Making real friends with Japanese people can be a challenge if you don’t know their culture. The common mistake that foreign nationals make when they try to form friendships with Japanese locals is thinking that friendship can happen at any given time. This is not the case – there are certain situations that allow new friendships to form. 

This podcast episode will help you understand the minds of Japanese people and give you 2 big tips for getting accepted into Japanese communities quickly. 


Hello world, you are listening to the Metro-classic Japanese, bringing you a podcast about what you need to know to enjoy life in Japan and its culture and make it your own. Make Japanese culture a part of your identity. I want to help you to do that.

In this episode, I’d like to give you an idea of how you can break through the toughest wall in making Japanese culture a part of your identity. It’s to make friends with Japanese locals and to be subjectively and objectively a part of the Japanese community. So if you already live in Japan or you’re considering living here in the future, I’ll tell you how to break that wall. 

So why am I recommending that you take in Japanese culture into your identity portfolio? Well, let’s imagine a person from say the United States moved to Japan and lived there for quite some while and she successfully absorbs the Japanese way of viewing the world. And let’s say that person found a job later in life in Amsterdam, in the Netherlands. That person would be able to switch back and forth between her American way of thinking and her Japanese way of thinking, combine parts of them at wish, and therefore bring in a very unique perspective into her workplace in Amsterdam. 

IT engineers are hard to find and hire these days in any part of the world, but people with multiple cultural identities are even rarer gems. I’m betting on a future where people with the most unique combination of cultural identities will have the best opportunities. Because they will come up with ideas nobody else can, or at least bring in perspectives that nobody else can contribute to a team. 

Japanese culture has a lot of unique philosophies and wisdom to offer especially if you are an artist, designer, or businessperson, or if you’re interested in living a long and happy life. 

So to start off with some basic facts, every year, there are at least 150,000 more people who come to live in Japan and there are a total of close to 3 million foreign nationals living in Japan, as of 2019. That’s like 2.5% of the total Japanese population, and there will only be more foreign nationals hereon. The Japanese government is working hard to make entry easier for foreign nationals because Japan needs help. The native population is aging, so we need the help of people who are interested in living in Japan so we can keep our society and the economy going, and in return, I think what Japan can provide is a safe, healthy and a potentially happy life style. 

Anyway, if you’re looking into studying in Japan, you can get a grant or scholarship. Universities in Japan are looking to increase their international student body. If you’re not a student but you have IT programming skills, you’re very marketable in the business sector, if not, you can get a job as an English teacher fairly easily. 

So entry into Japan is easier than ever. But the hard part is finding your own spot in a Japanese community. That is to say making meaningful relationships with locals. 

To make friends in Japan, you need to understand Japanese culture. Let me reframe that. If you understand Japanese culture, you will know how to make friends in Japan. And it’s not that hard. 

First of all, you need to know that in general, Japanese people don’t easily let you into their friend zones, but once you get in, you often find yourself in a life-long friendship. That is in contrast with relationships in the Western world, namely the US, where people tend to let you into their friend zones fairly quickly, but they also tend to network with a vast number of people at once, which means they spend less time with each connection. 

According to Omnicore’s Social Media Benchmark Report 2019, on Facebook, the world average of the number of Facebook friends is 155, while the average of Japanese Facebook users, according to a study by Facenavi, is 108. Pretty small.  And the average number of Facebook friends for Americans is 350, according to Infinite Dial. So you can already assume from these figures that there is a clear difference in the width and depth of relationships people tend to have between the US and Japan. 

And there are good reasons for this difference. In the US, people are far more mobile than people living in Japan. In the US, If you don’t fit in in one school, college, company or town, you just move to another one. But in Japan, it’s been historically common for people to stick to one place. If you get in a school, even if you get bullied, people try to endure it. Changing schools is not an idea that comes to mind immediately for Japanese people. Endurance is considered a virtue in many cultures, especially in Japan.

The average number of times people in the US change jobs in their lifetime is 12 times, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, while the average number for Japanese people is 2.08 times. Twice in their lives. I myself have changed jobs only once. 

