This is the ultimate guide to make Japanese friends and friendship in Japan. This guide will be useful to people who are new to Japan and people who have lived in Japan for 20 years or more. 99% of people will learn something new from this article and we have broken down how to make Japanese friends down to 6 sections.
BFF Tokyo also created the ultimate guide to jobs in Tokyo and Japan as well as the ultimate guide to a Japan visa for those who want to come live the dream. If you are confused about getting a debit or credit card in Japan, our article on debit and credit cards in Japan may be a huge life-saver for you!
This guide has 5 main sections.
Reading this guide will demystify the mystery of friendship in Japan that have eluded foreigners for so long.
You may find this surprising, but even foreigners who speak Japanese fluently and have lived here for many years can struggle to make Japanese friends because of the large amount of cultural differences and mysteriousness of Japan.
On the other hand, friendship in Japan with a Japanese person has many common points and differences to making friends in your home country and many foreigners have problems viewing it from that lens and over complicate things because this is Japan. Foreigners also rush too fast to develop friendships and often make a Japanese person feel uncomfortable with their persistence and pressure to make a one-on-one relationship faster than they are comfortable.
We aim to demystify many of the challenges to making long lasting friendships in Japan and guide you past many of the misconceptions and limiting beliefs that foreigners encounter when trying to make Japanese friends. To accomplish this, we have spoken to many foreigners who have many Japanese friends to hear their insights and tips. From this, we have discovered many interesting differences between making friends in Japan and the West and we also provide in-depth information on what Japanese people like to talk about.
Challenges with making Japanese friends
Challenge 1 - Japanese people do not know how to communicate and relate with foreigners.
“Why are no Japanese people talking to me?”
Unless they have lived abroad and or have many foreigners friends, Japanese do not know how to communicate with foreigners in general. You will also definitely underestimate how much Japanese do not know how to communicate with foreigners and how Japanese people will overthink and complicate things in their own mind and end up not initiating or maintaining contact even though they want to. Even the concept as simply speaking to the person even though you want to is beyond Japanese because they get too fixated on what could go wrong.
- How should I introduce myself?
- How can I start a conversation in a non-rude way?
- What if they do not speak English, what should I do?
- What if they speak English and I cannot understand?
You will even find Japanese people who love foreign music, food, and travel, who are dying to speak with foreigners, but are unable to make the to initiate contact because of the reasons above. They also overestimate the importance of having good English skills in making friends with foreigners and will often overstudy or wait until the point they are intermediate level students by studying in English schools before even thinking about talking to a foreigner on the street.
Now, let’s say that you meet someone and hang out one time, many foreigners will give up on the relationship if the person cancels on them one or two times, or if they take a while to respond. Japanese people will continue to overthink and not initiate relationships.
- I do not know how to respond to their message or I do not understand their message and I do not want to say the wrong thing back.
- I do not want to impose myself by inviting them out because they are probably busy and probably have other Japanese friends who speak better English than me.
- I am not sure if they like Japanese food and I do not want to take them to have something they do not like and have a bad experience of Japan.
- I have already made plans with friends and I am not sure if they will get along with my friends.
Japanese will overthink things and for that reason, you will have to initiate many conversations or makes requests or send invitations to meet up.
Challenge 2 - Finding someone with the same hobbies and personality
“Ugh...this silence is awkward.”
One of the biggest frustrations foreigners have with making Japanese friends is that a conversation starts good and they are many self-introduction topics to talk about, but the conversation dies after that and ends. Another frustration is having the same self-introductory conversations over and over again and not being able to dive in deeper when speaking with Japanese people.
The biggest challenge here is not Japanese language ability but finding areas of commonality with the other person. Similar to making friends in your home country, the more areas you have in common with someone Japanese, the more likely you are to become friends. I deeply sympathize with foreigners because you may experience an urgency and desperation to make friends in Japan because you will experience a strong bout of loneliness after coming here and you do not have the social network of friends and family like you do in your home country.
However, most foreigners want to jump into a relationship really quickly and “start moving” at a faster rate than most Japanese are comfortable with and end up struggling to make Japanese friends. Your goal is to understand the Japanese person’s mindset better and move at their pace as opposed to your own pace which is comfortable for you, but comes off as forceful to a Japanese person.
I know you are feeling the need but rather than spending a lot of time trying to create a relationship with a Japanese person because they are Japanese even though you do not have much in common with, try to find those who have the same hobbies because you yourself would probably not make an effort to be friends with someone in your home country that was not a match.
Challenge 3 - Foreigners need Japanese friends more than the opposite
“Why do Japanese people do not invite me out?”
This is a core point to why foreigners struggle with establishing bonds and friendship in Japan.
Foreigners do not have their family and core group of friends when they come to Japan. On the other hand, Japanese people already have them and are not in a rush to make new friends. The main challenge is to understand that your need is greater than theirs and trying to push them to meet your pace will not work in making friendships. You need to go at their pace because they have less of a need than us.
What helped me understand this was realizing that without us in their lives, they already have relationships with friends they have had since grade school or for more than 5 years. For them to make friends with us, they will have to be patient, they will have to talk to someone who they will have to repeat themselves over and over again, speak slowly with and try to rephrase things, have to explain many cultural things too, take social responsibility for your actions. Think about what benefits you can provide them other than your foreignness or your language teaching that you can give in return for all the hassle in supporting a 25 year old foreign infant. If they do not care about English, they have less incentive to get to know you. Even though I have been here for 14 years, I feel so much gratitude for the Japanese people who supported me when I started learning Japanese and explained the same things over and over again and repeated the same Japanese words, who helped me find the word in the dictionary, and a bunch of other stuff. I still visit the gravesite of my first supervisor in Japan because he took such good care of me when he did not need to.
I am not sure if you know this, but exchange students in the US experience the same problems and is one reason why so many Japanese people who have lived abroad want to help foreigners in Japan when they come back.
I guess what I really wanted to communicate is that because we have a bigger need for friendship, we have a higher onus on us to initiate contact and learn about how to make Japanese friends. Learning about Japanese culture and not being a negative Nancy on Japan will definitely make you a bundle of joy to be around for Japanese people who are hesitant to make foreign friends.
