When you visit Japan for the first time in your life you find yourself in a country that’s seemingly close to the Platonic idea of the country. The trains are on time, you never meet a perfunctory shop assistant and even the toilets are cleaner than the hospital wards in your home country. These are the things foreigners visiting Japan take notes of and if you only spend a few days or maybe a few weeks in the country you will bring a luggage packed with these positive experiences back home and you will most likely start studying Japanese with enthusiasm with the goal of understanding more of this unique Asian culture. Or at least, that’s what I did back in 2012. But what happens next? Let’s see some very interesting experiences in the following few lines.
Elaborating on how to make friends in Japan
My feet touched Japanese soil in the port of Osaka for the first time in my life. I was travelling from South-Korea on an overnight ferry with my friend to spend 10 days in the Kansai area. This was roughly 8 years ago and I left the country this year so I can elaborate on my experiences I gained during these years.
Technology changes everything. Specifically speaking, when for example Lafcadio Hearn more than 100 years ago visited Japan he had almost no technology to rely on, therefore everything seemed mysterious and inscrutable to him.
If you read his works you will get a very blurry and obscure image of the country and although he described a multitude of peculiarities of the Meji Era he could never seem to fully understand Japanese culture and for some readers his works might even seem to be exoticizing Japan. The situation is somewhat altered these days, mostly because almost anyone has access to a large amount of information and even the latest gadgets are affordable for most of us. Or at least for those who have enough money to travel to Japan. You can bring your iPhone or iPad to the country and you can start learning the language right away. If you watch YouTube videos in Japanese and try to practice your spoken language skills with the locals you will be able to make simple conversations in a few months. Undoubtedly, this kind of language skill acquisition in the era of Lafcadio Hearn was very much unrealistic. I think this is the main reason for his long-lasting enthusiasm and I am pretty sure that your experience in the country will be completely different.
So let’s elaborate on how open-minden Japanese society is, or in other words how easy it will be for you to make friends. If you were to walk around in Japan during the Meji Era you would be treated as an identity coming from a different planet. When Lafcadio Hearn arrived in Japan he was stared at, pointed at and locals must have been talking a lot behind his back just because his gene structure was somewhat different and the shape of his eyes were rounder than the eyes in Kumamoto. Prior to his arrival nations were fighting against each other, occidental pirates traversed the ocean with the sole purpose of exploiting Asian cultures only to amass more wealth in the west. These feats are well documented in books like the Shōgun from James Clavell, Moby Dick from Herman Melville or the Burmese Days from George Orwell.
These experiences somewhat ruined the reputation of those with different physiognomy and it was only after several decades when globalization could start making progress in Asia. The previously mentioned elements still remain on the subconscious level, but every country in Asia is changing rapidly, even culture-wise. Locals in Japan these days are happy to talk to foreigners, they show you around their village and sometimes they even tell you about the history of their region. Therefore, I can come to a positive conclusion and state that it is not difficult to find people to hang out with in Japan.
When I say “to hang out with”, I might get criticized and someone could say that “hanging out with people is not the same as making true friends”. This is partially true, especially if we stick to the rigorous definitions of these concepts. I think as you get older, you tend to value “true friends” less, mostly because no matter how “true” they were they disappear. They find a partner, they get married, they have kids and they hardly talk to you anymore. Or they find a “super-busy” occupation and even though they are online all the time on social media they would never talk to you. I think we all know what I am talking about and the situation is not different in Japan. If you redefine the meaning of “true friends” for yourself you can definitely find nice people to talk to, to go for a run, to eat out, to drink or even to go on a holiday with in Japan. Obviously you will have to speak their language. It is not going to work otherwise, or at least I have not really met foreigners in Japan only speaking English and making a lot of friends. So start with Hiragana then do some Katakana and start learning Kanji. This will be a long road, but if you don’t want to feel like being a scarecrow every time when you are on a train, in a convenience store or at the city hall in Japan you will have to learn the language.
This is not a marketing material. I am not trying to sell courses to you, because the main goal of this site is to provide teaching materials for free. Launch the online Hiragana or the Katakana test and practice Japanese writing for free! When you are confident enough, you can move to the JLPT N5 list of kanji. These tests will give you the initial momentum to learn and once you will realize that you are making flashcards to memorize Japanese characters just as I did 5 years ago on the train between Osaka and Tokyo. Commitment is everything. Your progress and final success depends on whether you quit too early or not. How many times do we hear that “Japanese is a super difficult language to learn” in the west? Mostly from those who tried to master a few characters, visited the country for a few months and returned to their home country without any positive experiences in terms of language learning. I don’t think you should be one of those people. If you read this article you must have the previously mentioned commitment and by relying on this comprehensive source of information you can make your first steps into the culture and I would advise you to come back to the site and check out the materials I regularly upload so that you never miss an update on Japan and this fascinating language!
Stay tuned for the next post! じゃねー