Sunday, September 10, 2017

"It's So Difficult to Make Friends in Japan!"

Thus goes perhaps one of the most common statements among foreigners met in Japan.  And curiously enough, statements of such kind are uttered during some of the most popular meetups where hundreds of Japanese and non-Japanese from all walks of life mingle, specially designed for finding friends among complete strangers.  While being in an environment where people aggressive meet people for the explicit purpose of befriending them, foreigners lament that it is hard to make friends.  Clearly, the reason is not because they have little opportunities to meet other people.

What is more, the same people lamenting about lack of friends tend to be the most motivated when it comes to meeting and then keeping in touch with strangers off various social events.  They frequent meetups involving hundreds, actively seeking to keep in touch after said events by soliciting contact details.  And they do not just trade contacts for the sake of getting more friends on Facebook.  They actively communicate via whatever contacts they solicited, hoping to follow up in another social event at a later date or as small groups over dinner and drinks.

While there are inevitably some people who arouse suspicion among others through their social desperation, most people have a completely benign purpose: to escape the often small social circles limited to ethnic minorities, and genuinely and concretely move into the mainstream Japanese society.  For that, they need to learn how to talk (not just in terms of the language but appropriate cultural communication) in a more Japanese way, so that, however impossible it may be in reality, at least partially assimilate into the society that they have chosen to reside in.

Yet often it is in such enthusiastic aggressiveness with which they seek social interaction that they find themselves overly optimistic.  The optimism comes from just how well initial bouts of interaction go with complete strangers.  In social events they attend, their enthusiasm are generally reciprocated, with others responding actively to their social advances.  Trading Facebook and phone numbers come off as pretty easy, while genuinely interesting conversations on ethnic backgrounds, cultural experiences, and even more private, personal matters happen smoothly.

Emboldened by the initial success, many foreigners falsely assume genuine interest.  They seek to prolong the interesting conversations they had after those social events end, via social media and, hopefully, in-person meetups at later dates.  Yet, for reasons that leave them scratching their heads, the enthusiastic reception displayed in the social events do not carry over beyond the events.  Their enthusiastic messages on social media receive terse, robotic responses, while invitation for further meetings in person either go unanswered or receive multiple polite declines.

It is as if the enthusiasm that had happened in the social events was just for show, used to make the events fun but not much more.  For many of the Japanese attendees, the events are almost seen as one-time venturing out of usual social circles, and their finishing means it is time to go back to the original social circles.  The events, thought this way, are not opportunities to enlarge or diversify social circles, but more akin to pure participative entertainment no different from attending a concert or hobby-related workshop.  The foreigners' interest to keep in touch with people from the events are not shared.

No wonder, then, many foreigners (and frankly, also many, for lack of better words, foreigner-minded Japanese) have a hard time finding more friends no matter how much they show their faces around the city's endless parade of social events for strangers.  The enthusiasm with which they are received everywhere they go masks a sense of detached, distant politeness with which they are perceived by locals.  The inability to see through that politeness behind the enthusiasm means the high expectations bestowed upon social events are often betrayed for unknown reasons.

Ultimately, it is a chicken-and-egg dilemma that troubles those who seek genuine friends from strangers.  They seek friendships with locals as a way to gain understanding of a different culture with different behavioral norms.  Yet, without first knowing some of the behavioral norms before seeking friendships, it becomes quite difficult to connect with locals at a deeper, more permanent level.  Perhaps there needs to be some top-down efforts from the Japanese government to foster interest in genuine, long-term international friendships.  It would be a first step toward more international-minded youth population.

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