Challenge 4 - You do not know how to communicate and relate with Japanese people
Most foreigners I meet have many ideas about Japan and talk about their ideas way too much with other people who also talk about their narrow theories rather than reading awesome content like this. I have to let you know that you know much less than you think you do and this applies to Japan veterans as well.
For this, let’s just admit that Japanese people do not know how to communicate with us and we equally do not know how to communicate with them and start learning from scratch again. This is why there are so many foreign bubbles out there. Japanese people who have not lived overseas will not normally initiate contact because of challenge one and knowing how to make them comfortable and reducing challenge one in their mind will help them to open up.
Understanding that you do not know how to communicate and relate to Japanese people from the start will ironically help you in making friends faster. This is especially true if you are very extroverted and make friends very easily in your home country while also being the type who likes to have deep conversations. If you are the extroverted and silly comedic type, you will start making acquaintances immediately but will probably have trouble when you want people to like past the silly foreigner routine.
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Benefits of making Japanese friends
Japanese friends can teach you about your faux pas
“If I had a penny for every faux pas I made in Japan...”
You will not make one but thousands of faux pas everyday while living in Japan. There are many customs here that you will not discover on your own or through watching people and the best way to learn is to have someone show you beforehand before you commit a cultural heresy or let you know after you have already done the bad deed.
Foreigners who do are not interested in learning Japanese faux pas or show disinterest when someone mentions them tend to have a tough time in Japan or are avoided by Japanese people - this tends to be my experience and this even happens to foreigners who are fluent in Japanese. I will continue to harp the point that language ability is not the key to making friends but your interest in Japanese culture and ability to relate to Japanese people is what will make you the star of the party.
Japanese friends will often treat you to some good food
This does not happen as often in Tokyo and with people in their 20s because of financial reasons, but if you have Japanese friends in their 30s and higher, there is a good chance they will take you out for lunch or dinner or even a bbq. When I came to Japan as a teacher, many of my students took me out for food and drinks after school and even on the weekends. Different than the West, when you go to someone’s house it is not expected that you bring something and they will take care of everything for you. However, bringing a treat or souvenir from some place in Japan will often lead to a good start. Bringing something foreign opens up questions about its edibility and what the heck will I do with this.
Although not as strong as some other countries, the semblance of older people taking care and looking out for younger people is strong. The concept is the kohai (subordinate) and senpai (superior) status where people who are at a higher grade level or have been at the company longer are the senpai and the newer person is the kohai. The senpai was taken cared of in the past by his senpai’s and he or she is continuing the tradition by taking care of those younger or newer than them. If a Japanese person treats you to something special, it probably means that they view you as a kohai and are taking care of you.
For more information on the kohai and senpai system check this website. They do a pretty good job of explaining it in detail for a normal Japanese to Japanese interaction. In your case, there sometimes is the expectation to speak in English or at least speak a little bit in English in these situations even if you are fluent in Japanese. Being a know-it-all foreigner will end this relationship real quickly!
If you are new to Tokyo or would like to experience more Japanese cultural events, check out our events in Tokyo page. We also created a comprehensive list of public holidays in Japan 2020, so don't miss them out if you want to know what are some events you can join this year!
Japanese people will give you a rich experience of Japan
I often feel that foreigners who do not have Japanese friends, do you not have a rich experience of Japan. The foreign bubble is great for personal conversations and learning about things that foreigners like to do and eat, but you really limit your experience and knowledge of Japan when you keep yourself in that bubble.
Japanese people will take you by car to places that you cannot normally access by train and more importantly take you to cool places that are not super touristy areas that Japanese people know but are not well-known by tourists. I had a friend who would take me by motorcycle to cruise all around the mountains and rivers of Nara prefecture and this was an amazing experience that even a tourism company could not provided. I had another friend who would take me to different onsens, and to onsens that each had different mineral in the water such as a black sand type, a muddy clay type, and silky white.
For the younger readers out there, in my 20s I had a friend take me to a rave party in the mountains in the middle of nowhere, where I was the only foreigner there for a party that was not advertised except through word of mouth and that you could only get there by car - luckily no one there was crazy!
Japanese people will tell you what to try and explain why people do something. For example, if you go to a temple together, they can explain what a Japanese person would do and why they do it. When you go to a restaurant together, they will tell you the best way to eat something or what sauce or condiment to use when eating something. I have often seen foreigners try to guess how to eat something and have a mediocre experience of the food because they did not add the right condiment or mixed together foods that should not be mixed together! Having a Japanese person explain will often lead to you having the best experience of the food or the place you visit.
There are many websites out there that will tell you what to have and what to see but you will never really get to experience the how without a Japanese friend or a foreigner who is super knowledgeable. However even then, the experience will different with someone who is Japanese.
Japanese friends will help you meet other Japanese
The biggest challenge is making one Japanese friend. Once you make one Japanese friend and they bring you into their social circle, you will start making tons of other Japanese friends and they will bring you into their social circle and then on. Making the first step is the hardest and once you are in, you will have no trouble, unless they feel they cannot introduce you to their friends.
Japanese friend can help you in a pinch
This applies more to Japanese friends who are fluent in English or your language, but having a Japanese friend can be a major help when you need to do something in Japanese like calling the utility company, speaking to phone operators or city hall people, going to the doctor, or solving a problem that involves Japanese usage. They can also proofread your resume and may even be able to help you find a job.
You will gain a better understanding of your own culture
Some of the above examples are more surface-level relationship types of behaviors. Once you move past the initial urge to introduce you to Japanese culture, you can both really start to ask each other about culture and society and ask all those questions you had but never had anyone to ask.
Japanese people are really curious about foreign countries and you may be their first foreign friend ever. Since Japanese people do not have much exposure to foreigners, they will have many questions they have been dying to ask but have been to nervous to ask about - especially when drinking alcohol. You will usually start with the standard questions that everyone asks you and then it will get deeper into more random and deeper questions about yourself and your country.
Their questions comes from a place of curiosity and the fact that something you do is different than the way they do it in Japan and they want to know why foreigners do it.
Why do you not take your shoes of inside?
Why do you speak so loudly?
Why do you wear perfume or cologne?
Why do you kiss and hug in public?
Why do you say I love you so often?
What do you eat everyday in your home country?
