On Caring About Your Lonely Friends in Japan


Not everyone who moves to Japan is lonely when they arrive, but most are by the time they leave. One can’t reasonably complain about it, of course: We do it to ourselves. But we can try to understand how loneliness works – and we have plenty of opportunity to study that question in Japan.

Most people do not move to a foreign country where they don’t speak a word of the language, but most people are not conditioned toward loneliness. Lonely people are basically social telecommuters: It doesn’t matter where we are, because we’ll feel lonely anyway. May as well get some decent matcha while we’re at it.

Some people are born lonely. As a lonely person, articulating this difference can be difficult. Lonely people seem depressed to non-lonely people, and sometimes we are. We are perfectionists, striving for an impossible level of connection and disregarding anything that falls short. We are wary of new people, who require a lot of energy. It’s tiring for lonely people to extend themselves into non-loneliness, too hard to finesse anything less than a perfect click of personalities.

Lonely people, I’ve found, are more likely to make music or read poems or get lost in fiction. Art pitches itself to a niche audience of lonely people. We can’t articulate to a specific person, so we articulate to the world at large. No one tells us what we want to hear, so we ask dead poets. We cultivate interior landscapes and wonder why we are, so frequently, trapped in our own weeds.

Maps (They Don’t Love You Like I Love You)
The layman’s idea of loneliness is tied to rejection: You’re undesirable. But that’s secondary. Instead, we feel wasted. We’ve explored an inner wilderness but nobody cares to see the map. We have erected libraries in there, with books and quotes and short films of symbolic significance. All this stuff that goes into the construction of our self, the symbols that seeped in and took root. It inspires empathy, because we know that every person has the same thing, but it also inspires frustration, because we don’t know how to explore it with anyone else.

I imagined I’d find a manageable kind of loneliness in Japan. My isolation was largely self-imposed. I’d make the map and it would be OK, I’d carve out some new landscapes. I’d do it deliberately, so rejection would have nothing to do with it. But as one grows accustomed to life abroad, this sense of self-imposed ostracism loses its protective charm. One meets people who seem open to trading cartography advice, but it never happens, or it happens superficially. Cartography conversations seem ever important and ever unsatisfying.

Art, like a mountain, was once the great common reference of internal mapmaking. You meet someone and they show you this album or movie or book or song or poem or whatever, and then the two of you agree that yes, you both have seen it, and without realizing it, you can look at the trails that got you there.

It’s exciting but soon wears out. Art is ever so localized.

“Yeah, they’re pretty good.” Art, at least when giving directions to our inner life, is a distressingly poor landmark.

The Science of Solitude
Loneliness, according to its earliest researchers, was defined as the unfulfilled desire for intimacy. So, we are drawn to the kind of social events that might loosen the barriers: get drunk, hook up, stop being alone by being in someone’s arms, even if they’re kind of a terrible person.

Science knows some things about loneliness.

Science knows that, in the absence of social stimulation, we seek mental stimulation anywhere we can, whenever we can. Psychologists agree that lonely people smoke, overeat, drink too much and engage in “indiscriminate sex” more often than those with satisfying social connections.

Science knows that loneliness, borne of stress, inspires stress. Loneliness increases already high levels of stress hormones. It makes us more susceptible to disease. Lonely people feel daily stress more deeply, and unexpected problems experienced in isolation can be surprisingly debilitating. Welcome to Japan.

Science knows that loneliness is self-fulfilling. If we feel lonely at work, which seems to be inevitable, we carry it home. I carried it into the bathtub, until I read enough to stimulate the social connection part of my brain.

Science knows that we crave intimacy more just as we imagine that no one is interested in what we have to say. Indeed, in an act of biological irony, the most difficult time to trust people is when we need to trust people the most. Vulnerability breeds defensiveness; rejection stings more. But also, it turns out, lonely people are worse at reading faces. We pick up on negative social cues more than positive ones. I found Japan’s vague sense of communication (and facial expressions) a constant assurance that I was a nuisance and a burden to everybody who had to talk to me.

From 1 to 4
In 1978, researchers at UCLA devised a simple questionnaire to measure loneliness. Twenty statements, rated on a scale of intensity. The statements read almost like a check list for living in Japan.

On a scale of 1-4, evaluate: I have nobody to talk to. I lack companionship. I feel that nobody understands me. I find myself wanting people to call or write. My ideas are not shared by anyone around me. I feel left out. I am unable to communicate with those around me. My social relationships are superficial. No one knows me well. It is difficult to make friends. I feel excluded. People are around me, but rarely with me.

