Moving to Japan and trying to settle in while handling all sorts of problems is tough. It’s even tougher when you’re doing it all by yourself. I admit there are days when I envy my female colleagues who moved here with their boyfriends. They have someone who carries their stuff (several Ikea and Nitori trips is all I’m saying), makes sure the apartment doesn’t turn into a garbage dump in the course of the work week, cooks dinner, and organizes weekend trips. My colleagues’ lives seem so much easier.
There is one big advantage to being by myself though. When I’m out and about, people seem to feel comfortable to approach me and start a conversation. Or aren’t totally weirded out when I’m the one approaching them.
Faced with unfamiliar surroundings, not speaking the language, and generally not having much of a clue what is going on, I feel like when it comes to talking to “strangers“, I have nothing to lose but everything to gain. When they don’t want to talk to me, I haven’t lost anything, but when they do, magical things tend to happen. The following five stories are my favorites out of the many more that happened so far since I moved here.
The first story actually happened a few months ago when I was in Japan to attend the introduction week at my new workplace. Much to my surprise, during that week I was told a lot of peculiar things like “You will never really make friends with Japanese people“ or “Japanese people don’t want to be talked to by foreigners“ or “If a Japanese person invites you to their house, they don’t mean it so don’t make the mistake of saying yes.“ Baffled and slightly amused I left the workplace at the end of the week to do some shopping in Harajuku before I had to fly back to Europe.
After several hours of making my way through the crowds and crazy fashion of the Harajuku shopping district, I sat down by the side of a road to check my phone for trains back to my hostel in Yokohama. I was unaware of my surroundings, so I was surprised when a Japanese couple, who were sitting next to me, suddenly started talking to me. The woman asked me if I was studying and we took it from there.
We spent half an hour talking, despite our very limited language skills (I for example can only say random words in Japanese). We had so much fun though and we could communicate to each other (using random Japanese, English, hands and feet and pictures on our phones) what we were doing in Tokyo, how we liked it, how old we are and what we do for a living. It turned out the lovely couple owns a restaurant in Ibaraki, which I promised to visit one day (I really will, guys. I still have your business cards!).
After the warnings at my workplace that talking to Japanese people or making friends with them was impossible, meeting these people in Harajuku was incredibly uplifting. Before I could tell them how I felt, the woman beat me to it and said wholeheartedly: “I’m SO HAPPY to talk to you!!!“
The second story took place during a 7 hour bus ride to Nagoya, which I embarked on shortly after moving to Japan in August, to visit an old friend. Since the bus stop was more than difficult to find, I immediately approached the only other two people who were waiting there to make sure I was in the right place. As usual, I made an effort to speak Japanese, but was relieved to find that the woman spoke very good English. Our assigned seats on the bus being right next to each other didn’t seem like a coincidence but one of those rare moments in life when a higher force is doing something right. It turned out that she also spent a year living in good old England, so we had a lot of things to talk about. When we agreed that “It’s hard to remember good English food!“ we laughed a lot louder than it’s considered acceptable on Japanese public transport. But we didn’t care. And went on talking and laughing for hours. (She lives in the same district of Yokohama as me and I’m still hoping to see her again one day.)
The third story contains making friends with a non-Japanese person who I met when checking out of the local Sento, which I like to go to in the evenings after a stressful day at work. After going there for weeks, this was the first time I ever saw a non-Japanese person there. While we were paying, I heard him speak Japanese with the staff. When we put on our shoes, I told him that his Japanese was really good. I don’t know why I said that, since I had been in a bad mood and didn’t feel the need to talk to anyone at all that night. The words just came out. I didn’t anticipate that we’d stand outside the mall at 11 pm, talking for more than half an hour, making plans to meet again. (Which since then, we have!)
The fourth story could have been taken out of the screenplay of a movie. Seriously. It was one of the first Saturdays after starting the new job and I had a minor meltdown at home because I was trying to get work done on the weekend and everything was just too much and my brain was totally blocked and unable to think any coherent thoughts. I needed to abandon the work and get the hell out of the house to distract myself and clear my head. This seemed like the perfect time to go to Uniqlo for the first time in my life.
I had no idea which size to get for anything since Japanese women are a lot smaller and slimmer than me. I didn’t want to drag too many items to the fitting rooms, so I just tried on some sweaters right in the aisle of the shop. Suddenly a Japanese woman standing next to me asked me in flawless English: “What size are you buying?“ I told her about my assumptions but that basically I had no clue and that’s how we started talking about us and our lives. She is from Yokohama but has been living in New York for the past six years, which is why she also wasn’t sure about Japanese clothing sizes. I instantly liked her a lot and was happy that despite the limited days she had left in Yokohama, she wanted to meet up with me again.
Some days later she joined me when I went to Shibuya to meet some old Japanese friends. We also met again the night before she flew back to the States. That evening, she invited me to a goodbye dinner at her sister’s house where she was staying. After a horrific day at work, which made me question my entire decision of moving to Japan, eating a home-cooked meal in someone’s home was the most comforting thing in the world.
This level of kindness by someone I just met is something I will never forget. (I also won’t forget the images of Abe Hiroshi’s butt that we found on Google that evening!) When we said goodbye, I couldn’t believe she was leaving the country. I tried not to be sad about it, but I was. (And frankly, still am.)
Story number five is most likely the most unlikely friend-making story of all. It happened last week, when I went to my bank to pay my rent. Despite the benefit of having English speaking staff, the downside of this bank is that it is a 20 minute train ride away from my workplace. Another downside is that it closes at 3 pm every day. In order to make it there in time, I had to ask a colleague to cover my last lesson of the day and hurry to get there.
Unfortunately, I took a wrong exit at the train station, which resulted in getting lost, asking for the way twice, and making it to the bank only in the nick of time. Or so I thought. I was about to find out that because of a national holiday, the bank was closed. I had not seen that coming, and I had wasted so much energy and time.
Then I did what every responsible adult does in a situation like this: I sat down on the pavement in front of the bank, put my head in my hands, and cried. I didn’t even care what people would think because no one would talk to me anyway. Wrong again! It hadn’t even been a minute, when a non-Japanese person asked me if I was in trouble and needed help. Still sobbing, I explained my situation and that I was fine and just crying from frustration.
The guy sat down on the pavement with me and told me that he moved to Japan 12 years ago and remembers very well how difficult everything was for him in the beginning, and that because of that, he always tries to help when he sees a foreigner in trouble. His kind words didn’t exactly stop me from crying but after a few minutes of conversation, I felt a lot better. He said he was on his way to meet friends and asked if I wanted to join them, but I had to go back to work. We made plans for meeting again though. I’m looking forward to hearing about his experiences in Japan.
What’s the conclusion from those five stories? That Japan is some sort of fairytale land where you don’t have any communication issues and it’s dead easy to make friends? Probably not. Despite those magical moments, I do spend a lot of time by myself and I feel lonely more often than you might think.
All I’m saying is that it is possible to make friends in a country where you don’t speak the language, simply by being a human being who interacts with other human beings.
I have no idea yet if any of those acquaintances will turn into real friends. With some of them, I don’t even know if I’ll see them again. But that’s ok.
Some people appear in our lives only for a short amount of time. To lead the way. To make us laugh. To make us feel less alone. Or in general, to make us believe that despite the doubts we have about our life decisions, that in those particular moments, we are in the right place at the right time.