The loneliness — or otherwise — of the long-distance foreigner

The Japan Times received a large number of readers’ emails in response to Debito Arudou’s Just Be Cause column published Aug. 2, headlined “The loneliness of the long-distance foreigner.” Here, belatedly, are a selection.

The elephant in the room

This topic is something of a elephant in the room for most foreigners I know, including myself. The number of close Japanese friends we have between us is close to zero — and not for want of trying on our part!

You asked readers to be honest. I am an Englishwoman, 43, and I have lived in Japan for 20 years (although I am going back to Gaijinland this December). I have worked in fields such as publishing and journalism, which you would think would throw up some interesting people to be mates with, but . . .

I speak read and write fluent Japanese, but this does not seem to affect friend-making ability in either a positive or negative way.

By your definition of what friendship is (openness, spontaneity, etc.), I only have one real Japanese friend, a woman I met at London University who herself seems to live in a bit of a gaijin bubble here, being married to an Englishman and working for an English company. But even with her, friendship is sometimes a struggle, mainly due to an occasional lack of openness (always for a reason).

I agree that Japanese women are in general far more interesting than Japanese men. None of my male gaijin friends have male Japanese friends, for all the reasons you state. However, they do have female Japanese friends. But even then, if they were honest with themselves, I think they wouldn’t class their female friends as friends in the same league as their foreign friends of either gender.

In many cases I sense that their Japanese female friends are there for decorative reasons. These women certainly have little to add in either English or Japanese when the conversation gets serious or intellectual in any way. And they tend to herd with other Japanese women when in a group. That says more about Japanese gender attitudes than those towards friendship though, I think.

I think from observation that Japanese are as capable as everyone else of making new friends, but not with foreigners because we are always foreigners first, and not individuals to make friends with. I am sure there is also some underlying feeling that only fellow Japanese can understand each other. Trying to make friends with Japanese has been exhausting and ultimately futile. Somewhere along the line I simply gave up and concentrated on enjoying the relaxing company of gaijin friends.

My sole Japanese friend is different, though. She regularly picks up silly little things that have personal meaning for me, or hark back to a private joke of ours. That is real friendship, and I will miss her.

After 20 years here, she is the only Japanese friend I will be leaving behind. I sincerely believe that says more about the Japanese than it does about my personal magnetism (or lack thereof). I am looking forward to making friends easily and abundantly back in Gaijinland.


People are strange

I am a 56-year-old American male employed as a professor at a Japanese university and have lived in this country for 30 years.

No, as defined, I have no “close” Japanese male friends. However, the best male friends I ever made in the United States seldom write to me, nor I to them, though we remain in touch.

Certain very agreeable Japanese male friends, however, are regulars in my life here. Just how “close” they are I cannot say. Perhaps holding yardsticks to friendship is folly anyway. Life is full of surprises, is it not?

Mainly, our common bond is photography. We get together at least once a month, maybe more, and talk on a variety of subjects extending well beyond our initial shared interest. Our interchanges contain elements described in a number of characterizations appearing in your piece, mainly the generalization of certain behaviors as “Japanese” (for the edification of me, the gaijin) when, in fact, they may just be idiosyncrasies of a particular individual. You know what I mean, of course.

As you can well imagine, nearly all of my camera club members are retired and about 20 years older than I am, so most of their banter is playful. They are in no mood to take life seriously anymore, and make wonderful company.

“Natural shelf life” — that is the phrase in your discussion that really resonated with me, but in a manner that departs from the main theme. As a professor, I have mentored students sometimes far beyond the extra mile, seen them off at Narita on their way to study abroad, etc. Once they graduate they are content to delete me from their lives. Whereas there are former students for whom I did nothing particularly special, yet they want to meet me again, or at least be my friend on Facebook. “People are strange,” as the Doors song goes.

Thank you for a very thought-provoking article. I enjoyed it.

Ageo, Saitama

Good to know it’s not just us

I have been living here for 30 years and have had the exact same conversations with my few long-term NJ (non-Japanese) friends on many occasions.

