In my previous article on the Japanese culture I briefly described the obstacles a foreigner is facing when trying to get socially accepted by the Japanese. What challenges he or she is facing when they try to make friends. I mentioned the risk of running into people who tries to stick around you for the mere purpose of better their English. In this article I would like to discuss – or better yet give some tips on how to successfully make contacts and friends in Japan.
The western cultures, differ on more than one level with the Japanese culture. Japanese seem to possess a kind of social switch that westerners do not. In western countries there are no expectations on you about how you should act at any given point of the day. You might argue that businesses in the service industry give instructions to their employees about how to act when serving their customers. But usually our personality shines through whatever weak exterior we put up. In western cultures “losing face” is not a part of the ingredient, but it is in the Japanese. It’s that fear of losing face that really makes socializing a challenge.
Striking up a conversation is something I am usually quite good at. My move to Japan was not my first move across international borders. When I moved to Los Angeles in 2009 making friends was a laugh. On the starting day of college you could pretty much expect to start as many new friendships as you had classes. Show a genuine interest in someone elses story as well as open yourself up to some extent is a good start, whereas in Japan it’s not that easy. Here is when the losing face factor comes into play. Most Japanese people (especially the younger generation) have good enough English to hold a decent conversation, but their fear of making a mistake makes them hesitate or sometimes refrain from using it. This made me hesitant at first to try to make Japanese friends since my Japanese was not good enough to even hold a decent conversation.
But there are few solutions that I would soon become aware of. Corporations that arrange international nights in Japan are very popular amongst both foreigners and Japanese. At these occasions Japanese partygoers leave their tentativeness at home. They allow themselves to be themselves and socialize without any boundaries. This made me aware that picking your time and place is everything. Formalities play no importance at these events and contact information gets tossed at you from every angle.
Once I had made this major breakthrough I would instantly become aware of another difference in our ways of communication. Japanese like to keep the spotlight on you. Being a braggart is not in their nature. Luckily, Japanese are also aware of this difference and do not really mind if you are. Instead, the occasional pat on the back is thrown your way and you come out of the conversation feeling proud as a peacock. But be aware, these are the instances where Japanese can easily sort out if you have adjusted to their culture or not. Bragging is considered arrogant, as a foreigner you will be given a temporary pass. But if you want to blend in with them and be accepted as something else but a temporary visitor, you should know that it is taboo.
Getting used to a culture wherein the people feels shyness whenever you approach them is not an easy task. The barrier can make you feel hopeless at times as it differentiates so much with our ways. But as soon as I realized that picking your time and place is essential, I could breathe a sigh of relief. Initiating a conversation on the street with a foreigner in the middle of the day is not something the Japanese will do, their fear of failing in their way of communicating with you is too great. That is why international nights is very popular as they work as a perfect forum in which the Japanese can drop their mask and don’t feel a need to master something that for us is insignificant.