horizon of the salaryman black hole of 16-hour workdays for life, explains why most of Anime is about middle and high school escapades.

  36. Sorry but Japan it’s indeed a lonely place, after seeing how some of my japanese coworkers live and what they do on weekends, there’s no doubt that Japan is a lonely place!. I even sometimes feels very sad after knowing that some of them are going home to sat in front of the tv drinking a beer and eating a bento from the 7 eleven alone, because to have a girlfriend seems to be a very difficult task for some japanese guys.

  37. Hi- I’m married to a Japanese man. We are retired and moved back here to take care of my inlaws 5 years ago. I’ve tried every which way I know how to try and make some real friends here. I know tons of people but someone that can can really relate to- that can relate to me … I’m still hoping. I can totally relate to what you wrote here. As a matter of fact I found the post because I googled ” making friends in Japan” as a last resort- lol. I’m not shy and gave really gone out of my way to try and make friends with similar interests. I’ve even joint ” activities”. Nada. Oh sure… I get plenty of what you describe — people looking for a foreign friend as a novelty, or to practice their English on…

    I’m fortunate that my husband’s family is awesome. If not- I don’t think I could stay here. I love Japan but the loneliness and isolation is hard- and like I said- I TRY.

    Thanks for writing this. It helps me to know that it isn’t just me.

  38. Based on everything I’ve red here about the difficulty of making deep friendship in Japan, There’s one fact most bloggers here are missing. Among countries of the world, their are those countries that are “FOREIGNER” FRIENDLY” and their are those that are not. Japan isn’t one of the foreigner friendly nations. What is a foreigner friendly nation? It’s a nation that welcomes foreigners, take deep and genuine interest in foreigners and their countries, and don’t feel threatened by the presence of foreigners in their country. This countries are general very welcoming to foreigners and would always make you feel like you’re a part of the country. If you’re looking to live in a foreigner friendly country in Asia, The Philippine and Indonesia are #1 and # 2 on the list respectively. By, the way, this is just my personal definition based on what I know about foreigner friendly countries.

    1. I haven’t lived in Indonesia, so maybe I have no idea what I’m talking about, but I have traveled there extensively and I found people there to be far more friendly, open, and direct—without any of the fear or uncomfortable anxiety when it comes to dealing with foreign people. And, the English levels were simply way higher—even in the smallest towns and cities. Also, it just seemed way easier to just get on the level with Indonesians and have interesting conversations—and this way way away from the typical backpacker/tourist trail. Maybe it’s because most Indonesians tend to speak two languages already as a general rule and their dominant language is written in the roman alphabet. Regardless, there was really no comparison to Japan—but as I said, I haven’t lived there long-term so maybe i don’t know…

      1. Also, as i mentioned, there was none of the terror of dealing with foreign people. When that happens in Japan, regardless of Japanese ability, I don’t know, it just seems dehumanizing and weird—like, hey if you’re afraid of my mere presence, I’m gonna make you really afraid! It’s a horrible way to look at it, but it’s kind of instinctual in a way. Whatever—sure enough, there are cultural reasons to explain it, but it doesn’t make it any less weird—-but if you live here long-term, you come to grips with it and let it slide off.

  39. Speaking of social interactions. How often would you say that you get the typical tatemae responses from acquaintances, as opposed to a honne one? It seems far from prevelant in Japan than in the US. Most people here will give you an honest answer but leave out key details as opposed to japan where you always get the same usual response.

    1. You know, I don’t really like to use the terms tatemae and honne, since they have a tendency to make Japanese folks seem somehow exotic. Can we just say “outward appearance” and “real feeling,” or simply fake and real?

      So everybody’s that way to some extent, no matter where. The difference I’d note in Japan is that people simply don’t discuss their feelings as much. With anyone, ever. I find people frequently don’t know even the most basic things about their close friends or family members. There’s simply a lot less information communicated, and that is a notable part of the culture.