Good to see that we aren’t the only ones who feel this way.


Inherent loneliness of adult life

I am a fourth-year university student majoring in English. I was introduced to this article by my teacher and was impressed by it, so I would like to offer you my opinion on this issue.

I agree with the writer’s idea that Japanese men do not have friends once they get into the job market. But I think this is not specific to men; it is a problem for all full-time workers who work very long hours.

My mother, who works at a shop six days a week, does not have friends whom she speaks to and meets regularly. It is just too tiring to get out of the house and see someone when you work so hard that you have no choice but to rest on the weekend.

On the other hand, my father is doing a part-time job at the moment. He has plenty of time, but no friends. Even if one has time, people around his age (in their 50s) seem busy, and it might be a little difficult for him to ask people to hang out with him because he is ashamed of the fact that he doesn’t have a proper job: lonely, as you said.

I am still a university student and do not know much about people who have entered the job market. My experience is just one case and does not necessarily apply to all other families, but still I think that “adult” people are lonely.


A refreshing change from Arudou

I won’t hold my breath for more — for now — but the tenor of this article by Debito Arudou was refreshing. There was of course the usual tendency to see the world reflected in his own image: I don’t have any close Japanese friends, so by extrapolation this must be a problem for everyone. For some long-termers though, it may well be an issue worth considering, and the article is readable thanks to Arudou omitting the usual diatribe.

Having said that, the question as he asks it — why is it so difficult to make close friends with Japanese if you are a foreigner? — just can’t quite escape that old tendency to see the foreigner as victim or outcast. As an example, notice how at the start he tells us he had beers with “several” old Japan hands, and how this suddenly becomes “a good number” of NJ (non-Japanese) long-termers with few or no close Japanese friends.

That escalation is important of course because the tenuous link has to be made, or it wouldn’t be an Arudou column: “this is a very serious issue — with a direct connection to issues of immigration and assimilation of outsiders.” I wonder at this, though.

Well, it is said that you can tell a lot about a person by the company he keeps. Furthermore, if one’s friends are a reflection of one’s interests, then no one could be surprised that Arudou is lacking in “salaryman” companions (accepting that particular stereotype for a moment).

Put bluntly, who wants to be friends with someone whose main preoccupation revolves around bashing Japan at every opportunity? It shouldn’t take a genius to conclude that Arudou’s friends will more likely be non-Japanese.

I would advise Arudou to stop worrying, though. Real friends are those people we have something in common with. If his friends are good listeners, then that is something he should be grateful for, regardless of their nationality.


Best friends made in high school

“The logic runs that in Japan it is awkward, untoward, even rude to extend a relationship beyond its ‘natural shelf life.’ ” This cultural aspect is little-known but is absolutely spot-on and crucial to understanding a subliminal but prevalent attitude to friendships in Japan. I first read it in a cultural study on Japan in the 1960s.

I left Japan/Kanto for a couple of years in the middle of the last decade, and when I came back several people said words to the effect of “I feel I do not need to know you anymore.” Not to mention the many others who just broke contact. Only a few resumed contact. Very few. I was made to feel somewhat “rude” for leaving and then expecting to pick up where we had left off, as it were (although I had stayed in touch by email from overseas).

A change of job, of address, of the original circumstance of meeting, is taken by some to signal “a natural end of the relationship.” In Japan, it is undeniably true that the most meaningful and sometimes enduring friendships are formed in high school. Perhaps it is nostalgia for the “happiest days of one’s life” for some people, before the rivalry of corporate life begins. Anything later in life is somehow not as meaningful in comparison in many cases.

Kawaguchi, Saitama

The columnist and the pea

(Mr. Arudou,) your non-Japanese friends have all been here over 20 years and you’re still in your 40s or early 50s? So you arrived in Japan when you were yet in your 20s (or early 30s)?

Just what are you comparing your Japanese experience to? Your college buddies back home in the ’70s or ’80s? The deep “friendships” you made in your fast-paced, crazy 20s back home? How many of those are still close and deep? Probably less than the fingers on one hand? If that. More than just memories?

