Q: As mental health professionals dealing chiefly with native English-speakers in Tokyo, do you often have to deal with people who feel isolated and excluded in Japan, e.g. long-termers who have failed to “fit in” here, as in they lack Japanese friends, despite knowing the language, culture and so on?
A: Anyone who has been in Japan for a while has met other foreigners who have been in the country a long time. Some of these people do well socially and psychologically over the years and some do not. Some of these individuals may indeed come to our clinic, and while the people we see usually have either had a depression from before coming to Japan or experienced a worsening of their depression while here, there are certainly others who have a general social isolation but are not necessarily depressed. What might separate those who do well from those that do not?
First, we can look at psychiatric illnesses like anxiety or depression. Those with such conditions often have an inability to enjoy things, low energy and concentration, and their sleep and appetite may be disturbed. These problems often run in families. While social success may help mitigate them, they may still affect anyone regardless of their length of stay in Japan, number of friends, or other aspects of social success. People with these conditions require some kind of intensive psychiatric intervention.
Among those who do not have a specific mental illness, some seem to do well generally being alone, while others seem desperate to connect with people. This may relate to attachment needs that everyone has and that are probably innate. We have all seen some toddlers who are happy to explore their environment and others who cry whenever they are separated from their mother. Attachment needs do not completely disappear in adults.
Getting back to being a foreigner in Japan, those people with high attachment needs who see that Japanese readily group together and seem to make close friendships with each other may be disappointed if they then have an expectation that they will also easily form these kinds of social circles, particularly if they do not first understand Japanese social structure and modify their interactions and expectations accordingly. This is because Japanese social structure works on a group-affiliation basis where formality, saving face and etiquette are valued highly, especially with guests. People who grew up together, who went to the same school or entered a corporation at the same time, or who have family ties, etc., have a basis to affiliate easily.
It is extremely difficult for a non-Japanese to fit into this social structure as few non-Japanese have these close affiliations and, by definition, none are in the superset group of being Japanese. It is very common to hear how well someone was treated at a welcome party or on a short trip to Japan and then later hear that they felt excluded. This is because they confused politeness and formality with deep warmth. Deep warmth and close friendship will require the person to engage with their Japanese circles for a long time.
If one comes to Japan and expects that because they work together with someone they will easily become friends, as might happen in their home country, they may come away disappointed. This does not mean that it is impossible to become friends, but it will take more time, perhaps a number of years, to cultivate the kind of common group affiliation that Japanese naturally inherit with each other, and one needs to be patient. People with high attachment needs, who easily feel unloved, unwanted or inadequate, etc., may try to alleviate these feelings by over-seeking connection with others. We do see these kinds of people in our clinic and they can be helped with psychotherapy.
Romantic relationships have a different kind of basis, and it may actually be easy to start up a serious romance. Japanese people may be very interested in foreigners, especially Japanese women, who might imagine that a relationship with a non-Japanese man may enable them to gain a degree of social freedom that they might not be able to achieve within the constraints of the Japanese social system, where women are traditionally expected to stay at home, have a close relationship with their husband’s parents, etc.
Lastly, related to language, there is no argument of course that it is better to have more language skills than not. However, speaking the local language is not a passport to friendship, for all the reasons noted above, and an expectation that it will be could well lead to even more disappointment. If one does not speak Japanese well, they will naturally select to associate with the subset of Japanese who speak English, many of whom may be extremely friendly. Some of these people want to relate deeply with non-Japanese people, and some are more interested in language practice. The only way to confirm which is the case is to tune up one’s language skills and try to have relationships where there is some give and take in the language that is spoken, or, for those with advanced language skills, to politely assert that the other party only speak Japanese.
Whatever one’s situation is with Japanese people in a private or work-related situation, those who have romantic success and cultivate an international group of friends as a base, while slowly developing attachments with Japanese and keeping their expectations in check, will inevitably avoid feeling isolated in Japan, even over the long haul. Some individuals may do well in a Japanese company, but again, it may be socially easier to be in a work environment where there is a mix of people to relate to and where job opportunities may be greater. Leaving Japan to reunite with old friends, to get a reality check, or get better occupational qualifications, etc., is another option that everyone should keep on the table.
Douglas Berger, M.D., Ph.D, is an American psychiatrist and Director of the Meguro Counseling Center (www.megurocounseling.com). This article is provided as general information only. Persons in need should contact a mental health professional. Send questions you would like Dr. Berger to address in a future column in this occasional series to firstname.lastname@example.org