Whether you’re going to Japan for a short term student exchange trip, or long term for work/business, the one question we all ask ourselves is “Will I be able to make friends?” or “Will I be that weird loner foreigner that tried to make friends but miserably failed at it?”. Whichever question you ask yourself, know that asking these questions means that you’re getting ready/acknowledging the challenge up ahead. Hopefully this article will also be able to help you tackle the challenge with these 3 tips!
First of all, making friends begins with YOU. You have to want to get out there and make friends. Yes, it’s scary sometimes, but believe me, you can definitely do it (whether you know Japanese or not)!
What you need:
A strong desire to communicate and make friends
A good attitude
The willingness to get out of your comfort zone (to make friends)
An interest/willingness to learn Japanese (so you can improve communication with your Japanese friends)
If you don’t know any Japanese that’s an ok starting point too.
Argument: But I need to know Japanese to “actually” communicate! I’ll barely be able to get my point across.
In many cases, that is true, not knowing any Japanese at all will make it harder to communicate. However, a genuine interest in wanting to communicate with people will definitely show no matter what language you speak. You can try hard with gestures, showing pictures, body language, etc. Now, this all seems like a dumb game of charades, but for the time being, it works if you’re still working on learning the language. I highly encourage looking at it in a way that’s not “your native language vs. Japanese language” but instead as “I want to make friends and I’m not going to let a language barrier stop me.”
I first came to Japan on a one week student exchange trip knowing very limited Japanese. I only knew the words “hello”, “thank you”, “goodbye” and a rehearsed self-introduction. I never thought that I would be able to make any lasting relationships, but to my surprise, I did. I stayed with a host family where the daughter took some interest in manga and anime, just as I did. When we found out that we had similar interests, we ended up going to a lot of anime/manga stores and talking (gesturing) about our favorite characters and shows. I didn’t know how long this friendship would last, but it’s been 5 years since I first met her. We’ve supported each other through our teen years, sent each other graduation letters, and she even helped me get settled when I first moved to Japan. I’ve gotten way better at Japanese since then, and we communicate much easier before.
Many people start off the same as I did, coming to Japan with no Japanese and then working into it. But, there’s another side to the story. Since moving to Japan, I’ve come to know some (foreign) people who major in Japanese, know the ins-and-outs of Japanese language, but have not made a single Japanese friend. This just goes to show that, in my opinion, even with the language, if you’re not willing to go out of your comfort zone to make friends, it just isn’t going to happen.
So, despite language skill, there could still be some downfall. Whereas, a genuine interest in making friends, is bound to get you going, and then you just have to keep the ball rolling!
Now, you know what you need, you’re all geared up and ready to make friends, the next question is: Where do I go?
Tip 1: Go to as many social places and/or events as you can!
Where do I find people? Where do I start? I’ve listed some recommendations down below.
Karaoke – Karaoke is always a fun way to let loose, especially in Japan. Karaoke venues contain a huge collection of songs (English, Japanese, and other languages), and some venues even let you rent out costumes for that all-night fun. Some recommended karaoke spots in Japan (Tokyo) are places like KaraokeKan, Utahiroba, and Big Echo.
Live music shows – Everyone likes some form music. If you find someone with the same taste of music as you, you can ask them if they go to live music shows. If they do, you can end up going together, meet more people with the same music taste as you, and set up a series of hangouts after the live show. If they don't go to live shows, you can take this as a chance to try going to one for the first time with each other, or just chill out at a cafe and talk more about each other's music tastes. Then, you can improve your relationship from there.
Conventions – Now, we’re working with “common areas of interest”. The reason you go to a convention is to see things you like. Whether it be an anime convention or art convention, everyone there shares the same interest. When you’re at a booth, you might be able to strike up some conversation with the person who’s waiting in line behind you, or talk to the person who owns the booth!
Bars – You’ll always find interesting people at bars. At first, you may want to go with a group of friends to avoid feeling awkward sitting at a table alone. Afterwards, once you feel more comfortable, you can be adventurous and go on your own to get a different vibe. Going with a group and/or alone can also have different effects. Going in a bigger group might attract another group to come up to yours, creating one big party/social event. Going alone, you may attract one or two people who want to have a nice conversation or two. Then there’s always people who may approach you to practice their English (though some may be a little drunk in order to get themselves speaking!)
Reminder: If you're invited to a party/social gathering, feel free to go ahead and join! Is your company having a party, or is your class going bowling? Go for it! This way, the first move has been made and all you have to do is go out, socialize, and enjoy.
If the first move between you and your potential friend(s) hasn't been made, I recommend taking the initiative to invite them out. I've noticed that Japanese people (in general) tend to be shy/don't approach first, even if they're dying to talk to you.
You’ve gone out and put yourself out there. What else can you do?
Tip 2: Take part in community events!
Getting involved in your community is another great way to get yourself out there (without having to spend too much money). You can go to your local ward office and ask about any upcoming events you can help with, or about other areas that promote getting involved with the local community. You may have the chance to help set up at a festival, or you may be led to a community sports groups.
For students, you can try asking your school if they sponsors any community events like festivals, sports days, or other promotions. On occasion, schools will ask if any of their students would be interested in volunteering for these sponsored events.
All-in-all, community events are a good start. The best part about them is that (most of the time) they’re always close to where you live and/or go to school!
We're not done just yet! One more important thing---
Tip 3: Don’t forget to stay connected [via SNS]!
There are two main points here:
1. The world we live in has evolved so much that it’s easier than ever for us to stay connected. And I say—take advantage of that! On a student exchange trip? Exchange contacts with your friends during the trip, or during the last week. Staying for a longer period in Japan? Take the extra minute to grab that cool guy’s contact, because in the next minute, he could hop on that train and be gone for, well, I don’t know, forever? Simply, take the time to get people’s contacts, you may never know when you’ll see them again, and a contact or two isn’t a bad thing to have.
2. After you’ve become friends, you need to put in twice the effort to stay friends. This especially goes with people who are in Japan for shorter periods of time. When you go back to your home country, you may find it a little more difficult to strike up a conversation, especially with time differences, language barriers, and etc. But just keep at it and let your friend know you’re still interested in keeping the friendship going!
Some of my recommended SNS apps are:
Line – Line is basically the Facebook of Japan. Everyone I know has Line. With the use wifi or data, you can message, call, or video call your friends for free. It’s a very convenient app, too, offering additional features like Line Pay and adding friends by QR or ID. It’s great for general communication like chatting or sharing photos.
Note: Line also has an official account that you can add into a group chat to help translate between languages. This is the official account for English to Japanese translations. While not all translations are always super accurate, it can offer some help in breaking down the language barrier and make communicating a little easier.
Twitter – Twitter is a great starter app for those “common interest” friends. You tend to add each other on twitter because you like/share the same things (like music, artists, etc.). It’s a great place to keep up-to-date with what you’re interested in, as well as share the news with your new friends.
Facebook – Facebook has steadily gained popularity in Japan throughout the years. Although not as popular as Line or Twitter, it’s still an app that a good amount of Japanese people use. The only small issue there could be is when adding your friends, various name results could come up if you’re adding them by name instead of email. Japanese people normally use their kanji name, which means that thousands of other Japanese people with the same kanji name will pop up. With Facebook it could be best to add each other when you’re together to avoid any profile confusion.
Email/Post – For the chance that you meet a great friend that happens to be opting out of SNS, feel free to ask for email or their mailing address. Again, the most important thing here is to keep in touch, even if you do it the little old fashioned way!
And there you have it folks! Now go out there, make friends, or maybe even meet your significant other. Have fun!
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