These statements are objectively true. OK, OK, I know: Boo-hoo.

But the Japanese expat life is an inherently lonely one, and once you start to see it in people, you start to get sad. Native-language social interactions are extremely rare compared to home. When I interacted with other people in Japan – particularly, but not exclusively, other expats – they were lonely too. We’d get together, feel needy and inspire a mutual, secret panic.

I wanted intimacy, but was terrified of scaring people away. I started over-thinking social strategies. I feigned aloofness, then pushed boundaries of intimacy, then panicked when people reciprocated. I’d pull away, my feigned aloofness becoming real, and then panic, then wonder whether I was crazy or someone else was.

We both were.

Lonely people, according to research, crave intimacy but actually loathe self-disclosure. We want to be accepted, which makes the stakes of rejection all the more terrifying. We get anxious and defensive, isolate ourselves from people we want to talk to.

We won’t talk. We need to talk, in fact, we want to cram a week’s worth of social warmth into a single blaze of one-sided conversation. And we inevitably will. After a few pints, I would tear down social barriers to intimacy at an unsettling pace. It’s easy to force it, to demand it out of the people closest to me, even if it’s just not there. The minute I started talking, I started to feel like I was terrifying everybody.

For a while I went to work every day assuming I was disliked by my co-workers. I didn’t trust that they were being honest with their kindness, I assumed they were being nice. Nice wouldn’t have cut it anyway. I craved intimacy, and my limited Japanese made it impossible.

People told me, “If you learn Japanese, you can make more friends,” but you can only talk about food for so long before you start getting hungry for something else. Studying wouldn’t have helped. I wouldn’t be having the conversations I wanted to be having, because I wanted to have impossible conversations.

There is no conversation that would have fixed it, and there is no connection that could be reached over a pint or a night in bed with anybody. There is nothing anyone can say to make lonely people feel like other people are sharing themselves, because there is nothing we will hear through our own pulsing desire to disclose something ourselves. I would sense, if you told me a secret, that you immediately regretted telling me, because that’s how I’d feel.

Research says: Acts of social sharing that should be deeply fulfilling leave lonely people feeling less satisfied than the non-lonelies.

The Lonely Scientist’s Guide to Life
I spent a lot of time trying to graduate from loneliness to post-loneliness, and I’ve come to find a certain peace in it, these days. Research points to some solutions for short-term loneliness, and some of them have helped me here:

  • Have a “something night” every week. Waiting for people to call you is less satisfying than regular, expected contact. This is true even if the person calls consistently, and spends the same amount of time with you. Personal control over a relationship (even the “control” of expectation) can make you feel better about it, and consistency can make you less nervous that you’re screwing it up. Plan a movie night, dinner night, or soccer night.
  • Invite, rather than wait for invitations. I am pretty sure that every friendship I have has been the result of inviting them to do something. Nobody ever asks anybody to do anything.
  • Change expectations of social contact. Coming to Japan out of university was shocking, because I went from seeing dozens of friends every day to seeing practically nobody for weeks. I’ve had to change expectations – recognize that distance and money mean seeing people on weekends, not weekdays. As that was still too long, I made regular local dinner plans in the midst of the week, as advised by point 1.
  • Do things alone. Waiting for other people to do stuff with you will make you feel worse if they don’t. See movies alone, go to restaurants alone, travel alone, rather than letting loneliness make you feel like you’re missing out on life.

A Drinking Problem
There’s that old Zen story about a student who seeks enlightenment from a monk. The student sits down with a hot cup of tea and talks, at length, about the things he has studied, the many masters he has met, the experiences he has had, the threats he has survived. He talks and talks, until his tea turns cold. “Why, then, can I not find enlightenment?”

The Zen master nods, and begins to pour fresh tea into his cup. The monk keeps pouring as hot green tea rises over the brim, into the saucer, to the table and down onto the floor.

“The cup is you,” says the monk.

We have this metaphor that loneliness is emptiness. That we are an empty bottle that needs to be filled. But my loneliness was never the result of being empty. I had way too much stale tea in my cup: Old fears, old insecurities, imaginary threats. I assumed I needed to pour my heart out to someone, and maybe I did, but I couldn’t trust anyone to listen.

Loneliness was a paradox because it meant keeping an inner life that was so full that it was unwieldy and esoteric. I’d have a hard time connecting to other people because of all the clutter. I wanted them to speak not just English but also the language of the books I’d read, the ideas I considered fundamental. The reason people were exhausting is because I had no room to hold their tea. And when people spoke to me – if they were really looking – they would see my eyes glaze over as every word they said spilled immediately out of my cup and onto the table.