      1. I only used those terms because i have come across many different interviews and Q & A’s where they were a topic of discussion. In that the interviewer was aaking japanese people how often they use Tatemae vs Honne in private life vs a professional setting and furthermore, would they like to use honne more. Here is a link to one of the interviews

        The guy dong the interview has a whole yohtube channel devoted to interviewing japanese people on the street and asking them all sorts of different questions. Many of the questions and themes seem to be taken directly from your blog. There are videos on what japanese people think of the word “Gaijin”, dating foreigners, japanese manners, can napanese people speak english, why japanese people suck at speaking english, can foreigners speak japanese and so on. I think you would really enjoy the videos. I think you will find this video funny since it is something you have experienced many times while eating out.

      2. Very true. There’s a group of fathers at my daughter’s kindergarten who get together to drink on a semi-regular basis, and even though we’ve been out together a number of times, I know next to nothing about most of them. While things are sober, it’s very formal and surface-level, and once it descends into utter drunkenness, it just revolves around JHS-level jokes, gossip, and complaining about their wives. The guys who have lived abroad and speak English often take me aside and complain about hating it and the banality of it all—but then take part in the ridiculousness of it all once back in the group. I don’t know—just a cultural difference, but hard to get used to.

  40. Thank you for writing this. I am already in Japan for 9 months and I feel like I don’t make any close friend here. I started feel bad. Maybe I am bad at socializing? Maybe my Japanese weird? What will I told my family and friends when go back home? That Japan is a nice clean country but I’m such an anti-social that I couldn’t make any friend? This feeling give me so much stress.

    But now I kind of understand. I do have a VERY high standard.
    I used to talk about religion or history or why people do this and not this back at home. In here, all I can get is some small-talk about music or manga, I was so disappointed.

    I dated a guy once, for 1.5 months. In the end of relationship, I asked him, ” If you have problem with me, tell me so I can know about it!” and he was saying, ” No, if I said it we will get into a fight.”
    I am not going out with a people who don’t want to be honest with me just because he wants to avoid fight. Japanese…. they just love peace too much.

    Sorry for ranting. And once again, thank you. I will lower my standard so I don’t get overly stress for the rest of my stay in here.

    1. Please know that it’s seriously not you. Japan’s a great place for lots of things, but making deep social connections isn’t one of them. Of course, you could always try doing what Japanese folks do—look for foreigners to hang out with. I hear they’re super friendly.

  41. Hey Mr. Seeroi,
    I am currently working on finding blogs chronicling culture in a country of our choosing, I obviously chose Japan and came across your blog. You offered new and real perspectives on Japanese culture that I would have never considered otherwise. I know that Japan has some race issues for sure but it was extremely interesting seeing how it applied to daily life, especially that of a “foreigner”. My works with a lot of companies based out of Asia, and I’m not particularly surprised that it was hard to make connections with people in Japan based on my dad’s experiences. I also really appreciated the perspective you offered on education and the relative unimportant nature of college in Japan and the effect education has on their behavior. I really appreciate you’re writings/perspectives.

    Liam O

  42. Thank you for the great post.
    Although it’s 21st century now, there is still die hard naive racism in Japan because of the isolating country policy in Edo-period.

    But, haven’t you imagined it’s Imada-san who thinks he can’t talk with you on intellectual subjects?
    Or do you believe Japanese people talk only about superficial things all the time?

    This is the only thing I can say to you:
    Keep trying!! Don’t give it up!!

    I’m Japanese, by the way.

    1. “Or do you believe Japanese people talk only about superficial things all the time?”

      You know, I’m trying not to be harsh, but I gotta say that about nails it.

      So a few years back, I was talking with my girlfriend at the time, discussing where we should have dinner with her friends.

      And I was like, “How about sushi?”

      But my girlfriend said, “Oh Sayori doesn’t like sushi.”

      So whatever. We went to an Italian restaurant. Then at dinner I asked, “Sayori, I hear you don’t like sushi—why’s that?”

      And Sayori just looked down at her pasta like she was trying to memorize the arrangement of the meatballs. “You shouldn’t have asked that!” hissed my girlfriend. And that was the last we heard from Sayori all night.

