Barcelona, the city where you can become best friends with a complete stranger after only a couple of beers. A place where foreign faces and languages are part of our daily lives and interactions. I come from that type of culture – so moving to Japan and adapting to its culture has been, to say the least, challenging.
Personally, I found it extremely difficult to adapt. And the complicated stations, over-prized bananas and packed trains had nothing to do with it.
The real challenge came when I had to interact with someone else than a convenience store employee or an overly polite waitress. Once I tried to make Japanese friends out of the international circles in university, I realized how difficult it would be to build deep, meaningful connections in Japan. As many times as I tried, I could always feel there was a wall between me and them.
There are several reasons why that wall might seem so tall and thick when you first move to Japan. The first one being, of course, the language barrier. I haven’t met many people who moved here already speaking fluent Japanese. And even if they did, they had not lived here before, so they did not really know how human interactions work in Japan. And no. Anime and Manga are not reliable sources. Don’t even try!
So, obviously, you will have to study a lot before you are able to hold a meaningful conversation with a Japanese person who has no knowledge of English. Until then, it might be better to interact with Japanese people that are clearly interested in foreign countries or have studied abroad in the past. They are more likely to be able to speak English, and as they already had contact with foreign cultures, you might understand each other’s mindsets much better.
This brings me to the second cause for that almost palpable distance some foreigners feel when trying to connect with Japanese people. As you might already know, culture and society here have absolutely nothing to do with most western countries. In Barcelona, for example, I would be able to walk up to a stranger in the street and tell them that their shoes look cool and I’d like to know where they got them. Even go for a coffee together afterwards -without it implying any hidden agenda-, and ending up talking about our deepest, darkest secrets. However, I would never try to do that in Japan, unless that person was another foreigner.
In Japan, strangers are strangers and friends are friends. That is why meeting new people in Tokyo might seem hard. Japanese izakaya (bars), for example, are usually divided into areas where people can sit in small groups. Therefore, it is not an inviting atmosphere to talk to strangers. The same happens with karaoke and other entertainment venues. And, as I said, the street is not really an option.
Where can I find foreign-friendly, English-speaking Japanese people or other foreigners, then? Well, what worked for me are international events. And there are plenty of them, if you know where to look.
I am going to recommend Couch Surfing, a site that is not as popular as Facebook but definitely worth a try. If you love traveling and enjoy experiencing cultures on every level, I suggest you look it up and try it next time you go abroad. As the aim of this platform is meeting people from different cultures, Japanese people who participate in the events are often able to speak English or other languages, enjoy traveling and/or have lived abroad. That means they probably understand other cultures and mindsets, so it might be easier for you to build a connection with them. Also, there are many Japanese who organize the events themselves, often offering some culture related experience to newcomers or whoever wants to join. And, of course, there are plenty of foreigners there that will understand and share your interest in Japan and, let’s be honest, your general confusion.
CS MEETING PIC
Personally, I have met almost all of my friends here in Japan in international events. I have been able to meet not only amazing foreigners that also feel homesick from now and then, but also really interesting Japanese people that love learning about other cultures and other ways of understanding the world. I have even met some Japanese people that say they don’t quite fit in Japanese society themselves! Through all of them, I have discovered and been able to explore an entirely different side of Japan. At the end, isn’t the huge variety of ways of thinking what makes traveling and meeting people from different backgrounds so interesting?
To sum up, if you are a sociable person who is feeling disoriented and kind of lonely in Japan, attend some international events and just keep an open mind. This way, I am sure you will be able to enjoy Japan in all its splendor and amazing weirdness in great company!
To start with, why don’t you join our international events? We try to gather both Japanese people and foreigners in culture-related activities. We guarantee it will be lots of fun! Check our blog and website to make sure you don’t miss any!