Some foreigners get offended when a Japanese person asks a question that you might consider as bigoted or narrow minded or lacking tactfulness, but please note that in 95% of cases this is simply ignorance and not coming from a place of malice. This tends to happen when the topic turns to politics and you will get some unexpected questions. Here some examples of surprising questions you may be asked.
- What are your thoughts about Donald Trump? Brexit?
- Why are people always protesting and complaining about something?
- Do you support the war in Iraq?
- Why are so many Australians fat? Japanese people tend to not know a more subtle way of asking this.
- Are American woman very strong in personality?
The news in Japan tends to be more neutral compared to news in your home country and tends to show a wider variety of opinions and views on political issues - for example having a round table of people from various backgrounds talk on an issue. This is also one reason why Japanese people will calmly ask a question that you may consider emotionally laden. You can sometimes find foreigners who are really surprised when Japanese people ask a question in a neutral way that does not match their bias.
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Misconception : Japanese level is not as important as curiosity
Having high Japanese abilities will make a Japanese person feel relieved and more comfortable about you being able to understand them at the start of the conversation, but this is not as important as actually having the curiosity to understand the individual and Japanese culture. There are many foreigners who can speak Japanese fluently but do not understand the culture nor are interested in understanding Japanese people and have very few to no Japanese friends. There are many foreigners who speak a minimum amount of Japanese but have many Japanese friends because of their curiosity and interest in the culture.
I used to work at a Junior High School as an English teacher and although I could read most of the last names of my co-workers, I used their last names as an opportunity to get to know everyone and introduce myself and start building an interdependent relationship. The problem many foreigners have in this situation is that they want to jump start the relationship from turbo mode from the beginning and start showing off their Japanese skills in the mistaken belief that Japanese people would welcome them. My pretending to not understand how to read their names created a situation where I was genuinely curious about the person and they were happy to explain and show me.
Japanese people will immediately put distance between them and someone who shows off. So this is not the way to start making friends in a business environment and is an example of someone who understands the language but not the culture. A Japanese person doing the same would get the same response and not get the benefit of the doubt of being a foreigner.
Since Japanese people are unsure about how to interact with foreigners, they often come up as passive or not saying their own opinion. By showing curiosity about where they are from, what their name means, you give them the chance to be the center of attention and not have all the attention or all the speaking done by the foreigner themself, which normally happens because Japanese people ask many questions. I would sometimes interrupt the question flow being directed at me and say that I want to know about them and start asking them questions and this helps to keep the conversation to last longer.
Asking about their name and where they are from is a good way to start a conversation without them having to reveal any personal details because Japanese do not like revealing too many personal details to a stranger and especially at the start of a conversation.
Misconception : Stop Using Polite Japanese
Stop using super polite Japanese
Many foreigners study Japanese in a formal way, so when they start speaking to Japanese, they often use polite Japanese, so it makes it hard for Japanese people to open up when you have foreigner coming with stiff language. Knowing silly Japanese phrases that people use colloquial works well for teenagers, young adults, and even middle aged Japanese people to get them open up and feel relaxed and comfortable with you.
Many foreigners never realize that the reason Japanese people find it hard to open up to them is precisely because they are using the type of language, polite language, that you use when you do not want to open up to another person. Turn off your inner Tanaka San and learn some silly phrases to get Japanese to lower their guard. Then you can start to develop a potential friendship using words that most foreigners do not know that all Japanese know and often use with their friends.
Stop referring to people as .... San
Referring to someone by their last with a san added to it is very polite and is a sign of respect. This is something you definitely have to do if you are working in Japanese company because that is how they refer to co-workers or clients. However, when trying to make friends, referring to them as .... san may actually be creating distance between the both of you. After getting to know someone and after meeting them several times, start to call them by their first name. If you are working for a Japanese company that is more relaxed, feel free to even refer to your co-workers by their first name. In some cases, you may be scolded in a business environment if you do not refer to someone by san, so you will have to read the atmosphere.
Misconception : Japanese are not as spontaneous as foreigners
What are you doing on the 8th? I am sorry, I have already made plans for the whole month.
Reaching out to a Japanese friend without much advance notice will almost guarantee that you will have your invitation turned down. Japanese people tend to plan their whole month in advance at the beginning of the month, so your awesome spontaneous idea of going out today does not match how Japanese plan out their month and activities and in some cases would be considered as inconsiderate.
I learned about this concept while running parties and events in Japan. Anytime we would give two weeks advance notice, we would find that very few people would join. When we started planning our events 5 weeks in advance, we started getting more than 5x the amount of attendees than when giving 2 weeks.
When you make Japanese friends, you may be able to join one of their pre-planned events with their other friends if they think you will both like one another. If not, they will probably wait to get to know you better, rather than potentially making their get together uncomfortable for their other friends. Read the section on making friends below to learn more about how to make Japanese people feel comfortable.
Misconception : Friendships in Japan are the same as your home country
Japanese and Russians do not make friendships as quickly as Americans
One of the most amazing things about Americans and Australians, and to slightly lower extent other Westerners is the speed at which people open up to one another. I could be telling my life story within one minute of meeting a stranger and sharing secrets that I do not with others and asking for advice. This ability to open oneself up so fast surprises people from countries where it takes months or even years to start developing a friendship and they sometimes enjoy the speed and the immediate connection.
The downside is that the speed at which Americans move on from one relationship to another also surprises people from countries where people open up slowly because they assume you are now great buddies and will continue to have a long-term relationship. However, they are sometimes left confused when an American will say goodbye and good luck after a deep personal conversation.
I am not sure if you can isolate both the positive and negatives of being very open, but the point I wanted to make here is that the speed at which you make friendships differ from country to country and this is not an Asian vs West thing. Even in countries like Russia and the former soviet union, people take their time in making friendships and do not dive into it at the speeds that Americans and to slightly lesser extent the British and Canadians.
Friendship in Japan involves becoming friends with their Japanese friends
I think we are the first bloggers to discover this challenge of making friends with Japanese, so if you read any section here this may have the most impact for you in understanding cultural differences.
As an American, I see myself and other Americans jumping from friendship to friendship based on present need and location and convenience. I love how I can meet people from all over the world and immediately get to know them and about their home country. However, the downside is that I cannot nurture all my friendships equally and I have to choose one relationship over another based on convenience. I have a small core group of friends who I have known for years, but a majority have changed based on shared challenges and need.