Of course, you’d be assuming that those “friendships” would have continued into your 40s and beyond with the same level of intensity and comradeship you invested in them 25 years ago?

German, Swedish, British, American, Canadian, whatever, what are the hallmarks of male-to-male relationships? Do you imagine other cultures, Asian cultures for example, share the same level and type of personal information as your culture does?

I understand you’re lonely here, deeply confronted with your personal need to be accepted for who you imagine yourself to be. But one of these days you need to understand that just like the electricity that’s 60 cycles in one part of the world and 50 cycles in the other, you need a transformer to function here. And second-language acquisition and even local citizenship, for you, do not contain the right circuitry to give you full access to what is potentially here for you.

For the level or depth of integration you’re searching for, you really need to be rewired to local standards before you can come even close to that. Fortunately, most of the rest of us aren’t so hard-wired to our home cultures that we haven’t been able to open up new rooms in ourselves and, with time, open the doors to those rooms wide enough that they welcome in Japanese friends, some of them deep and long-lasting.

The furnishings in those rooms don’t look like anything we had in rooms we remember from our youth back home. They’re different, filled with local colour and sounds and smells and flavours of people who inhabit them.

You’re in a pretty darn difficult spot, aren’t you? You can’t go back, right, because what you left behind when you came to Japan isn’t there anymore. You’re kind of stuck here. The shoes you’re wearing don’t fit as well as you thought they did 20-some years ago. You’re kind of like the princess and the pea- you can’t get comfortable, no matter how many mattresses you sleep on, so you keep trashing them, but you still just can’t reach that damned pea!

I’ve friends here going back to 1981. Some are not Japanese but most of them are. I love them dearly. My closest Japanese friend died of cancer last year and I’m still mourning. He was two months older than me. I miss him like hell. We worked together as a team a few times every year, ate, drank and womanized and told tall tales and shared a depth of friendship that remains very important to my sanity even if it’s now only memories.

But I was lucky. I can only count three people in my life, of close to 70 years, who I was so fortunate to know at that bare-the-soul, kindred level, and one of them is Japanese.

But you know, we didn’t actually talk all that much. We didn’t need to. We just connected. We understood each other. We went through so much together.

For your own sake, stop trying to fit other people (in this case Japanese) into your model of reality. There is no justifiable rationale for doing this. You’re never going to get a real person, other than yourself, in there. And apparently you don’t fit there so well yourself.


Same applies for female friends

This is probably not the kind of response you expected, but I just couldn’t resist commenting: Japanese women cannot be “true” friends either!

Before I go mumbling my reasons, let me explain my background. I am an Indian female. I came to Japan when I was 4 (with my parents), went through regular Japanese elementary and middle school, then an international high school. I went to the U.S. as an undergraduate and worked there for a year afterward.

Now I am back in Japan, working at a medical school, applying for Ph.D. courses the U.S., so I guess I have cleared the “living more than 10 years” criterion.

I might be different from others in that I am not Western NJ but Asian, and because I have lived through those “friend-making” childhood years in Japan.

Coming from that different perspective, I would say that Japanese women cannot be “true” friends either. I have two Japanese “friends” from my middle school whom I meet time to time, but I can never ever talk to them as freely as I can to some of my American friends. It just doesn’t work. I feel there is a need to put on your “tatemae mask” when talking to any Japanese friends.

However, I don’t think its an NJ-specific thing. Although they have a “we are Japanese” tie, especially when they are outside of Japan, it seems Japanese cannot be “friendly” (in the sense we think) with other Japanese either.

I don’t have any theory or reason — it’s just my observation.


Thresholds we can never cross

Maybe it is a longing for one’s own culture that creates the emptiness. That of course will not be found in a Japanese friendship. In Asia, life is set in three sections: youth and learning; adulthood, working and family; and elder and contemplation.

My father traveled the world in an earlier time and would often comment on peoples of this country or that, and when I would claim he was professing some prejudice, he would rejoin: “I am half-prejudiced: It is the men I don’t like.” Such are human beings.

