On Friendships in Japan


One of the challenges of living in Japan was a permanent, awkward sense of imbalance in my relationships. It seemed that I, and everyone around me, was simultaneously needy and aloof.

For years I wondered if it was me, but I was never particularly needy or aloof with my friends in America, or friends I made just months before leaving for Japan. Now, in a new environment (London) but still an expat, my feelings and approaches to meeting people are back to some degree of normal.

It’s almost as if something in Japan had seeped into my thinking about friendship. At first I thought it was a Japanese phenomenon. People were friendly but distant, with limited self-disclosure, few emotional displays. Bonding was a subtle affair: Do you want a beer? If yes, you were friends. It was easy to get into the doorway of Japanese friendships, but I never got very deep into the house. I’d say that was the language barrier, but then I noticed something weird: It was happening with other expats in Japan.

Was I going crazy? Was everyone suddenly annoyed by self-disclosure? If I admitted to hardships, romantic problems, self-doubt, I might get glazed eyes and a change of subject. If I told someone that they meant something to me, or that I was grateful for their friendship, or just really excited to know them, the response seemed, always, to border on a pulling away. I started wondering if I was self-obsessed, talked too much, or came off as desperate in my enthusiasm. So I stopped talking. I had been an expressive person, but I started to feel ashamed of that. It started to feel like I was taking more than I could give. Then I noticed something else.

People drank, revealed, and apologized. Profusely, for having conversations that, in any other time and place, would have been things friends simply talked about over a coffee.

Sociologists Have a Name for Everything
Research (Here you go: Chen, 1995; Asai & Barnlund, 1998; Gudykunst & Nishida, 1983; Kito, 2005; Ting-Toomey, 1991) has shown that East Asians are, generally speaking, more reluctant than Westerners to seek out, and feel comforted by, social support when they’re stressed out. Physically, East Asian cultures even show lower physiological evidence of “relief” after disclosing to friends.

In Japan, friendships can be hard to forge. It’s not a place where you sit next to someone on a train and start a chat about the book they’re reading. The entire process of friendship involves a lot of formality. You usually find someone to mediate an introduction.

I welcomed this when I was there, part of the school of “mind your own business and let people be” that has seeped, perhaps toxically, into my psyche. But at some point, disclosure and openness started to make me uncomfortable. I still feel it now, in stodgy Britain, where it’s similar, where Americans are called out for overbearing expressiveness. I can see it in other people, how easily they give themselves away, and I find it terrifying, even though I did the same thing.

The expat community tends to resemble native Japanese communities in that both have low levels of relational mobility, the word researchers use to describe the flexibility that a culture allows for making new friends. North American bus-chatterers rank quite highly in relational mobility: Strike up a conversation in a coffee shop, a bus, the toll booth guy. Japan ranks quite low, because making new friends requires an enormous effort.

In situations like Japan, where relational mobility is low, there is also a lower degree of effort required to maintain those friendships once they’ve been formed. Friends won’t go away, because they can’t. In high mobility cultures, like the US, you spend more time making sure your friends know they are appreciated, because at any point they could decide they’d really rather not hang out with you and run off with someone else – friend-dumped for the toll booth guy.

It’s Complicated
Friendships are run through a cruel and particular kind of pressure as a contract worker in Japan. I had a fixed community of people I could engage with throughout that cycle of contract work. Some left, some stayed, new people came. On the whole, however, it seemed impossible to get away from the people in your proximity, whether you wanted to spend every day with them or not.

It becomes a lot easier if you just maintain a basic, uncomplicated level of friendship. We had low mobility, and so it was safe to assume that your friend would still be your friend in a week or a month, even if you never spoke to them. Likewise, self-disclosure – which forms and cements bonds of friendship in high relational mobility cultures by gradually escalating (platonic) intimacy – becomes risky.

“The revelation of sensitive personal information to another, self-disclosure[,] can signal commitment because it indicates a willingness to be vulnerable to the partner, a distinct marker of trust and commitment in a relationship.” (Mayer, 1995).

But there’s a downside, too: The risk of revealing too much, becoming too vulnerable, and of putting too much power in someone else’s hands. When you disclose, you give someone else intimate information that could be used against you. And when you can’t easily make new friends, the cost of that exclusion is extravagantly high. So, the traditional bond-sealing activity of close friends in a major Western city, for example, might be getting drunk and telling-all. But in a closed circuit, that makes people extremely vulnerable to rumors, judgments, and rejection.

Best not to say anything at all.

In one survey, by Joanna Schug & Masaki Yuki at Hokkaido University, American students were more likely to say that making new friends was easy, compared to Japanese students. The American students were also more likely to self-disclose within a friendship than Japanese students were, on topics such as embarrassments, secrets, failures, and worries.

Meanwhile, Americans (who also typically made more new friends in a three-month span than the Japanese people did) were more likely to self-disclose to friends based on the number of new friends they had made. In other words, the more friends an American has, the more they reveal to those friends. Presumably, this stems from the security of a social network; it also indicates that the person who self-discloses more considers more people their friend, a kind of egg-hen scenario.

Everyone Has to Live With You
Self-disclosure is also a useful tool for regulating intimacy. If you want to step back from someone, you limit your self-disclosure. In a healthy relationship or friendship, there is mutual reciprocation: One person slows things down, the other slows down to match their speed.