Friendships in Japan are completely different and are not based on need in the same way we Westerners view things. Japanese people will not neglect their relationship with their core group of friends to make a new friend and will almost always choose to hang out with them over hanging out with you. This is the main reason why foreigners think that Japanese people flake out when trying to make friends with them. The real answer is that they think you are probably not a fit for their core group of friends or want to know more about you before the make the big jump in bringing you into their circle. Another common reason is that you are inviting them on short notice and they already had plans or you are inviting them to something too personal too soon. This is something we will cover later on.
Just like the title for this section, becoming friends with a Japanese person is not becoming friends with the individual like it is in most Western cases. Becoming friends with one person means you having to become a part of their core social groups and being equally good friends with the. It is not like in the US where you go to a house party and just hang out with one person, in Japan you are expected to communicate with everyone at the event, even kids. When you become friends with a Japanese person, they won’t exclude their current friends to become you friends. You will have to become friends with their main social group as well because they won’t have the time to maintain a relationship with you and their main friends separately. It is also good to note that many Japanese have a stable social group they have known for 5 to 30 years. So following a point we introduced at the start, you will have to be the initiator in making a friendship, because they already have a social group.
I had a Japanese friend from University and we were best buddies in the US. He offered me to stay with his family in Japan and they took really good care of me. When he got back to Japan, we did not hang out as often. I was confused because I wanted to hang out with him more, but he was often out of the house with his friends and when he was around they would come over even though I wanted to hang out with him one- on-one and not in the group.
Luckily for me, I connected pretty well with one of his friends and the three of us hung out a lot and they took good care of me. If I did not connect with his best friend than he probably would have chosen his best friend from Junior High School. I would have resented him at the time, but I now realize that they have faced more challenges together and have a stronger bond than both him and I. Even though we have had good times together, we have not faced the challenges of growing up together and his best friend implicitly understood him better than me.
When a Japanese person invites you to meet their friends, it is a huge sign that they want to potentially become friends with you. It is also good to realize that inviting a friend to meet your friends in Japan means more than inviting someone to meet your friends in your home country. They are taking a risk introducing you to their friends because of the language factor, but if you are curious and are friendly, I think their friends will open up to you really quickly.
Friendship in Japan involves becoming friends with the Japanese person's other friends.
Misconception : Not understanding the importance of action over words
“My mom never told me she loved me but I know she did because she always made my bento.”
This quote summarizes the title of this section perfectly. Westerners are very vocal with their emotions and often vocal to the extent that they do not even know what emotions they are feeling. Japanese people often do not express their love and emotions verbally and instead do it through actions. My wife will never tell me that she loves me unless I prod it out of her and even then it goes against her whole being to say it. However, she loves spending time with me, takes care of our cat and does more of the household chores. She often communicates her love by making our home so comfortable and welcoming. She does not need to tell me that she loves because I know based on her actions and vice versa.
Some Japanese like how foreigners express themselves emotionally, but normally that is because they are the type of person who prefers to express themselves verbally as opposed through actions. In general, most Japanese will not express their feelings of caring and affection towards you directly. So when someone buys you a drink or helps you translate something in Japanese, it is their way of expressing friendship and support as opposed to having to say that “I got your back” or “call me whenever you need help.” Communicating and understanding takes a higher level of perception than normal relationships with Westerners because emotions are communicated through actions over words.
Misconception : Expecting Japanese people to initiate communication
I am harping the same point over and over again, but being shy and reserve will not help you make Japanese friends. You have to go out there and talk to Japanese people.
Similar to my friend’s story above, even when you are invited, do not take it personally when they do not initiate contact. Just know that they do want to speak with you and that you will experience many awkward moments and experiences like he did, but don't let that stop you from talking to japanese people.
If you are feeling nervous or would like to start meeting people in a comfortable and supportive environment, I do run a Japanese language school that helps you build confidence in your Japanese, provide teachers that can answer many of your questions about Japan and get you ready to make the switch to becoming independent in Japan and get you out of the foreign bubble.
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Moving past the acquaintance barrier
Making Friends : Find areas of commonality outside of travel and culture
Now that you understand you have a higher incentive to find a friend with less in common and are now more open to a commonality based approach, we can move onto developing areas of commonality.
Many foreigners feel frustrated that many conversations with Japanese end up focusing on travelling and about areas of mutual foreignness. What that means is topics tend to over-focus on things like Japanese culture and customs, foreign culture and customs, and you going back and forth trading information with one another but not really connecting on commonalities or a level required for friendship.
Japanese people severely struggle with taking relationships from acquaintances to friendship and foreigners often lack enough knowledge about Japan to develop areas of commonality and interest before the information trading conversations starts to dry up and ends on an awkward note
I mention the example above to emphasize that we often place too much of an emphasis on the foreignness of the other and not enough on finding commonalities as the reason for why we do not make it pass the acquaintance barrier into friends. For more ideas, check out the sections below on understanding pop culture and where to meet Japanese people based on your language level.
Making Friends : Understanding Modern Japan
Understanding and being interested in pop culture and what is trending
I can often easily tell when a foreigner does not have many Japanese friends regardless of how long they have lived here nor how good their Japanese is by how many Japanese celebrities they know and how they respond when not knowing a Japanese trend or celebrities. Many foreigners who have lived here for years get defensive as opposed to curious when you mention a Japanese celebrity or a trend unique to Japan that they do not know about. They may say something like “I don’t care,” or “All Japanese shows sucks.” The main thought I have when I hear this is that you have not looked hard enough to find something you like because even someone like myself who avoids watching TV, I have been able to find multiple shows that I find interesting. Japan has shows for pretty much every genre, the only challenge is finding something on youtube or vimeo that has subtitles.
Our English school was featured by a top 5 celebrity of Japan on their show and I often meet foreigners who have lived here more than 10 years who do not know the top 5 to 10 celebrities of Japan nor that top 5 celebrity. Almost all the foreigners who are not curious about learning about Japanese trends and celebrities did not ask me for more information or show curious about who the celebrity was.