So because a Japanese person would stay in one place for a long time, keeping good relationships with your colleagues and keeping a good vibe within your team or community are priorities. And that is also to say that protecting the vibe and the ways of the community is very important too. Drastic changes may disrupt their peace. So although Japanese people don’t consider external people coming into their community as threats, they do tend to observe carefully, and won’t let down their guards until they really feel this new person is one of them. 

Now those of you who have visited or lived in Japan may think “They don’t let down their guards? What are you talking about? Japanese people are totally nice and polite to strangers.” You might think that. But being treated nicely and politely is exactly what I mean by your being seen as an outsider. If you feel you were treated really courteously, that means you were being treated as a guest. Not one of them. 

Traditionally, Japanese people have considered protecting the good name and trustworthiness of the family or organization they belong to as the most important value. So each family and organization makes an effort to not offend other families and organizations. They don’t want to create enemies, and they want to present themselves as pleasant people. That’s why they’re so nice and polite to strangers.

But in order to protect their community, they cannot take the risk of accepting just whoever, so they try to keep a nice but professional distance between themselves and people outside their community. That’s why they are super polite to foreigners. 

So how do you know if you are treated as one of them? Well, you will know when that happens, because the way they talk to you, the language they use towards you, will change. If your name is John Smith and if you join a Japanese company, you’ll probably be called Smith-san or John-san at work. Adding “san” at the end of your name is a polite way to address a person, and by doing so, Japanese people are showing respect towards you. So it kinda feels nice. You’ll feel that you are being respected by your colleagues.

But this is actually a good sign that indicates you are not being seen as one of them. You’re a guest. And this state may persist from a month to decades or forever, depending on whether or not you know how to open yourself up to Japanese people. 

It’s not until you go out for dinner or a drink after work with your colleagues that you get a chance to be accepted as one of them. You’ll know when that happens, because after an hour or two of drinking and chatting, one of your Japanese colleagues, the funniest one, most likely, will all of a sudden call you just John. Not John-san, he or she will call you John. This is an indicator that suggests that this colleague is inviting you to become one of them. 

So at the beginning of dinner or the drinking party which is called Nomikai, the Japanese colleague may ask you “ジョンさん、もう一杯いかがですか” which is like “John-san, would you like another drink?” Very polite Japanese.

But two hours in, the same colleague will ask you “ジョーーン もう一杯いく!?” which is like “John!! Are you gonna have another one?” They will start using very direct Japanese words.

So you see, they are letting their guard down. They are taking down their politeness barrier they put up during work and showing their real self. 

So what should you do? You should go along with it. Don’t speak in polite Japanese! As many of you may know, the Japanese language has a few levels of politeness. So go with zero level of politeness. Use the most frank Japanese. Then, from the next day, people will start joking around with you more, even during work. They will let their guard down, because they consider you as one of them now. 

But many foreign nationals I’ve met, although some of them have lived in Japan for years, never get past this line, because of a few different reasons. 

One reason is that Japanese people tend to be pleasant to work with. There aren’t many dicks or bitches in the work context because Japanese people have been brought up not to be dicks or bitches or asses in public places through schooling. A lot of weight is put on learning to cooperate with others in Japanese education. 

So as a foreign guest, you’ll feel fine in the workplace. It’s pretty comfortable. And it’s comfortable enough that you may not wish for more. It’s totally possible for you to separate your personal life and professional life with a solid line if you work in Japan. Japanese colleagues will ask you out for a drink in groups, but if you’re a type of person who’s not comfortable socializing in a group setting, like me, or you value family time over anything else, it’’s ok to decline the invitation. 

They’ll keep asking you out because they feel it’s not nice to leave you out of their circle – the frequency really depends on the organization you work for – but if you decline 3 times in a row, that’s kind of like the cue for your Japanese colleagues to stop asking you out. They don’t want to be a nuisance to you, so they’ll stop asking. 

Which means the ship has kinda sailed. It will be hard for you to find another opportunity to build a tight bond with them because, again, Japanese people need to be outside the work context to let out their real personalities. They tend to stick to their work personalities at work, which is basically very polite, responsible and serious. 