So rather than seeing people as vessels to pour myself into, I started looking at all the cold tea I needed to swallow or spit out. I was alone because I was keeping people away.

When people say “you have to let people in,” it has that patronizing feel of country song wisdom, like we’re all tragic teenagers who, if only we “let people love us,” would be transformed into people who gazed lovingly at hand-made scrapbooks.

I really was full of myself, the end result of living immersed in a world I’d made in isolation. I wanted to talk for hours to someone else just to prove that I was here, just to have some witness to my existence. To verify that I was real, by relating to them, so I could be remembered and understood.

We lonely people have spent our lives out in the world gathering sticks and roots, berries and books and cinema and snippets of poems and boys or girls we crushed on and the memories of how we nursed away that rejection. We’ve collected moments of symbolism, snapshots in our head of pleasant and meaningful memories, and added them to a pestle, ground them up into a powder, and stirred them into hot water with a bit of milk.

We’ve tried to offer that cup of tea to everyone we meet. It’s fresh and hot at first, when we’re young and able to offer it up to anyone who asks.

We get older and fewer people ask. We still want to spill that cold tea into someone else’s cup – not for the joy of sharing, but so that they can carry it with them, so they can remember that we were capable of brewing such fine tea – and we hope that they will taste the complex richness that we know must be there.

But when we’re lonely, we refuse to let go of our attachment to ourselves. We lose the drive of our curiosity. I wanted share myself so badly that I left no room to be shared with, then panicked that nobody ever told me anything.

All this bitter tea – cold and stale, undrinkable, unwanted but carried around because we grew the leaves and brewed them on our own. Drink it or pour it down a drain, but somehow, we’ve got to empty that cup before we can expect anyone else to serve us another, before we can begin collecting another bunch of ideas and berries and brew them into something that we actually want to drink.

And then, when that cup is quite warm, we can offer it, freely, to someone else, and take in some of theirs.

And if you threw a party, and invited everyone you knew, you would see the biggest gift would be from me and the card attached would say, “Thank you for liking This Japanese Life on Facebook.” 

This entry was posted in Culture Shock, Homesickness, Thinking and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

46 Responses to On Caring About Your Lonely Friends in Japan

  1. Sarah says:

    Wonderful writing. Many, many thanks for sharing.

  2. AkemiK says:

    I am from another country in another hemisphere, but I found the text consistent with my reality … after all, even loneliness being representative in Japan, that is something that happens worldwide …

    • Courtney says:

      Thank you for being so articulate and describing this so perfectly! I have really enjoyed your blog in that you can put words to my own personal experiences from living and working in Japan. You tell it exactly how it is. It’s so refreshing and encouraging to completely relate.

  3. As an Expat who lived in Japan. YES. Just YES.
    I ended up linking it on my Facebook, and every “like” was another Expat who had lived in Japan, or was still there….

  4. Wow. That’s all I can say. Thank you.

  5. This was an amazing post. I’ve always loved your writing and this really speaks to me. Thank you so much for writing this.

  6. Laura says:

    Wow. I hardly ever finish a blog post this long, much less comment, so I have to thank you for this thoughtful and honest piece of writing. I’m two years into an expat lifestyle (though “home” at the moment) and can relate so much to this. I like that you took the subject of loneliness farther than just complaining about it, and found some wisdom to share at the end.

  7. Catspaw says:

    The sick thing about the happy go lucky type? They are completely disinterested in the sad isolationist. Sure, they feel compassion, but they need fun! Stupid fun, silly fun, kooky fun, food fun and friend fun is the best fun.

    What our respected observer might emphasize is ‘lonely’ is specifically yearning for contact. If contact isn’t necessary it isn’t loneliness. Self sufficient self respect isn’t deviate or scary, it’s just that big commercialism can’t sell to intelligent content observers.

    Commercial interests have a profit motive. Selling the public a consistent sense of inadequacy to create demand for inane reality is called advertising. If that makes lonely, they win.

  8. x_stei says:

    I loved this post. So well-written. It was like you read my mind of some years ago. I don’t think I struggled as much, but the feeling definitely feels familiar.

    Loved it.

  9. kamo says:

    “…we’ve got to empty that cup before we can expect anyone else to serve us another…”

    Which is pretty much why I blog. I’m guessing similar motivation on your part as well…

    Go into any gaijin bar in any mid-sized regional city and you can’t help but be engulfed in that blaze of one-sided conversation. Lord knows I’ve seen and participated in enough. The generous interpretation is that it’s just relief at talking your native language at full speed and not. Having. To. Put. A. Full. Stop. After. Every. Word. But we all know that’s not really the whole of it.