Simply asking Japanese people what celebrities or tv shows and why they watch it would give someone an idea of who the influencers in Japan are and more importantly why Japanese people are drawn to them. Ask people from different generations and you get a whole range of people and answers. When you reach a low intermediate level of Japanese, start asking Japanese people about trends and you will get a person eager to share their thoughts about Japan.
I know I have been speaking harshly against foreigners who do not follow my advice of having curiosity towards Japan and Japanese people, and I sympathize with foreigners in this boat. The issue tends to stem from coming from a situation where you know your environment to a high extent in your home country and coming to Japan and starting from zero. Rather than acknowledging that you know nothing and continually learning more and being humble, you avoid learning about Japan, being defensive when you do not know something as opposed to showing curiosity, and end up in a situation where Japanese people do not want to talk to you.
Sorry for the long point above, but the point about overestimating the importance of Japanese ability and underestimating the importance of being humble and curious is probably the most important thing for you to know when you get here and getting rid of that misconception can protect you from becoming a disgruntled long-term foreigner!
I recommend avoid talking about social and political trends because Japanese people can often be pessimistic in general and people will start to avoid you if your main topic of conversation is about social and political ideas like they would anywhere else. If you want to talk about social and political ideas, join a group of Japanese people who meet up for that specific purpose.
Please note that I have a good number of foreign friends who do not know Japanese celebrities and do not really care but they are curious and have great conversations about why Japanese people like them.
Being invited to a Japanese friend’s house or being invited by a Japanese person to go out happens much more frequently in areas like Osaka and in the countryside and more rural areas. In these areas, it is normal to bring outsiders or to welcome strangers, so the time it takes to make friends with Japanese in these areas is much shorter and easier. The challenge is that there are fewer people who speak English in the rural areas, but it is a great place to learn and develop your Japanese skills. When I lived in the Kansai area 30 minutes outside of Osaka, I was going to a Japanese friend’s place several times a month and going over was nothing special similar to going to a friend’s place in America. However, when I moved to the Kanto region in Yokohama and near Tokyo, being invited to a friend’s place is a huge event.
I would also say people are more spontaneous in the Osaka and are interested in doing something unannounced or unprepared. In Tokyo, you pretty much need to give a person one month’s notice because they probably have everything planned out.
Friendship in Japan : Avoid competitive Japanese men
This section applies only to male readers, but the longer you are here, you will notice how Japanese men get weirdly competitive around a foreigner male. Japanese men sometimes feel intimidated or insecure around foreign men and these feelings manifest in them being ultra competitive around a foreigner and wanting to compete from things such as drinking, success in whatever area you are talking about, and sometimes results in minor insults to try to one up you in something. This is sometimes why they will try to speak in English even though your Japanese is obviously better and even happens when you are fluent.
Rather than getting frustrated, I tend to just enjoy the act and soothe their wounded ego or walk away. These are the types of men you do not want to be friends with and will get annoying overtime similar to your overly competitive friends in your home country. Find men who are more curious and more laid back and you will have a much more enjoyable night out.
Friendship in Japan : Making a Japanese person feel comfortable
Friendship in Japan as a foreigner means you would have go out of your way to make a Japanese person feel comfortable when trying to make friends, especially with those who have not lived abroad. This especially applies when making friends in more reserved areas of Japan like Kyoto and Tokyo where people are more hesitant in dealing with strangers.
Going Out in Groups
You will find that some people will be hesitant to meet you one on one and a good rule of thumb is to meet in a group gathering. Meeting one to one is quite intimate and personal even when meeting someone of the same gender, so inviting that person to join you as a group removes all that anxiety in meeting. If a person has turned you down to meet up even though you give advance notice, the next area I would look into is inviting them to join your group of friends or party. This would apply even more so to female to female friendships based on seeing my wife and how she interacts with her co-workers and new friends.
Avoid Inviting someone to place that will make them feel uncomfortable
Inviting someone to your house, especially someone of the opposite gender right out the back will probably not work. Rather than inviting someone to you house, invite them out to a public place like an izakaya. If you start to make a connection you can have a house party. One of the big reasons there are so many izakayas and places to eat and drink in Tokyo is because it is more common to go out than having a house party. On the other hand, throwing regular house parties will make you develop a core group of friends much faster than meeting out. Everyone loves house parties...when it is not at their house!
When meeting someone for the second or third time invite them out to some place public and relaxing like a cafe and an easy walk. Going out for a hike might be too much for most people, so remember to stick to public places with many exit points and nothing isolated.
Invite people to places that they will feel comfortable, as going over to someone’s house would be tough unless the person has lived abroad
Friendship in Japan involves going out of your way to be generous like giving snacks or souvenirs whenever you meet them, it shows them that you care about them and are not simply a taker :). Open doors for people, pout someone’s drink, or help someone with their coat. The more you go out of your way to help people, the more comfortable you will make them feel. I like to throw in some Western ones like opening the door and other gentlemen behavior that is not common in Japan because it really impresses people and it is attention they enjoy receiving. Giving over generous compliments starts off well but overdoing it will make people feel suspicious!
Making Friends : Knowing Japanese Celebrities
Having multiple tv show personalities that you know about and like is a good topic to move onto after you have exhausted all your mutual foreignness conversations. Japanese people are usually curious to know why you like one person and what people you do not like. Asking for recommendations is also a good thing to do when you are trying to establish a friendship.
Here is a list of musicians, comedians, tv personalities that are well-known and that everyone in that generation should know about and will probably have something to say about. There are a lot more variety nowadays, so making a list for people 20s and 30s is a bit harder and please note this is not a perfect list.
20s - Sekai no owari | Man with a mission | Kana Nishino | One Ok Rock
30s - Mr Children | Namie Amuro | Dreams Come True | Hikaru Utada | Porn Graffiti | Arashi
40s - B’z | Smap | X Japan | Blue Hearts | Yuming
50s - Southern All Stars | Seiko Matsuda | Akina | Kyon Kyon | Kome Kome Club
20s - Non Style | Jungle Pocket | Chidori | Naomi Watanabe | Buruzon Chiemi
30s - Chihara Junia | Bananaman | Sandwich Man | London Boots | Oriental Radio
40s - Ninety Nine | Downtown | Fujiwara | Cocorico
50s - ザ・ドリフターズ | Downtown | Hazama Kanpei
20s - Nicole Fujita | Ruriko Kojima
30s - Ariyoshi | Matsuko Deluxe |
40s - Ariyoshi | Matsuko Deluxe |
50s - Masami Hisamoto | Beat Takeshi | George Tokoro | Akiko Wada
Japanese people in general love talking about athletes who are doing well on the world stage. When a Japanese is doing good in tennis, you will see an uprise in Japanese learning tennis. When a Japanese is doing good at figure skating and wins a gold medal, you will see an uprise in figure skating. Although Japanese people do not really brag about their accomplishments or those of fellow citizens, everyone usually feels a bit of pride when someone is number 1 on the world stage.