      So if we can’t even broach the subject of Sayori’s sushi aversion, how’re we gonna have much of a real conversation? And you know, this isn’t rare. This is only one example out of dozens, maybe hundreds. There’s just a lot of stuff we simply can’t talk about here.

      You’re Japanese, so you know. Now, maybe we can talk about impartial, intellectual things, but anytime the conversation starts to deal with anything personal, meaningful, you’re navigating landmines.

      Thanks for the nice comment, and I’d love to hear more of what you have to say on this subject.

      1. “But anytime the conversation starts to deal with anything personal, meaningful, you’re navigating landmines.”

        What I found interesting while trying to maintain “wa” by not getting into politics – gossip, backstabbing, turning people against one another and forming coalitions to alienate a person that’s doing something wrong is completely acceptable in Japanese society. How harmonious. That leads me to another confession. I regret studying Japanese. I spoke well enough that I was dragged into such situations or hear the racist remarks about sitting next to the foreigner while on the train. I guess I was having an authentic Japanese experience by being a part of a group and asked to bully a person? Yay. The truth is that I was happier before I studied Japanese. Want to know another secret? When I moved to China I didn’t bother studying Mandarin and I had a blast. It was like old times in Japan when I first arrived. Sure people said all kinds of shit at me from doorways but whatever, all the highlights and none of the lowlights was my motto. Ignorance is bliss. That’s the secret to a healthy happy expat life.

        1. “That leads me to another confession. I regret studying Japanese.”

          Yeah. I feel that. Every time I watch Japanese TV and movies, I cringe at the way people treat each other. I used to think Japan was all about respect and politeness. Subtitles, jeez. It’s really good not to know what, and how, people are actually saying.

          But hey, everywhere’s got good and bad. You can not know for only so long. At least Japan’s got public toilets, speedy trains, and reliable vending machines. Downside? Please. There couldn’t possibly be any.

          1. Like a said in a previous post, I actually loved Japan. Just not the same reasons most expat’s do. Speaking of film, if you haven’t seen Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Tokyo Sonata you should. Not a perfect film, a little uneven but a hard look at today’s Japan. Reading this blog I get the impression would appreciate his film.

  43. Hi,
    it is nice to read your comments about Japanese people. Even it you wrote in 2015!

    I am a Japanese who living in Germany since 2007. — so now I live in here 10 years.

    And I am thinking and researching about discrimination (positive and negative) about against different culture people in Europe, Japan and any countries.

    I felt what you describe in this topic is actuary super similar than what Japanese people feel in Germany or in Europe.

    >>> But yes about “conversation” — I have problem with Japanese friends who live in Japan, and even myself! hahaha. I feel I am happier now than when I was live in Japan. Because I know how I can describe my feeling or thinking with words. And it allowed to realized who I am – more quickly. (But sometime words kills things. – and I am killing so many things with words now…..!)
    But I don’t know if they can not create deep friendships… Maybe just different way than how you want. 🙂 — or just you can find right person for you 😉 (it is always best choice in any countries, I think.)

    >>> And how Japanese people say about European people is “why they are only good at TAKING? and not good at giving?”, “why they are listening only LOUD people? — and why they can not to shut up?” etc etc…

    Your comments make it clear for me that in any countries, they have difficulty to accept different cultures and different way of thinking – seeing things.
    For any of us, it is not easy work to accept those things.

    Last year I went USA for two months and I felt in USA is much better awareness about discrimination than Europeans.

    But I can NOT say that in USA they do not have discrimination against dark skin people and Asian people.
    Yes they are.

    And yes, in Japan — A LOT! especially against another Asians… and it makes me so sad.

    Accepting different culture or different point of view is not easy for everyone. (I have it too.)
    Because of fear to loose – power, position, comfort, what you believed — etc etc.

    But yang generation are much better than old generation.
    It is really great thing.

    But I am also interested in how I can be better to understand or accept another culture and views.
    I am much easier to accept those things more than 10 years ago, but I have it still quite some. (probably a lot)

    Thank you very much for writing about interesting topic!!!
    It is really difficult to find something so honest comment about discrimination against foreigner in Japan.
    It was really great to read it!

