Finding belonging in the Japanese Society

In my previous article, we’ve talked about my struggles in getting to know people in Japan – the neverending Merlion talk and how maybe this is an effect of Japanese culture.

This (thankfully) is not how the story ends though. I’m glad to say that at least for now I think I’ve cracked the formula on how to get to be part of Japanese society. Which actually isn’t a formula at all – it’s rather common sense when you think about it. But first – what is “Japanese society” in the first place? “Japanese society” – the average that you don’t have to be bound to.

It’s not just foreigners who find 世間話 (small talk) grating – there are many Japanese who feel so, and similarly, feel excluded too. In the end “Japanese social culture” is really just an average from which there are many people, groups and tribes who deviate.

And that’s the thing – what’s important is to find your tribe. For me, it started with me adventuring outside school as mentioned in the previous section. I found the startup scene clustered around the Shibuya to Roppongi stretch to be very much what fit me well. Other tribes in Tokyo involve the hyper-social party scene also in the Shibuya to Roppongi stretch, the Shimokitazawa chill passion-driven indie music scene, and growing social volunteering movements everywhere.

Honestly none of the tribes above are “mainstream Japanese society”, but if the average does not fit you, why force yourself to fit the average? While each of us may be unique, in a metropolis of 35 million there are surely people who are on similar wavelengths – the key is to find them.

Do they have to be Japanese to be your friends?

But there’s one lesson that’s more important than the above. For me, I realized that the “finding Japanese friends” mentality that I once had at the beginning was extremely self-defeating.  Let’s flip it around.

Let’s pretend that you live in Tokyo and you meet someone at one of those language exchange parties above. You ask the person why they came. They say “because I want to make foreign friends”.

Or if a Japanese person came to Singapore and you met them at a casual social event. They come starry eyed and exclaim “I am so excited to make Singaporean friends”.

Does something sound off to you?

For many of us, the excitement of coming to Japan – coupled with some well-intentioned but dubious and self-contradictory stereotypes like “Japanese people are friendly” and “Japanese people take a while to warm up to” – make us think that just because it’s Japan, the way that interpersonal relationships are formed is somehow different. 

But honestly – not just in Japan but also in Singapore, how many friends I have we made by going out actively hunting for friends like they were Pokemon? Versus how many friends have come naturally from doing school projects together, volunteering, hobbies and colleagues instead? This does not change just because it is a different country.

All of these opportunities exist in Japan as well and if your current work or school environment does not fit you, well, as stated above, find your tribe. What I want to say is – if you are having trouble finding “Japanese friends”, maybe you should stop trying to find “Japanese friends” and just search for friends. No quotation marks, period.

About the author

A veteran gaijin based in Tokyo working in tech. Co-founder of MEXT Scholars Association. Also brings Japanese sake to Singapore through harusake.com. 東京長期在住のシンガポール人。ウェブ開発・翻訳通訳・日本酒の国外輸出・留学生向けのキャリア講師などの活動に努める。文部科学省国費留学生会長。