Movies and Television
People in Japan do not really talk much about movies to the same extent as Americans. Conversations about movies and actors tend to focus on popular dramas that are shown weekly and run for about 10 to 12 episodes. Many foreigners do not tend to like Japanese dramas in general, but rather than giving recommendations on dramas to watch, ask people what dramas they like and what they find interesting about them.
There tends to not be dramas that everyone has watched like Game of Thrones, House of Cards, or Breaking Bad and it is a more niche market than the classics of the US.
20s - Terrace House | Ame Talk |
30s - Kinpachi Sensei | Last Vacation | GTO | Gokusen | Hana Yori Dango
40s - Wataru Seiken | Tokyo Love Story |
50s - Shouten | Gaki no Tsukai yarahende |
Netflix is continually adding more and more Japanese programs as it grows a larger share of the online streaming market in Japan and I believe it has more interesting content than Amazon Prime. The famous show Terrace House can be seen on Netflix as well and a variety of anime.
Foreigners who have lived in Japan for many years will get a big laugh out of this, but whatever athlete is doing well on the international stage is the person who is popular. In the United States, the athletes who are popular are those who are doing well in popular sports such as basketball, american football, and baseball. You can have an athlete who is doing well on the world stage, but in a sport that is not popular and that person will not receive much attention nor interest in the US. Japan is different however, almost everyone who is doing well on the world stage receives national attention and the sport is less important than how well the person is performing.
When I lived in the US, I had no idea which sprinters, skiers, hockey players, and rugby players are famous. In Japan, I at least know the face of athletes who are doing well internationally in a bunch of different sports even in some cases where I do not know the sport.
Anime is another niche market and target, so it really depends on the person and if anime is a topic that you are really interested in. People in Japan are less interested in anime that most foreigners realize when they first arrive here. Anime that most people are interested in really takes an advanced level of understand to talk about but you can watch it together with Japanese friends because of the proliferation of subtitled anime on the internet.
If you are interested in anime and would like to talk about it, I would recommend waiting until you are at an intermediate level or talking with foreigners about it. In my experience, people like anime for more complex reasons than dramas, and it can be difficult to communicate why the anime deepy connects with you. Both foreigners and Japanese who love anime tend to want to talk deeply about topics as well, and both of you will probably not be able to express yourself and get frustrated.
If you are new to Japan, one rule of thumb I used to follow in my English school when training English teachers is to tell those who are big anime fans to not mention it to students. One of the uncoolest ways to introduce yourself and make the other person feel awkward is mentioning your love for anime. If the other person loves anime, they will be excited. However,in my experience, most people are not that interested and if they are, they will probably like a genre different from you.
If anime is a central part of your life, do not follow the above advice and find others like yourself. Most people who like anime who do not accept the above tend to have a hard time adjusting to Japan because the reality is that most people are not that interested and your expectations for Japanese will not be met. Trust on my this because I have managed over 150 English teachers and have seen many struggle with this to the point, we often did not hire a person from overseas based on their love for anime.
Making Friends : Understanding Japanese Communication
Using Japanese Slang
Foreigners often jump into using the formal Japanese the learned in University or through self-study when they come to Japan and never realize that people normally do not speak that way unless in a formal setting. Using polite form is useful and expected in a work environment, but will often make Japanese people feel uncomfortable in a more personal setting. Learning the expressions below is enough to get you started and make Japanese people laugh and surprise them with your natural slang. People will start to relax and lower their guard and it will be much easier to make friends with Japanese who are not used to interacting with foreigners and are a bit apprehensive at first.
Here are some phrases you can use with Japanese people in their 20s and 30s.
- Azas - Hello
- Yabai - Dangerous
For older audiences, here are some general slang words that can be used with people of all ages
If you are looking for an in-depth article into Japanese slang, below is the article to check out. I have not found any article which focuses on what language to use with what age groups though. Anyhow, the five expressions above will be enough to learn for now until you make friends. When you start to dive deeper into Japanese culture and make more friends, you can take a look at the article below.
Start understanding Japanese humor
Knowing Japanese comedians and telling some Japanese jokes is a great way to make a Japanese person feel comfortable. This will immediately reduce the foreigner vs Japanese gap and differentiate you from all the other foreigners who have no clue about Japanese humor.
Sarcasm is not considered as humorous in Japan and the foreigners who get frustrated when Japanese do not respond to sarcasm tend to suffer unnecessarily. The sooner you realize and accept sarcasm is not considered as humor here and is something you cannot explain, the less confusion and discomfort you will create.
Zen buddhism is also really hilarious at times. Some of the koans or buddhist stories can be outrageous and buddhist monks have been known to come up with some funny jokes. Zen jokes are not often told in normal Japanese society, but is worth mentioning.
Q: How much “ego” do you need?
A: Just enough so that you don’t step in front of a bus.
~ Shunryu Suzuki
What is considered humorous in Japan.
- Slapstick comedy
- Pretending to be dumb and not understanding - there even is a category called stupid celebrities and people who are labeled as such play the role - similar to Chris Farley in the US.
- Satire : Mimicking the voice or facial expressions of a celebrity or someone famous
I have not found an impressive article on Japanese humor that explains the nuances and guides you from a state of not understanding their humor to understanding their humor. My personal journey involved watching tons of comedians and narrowing them down to ones who match my style of humor. People who say that Japanese humor is not funny have probably not looked hard enough because there are so many comedians with different styles out there. This article explains the main four styles of Japanese comedy
Here is a hilarious comedy series on YouTube with English subtitles - please note they are making fun of how serious Japanese are serious about their traditions. The series is called the Japanese Tradition -
Japanese Humor - Oyaji Gags
Oyaji gags are the Japanese equivalent of silly dad jokes and similar to its western counterpart you will receive a positive reception by men in their 40s and older but women and younger Japanese,in general, will be a hit or miss depending on the person.