    1. Hi Akemi,

      Thanks for the nice comment. Yeah, I’ve heard from a great many Japanese people that it’s easier to express themselves in a language other than Japanese. The culture places a lot of constraints upon us.

      Perhaps my view of racism is somewhat unusual. I grew up in a place with a lot of different people, and even now I frequently fail to notice what “race” the person I’m talking to is.

      I’ve always felt I can’t get much information about a person by the color of his or her skin. I’ve met plenty of Asian people from America and a few Caucasian people from Japan, so it doesn’t make much sense to decide what someone’s like before we start talking. I wish that outlook were more prevalent everywhere, and especially in Japan.

      1. Hi Ken,

        thank you for your nice reply. (thank you for reading my “foreign English”!!!)

        Yes, I agree that you can not get much information from the skin color.
        That is great that you grew up where is a lot of different people!
        I am facing to this reality more and more since I moved to Germany too. — It was quite difficult in the beginning to understanding about “skin color is just skin color, nothing more.”

        I think it has two reasons:
        One is because I am working with quite international people: almost European(German, French, Danish, Austrian, Swiss etc), some American, some Asian, some Afghan, some Syrian, some African etc.

        Another one is, because I am a foreigner in Germany.

        I have friends from different countries, including Germany and Japan.
        And I think all my friends are great, what ever country where they are come from.
        We have all different background, but we all can share similar interest, somehow.
        And because we are different, we can exchange so many things. It is really amazing!

        If I am stayed in Japan, I couldn’t listening other than Japanese people’s perspective, I think.
        Also, I couldn’t understand how foreigner or minority feels in different country, if I didn’t move out from Japan.

        After I live in Germany 10 years, I know a bit about positive and negative sides of both countries.
        I feel really lucky that I had chance to know those things in my life.

        But still, I know I am doing and I see and hear about discrimination.
        Discrimination is deep inside of us.
        And if someone want to change it, at first, the person have to realize how much do you (oneself) discriminating against any kind of different people(skin color, sex, culture, country, profession, class, how to speak etc etc…).

        1. Akemi,

          “If I am stayed in Japan, I couldn’t listening other than Japanese people’s perspective, I think.
          Also, I couldn’t understand how foreigner or minority feels in different country, if I didn’t move out from Japan.”

          It’s really interesting that you say that.

          It’s often said that the solution to the rampant racism, xenophobia, and ethnocentrism in Japan is “internationalization,” which is used to mean “more English education in Japan” and “Japanese (essentially Wajin) visiting foreign countries.” And here you are, asserting that the time you’ve spent living in Germany has indeed helped foster open-mindedness in you.

          As for why it’s interesting, it’s that my experience up to this point is the total opposite of that oft-repeated paradigm. In other words, the most racist Wajin I encounter tend to be those who speak English and have spent time living abroad. They are, on the overall, far more arrogant, rude, condescending, and belittling in their interactions with me. The brain-washing enforced on our society through (right-wing) government-run schools and (right-wing, government-controlled) media conglomerates is clearly very effective; Wajin folks’ experiences learning a second language and surviving in a different country seem to only enhance the effects of this brain-washing. I think it’s partially because most Wajin visit nations like the U.S. or Australia, where they experience little to no discrimination.

          On the other hand, the most open-minded and supportive Wajin I’ve met speak little to no English. The dividing factor appears to be largely political stance.

          “But yang generation are much better than old generation.
          It is really great thing.”

          I hear this a lot too, mostly from people who don’t live in Japan or have just arrived in Japan, repeating what they heard from other people who don’t know what they’re talking about, or from Wajin who are eager to spread the myth that Japan has graduated from the 1950s in terms of race relations.

          Again, my experience is completely to the contrary. The kindest Wajin I’ve met tend to be in their late 30s or early 40s. People in their 20s or younger are generally extremely rude and disrespectful. The use of the racial slur gaijin still proliferates, all the way down to middle school and elementary school children. I run into college kids sometimes in my hometown. Attempts to interact with them are met with either the above racial epithet and/or varying degrees of English. Note that I am fluent in spoken and written Japanese and do not ever use English. This means they are intentionally responding to Japanese with English, simply based on my skin color/facial features. There is no effort to take me seriously as a peer (amongst members of my age group) or acknowledge my status as an elder (amongst younger people). I am, by and large, received as a joke, or treated as a threat (many Wajin men believe white men are extremely successful among Wajin women) to be ostracized, belittled, and shut down.

