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Journey to Japan 6: Making Friends & Socialising

Having the right people around you can have a significant impact on your experiences, so how can a new arrival go about making friends in Japan?

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If you put any stock in Maslow’s theory, once your basic needs are taken care of you will probably find yourself pursuing a sense of belonging. Some people arrive in Japan with friends already living in the country, but many others arrive knowing absolutely nobody. I fell into the latter group, and it can be pretty daunting.

One of my biggest worries when moving to Japan was making friends. The thought of suddenly finding myself of the other side of the world without any kind of support network – nobody to share good times with or turn to for support in more difficult times – was pretty scary. At least initially, I would be entirely on my own. Even back in the UK I wasn’t the most socially outgoing person, generally sticking to my small, close-knit group of friends who I had known for years. But I had a strong feeling that if I wanted to make the most of my time in Japan, forming meaningful relationships would be important, and in order to do that I would need to start putting myself out there.

The internet is an invaluable resource for the lonely, disoriented expat; one of the first things I did once I was settled in Tokyo was join the Meetup.com website. I had never tried it before but had heard good things from friends in various corners of the world, and I was pleasantly surprised by how active, many and varied the groups within Tokyo were. I signed-up for a handful of groups and attended my first event within days – a walking tour of the winter illuminations around Roppongi Hills.

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Initially I felt quite shy and awkward, walking around and trying to make small talk with this group of thirty or so strangers – but by the end of the night, after a few drinks and many entertaining conversations in both English and Japanese, my (admittedly rather short) LINE contact list had practically doubled. A variety of other events soon followed – language exchanges, themed parties and small-scale coffee shop hangouts to name but a few – and I can honestly say I have enjoyed every one of them. These kind of organised gatherings can be a great way to dip your toe into the waters of different social groups and find out what sort of things you want to get involved in.

Besides Meetup and language exchange websites, other online communities have also played a crucial part in establishing my social life here in Tokyo – particularly YouTube and Twitter. Documenting my adaptation to life in Japan through social media has allowed me connect with others who have been doing the same and going through similar ups and downs. Bonding over shared experiences, good and bad, can be a source of comfort and reassurance. It has also allowed me and my peers to offer encouragement and advice to others who are thinking of pursuing a new life overseas.

If you prefer to make your connections in a face-to-face setting, I’ve found this to be surprisingly easy too – at least, to a point. If you are visibly foreign, you will likely be approached in your day to day life by people who want to practice English or simply chat to somebody who is from a different place. Sometimes this can happen at inopportune moments and feel quite intrusive, but from time to time you can meet people you have something in common with.

I remember on one occasion, quite soon after I had arrived here, being approached by a university student while wandering around LOFT – we ending-up having an interesting conversation about English and Japanese literature, exchanged contact details and became language exchange partners for a while. If you want to meet people more actively, hanging out in a bar or pub such as HUB will often result in many interactions with both Japanese and fellow expats (though of course, being in a drinking establishment means that the coherency of such interactions can be a bit hit and miss).

So once you’ve made some friends, what kind of socialising options does Tokyo have to offer? The beauty of living in such a big, vibrant city is that there is literally something for everyone. Whether you like to have quiet conversations in cosy cafes or party the night away, you’re bound to find something fun to do with your companions. The cornerstones of many a social gathering here in Tokyo tend to be the karaoke box and the izakaya, both of which generally have multiple establishments to be found on almost any street.

Whether your new friends are locals, expats or a mix of the two, you are almost guaranteed to wind-up at one of these places eventually – indulging in an all-night karaoke session after missing the last train is practically a rite of passage in a person’s induction to life in Japan. I remember my first such experience fondly: as the alcohol flowed and the singing became more and more dreadful, I found myself feeling a deep sense of appreciation for my new found companions.

The most important lesson I’ve learnt when it comes to making friends here is that it pays to have an open mind and a little patience, to pursue every opportunity to connect with others. Some of the acquaintanceships you make may well fall by the wayside, but on the other hand, you will almost certainly meet a handful of people who will leave you feeling grateful that you somehow managed to end up in the same place at the same time.

Having some good friends at your side to share new experiences with can make fun times all the more enjoyable – and throughout the year, there are a huge variety of unique experiences to enjoy. Join me in my next article as I explore some of the wonderful seasonal attractions Japan has to offer.

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