So is what you need to make a Japanese friend the willingness and ability to drink? Actually no. It was decades ago. Everyone had to drink to socialize at all, but nowadays, it’s totally fine to go to a nomikai and stick to soft drinks. If your drinking or spending policy or religion doesn’t allow you to drink alcohol, then don’t sweat it. Many young Japanese people don’t really like to drink anyway, like any millennial in any country. So if you get invited to a nomikai, you can tag along and not feel so pressured to drink. 

Now if you want to make Japanese friends outside your workplace, that may actually be easier and faster, it just takes a little courage. 

Join a tennis school, a swimming school or any regular group activity near where you live. Each municipality has its own facilities where sports and cultural classes take place for real cheap. Just join one and get yourself inside a group of Japanese people. They may seem to be unsure o how to talk to you at first, but after a few weeks they will accept you as just another fellow student. The key is to join a weekly class, not a one-time workshop. Japanese people need time to get to know you. 

Now this may sound like a pretty obvious idea. And it is. But just joining a sports club and doing sports together by itself won’t guarantee that you’ll make friends. Again, Japanese people will be very nice to guests, but they won’t open up unless you behave a certain way at first. 

So when you join a class, it’s really, really important that you observe the class rule, guidelines, etiquettes and social conduct in general. Japanese people are nice to new comers as long as they make an effort to fit in. 

I’ve actually seen this happen before my eyes and I cringed. So I was in a weekly tennis class with a few men and many women, and they’re all quite serious learners. They want to get better. So the conversations we would have during 5 minute breaks on the court would never go beyond the topic of tennis. But then one day this East European dude comes in as a trial student and he seemed pretty skilled with the racket. So everyone was very excited to have him UNTIL 15 minutes into class, he starts asking personal questions to one of the prettiest female students while they were waiting for their turn to rally with the coach. 

Nobody has done that during class, because everyone’s serious. The primary purpose for everyone there is to learn and enjoy tennis. Not to flirt. So when this East European guy started trying to flirt on his first day, that also meant that he lost respect entirely from everyone there on his first day. So the lesson here is that when you join a new group – any kind of group, and your goal is to make friends and not to be perceived as a dickhead or a creep, the rule of thumb is to first, observe. Observe what the rest of the group is doing and do the exact same. Nothing more, nothing less. 

If they stretch quietly on the floor during warm up, don’t start doing jumping jacks. If jumping jacks is in your DNA or something and you’re dying to do it, look around first, and see if the people there are the type of people who would do jumping jacks voluntarily, without even being told to. 

If you don’t see anyone chatting with each other during class, don’t start flirting with the person next to you, because it will never, ever, never ever, never, ever work. I hope I’m emphasizing enough. If you don’t show that you are capable of behaving like one of them, they will not accept you into the group in the first place. You don’t have to stand out in the crowd on your first day. Your being a foreigner is already enough standing out. 

So what you should do, is show that despite being non-Japanese, you are making an effort to learn the ways of the group and you are doing your best to fit in. Then, immediately, you will gain respect. They will come talk to you. They will offer to have coffee together after class. So the key to making friends in a group of Japanese people is modesty. Tell yourself that you know nothing and you want to learn. You want to learn from the people who are already in the group,. If you start your first day with that kind of attitude, you will very, very quickly make friends. You’ll be treated as one of them. 

So try it out. I assure you that it will work like magic. In Japan, modesty is not only a virtue but the key to open a bunch of doors. Once you feel you have been accepted as one of them, then you start flirting! But not in public! Not in front of others because you’ll lose everyone’s respect by doing that. Make sure you do it very subtlety and gradually, and only in a one-on-one situation. 

Now I have a lot to say about cultural differences in flirting, but that is not the question I should answer today. Today, the question was: How do you make friends with Japanese people? 

Join a group of Japanese people and show consistent modesty. That’ll do the trick. If you want to know more about Japanese people and their traits, please check out my blog. Google Metro-classic Japanese and you should get there. 

So I hope you enjoyed this episode. また次回、お会いしましょう。