          I’m really happy to hear that you’ve learned that it’s not okay to treat people like this, and while there have certainly been some minor concessions by the right-wing government towards minority rights in recent years, let’s not conflate any of this to mean that Japan has greatly improved. What we need is not more English or more 外遊 or more young people; what we need is a deliberate, clear message from within Japan, in Japanese, stating that there is no mythical “Japanese race” or “Japanese blood,” that minorities are equal human beings who deserve to be treated no differently or less than Wajin, and that discrimination is a moral wrong that will not be tolerated. Until we get to that point, it’s difficult to believe that things will improve much.

      1. thank you Rouger,
        hahaha, yes, it’s about time!
        I think quite a lot of Japanese are struggling because of oral miscommunication… maybe…. I might be wrong….
        As I mentioned, I can express myself now, but I also lost something because I can express myself with language.
        It makes me a bit sad.
        But even including this, I feel good that I can talk and write what I feel or think a bit better than before.
        It bring me a lot of freedom in many ways.
        At least for now.

    2. It would be nice to hear why you left Japan, and what led you to choose Germany. Did you experience much of a culture shock when you relocated?

      1. Thank you E.Rex,
        I loved Japan when I was living Japan, I never think about leave Japan.
        But one day, one person who I respected, told me I should go once to look Europe.
        Then I just thought, “Ok, I can do it one year to travel in Europe.” Even I didn’t have any interest in Europe.
        I choose Germany, just because my sister was living there.
        And I stayed, because in Europe has much more opportunity to have job for my profession.

        About culture shock… my first big one was — no one share dishes when you go to eat dinner with friends.
        And so little cafe or shops you can use any card.
        It was shocking.

        And now, sometime I have culture shock in Japan. hahaha

  44. I’m Japanese and I totally agree with your opinion.

    One question: is the word ‘alternate’ in your sentence “Students aren’t challenged to explore ideas or *alternate* ways of thinking.” a verb or an adjective? It seems that the sentence will make sense / will be gramatically correct in both cases.

    1. It’s an adjective. Good question. The sentence could be re-written: “Students aren’t challenged to explore ideas or different ways of thinking.”

      And you’re right that the sentence also makes sense using “alternate” as a verb. That changes the meaning a bit, but it still works.

        1. Well I have one more question, Sensei… In this context, what does the word “idea” mean?

          When I look up in my Longman dictionary, there seems at least four usages of this noun:

          (1) a plan or suggestion for a possible course of action, especially one that you think of suddenly

          (2) someone’s opinion or belief about something

          (3) a general understanding of something, based on some knowledge about it

          (4) a principle about how something is or should be

          If I am correct, here you mean by the word “idea” something more like (3) and (4), i.e. conceptual understandings about our world, our society and humanity, (e.g. philosophical thoughts) or firmly grounded principles (e.g. laws of logic, laws of nature) rather than (1) and (2), i.e. mere nice (and in many cases pretty personal) plans, beliefs or opinions. Am I correct?

          1. I’d say you’re correct. That’s closest to what I meant, although we could also include #2.

            It can be worthwhile to question beliefs and opinions, both those held by others as well as our own. Sometimes it helps uncover flaws in our thinking, or else serves to reinforce our convictions.

            Of course, trivial matters aren’t worth debating: “I think ham is the best pizza topping.” Yeah great, I like olives, whatever. That said, at most U.S. schools you wouldn’t have to look too hard to find someone to argue the point.

  45. I’m so sorry to be a grammar Nazi, but here is some disambiguation:
    “To alternate is to take turns; an alternative is an option.”