If your style of humor is in the dad jokes realm, you should consider learning more about oyaji gags. It will work like a charm if you go to an izakaya and speak with the locals.
Japanese Humor - Yoshimoto
Many comedians in Japan are managed by an agency and the most famous of them is Yoshimoto. Yoshimoto not only manages comedians but has a school for comedians as well and manages a popular theater that holds weekly comedy shows for up and coming comedy talent. They have a theater in both Osaka and Tokyo may have let in several foreigners - who obviously speak Japanese - to go to their school and perform in their theaters.
Japanese people would be very impressed if you know about Yoshimoto and have been there yourself. Especially with men, they would be impressed if you know Yoshimoto and it would make it easier for them to bond with you.
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Making Friends : Understanding Japanese Cultural Expressions
Yojijyukugo or four character kanji expressions
4 character kanji expressions can tell you a lot about Japanese culture and you can learn some really fascinating things about how they saw the world. Some expressions like issekinichou or kill two birds with one stone are literally the same. Japanese people are impressed when you know Japanese yojijyukugo because shows that you are really interested in the culture and are curious to get to know more about Japan.
Most foreigners to be honest, have no clue about them and for this reason you can impress your Japanese friends when you share what 4 character kanji expressions you know. I have foreign friends who do not even have a conversational level of Japanese who know yojijukugo and are fascinated with them and mentioned how it has helped them understand Japanese culture better. I guess the point I wanted to make again is that your Japanese speaking level is not as important as your interest and curiosity in Japanese culture.
Here are some yojijyukugo that you can relate to
Jyakunikukyoushoku - weak is meat, and the strong eats - survival of the fittest
Rinkiouhen - situation, adjusting - playing it by ear, adjusting to the situation, and being resourceful
Here are some yojiyukugo that are different
Fuurinkazan - wind forest fire mountain - as fast as the wind, as quiet as the forest, as daring as fire, and immovable as the mountain
Hanmenkyoushi - on the other hand, teacher - someone who serves as your teacher through their mistakes
Fushakushinmyou - not, frugal, body, life - do not waste your life away, make the best of your life
Bijinhakumei - beautiful person thin life - Beauty and fortune seldom come together
Ikkakusenkin - one strike 1 thousand money - making a fortune at one stroke or chance
There are actually no blog posts on yojijyukugo and I am proud to be the first. Luckily, someone has taken the time to actually make an article about it on wikipedia and they have some great examples.
Making Friends : Foreigners who love Japan
The ironic paradox that foreigners face is that the Japanese people who can speak English, have lived abroad for many years and are easy to become friends with, are not as interested in Japanese culture as you are. They will often not be interested in taking you to tourist sites or answering your questions about Japan and are definitely not interested in hearing your complaints. On the other hand, the people who really want to share Japanese culture to you are often unable to speak in English or may have a limited ability of English. The good news is that they will often look past this if you are a foreigner who really loves Japan and are very interested in experiencing the culture.
Japanese people want to make friends with foreigners who are interested in learning about Japan and its modern and historic culture. A foreigner who can speak Japanese but is not interested in modern or historical Japanese culture will not be successful in making Japanese friends because although they speak the same language, they do not have anything in common. This is one reason why people in the foreign bubble tend to have many Japanese friends who speak English. While those who are interested in the culture, tend to have many non-English speaking friends.
- You have to initiate conversation. If you are introverted, please note they are more introverted, so you need to be the first mover and follow up.
- You will need to ask many questions because a Japanese person may overthink about what information they should share with you. Your curiosity and interest will definitely win many people over unless they are super busy.
Making Friends : Joining a group
One great way to make friends are to join a group, meetup, or club where you share the same hobby and passions outside of business and making money.
Joining a sports team or club
If you have an N4 or bare minimal conversation level of Japanese, consider joining a sports team or a club. A super beginner Japanese learner would probably not be successful. However,from my experience and others, being around an N4 level and curious and friendly will work and Japanese people will take you under their wing if you make an effort to join the group.
People will definitely not reach out and talk to you even though they want to. This has been my experience, where I could tell they wanted to talk with me but were too shy to reach out. If you do not proactively reach out and communicate with the members of the team or group, they will not reach out to you even though they want to. If you are shy, you will have to get out of your shell because Japanese people are shyer than you and the end result will always be the same.
There are many futsol, basketball, and volleyball teams out there. You can find foreigner based groups on meetup.com but to find Japanese groups, check out your local gym or facebook. To search for these groups on facebook, click groups and then type in one of search terms below in katakana + your location and you are bound to find something.
Futsal : フットサル
Volleyball : バレーボール
Basketball : バスケットボール
To reiterate the point about being proactive, they will probably not invite you to the nomikai after party unless you ask them if they have one. It is not that they do not like you but they are not sure if you are interested, where most Japanese people are usually interested. So it comes back to Japanese not knowing how to interact with foreigners. Ask them about the nomikai after party and they are usually glad to invite you. My friend had an experience where he was a member of a sports team and they would often invite him to events because he was a part of the team but would not initiate contact with him. He found that he always had to initiate conversation and that they really wanted to speak to him. After they became comfortable with him and were able to relax, he was welcomed into the group similar to how they would welcome a Japanese. If you act like a foreigner, they may treat you like a foreigner.
Friendship in Japan : What you can do based on your Japanese level
How to Make Friends with zero Japanese
“Start of making friends with other foreigners and English speakers”
For people who know less than 10 words of Japanese, the easiest way to start is to make friends who speak English as you start to learn Japanese. You will be able to make tons of acquances, but you would need someone who has basic language ability to move past the acquaintance wall. I also recommend making friends with foreigners who have many Japanese friends because they can get you started with meeting Japanese people early on and they can give you tips or explain cultural things to you.
Having a Japanese friend who speaks English is great, but they are probably less likely to introduce you to their Japanese friends and will probably be more likely to introduce you to other foreigners. The ironic thing about Japanese people who are very Western and relate easily to foreigners often make friends really quickly and may not make an effort to maintain a relationship like most Japanese.