The obligations associated with friendship in Asian cultures are very different to those in Western cultures. There are thresholds that we can never cross. That is not a judgement, just a reality.

Make the best of your relationships and enjoy the uniqueness of your situation: Write a poem … something the Japanese will understand.

Norfolk, Virginia

What does this say about Japan?

I think you have raised a very important question. Indeed, what does this say about Japan?

I am a male American, a university English teacher, who has been in Japan over a decade, speak and read Japanese fluently, and have read lots of books about Japanese culture, and thought about this country for two decades, so I am not fresh off the boat, but it has been difficult for me to make friends with Japanese men.

I have one Japanese friend, I guess, who I could call up in the middle of the night, but I also have several NJ friends who I could call, and I would probably try calling the NJ friends first.

Part of the problem may just be language and familiarity with your culture. When you need help immediately, you want someone who can understand what you need, and have an idea how to help you.

Moving to a new location, yes, that has a way of ending the friendship. Living in the same area seems to be important.

Most of the theories you listed have an element of truth in them. I am sure that one primary cause of this situation -our having few friends native to this country — is that discrimination of various kinds is very strong here, especially discrimination based on nationality.

Nevertheless, I come from a country that has horribly exploited the Japanese people for many years, so I am thankful that I can walk the streets without the threat of retaliation for what my country did to theirs, that I can live in peace here. For someone who sees things through the lens of nationality, it may be hard to deeply trust someone from a country whose government has exploited one’s own.


NJ friends, Japanese acquaintances

I recently realized that I’d completed my first 10-year stint in Japan, and Mr. Arudou’s article made me think about all the people I’d come into contact with since I came here.

I noticed that the only people that I’ve maintained contact with (apart from one or two old girlfriends who became friends) are a few NJ friends with whom I share the same hobby.

My male Japanese acquaintances almost always consist of work colleagues who tend to disappear once that bond is severed. I don’t believe this phenomena is particular to Japan, but I think that the “sense of loneliness” implied by the title is probably emphasized by the scarcity of Western faces in Japan.

The majority of my female Japanese acquaintances tend to be either work colleagues who suffer the same fate mentioned above, or ex-girlfriends who inevitably move on with their own lives. I find that this, coupled with the society’s belief that men and women cannot be “just friends”, tends to hinder long-term friendships from developing (which is unfortunate since I think it’s much easier for an NJ man and Japanese woman to get to know each other than Japanese and NJ men — just an observation).


An ‘unexpected luxury’

Mr. Arudou, may I present you with a little “unexpected luxury”? Your article was right on the button, especially this passage: “They realized we wanted to learn Japanese too, and . . . they weren’t willing to reciprocate. Not to mention that we eventually got tired of hearing blanket cultural explanations for individual issues.”

How many times? How many times?!

Incidentally, I have been here a total of 11 years and live in, and interact with, Japan and the Japanese; I do not live and work in a cocoon in Minato-ku!

More power to your drinking elbow. And your pen.


Fill in the blanks

This article reminded me of my first year or so in Japan, close to half a century ago. Early on I had so many friends that I needed a notebook to remember their names. I was more popular than The Beatles!

At the time my Japanese was nothing to speak of. But as time passed and my Japanese became better than the English of my friends, all of my “friends” disappeared! It was a huge disappointment to find that it wasn’t my good looks and charming personality but just the chance to practice their English that was the extent of our friendship.

From that time on I have never spoken English to a Japanese at work or in my private life. All has worked out fine since then, and I do have a few Japanese friends whose friendship is not based on an ulterior motive.

The article really seems to be asking why most Japanese don’t want to be true friends with foreigners. Well, maybe most don’t, and I can understand that, just as I avoid friendships with ———jin because they are ——. And ——jin because they ——-. Likewise, ———jin avoid me as I’m ———.

I wonder how many Japanese living in South Korea or China have true friends there?

The difficulty in making friends in this or that country is only normal. That’s just the way it is. So what’s the fuss?