  46. By the way, when people graduate from high school in Japan, they are generally (at least) 18 years old. Graduation from high school when they are 17 years old would be extremely rare in Japan, if not nonexistent. So if you are intending to mean “their reasoning skill doesn’t improve much compared with the one they had when they finished their high school”, it would be more accurate to write like this: “retain the reasoning skills of a 18 year-old”.

    1. Hm, interesting.

      First of all, I respect the paper’s author for putting down his thoughts on paper. I know how hard that is to do, and also recognize how easy it is to sit back and fire criticisms at someone’s work.

      That being said, a few things stood out to me. First, the black-and-white thinking applied to distinctions between “Japanese” and “foreigners.” This rests upon a conception of some pure Japanese archetype versus a foreign archetype, as though there were only one type of Japanese person, and one type of foreigner. I’d venture to say Japanese people born in a big city like Tokyo have more in common with persons born in Paris than they do with country folk from Shikoku.

      Then you also have the problem with what’s meant by “foreigner.” You mean the masses of Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese people in Japan? Nepalese, Indian, Filipino persons? Or do you mean the relatively rare White people, who are all obviously the same: Russians, New Zealanders, Norwegians? Sorry, that’s sarcasm. What I mean is that the author uses the terms “westerners,” “outsiders,” “foreigners,” and “Americans” all too interchangeably. Even if we limit it to “Americans,” what’s the image here? A young white man? An older Hispanic lady? A middle-aged Black man? An elderly Asian woman?

      I could go on, but suffice to say the discussion of whether Japanese respond more to kindness than friendliness seems a bit caught up in outward appearance (i.e., race) and thinking that “they” are somehow different from “us.” I believe the distinction is far less clear.

  47. Ken,
    I read the article first, and then I read your comments. Totally agree, it is too hard to lump any one society into a single group.
    However the 1st thing I thought when reading was that the author was coming from what I perceive to be the “typical American” in that Americans tend to be all style and no substance. By that I perceive Americans to be very over the top in their friendly approach, so much so that it is off putting. It is like, mate, I met you 30 seconds ago, so why are you so excessively friendly. In my professional life I also find Americans love the phrase “thanks for reaching out to me” like the email or contact is something special when all I want is for the other person to do their damn job and nothing more. I could write another tirade about American’s lack of follow up or follow through, but that isn’t really the point of this topic. Again, total generalization but that is how I simply feel with the Americans I deal with.

    Thus if I, as an almost 50 year old white, Anglo Saxon (white) western guy find the US style of overtly friendliness off putting, then it must be even more so for the average Japanese person, especially when you put some sort of mutual language barrier in place.

    I really agree with your comments in relation to Japanese coming from rural areas as compared to large cities. Most of the friends I have in my country are from rural areas such as Ehime, Aomori, Ishikawa, Tochigi etc. Even though the vast majority of people are from Greater Tokyo or Osaka regions it seems that they are more reserved, perhaps due to the larger populations.
    Heck, I even find that same thing in the societies I have lived in. Most of my friends here are from regional towns, or overseas, and bizarrely enough, I don’t have that many friends who grew up in Sydney, even though they live here.

    My own experiences in any society, is that as one approaches middle age, it is harder to get new friends, and I find that I at least, tend to stick within a set group of friends and not really exert myself to go beyond that.

    We all want to stick to some sort of cultural norms, so am I going to go out of my way to befriend a “foreigner”, who may be a really nice person, but will involve me putting in a lot of time to befriend them when they are going to go leave the country at a set point in the not too distant future.

    1. I totally agree that “the US style of overtly friendliness [is] off putting.” Every time I visit the US, I’m struck by the over-familiarity of clerks and waitstaff, whom I assume are partially motivated to form connections with customers in order to get tips.

      But, funny thing, just last night I was in a small Japanese bar, and was subjected to a steady flow of middle-aged Japanese men approaching me, apropos of nothing (other than my race), shaking my hand, clapping me on the shoulder, and asking, as well as sharing, all manner of personal information. Hey, I appreciate the friendliness, even if it is because they view me as a “foreign” person. But it just goes to show that the stereotypical notions of American=friendly, Japanese=reserved don’t particularly hold true. Time and place play a big role.

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