There are always challenges when moving to a new country. However, when moving to a country so very different from your own, like Japan, the number of challenges you face increase. For those who live in Japan long term one of those challenges is making and keeping friends.
Friendship, like any other relationship, takes a lot of time to develop. Sure you might be friendly with someone on a train or at work but there’s certainly a difference between that and having that person that you can talk to and share experiences with. Developing these types of friendships living in Japan (or presumably anywhere else other than your home country) can be very difficult especially if you are a person who lives in Japan long term. There are many reasons for this but probably the biggest is because most foreigners who come to Japan are here short term and then move on to a new place. This is especially true down here in Okinawa where there is a large presence of US Military members who come and go every few years.
This can be hard on those of us who are here long term because we find ourselves saying “goodbyes” almost constantly. Just as you start to really get to know someone they find themselves whisked off by Uncle Sam or the appeal of a new adventure and we’re left here with the promise of staying connected through social media. It doesn’t take long to learn that you are not likely to be contacted again. It’s understandable, people move on, but it still takes a toll.
Another challenge that those of us who live here long term face when it comes to making friends is continuously having to explain ourselves. I am not sure if this is something that those who live on the main islands experience but here in Okinawa this has been a big challenge for me. From my experience the longer I live in Japan the less “from America” I become. Naturally this goes both ways because no matter how long I’ve lived in Japan, specifically Okinawa, I am always treated by those Japanese people I meet as though I just walked out of the airport yesterday. This usually makes me the center of attention, in a very side show freak kind of way, regardless who I meet.
Americans can’t figure out how I can sleep on a futon, eat a primarily Japanese diet and enjoy squid legs as a snack where as the Japanese people I meet can’t figure out how I can sleep on a futon, eat a primarily Japanese diet and enjoy squid legs as a snack. Regardless who I am with it feels like the worst kind of cultural exchange. Everything I do is unusual and requires some type of explanation. Sometimes it’s almost like you simply can’t be yourself because if you do something as nonchalant as ordering the goya chanpuru you will end up starting the “wow you actually eat that stuff” or “that looks disgusting” conversation.
There is no doubt that over time this can be difficult to deal with. A thick skin and incredible amount of patience is required in order to not find yourself in the middle of a restaurant exclaiming “of course they don’t have forks this is a sushi place” or “don’t call over those people that neither you nor I know so that they can watch me eat fried squid”. (Seriously this did happen to me.) Instead we gingerly explain that chopsticks aren’t that hard to use or smile as the old man offers to buy me yet more squid.
At the end of the day the reality of being in Japan (or anywhere else) long term is that there are going to be hardships in many areas. Finding and keeping friends is one of them. I am of the opinion that your personality will determine your experiences as will your location. Being in a place like Okinawa is not easy for a long term foreigner to make friends. I think this is because there are more people who are here by chance then by choice but that’s a topic for another blog post all together. I hope that this brief account of my experiences can give you a little insight on what you might expect or if you happen to be experiencing the same thing as I have at maybe some piece of mind that you’re not the only one.