It’s been 9.5 years since I left Singapore for Japan. To this day, I remember the excitement that I felt at first. The determination to master Japanese. The want to blend into Japanese society. The excitement that comes when you are just 20 years old😅.
With this was also the want to make Japanese friends. Well, since I already spoke some Japanese, because the Japanese were so friendly and also because above everything I wanted to be friends with them – it wouldn’t be an issue, right?
… I think you can get where I am going. And honestly the “I’ve been here for 〇〇 months / years but don’t have any Japanese friends” sentiment is something that I have heard multiple times from the people around me. I know because I myself was there.
So what did I do at first?
I remember clearly that upon landing in Japan, I really wanted to integrate into Japanese society. Since I was a student, I jumped into doing student-y things. I joined the Japanese archery and kyuudo club in school, went to international interaction events, welcome parties, the school festival, and tried to hang out with my classmates.
Given that university students did all the above, surely that would be a good way of getting to know people and making friends?
It seemed correct at first. Well, lots of smiles were received from Japanese people at me speaking okay Japanese. Lots of questions about the Merlion and Marina Bay Sands. All friendly!
Friendly people do not mean friends.
Something seemed off after a while. Afterall, sometimes I’d see the same people at multiple events, but there was this strange phenomenon where our conversation never progressed past small talk about Merlions, baito, homework and あついですねー or さむいですねー.
For all the effort, time, sometimes money and sometimes liver damage that I was putting in at making Japanese friends, why weren’t things working?!
Something was very clearly wrong here.
While I was in Japan to get my degree, I was also in Japan to fully experience Japan. Not just Japanese school life. In my second year of school, I started spending more of my time outside of school – internships, baito, whatnot.
This turned out to be the turning point. Somehow, the people I met outside school were just more dynamic. This was true for the people I met while representing the Singaporean Students Association at foreign-student related events. It led to the domino effect of me starting to get professionally involved in issues regarding foreigners in Japan and starting my blog.
Maybe it was the startup culture in the places I was working at or the lack of student cliques, but there was far more frankness in conversations, and more importantly learning, which I got from interacting with the people outside school.
I think Singaporeans tend to have some contradictory stereotypes about the Japanese. Pre-pandemic anyways, one of the main attractions for Singaporeans regarding Japan was how “hospitable” and “warm” people felt while being received as travellers. On the other hand some common opinions, often stated by the same people, include that Japan is “xenophobic”, “exclusionary” and “shy”.
It’s therefore very easy to point the finger at the less-positive parts of what we think is Japanese culture from my experience above.
I do agree with “shy” – but not necessarily explicitly “xenophobic” or “exclusionary” in the sense that people dislike or are actively trying to discriminate against you.
The thing is that in Japanese society there is the everpresent “air” that people pick up on and that drives how people interact with each other.
However, the presence of an “outsider” – not just foreigners but also Japanese people who don’t act according to what the air dictates – disrupts this. Without a framework for how one should act, many Japanese clam up. The result feels like exclusion, but is really more of “I don’t know how to act” nerves.
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。