    My first long distance relationship survived the ‘being apart’ phase with minimal fuss. It was the getting back together that was hard. She’d been through a lot of personal stuff while I’d been away (parents separating, family illness, the works) and in retrospect obviously, and perhaps understandably, felt that my returning would fix everything. Obviously it didn’t, it made things better, but there was a lot that wrong that had nothing to do with my absence and was beyond my power to improve. The fact that my return didn’t fix everything immediately was difficult to process for both of us (we were young and naive). Which is all by way of saying London will be better, but keep an eye on your expectations. You’ll find we’re very big on tea in England, too ;)

  10. Thank you for being so honest. It’s wonderful to read many of my own observations so beautifully articulated.

  11. AnnaSan says:

    Thank you for sharing!

  12. oneslikeme says:

    excellent post, thank you so much!! i found myself connecting with every word you said.

  13. Sophelia says:

    Beautiful, as always. Ironic that it’s easy to blog about one’s inner depths than it is to carry on light conversation with a casual acquaintance.

  14. jaws2600 says:

    “We are perfectionists, striving for an impossible level of connection and disregarding anything that falls short. We are wary of new people, who require a lot of energy. It’s tiring for lonely people to extend themselves into non-loneliness, too hard to finesse anything less than a perfect click of personalities.”

    Amen, brother Ben. I say, all the time, that vague friendships aren’t worth the time. Maybe, just maybe, they are.

  15. c4nd1m4n says:

    Well done and thanks.

  16. aerislair says:

    Reblogged this on Thoughts in Flow and commented:
    Some people are born lonely. As a lonely person, articulating this difference can be difficult. Lonely people seem depressed to non-lonely people, and sometimes we are. We are perfectionists, striving for an impossible level of connection and disregarding anything that falls short. We are wary of new people, who require a lot of energy. It’s tiring for lonely people to extend themselves into non-loneliness, too hard to finesse anything less than a perfect click of personalities.

  17. Pingback: The people we keep close | Away

  18. Aru says:

    Thank you for your wise words. I don’t know how old you are, but … wise words!

  19. Pingback: 41 Things I Like About Japan | This Japanese Life. | 生命を外面九天です

  20. klawhit says:

    I have just started reading your posts, and find this one particularly descriptive of how I feel wading through life in Japan on a daily basis. However as I read I couldn’t help but feel that something was slightly off, and I realized in the end that was because I think I disagree with your usage of the word “loneliness”. You said at the beginning:

    Some people are born lonely. As a lonely person, articulating this difference can be difficult. Lonely people seem depressed to non-lonely people, and sometimes we are. We are perfectionists, striving for an impossible level of connection and disregarding anything that falls short. We are wary of new people, who require a lot of energy. It’s tiring for lonely people to extend themselves into non-loneliness, too hard to finesse anything less than a perfect click of personalities.

    I would call what you are referring to as loneliness “introversion.” To me, it is a part of a personality type and what you describe here sounds to me like the thoughts that have gone through my head my entire adult life, not simply during my life in Japan. I think extroverts may experience these feelings as an expat, and to them, it may seem like loneliness. But for an introvert, these emotions will repeat, wherever you live and whoever you are with.

    Despite disagreement on the wording, fantastic article, metaphors and advice. Thanks so much for sharing.

  21. Ben says:

    Thanks for sharing those personal thoughts.
    I’ve had to change school several times as a teenager and observed the same ineptitude in being open to others peoples ideas and emotions.
    But if you look at it, all that overanalysing is extremely inefficient compared to just getting out there and learning to communicate with people naturally via doing so. At least for me it was.

    The interweb is a strange place though. Where a German writes personal thoughts as a comment to an American living in Japan on his blog.

  22. Jas says:

    Beautiful Writing… I read it all, and copy pasted many sentences to my personal notepad… You are gifted, honestly sharing is one of the scariest thing that anyone could do. Thank you

  23. Justine says:

    OMG. I felt like I was reading about myself. I’m in Japan now and experienced exactly the same things!

  24. Nicole says:

    I just want to say wow. This was really touching. Each new paragraph I read was as if I was reading a line about myself that I had no way of expressing to others before. You said it perfectly. I met my best friend 7 years ago, and it’s as if we are soul mates. I’ve had other friends, but as you described, I felt like they thought I was too clingy, too desperate for companionship that they thought I was a bother. It’s a hard lesson to learn to not be this way, to listen as well as tell. To not think that what you have to say is so much more fulfilling than what others have to say just because you’ve kept it inside for so long. I’m applying for the JET Program for next summer, so this blog is very good advice. Thank you so much for your eloquent words.

