One of the things I frequently hear from expats in Japan is that it’s hard to make friends in this country. In fact, when I first came here, one of the first conversations I had was with a couple from Europe who was so eager to get out of Japan. They warned me that there is no such thing as being true friends with Japanese people, and that Japanese people will smile at you and be nice to you on a surface level, but never really have any deep connection beyond that.
Imagine hearing that on your, what, third day in the country?
Now this isn’t something you only hear once. In the academe, there are ethnographic accounts of it. Sometimes I see them in online articles or angry blog entries. In my five years of living in this country, do I consider that to be true?
Now I don’t mean to discount other people’s experiences. I think they’re equally as valid as mine. But when people generalize and say that making friends with Japanese people is difficult, the argument seems to be anchored in the notion that friendship is based on nationality.
I find that rather unsettling. And I’d like to think that people don’t think that way. But if look back at my experiences in Japan, I have noticed many instances where people readily go to nationality to box people in.
Like one time when I went to church.
“Oh hi, welcome to church, we’re so happy to have you here. You came with a Chinese friend, but umm, we’ve got plenty of Filipinos here. I think they’re over there. Hold on, I’ll get one for you. “
Or when I was talking to this co-worker.
“What are your plans for the weekend?”
“Oh, I’m drinking with some friends.”
“You’re friends are all Westerners, right?”
Or in my former workplace where this conversation took place.
“Your housemates are Japanese? Oh, you’re friends with ‘them’.”
Like, what is “them” supposed to mean.’ Cause the way he said it sounded like the title of a Stephen King novel. Why does there have to be an “us” and “them” in and the first place? Unless we’re talking about human and zombies, categories like “us” or “them” shouldn’t really matter, don’t you think?
Look, I get it. Maybe it’s easier for our brains to categorize things when we use nationality as basis. And yes, to some extent where you grew up will shape who you are and what you expect from other people. But that’s just one part of your identity.
I mean, I am Mizhelle, I’m not just Filipino, I’m a bunch of other things. I like editing videos, I like singing, I like cows and books and booze and boobs and pulling pranks on my friends…the list goes on. Being Filipino is just part of who I am. It shouldn’t limit who I can be friends with.
I think, that we miss a lot of opportunities when we let our nationalities get in the way of making friends. I’m Filipino and one of my best friends is Japanese. And this girl has been with me through the messy ups and downs of my life. She has been there as I cried about boy after boy after boy. (Hey, there isn’t a lot!) I mean, this is a girl who lets me sleep at her place and prepares breakfast for me every time I feel bad. This is a girl who only keeps two numbers in a notebook in case her phone breaks down. These two numbers – her workplace, and mine. It’s not even her parents’ numbers. This is a girl whom I have and will still bend over backwards for, if need be. And if this isn’t that deep connection that people say you can’t have in Japan, then I don’t know what is.
To be honest, I had a harder time making friends in the Philippines than in Japan. And I think that was because I was miserable back then. I was awkward and all sorts of insecure. I was always too aware of myself, that I had little attention to spare for other people.
Now that I think about it, more than anything else, the biggest factor affecting whether I’m able to make friends or not, is quite simply, me. In the last five years I have been in this country, I changed from someone who barely gets out of the room to someone who finds herself penniless because she keeps going out with friends. Okay, being penniless? Not advisable. But the point is, I sought out friends. I became interested in how other people see the world. I focused on being a friend to other people, rather than finding ones that suit me.
So, is it difficult to make friends in Japan? Just like in any other part of the world, it can be. But whether you can make friends or not doesn’t really rely as much on other people, on where you are, or what the other people’s ethnicities are.
It begins with you.