Lack of friendship was why I left

I worked in Japan for seven years. I’m female and I was in my 20s.

Japan gave me great opportunities. I fell in love with the mountains, where I went hiking every possible weekend. I loved the aesthetic of traditional Japanese art and architecture. I spoke the language reasonably well and found my Japanese colleagues generous and kind.

Did I make Japanese friends? No. This was the main reason I left. I wouldn’t have missed the experience. But I didn’t choose to be an alien for the rest of my life.


A strange country, but we love it

True, true, true. I wanted to comment as I have thought about this issue of male Japanese friends for years.

I am from Summit, New Jersey, and have been here in Japan for about 14 years (in Kyoto and Tokyo).

I can honestly say I do not have too many male Japanese friends here. I agree with most of your hypothesis as to why this is the case.

The only long-lasting Japanese acquaintances I still have are those who have lived abroad or those who I have a relationship in some capacity with their (non-Japanese) spouse.

Japan: a strange country in many ways but we still love it!


Removing language barrier crucial

Mr. Arudou, I read your thought-provoking and honest article in the JT about foreigners with no Japanese friends. Most of the causes cited have a grain of truth in them, I believe, but one you didn’t mention has been especially important for me: Japanese language. If you get good enough at Japanese language after, say, 10 years over here, then the barriers to friendship with Japanese males will be at least partially removed. (Japanese women tend to be better at foreign languages.)

Because I can speak and understand Japanese pretty well, sustaining friendships with men has been quite easy, in spite of my being married and not working together with most of these friends. There is still a mutual desire to meet up and commiserate, etc.


Crying in their beer

I lived in Japan for nearly half of my life, from the beginning of September 1986 to the end of May 2011. My Japanese wife and I have two daughters, both of whom are in college in the USA. I love Japan beyond measure; I love the people I have known as my own family. I may return to live there again someday if I am fortunate.

Regarding the topic of this article, I can only say that such a perspective is to be expected from those who, in all their time in the country, have never set foot outside of their gaijin ghetto. Frustrated men in foreign bars grumbling in their beer about the locals can be found in every corner of the planet. Perhaps they stay because they lack skills to survive elsewhere and are dependent upon a niche they’ve found in the local society that gives them popularity and a good living. Yet, when they remain huddled together in the same place for 10 years or more complaining about the same thing, they are just pathetic.

I am about as outgoing a person I know and know many people, yet very few are counted as my intimates, and with few of these is alcohol a necessary social lubricant. Among most of my long-term, intimate male friends, alcohol is, thankfully, irrelevant. Perhaps if Debito and his friends were to try activities other than drinking they might find more success, though I doubt it.

I myself have never had more than a few such close male friends within geographical reach at any given period of my life regardless of activities or place. True intimacy is demanding, making such relationships by their very nature rare.

Debito himself, a hero to Japan-bashers everywhere, is far less heroic to long-term foreigners in Japan who have integrated more fully and more meaningfully into the local communities where we have lived, and who have been more embarrassed by his activities than inspired. Winning a lawsuit against a community bathhouse because it denied him admission, he found a mission in life. He went on to challenge the very government to allow him admission into that highly elite club of Westerners who have gained Japanese citizenship. He has gained much notoriety from many such confrontations, and so a public identity and a career. Along the way, he sacrificed perhaps any possibility of building long-term, viable relationships with most Japanese people.

Anywhere you can name, but especially in Japan, bearing one’s own cultural values as a bludgeon in a confrontational approach, cultivating conflict and animosity at every juncture, will leave you precisely where Debito and his friends are now: crying in their beer.

However, there are other ways of approaching the inevitable problems of integrating with a local community regardless of place. It requires that one remove one’s psychic armor, integrate and make oneself vulnerable to the vicissitudes of life among the local people. This requires the capacity and desire to accept personal growth and build trust, for which one must have gained sufficient personal maturity to meet others on their own terms.

In Japan, the opportunities and rewards are enormous. You will find sensitive, loving and devoted friendships that will last a lifetime.



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