Friendships in Japan

Being out here in Japan, so far away from everything and everyone that’s comfortable to me, I often get asked questions like are you happy? And one I often feel is very related: what do you like about Japan? In fact, when I tell Japanese people that I do really like Japan they sometimes give me the look of a weirdo and ask: but why?

I feel it usually revolves around the same issue: people. As a matter of fact, I feel this often dictates for me how much I enjoy any given place.
For example, I don’t like Paris. Controversial as that may be, I don’t like it. It’s so dirty, and most of all the people are the most unfriendly ones ever; I feel ashamed for tourist who go to Paris and think that those people represent all Europeans! I really liked my time in the rainforest in Borneo. This is partly because I was with animals and that in itself is enough to make me happy but the guides were really cool and down to earth. And I had some great times in New Zealand, hanging out with a friend from university in Wellington and getting up to no good, or down south biking with a bunch of Aussies and a German girl.
So as much as food is a great benefit of travelling so are the people you meet. And to me this can make a world of difference.

What does this say about Japanese people you ask?
Now, this is a tricky question. I would not hesitate to say, hands down, that Japanese people are extremely friendly. They will do to extreme lengths to try to please you, and even if you can’t speak the language they will still more than happily chat away to you in Japanese as long as you keep giving them a little headnod (which some have caught on to know the meaning. I find some Japanese people still don’t fully understand that when I shake my head it is a negative thing).
Partly to do with some Japanese who speak English but never have the chance to practice it.
And there’s probably many a Japanese out there who rarely interact with foreigners and get some sort of weird kick out of doing so.

Once you transfer yourself into their world, however, you start to realise this is very shallow behaviour. By that, I mean that this is what they do to people they meet once. I don’t even really work for a Japanese company, but once you start to get to know some of those people better, it starts to feel very insincere. They still try to help you out, at least, those who have some understanding of how difficult it must be living in a country where you have absolutely no understanding of what goes on around you, but friendly offers like ‘we should have a drink sometime’ become merely a status of how close you are rather than a genuine offer. And there’s always the issue that you’re an outsider. I reckon, even if you’ve been here for 20 years, they will still consider you an outsider. Understand their culture fully but you’re never one of them.
To the question: why do you like Japan? I often say either old culture, or Japanese people, but I don’t know how much that latter answer is really true…

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about this question – am I happy? I was planning a hiking trip in Hokkaido by myself, for which I’m yet again, by myself, but I’m currently thinking of changing my plans and joining some friends in Singapore for a week. I wasn’t feeling too bothered about not going to Hokkaido anymore, which is strange, because I’ve always wanted to explore as much of Japan as possible. Why? I think on the trip I’ll be lonely, only to return home and to be… lonely.
As I am giving myself a little bit more free time, which I really should be doing throughout the whole year anyway, and with summer coming up, the issue of friends always comes up. Needless to say, I really miss my friends from home, and I just can’t find people like that here. Many foreigners here are either in the ALT mode – i.e. always moving around teaching in different places so they don’t even try to get close – or are just not the kind of people that I get on well naturally with – a lot of Americans with a different way of thinking, a lot of loose girls actually, or people who are really into their Manga.
Don’t get me wrong. I’ve made I would say about 2 friendships that I know will last, but one of them is only here for 3 months and then is gone again.
Thinking about this made me very UNhappy, and I started thinking about home.

But then I’ve come to realise that I’ve put the emphasis on my friendships all wrong. When I really come to think about it, the people I like a lot are, in fact, Japanese, who live here, and know a little about foreign culture. And as soon as I realised I had my priorities all wrong and that I do have people I can rely on but I need to focus more on them, I all of a sudden became a lot more comfortable in my skin.

So, am I happy? With everything being foreign and difficult for me here (yes, still, it’s been over a year, but I think there are thing’s I’d always have issues wit) I have my good times and my bad times. Sometimes I have my busy times where I don’t really have time to contemplate such deep questions. I love the place. It’s just the company that I need to work on.

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