We all understand that developing friendships is key for ministry and lasting impact in Japan. This is good news. We want friends! So how do we make and keep Japanese friends?
Be ready to make friends
After a few months in Japan, late one frigid night, I found myself battling with bus schedules. A short-haired girl named Yu recognized my struggle and kindly explained that the buses don’t run late on weekends. So, I set out to walk home. I think I surprised her, but she joined me. The 30-minute-plus journey provided a great opportunity to connect, and she seemed to enjoy the English practice. She found out I was Christian and expressed her gratitude for Christian groups that had outlasted other volunteers to the Tohoku region following the tsunami.
I maintained contact with Yu for months. I had opportunities to personally show Christ’s love to her, and she even came to a church outreach. How did I meet her? Just by allowing her to help me on the street. The Lord taught me very early on that there’s potential to make friends anywhere.
Many of my long-term friendships also came from unexpected places. We may tend to see language school as one more hurdle before we can begin ministry. But I found the spouses of several classmates were Japanese and particularly open to friendships with foreigners. My first hatsumōde (first visit to the shrine in the New Year) was with an Argentinian classmate and his Japanese wife and friends. We’ve since met each other’s families, I gave a speech at their wedding ceremony, and we’ve had countless dinners and conversations. Simply making the acquaintance of my classmates and getting coffee together after school blossomed slowly but surely into meaningful relationships.
Another gold mine for meeting Japanese people has been university alumni associations. These types of connections between graduates of foreign universities may be particularly strong in Tokyo, but there are all kinds of partnerships and sister schools with universities across Japan. I met my dear friend Mari through the University of Southern California Alumni Club of Japan. She took me under her wing when I didn’t know a single other member at my first event. She gradually introduced me to tons of her friends through birthday parties, beach days, toshikoshi soba (soba eaten for the last meal of the year) gatherings, and even a giant slip-and-slide event. We also bonded with other alumni watching football, which had the added perk of discovering some decent pizza places.
The point is that we have connections and plenty of common interests with Japanese people. I believe the possibilities are essentially limitless for where and how to make friends. Whether it’s the “random” person next to you on the train or at a café, odds are you make an attractive potential friend. And even those uninterested in English or foreign culture likely share a common hobby or network. We just have to be ready and willing.
Let them set the tone
In Japan, foreigners, English-speaking foreigners especially, are appealing on many levels. I repeatedly hear Japanese friends comment how they love our friendliness, approachability, and intrigue, as well as how we make them feel free and uninhibited. However, some of us can also be domineering and insensitive to their culture. Please understand: I am by no means condemning the inevitable blunders we all make. I strongly believe crying and laughing those mistakes off is a critical part of living in a foreign country, especially a structured society like Japan. I just hope each of us is growing in cultural sensitivity and being sure to apply what we learn.
For example, I think many of us know Japanese people tend to be extremely busy, particularly in the bigger cities. But do we apply our knowledge or easily forget to invite them in advance? Some friends need to schedule to meet six weeks in advance or your relationship with them won’t deepen. In rare situations, friends will LINE hours before or accept our invitations on short notice. It’s ok to try reaching out at the last minute if circumstances don’t allow a well-planned invitation. (Without a doubt, God uses our communication, done in love, with our friends regardless of how tactful it may or may not be.) But if we’re thoughtful and adjust to what works best for our friends, then our relationships will progress more smoothly and last longer.
We can also allow our friends to set the tone in how often we meet. It’s ok to have expectations, but it’s important to hold them loosely. Again, on average, we Westerners can seem domineering compared to our friends from a group-minded culture. Even after a phenomenal time together, our smiling friends may be cringing on the inside if while saying goodbye at the station we shout, “See you again next week!” Despite their desire to meet up again, if there’s a hint you expect too much, they might get scared off. Instead, we can say, “Let’s hang out again when you have time!” They’ll usually show you how often they’re available to meet up. If they don’t initiate, you can always wait for an opportunity to extend another invitation, preferably with lots of time in advance.
I’m sure many of you excel in meeting people where they are. If you haven’t learned to go out of your comfort zone, try something new. Let your Japanese friends dictate how you spend your time together. For me, this has been a blast. I’ve tried badminton, Ultimate Frisbee, and rock climbing, and I’ve seen a variety of performances. Adopting the predominant tendency of Japanese girls to shop for hours on end has been more stretching for me, but the fruit of growing closer with them outweighed any displeasure!
Speak their language
If you speak English, or any foreign language for that matter, you’re wise if you use it to your advantage for making friends in Japan. However, it’s extremely unwise to make excuses for not learning the native language of the vast majority of people around you. We must continue improving our Japanese skills if we want to maximize and maintain friendships with Japanese people.
Learning Japanese is hard—very hard. I doubt many people would argue this point. But it’s worth it. I’ve never heard someone say, “Wow, I invested too much time in learning Japanese. I should have gotten out onto the mission field sooner.” On the contrary, I see those who have progressed in the language reaping the rewards of more meaningful friendships in Japan.
Maybe you’re thinking, “I don’t have the opportunity to study Japanese.” If that’s the case, then might I suggest you keep using what you know? If your circumstances prevent extensive language school, then just do the best you can. Use the greetings and words you hear repeatedly as much as you can. If your conversations are limited to Japanese people who speak English, they will still appreciate your efforts. Most of us have heard a Japanese friend exclaim in awe, “You speak Japanese!” when all we said was arigatou. Initially, our friends will be very easily impressed and appreciative of our interest in their language regardless of our level. Also, many Japanese people hear the gospel for the first time in English, so don’t despair.
On the other hand, if you have the privilege (however painful it may be at times) to study Japanese full-time, or even part-time, then I want to see some sweat and tears. Seriously.
There are Japanese souls waiting for someone to explain the gospel of Jesus Christ, and less than 1% of the population is Christian. It’s ok if it takes time. It’s ok if you make mistakes along the way. We all do. But if you utilize your opportunity to live as a Christian in Japan, using whatever language you possess, then you will bless the body of Christ in Japan and the over 99% who don’t know Jesus yet. If you need encouragement, call a trusted friend, or email me (my email address is in the JEMA directory). Ask for prayer. You can do it.
It can be challenging and heartbreaking to serve in Japan. But there are many joys and blessings waiting if we persevere. We will have setbacks and days when friendships with Japanese people seem impossible. Just remember, as God’s child, you are desirable. God’s love and joy shine out of you making people want to be your friend. Try to stay open to making friends anywhere, allow them to set the tone of your relationship, and don’t give up on the language. I know God wants to share his light through you. JH
Photo “Two Friends, One Beach” by Flickr user Damian Gadal
Christina Eads has been on staff with Japan Campus Crusade for Christ since fall of 2011. The beach in Chiba, running at Inokashira Koen, friends, and the grace of God have kept her in Japan.