This article originally appeared in the October 2023 issue of Connect.
Nomfundo A. Zondi (Hokkaido), Alexandra Cloete (Chiba), Jenny Chang (Nara), Nompumelelo Mashiyane-Finger (Hokkaido), Lily Bear (Kyushu)
There are many things that are daunting when one decides to leave all they know to pursue a new life in a foreign land. Figuring out the healthcare system, the nuances of a new culture and the language, to name a few, can be a lot to deal with just on its own. And perhaps one of the most unnerving aspects of leaving your home country is not having your friends and family nearby as you navigate this new life. Sure, our generation is lucky enough to have a plethora of methods of communication yet nothing seems to beat the presence of a loved one and the joy that comes with being with them in person. So how do we overcome this unfortunate reality of leaving those we love behind to pursue something new?
The older we become, forming friendships seemingly becomes more and more difficult. We no longer have the ease of our school and college years which makes meeting and making friends easy. And in this technological age meeting people comes with new barriers. Studies have shown that beyond social satisfaction there are a plethora of benefits to close relationships. Having close friendships can support overall well-being and can protect one from mental health issues such as depression and anxiety. (1) It has also been found that having friendships can improve ones longevity as people with no friends have an increased likeliness to die prematurely. (2) Another amazing benefit to friendship is that it positively impacts how we respond to stress, resulting in difficult tasks being perceived as less difficult as they actually are. (3) However, even with these benefits it does not make fostering friendships in this amazing country any easier. Here are some stories shared by expats on their experience of fostering friendships in a foreign land.
Lily Bear (Kyushu)
The ancient adage of “Wherever I go, there I am” resonates with many a-traveller since time immemorial. While it mostly speaks to self introspection and being comfortable in your own skin in any location that one may find themselves, it should prompt one to ponder not only about self but the inevitable connections that are formed relative to the self. Simply put: humans are inherently social beings. So go ahead, sign up for that local meet-up group!
Like most relationships, friendships are akin to a proverbial garden and thus need to be nurtured and tended to. I personally try to make it a priority to check up on old friends back home at least once a month. If you drift apart, do as the Japanese—accept it graciously. For those relationships still intact, simply say mata ne?(See you next time).
Above all, the Zen goddess deep within me (there’s one in all of us) is grateful for the lessons learnt and friendships cultivated in every season of life’s colourful journey.
Lily Bear (pseudonym) is an avid traveller who lives on Kyushu Island.
Before moving to Japan, one of the things on my bucket list was becoming a regular at a local cafe. Of course, this didn’t happen overnight. It took time and getting out of my comfort zone for it to happen. I visited my favourite cafe at least once a month, if not every other week. Whenever I was there, I would order something new on the menu and try to make conversations with the owner of the cafe. Luckily, the owner of the cafe can and wants to speak English.
One day, I suggested that we should do a casual language exchange so that she can practice English and I can practice my Japanese. She was excited and said a friend of hers would also be interested in joining our language exchange, and that was how we started our little Mutsuki. Food & Language Club. We would get together about once a month: enjoy free talk, do English and Japanese Crossword Puzzles, play scrabble, and have タコパ (takopa) with a glass or two of beer.
After we talked, she even started a monthly Scrabble Sunday so that anyone who is interested in English can join and have fun. Unfortunately, the owner decided to close her cafe in June 2023, but we still keep in touch. She recently invited me and her friend over for some homemade Korean food, and we played Scrabble. In the end, I’m glad I initiated and put myself out there so that I could become friends with people in my local community.
Jenny is a third year ALT/PA in Nara Prefecture. She studied International Studies and German (yes, German, not Japanese haha) in university. In her free time, she enjoys trying new things, having interesting conversations and cultural discussions with people over a cup of coffee (or beer), traveling, and taking naps.
I have an outgoing and friendly personality, forming friendships has never been a difficulty. Yet, it has been different in Japan, a large contributing factor being the language barrier. Even though the Japanese are kind and friendly, the fact remains that relationships are formed through communication. I opened up to finding new connections with other foreigners and that has helped me emotionally and mentally. We share our experiences and we have become each other’s support system. I have made Japanese friends too because they could communicate in English. I have maintained these friendships by finding common hobbies, being supportive, trying new things and being spontaneous.
Nompumelelo is an educator by profession. She is from Johannesburg, South Africa and is currently living in a small town called Shikabe in Hokkaido. She has been an Assistant Language Teacher in Shikabe Junior and Elementary School since August 2022. She is married and has 2 kids. She is passionate about helping underprivileged children. Growing up, she spent most of her time helping at the orphanages and old age homes. She enjoys learning about other cultures, exploring the world and she is a sports enthusiast.
One of the experiences I most looked forward to in Japan was meeting people from different countries. In a country like Japan which is a tourist hotspot, finding a foreigner is as easy as finding onigiri in the konbini. Even in the inaka!
However, I experienced making new friends in Japan specifically as a bittersweet, layered experience. First, you won’t click with everyone, of course. But what I didn’t expect was to not click with so many people that I met? I blame my own general introversion to some degree, yes, but I also noticed a profound lack of depth in many of my connections with other foreigners. The bitter here lay in that other people were already clique-ed up or more focused on their own “Japanning” to foster a real friendship. The sweet in this is in the little pockets of joy you do experience in new connections and the new knowledge you can pick up about people’s respective countries.
But it’s not all bad though, thankfully, because in Japan I met some of my now closest friends. I found the sweetest sweets in these deep connections—whether instant or over a series of meet-ups. The bitter in this sweet was not knowing if these friendships would be long-term ones. Many of us foreigners in Japan live a nomad lifestyle. We’re in this spot for a limited time so if you do hit it off well, there’s no guarantee you’ll both be in the same prefecture, island, or even country in the next year.
From all this, I learned a deep sense of gratitude for the present. To soak up those good moments while I’m in them, and to be intentional with the friendships I was fortunate enough to solidify. The traveller’s life can be a lonely one but every so often you find a gem of a person along the way. And if you’re lucky, you get to keep them close forever.
Alexandra is a 25-year-old South African working in Japan in the English teaching industry. She loves travel, plants, cats, and cooking and is also on a never ending quest to differentiate katakana successfully. She’s always open to meeting new expats and making new travel buddies! Try and find her in Chiba, she’ll have a big afro!
Evidently finding and keeping friends is as unique as each of our experiences here in Japan. Do not be disheartened when things don’t pan out the way you wish they would. All you can do is your best in this present moment and remember that is enough. Here are some tips that could be helpful on your journey to foster friendships during your time in Japan:
1. Join online local expat groups on Facebook—These are great for finding out about international events which are great for meeting new people.
2. Sign up to Bumble BF—This is a low pressure way to meet like minded individuals also looking to make friends.
3. Be open—Keep in mind that you can make friends in unlikely places, sometimes just go with the flow.
4. Make the first move—It’s okay to be the first one to ask someone for a coffee, it could be the start of a beautiful friendship.
5. Don’t be discouraged—Know that you are not in this alone. Many expats struggle with forming friendships and if things don’t work out it’s okay to try again.
6. Make time to catch up with old friends virtually—It can be difficult trying to keep up with friends back home but try to make a point of catching up with them as regularly as you can. These connections have the power to fuel us when things get tough.
Nomfundo is a second year JET ALT from South Africa based in Hokkaido. She enjoys writing poetry, going to art galleries, going to live concerts, and being in nature. Connecting with people is her passion and learning more about the world and what brings us together as a human race.
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