  25. lauralubot says:

    I don’t think I fully gave this the attention it deserved when you first wrote it. Maybe lonely people don’t like hearing about how lonely we are? But we do. We just don’t really know what to say about it afterwards. I’m sure glad you invited me to hang out around this time last year, regardless. And glad for all the times we got to talk, which was fun and stimulating but which never got us any closer to really knowing each other. As maybe we’d prefer.

  26. Morgan says:

    Yea. I live in Sapporo. Met a Girl from here in NZ 7 years ago. We had sex, and one of my semen went into her egg. That became a person, whom is also in Sapporo now too. 6 years old. I’m so fucking lonely I can scream. I’m like Michael god damn Jackson. I’ve only just discovered your writing dude, and it’s great. You obviously think, and care enough about your own existence to at least attempt creating something interesting. You succeed. Thanks. Nice tune you attached here as well. I like that kind of music. I really don’t know what to do about my loneliness. I’ve been feeling hopeless lately. Like, yea, this is it…this is how I have to live out my life. It kinda makes me rage. I’d rather rage than feel hopeless and depressed. I really don’t know what to do. But thanks for writing. A good friend is hard to find. But maybe, like you say, the fact I need a “good friend” is why I’m so lonely. It still doesn’t change the fact. Everyone is entitled to a good friend aren’t they? Or is that just in the movies? Maybe it’s all just in the movies.

  27. Pingback: Doin’ It Right | 近海る(Kin Kairu)

  28. Johnson says:

    Beautiful to read, I think everyone can relate to this completely on every level, whether they’ll admit it or not.

  29. Pingback: On Pilgrims | This Japanese Life. | 生命を外面九天です

  30. Denis says:

    Everything you say connects my scatterbrain thoughts. Bravo

  31. CS says:

    Beautifully written. The map and cup metaphors are spot on. I can relate to a lot of this but could never have expressed it so articulately and honestly (and I’m sure there are many others who feel the same way). Thanks.

  32. Pingback: On Being From Somewhere Else in Japan | This Japanese Life. | 生命を外面九天です

  33. Wang says:

    Cry about it emo kid

    • owwls says:

      Oh sorry! Didn’t realize it was my job to help you not to read things. Congratulations on being on the side of organized, emotionless ant-people contributing to a culture where other people aren’t allowed to communicate unless it entertains you. Are you sad because you don’t have the courage to be an honest person? Is that why you escaped to Japan? To hide and to make sure other people don’t even come close to talking about the things you don’t understand about yourself? Real hilarious shit you’re doing. Real brave, revealing your narcissism like that.

  34. Luke says:

    Wow! This summarised so many things :)

  35. Zach MacDonald says:

    Wow. Just wow. You’re an amazing writer. I’m not a person prone to loneliness by any stretch of the imagination, but I lived in Japan for two years right out of university and it was the most profoundly lonely I’ve ever been. I’d go so far to say that I didn’t know what true loneliness was until those years, and have not experienced anything quite like it since. Even after studying Japanese pretty close to a conversational level the sense of isolation never seemed to go away, because they could just never be the conversations I hungered for. I’ve never read it put so well into words as this.

  36. rurigokou says:

    Thank you for this. I am going on my fourth year living in Japan, and really starting to get these feelings quite hard.

  37. Dayo Omoyemi says:

    I have never been this lonely in my entire life, I live in Japan in a small town and I Googled loneliness out of being lonely. You are right, my loneliness is not from being empty, too full actually. Good writing by the way. Cheers

  38. Lala says:

    “You are right, my loneliness is not from being empty, too full actually”.

    That sums it up.

    Your blog is amazing. I wish I could have been so articulate when I lived in Japan way too many years ago.

  39. Kelli says:

    I do feel the “lonely people” you refer to are actually just introverts. Looked at in that sense, I feel this is a fairly accurate description of going through life as an introvert, especially in such unfamiliar territory. Thanks for sharing.

  40. cat says:

    Once in a while you come across writing that perfectly explains all the things you feel but you never had the words for. This post is definitely one of those.
    I’m not even an expat, but this hits home!

  41. Nitin Kakria says:

    Great writing!
    Do you think, knowing Japanese language would help to make friends in Japan? I wanna go there one day. It’s kinda dream of mine, living there.

  42. This article is a treasure and a gift. Thank you for sharing.


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