One can waste their life away in shady anime shops and cheap fast-food joints all they want, but what makes a country is its people, and you’re missing out if you’re not talking to them. I should know, as that was the story of life when I was here last time. But, by virtue of living in a guest house when I was studying in this country two years ago, I made the acquaintance of a good many people, Japanese and gaijin alike. They were all fine folks, and I regret not reaching out to them more.
This time is different. I’m tapping all my connections–those that speak the Nihongo natively and those that don’t–and am trying to get out on weekends regularly. While I’ve had a few weekends at home, I’ve also made it out to party a few times. I’m not going to badger myself too much about this now–I’ve only just moved here! And developing a social life is a process.
But being in Japan makes it slightly more complicated. The way I see it, when you’re here you have three options: Only hang out with other foreigners, only hang out with Japanese people, or mix it up. Obviously, the last choice is the best choice. If one only hangs out with foreigners, you end up in a bubble. Japan becomes nothing more than a playground, and you don’t end up learning much. Of course, this is just fine if you’re on vacation and only care about partying in Tokyo, but if you’re here for the long term, only fraternizing with other foreigners will be detrimental to your experience in this country. Even if your friends know a lot of Japanese and are able to take you to some really cool places, you’ll always have to rely on them, and you’ll never be able to experience Japan beyond the surface level.
If your Japanese level is already very high for one reason or another coming into this country, only hanging out with Japanese people isn’t a horrible idea. That is, unless your reasoning for only hanging out with Japanese people is simply because you hate other people who are foreigners just like you. But if your Japanese level is pretty low like mine, having another foreigner as a friend who’s been here for a while is very beneficial, as they can show you some of the basics of getting around in this country without any bothersome language barrier. Also, it’s just good to have someone to relate to on a fundamental level. You’re both strangers in this land, after all.
But like I mentioned earlier, it’s good to make Japanese friends. You’ll gain insights to the culture in manner far more direct and hands-on than reading a book, or hearing stories second hand from other people. Also, your Japanese will get better. I kind of cheat by talking to Japanese people who know some English, but because I know I have English to fall back on, talking to them primarily in Japanese doesn’t make me as nervous as when I’m speaking to someone who doesn’t understand English. But if you have more confidence than me (not difficult), go seek out Japanese friends who don’t know a lick of English! I mean, I have a couple, and it’s fun to see them, but I always regret not being able to properly or fully communicate my thoughts.
Much like overcoming language barriers, the aforementioned process of developing a healthy social life is prolonged, and somewhat slow at first. That said, it’s probably more difficult for someone like me who is not naturally outgoing. What I’ve learned in the past couple of months that I’ve been here is that it’s hard to become relevant in people’s lives. I’ve been hanging out with people as much as I can, but each time I do see people, I’m the one doing the inviting. I’m not yet a relevant enough variable in these people’s lives for them to call out to me. It’s not like we don’t have a good time when we go out, and unless they’re busy, they don’t turn down invitations to do things. But, when it comes down to it, these people are more important to me that I am to them at this moment. I just moved here. I’m basically a stranger to these people. The gulf is even wider if they’re Japanese–I’m a foreigner! They can’t just speak to me normally like they do with their other friends. My Japanese sucks! They need to talk slowly!
The same goes for meeting up with people that I knew over here when I was an exchange student in 2009. That was a whole two years ago! Sure, it’s fine and good to keep in contact over mixi and Twitter, but that’s no replacement for real life interaction. Not even close. And given my poor language skills, relationships couldn’t really progress beyond simple chit-chat when I was here two years ago. In short, the thread between me and some of these people is very thin, and developing that into a healthy friendship–along with powering up your language skills–is tough.
But it’s worth doing. The last thing anyone wants to be in Japan–or anywhere–is alone. Not putting yourself out there or doing things with other people is a formula for misery in the long run, so it’s better to hit the ground running, and develop a strong social life. It’s kind of slow going right now, but in a year I suspect things will be running quite smoothly.
Either that, or I’ll be shacked up in my apartment watching anime under a blanket.