I just had a meaningful conversation with the least expected person and I felt the urge to share this with anyone who has the intention of coming to Japan, or is currently living in Japan as a foreigner.
Every Friday, our class has English lessons in the afternoon, but it’s too basic for me and my Swedish friend, so we were allowed to opt out of the class. Instead, we had to go to this chat session for Japanese students to have a chance to chat with native English speakers. Since today is Friday, I went to the session as usual.
Most of the time, people just talk casually about their plans for the weekend, how their week had been or just stuff in general. But today, not that many students came and I ended up chatting with an Australian instructor alone. Since we are both native speakers, it wasn’t exactly a conversation practice anymore but a real chat.
Then the instructor started asking me about how life in Japan is, and how my friends and families are doing. Somehow I started talking about how difficult it is to make friends in Japan, and it seemed like I had hit the nail on the head. He totally agreed with me, which took me by surprise, because I had always thought white people have it easier in terms of enlarging their social circles in Japan, given the Japanese curious obsession with white people.
I know this white girl who’s had everything her way so she loves Japan and couldn’t bear to return home at the end of this year. I’ve also seen some white people get certain privileges just because they are white. My good Swedish friend, for example, got more gifts than anyone of us when we went for a tour in a font-making company as part of our curriculum, (possibly) just because she’s blonde and white. Damn, I sound very sulky, but I’m really just stating facts.
That’s why I’m quite shocked to hear that the instructor felt the same way about socialising and making friends in Japan as me. I had thought a white guy who is a (seemingly) sociable person like him would have tons of Japanese friends, but it turns out that he has more foreigner friends than Japanese ones. Heck, the ratio is so screwed; he told me he only has 2 genuine Japanese friends. Friends that he said he could rely on during times of distress. And he has been in Japan for 4 years.
You see, the Japanese will always have an ‘inner’ circle and an ‘outer’ circle; the ‘us’ vs ‘them’ mentality is especially strong. It’s not exactly discrimination; they probably don’t even realise they have this system wired in them. A foreigner will always be a foreigner, even if you go through great lengths to change your name, change your face, change your personality, change your manners, change your language and change your identity to try to fit in, someone who is not born to a Japanese IN Japan will always be a foreigner, in the ‘outer’ circle. This means that American-born Japanese and Australian-born Japanese and Brazilian-born Japanese are not part of the Japanese identity. They have a different term for people of Japanese descent born outside of Japan (日系, nikkei). Yup, everything is clearly defined and divided.
So we had a heated discussion and came to a conclusion that Japanese people who are willing to befriend us and accept us for who we are, are generally people who have been abroad and have banished the ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ circles from their system to a certain extent. And about 90% of Japanese people remain in Japan, and about a good 70% have never been abroad or even hold a passport (just making up the statistics based on my intuition; I’m merely trying illustrate my point that the majority of Japanese have very limited knowledge outside their country), so our chances of meeting and befriending the minority of Japanese who are indeed open-minded are very, very slim. That explains our limited number of true Japanese friends.
The average Japanese person might try to befriend a foreigner but for very different reasons. They usually have motives for doing so, most of time for practicing English, or if they have plans to go to the country where the foreigner is from. They won’t go out of their way to befriend someone of a different culture just because that person is interesting or because he is friendly or whatsoever. No. The foreigner’s qualities and traits as a friend doesn’t matter. As long as he/she speaks English, that’s more than enough. Which makes me wonder, what do they take foreigners as, an English-speaking robot?!
There really is an English-speaking robot!
Prior to coming to Japan, the Australian instructor had been living in Korea for about 3 years, and he told me that during his time there, 80% of his friends are Korean and his foreigner friends are really in the minority. Even though Korea and Japan share many similarities (as much as they hate it) in culture and social structure, the way Koreans approach foreigners is so different from how Japanese do it. Being shallow and narrow-minded when it comes to interacting with non-Japanese just makes the Japanese look really immature, if I may put it bluntly.
I know for sure that we are not alone when it comes to difficulty in making friends in Japan, and I imagine that there are a lot of foreigners out there who feel very, very lonely in this homogeneous country.
I love Japan, I really do. But not being able to make friends easily just drives me crazy and makes me desperate to leave Japan. And it’s not like I only speak English or refuse to assimilate with the local people. I have tried, but I’m just not accepted, or rather it takes a really long time for Japanese to open up, especially to foreigners. I so want to knock the ‘us vs them’ mentality out of them, I want to shake every Japanese and slap them awake and tell them, that we are all the same human being, we share the same humanity, we are not different at all, stop focusing on the differences and stop thinking of us as aliens!