A great place to make Japanese friends who speak English or meeting other foreigners is to check out events at the website www.meetup.com . You will be able to find an event that matches your interest like going to the museum or hiking and you can make friends with the same hobby.
How to Make Friends with little Japanese or daily Japanese
“Now is time to get out of your bubble and venture on out”
You know how to say what you like and do a self-introduction. You have done the same conversation over and over again and you can hold a repetitive but five minute conversation.
The Konbini Method
The convenient store method involves going to a shop that has the same staff everyday like starbucks or a convenient store and speak to the staff. The types of conversation you have here is usually limited by time but the great thing is that you can have the same conversation repeatedly and that will help build some confidence if you are just starting to speak Japanese.
You can usually do basic conversations like asking for recommendations, sharing your thoughts on food, talking about the weather, and talking about the price. Convenience store workers in Tokyo tend to experience many foreign customers so will try to speak to you in English to save time and stress. If the store is not on a main street and the person is polite, they may be patient and be open to chatting.
The Wolfe Method
I got this idea from my friend Chris and what he does is goes to the same izakaya every week by himself and sits near the main counter and speaks to the locals who sits next to him. You might be tempted to go with a friend who speaks English or even Japanese because that would make things less awkward, but the main point is for you to speak as much Japanese as possible and for you to build a relationship with others.
The downside to bringing a foreign friend who speaks English is that you may end up speaking in English the whole night together. Another potential problem is that they may give you a private table or booth that is separate from the main counter and people in neighboring seats. However, the positive side about bringing a friend is that people tend to open up more in my experience when you have a friend as opposed to being by yourself. People will normally tend to approach the friendlier or more foreign looking of the both of you.
If you bring a friend who speaks Japanese, the people you meet will focus on your friend and you will not be put into situations where you need to ask people yourself.
They key point of the Wolfe method is that you go to the same place regularly. The staff and other regulars assume you are a tourist the first time, but will start to reach out and talk to you the more frequently you go. You will start to run out of topics and will have to push yourself to improve your Japanese by learning to talk about topics you were unable to do in Japanese and learning new vocabulary to practice.
They will start to consider you a regular around the 3rd month and will look forward to talking with you each week. You will also find that your Japanese will increase quickly because you are using the language and learning new things with each interaction you have with them.
Events in Tokyo
There are many interesting events both foreign and Japanese happening in Tokyo every week that you do not know about. Come see what Tokyo has to offer on our article on events in Tokyo.
How to Make Friends with Intermediate Japanese
How to Make Friends with zero Japanese
Now you are ready to dive into interesting conversations and potential adventures
Join a Japanese sports team by searching the web or facebook
- You can also join pickup games, but joining a team will lead to more chances to speak and more opportunities to develop strong relationships.
- There are interesting sports out there as well. One example is the bubble soccer league.
Join a board or card games group on facebook
- You will need to read some Japanese, but there are board game and card game groups that play games where you can read the instructions online in English.
- You can also find games that are easy to understand or you can play with a simple explanation.
- Search ボードゲーム in the event page and options near you will pop up.
Join a coffee or beer tasting group on meetup
There are many different types of groups you can find on meetup.com or on facebook that matches your interests. There are tons of things going on in Tokyo, so you are bound to find something that matches. You can also find some interesting things to do like playing bubble soccer and foam archery.
Thank You and Good Luck
Thank you for reading this entire article. We had a nice long journey together and I hope my experiences and interviews with foreigners who love living in Japan will help you have a much richer experience of Japan. I recommend taking a look at the article again from time to time because there will be things that you will have forgotten or not remember. Please also share this article if you know anyone who will benefit from it.
Follow the main points below and it should help you start making Japanese friends and please remember that you will have a ton of awkward moments in Japan that will never end. However, if you can stay and remain patient in these awkward situations without getting frustrated, the Japanese person will also remain patient and you will definitely make Japanese friends :).
99% of Japanese who do not speak English love teaching foreigners about Japan
- Japanese who speak English fluently may be exhausted in teaching foreigners about Japan or are not so interested in talking about Japan over and over again.
- Japanese who do not speak English, usually like and are proud of Japanese culture and do not have opportunities to share it with foreigners and are therefore more excited to share.
The key to making friends is NOT Japanese ability
- Asking people to explain Japanese culture is more important than actually knowing the culture.
- Japanese people do not like the know-it-all foreigner nor do they like the know-it-all Japanese.
- Foreigners often overemphasize the importance of Japanese ability in making friends.
- Understanding what and how Japanese people think is more important than language ability
We have provided a guide below on how to make friends depending on your Japanese level at the bottom. We included tips for people at all Japanese levels.
Becoming friends with a Japanese person is not a one-on-one friendship, but a group friendship
- Becoming friends with one Japanese person involves becoming friends with their other friends. A Japanese person will not sacrifice a large amount of time with their core group to switch to you.
- Japanese people already have a tight circle of friends that they have known for many years and have experienced challenges together as co-workers, teammates, or classmates.
- Japanese people do not approach friendships as open as Western countries and Western relationships may not actually qualify as a friendship or relationship in Japan.
You will have to initiate contact and maintain communications and invitations
- 95% of Japanese people will most likely not initiate contact to become friends.
- The common excuse foreigners give is that they are to shy to initiate contact, but ironically, Japanese people are more shy, so if you do not initiate contact, no one will 🙂
Areas foreigners tend to not see or understand when making Japanese friends
- Japanese have to make sacrifices of time and relationships with others to add a new friend.
- Japanese have a support network and do not need new friends as much as a foreigner.
- Japanese will not initiate contact or take the lead. You will have to almost always initiate things.
- Foreigners underestimate the importance of making a Japanese feel comfortable, but we foreigners love Japanese customer service which is essentially the art of making someone feel comfortable by knowing what they want without having to ask.
- Foreigners overestimate the importance of Japanese ability and equally underestimate the importance of curiosity and knowledge of Japanese culture.
- Foreigners underestimate the time commitment involved in becoming friends and do not notice that friendships among Japanese are tough to create and takes time.
Want to know more about living in Tokyo? Don't miss out our guide to Life in Tokyo which provides awesome tips for making your life easier in Tokyo!
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