But what we disclose, when in close quarters to other people, often feels like it is defining who we are. We can get trapped in the image painted by the colors we show. I know you and like you and you aren’t going anywhere – so why should we admit our weaknesses, or reveal a secret that might trap me in a negative perception? Once I do, suddenly our friendship becomes more complicated. There’s a power dynamic. Instead of getting closer, we push people away.

I’m not sure why I was different, for so long, but instead of viewing platonic intimacy as a threat, I saw it as a means of being known to another person. It was just what friends did: Talk, share, reassure one another that the weird shit we think and feel is part of a giant web of weird shit that people think and feel. Our vulnerabilities might not make us stronger, but they reveal how brave we are for going on in the world despite them all. The more comfortable I felt revealing myself to someone I trusted, the better I felt about my own cornucopia of hang-ups and insecurities.

I spent a lot of time worrying that I should have been more tight-lipped in Japan, should have worn fewer feelings so prominently on my sleeve. Of course, there’s a difference between honest communication and the sense of entitlement that someone should do something about your feelings. You can shout your feelings and demand action, that’s not going to get anybody anywhere. I’ve been guilty of that, too.

I’m sure I have alienated people along the way (I know, for a fact, that I did). But it’s important to sort out the honest expression from the manipulative and the dishonest expressions (dishonest honesty). When I told the truth, the truth and not the truth filtered through my own unanalyzed anxieties, I can say I was never too ashamed to keep secrets from the people I trusted most, even when there was nowhere else for them to go, anyway.

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14 Responses to On Friendships in Japan

  1. Carl M says:

    Good thoughts. We could be friends. Contemplating for a moment to put a smiley after ‘could be friends’, alas, your article made me a bit to self-conscious. Do I have to be more guarded? Now I’m confused. Still no smiley, self realization is a serious business!

  2. Brilliant piece, love the research to back it up. My experiences in Japan (two years in Osaka) were mixed – I made a few very close friends (but they seemed to me to be to some extent misfits in Japanese society) and a lot of very surface-level friends.

  3. Cindy Siano says:

    I lived in Japan for five years and found that the Japanese approach to feelings is very different to westerners. You mention ‘self disclosure’ a fair bit and wonder whether you should have not spoken as much or at all in certain circumstances. I find, even in Australia or the US, friendships are sparked and forged much more deeply if you do more listening, real listening, rather than being hung up on revealing your innermost feelings. We had Japanese people invite us out for the day to Yokohama, showing us the sights, answering our questions and finding great spots to eat – and insisting they pay for the lot. Of course they’re big on gift-giving and we had some amazing gifts given to us. This is the Japanese way of saying they like and respect you and want to be friends. In our culture gift-receiving comes with a certain amount of obligation and/or guilt about reciprocity. They’re just a different culture, that’s all. If you stop and accept them for just the way they are, you’ll be delighted and mind expanded. There’s more than one way to ‘be’.

    • James says:

      Well, I think Eryk acknowledges and outlines the aspect of cultural difference quite explicitly, which he supported with research. I’m not quite sure how you managed to miss it, but your comment comes across as though you’ve read into it what you wanted in order to make a somewhat condescending point about ‘acceptance’, when his observations suggest he’s given the matter a great deal of thought, and concludes by his explaining of how he reached his point of ‘acceptance’.

      The broader point being made, as I see it, is how these cultural norms, which are different and take time to adapt to, have the unusual aspect of seeping into expat-expat relationships; a peculiar phenomenon and one I’ve struggled with too. I’ve lived in Korea, China, and now Japan, and the latter is by far the toughest nut to crack in terms of establishing some kind of friendship based upon trust and mutual understanding. In the previous two countries, both with their unique forms of cultural interaction – but far less socially rigid and inflexible – there was little or no crossover into expat-expat relationships. It was much the same as at home, and the dominant culture didn’t refract into these expat relationships, altering them in the bizarre manner as happens in Japan. This may have something to do with both the Chinese and Koreans being, generally, openly emotional people, and the cultures of both countries being less rule obsessed.

      Whatever the answer may be, it’s an interesting observation, and certainly food for thought.


  4. Kaylah says:

    Thank you soo very much for your thoughts and observations. I started to begin to feel I was the only one that took a lot of thought in to this. I have been in Japan for 3 years now in an American university. My other friends took the time to avoid such people and found good Japanese friends that were very open to the idea to disclose and be very open as a way of getting to know your friends, however like you said, they were the misfits socially in Japan. They often didnt get along well with other Japanese that had social status.

    I was different in selecting my friends, for the reason that I am in Kendo as a 1dan. They did a lot for me so I thought it would be best to tell the truth about everything and be vulnerable so that I could learn and grow. Especially since I was only 20 and just starting out on my own in life. Now I am 23 years old and less oblivious about what was going on. I noticed anytime I expressed any kind of emotion, even if it was happy or I was trying to show my gratitude, my kendo friends being pilots of JAL, would pull away, sometimes not even talk to me for months to pretend it never happened, even if it was a minor thing.

    For example, my kendo friends had paid for a lot of things for me and helped me get an apartment when I was struggling. They went out of their way for the last 3 years. I am near graduation now and they said they couldnt make it to the ceremony, so in return I made them some beautiful artwork of a JAL airplane as a senior gift to them, and expressed that they are my heroes and gave me a good life in Japan. They went silent and havent spoke a word to me about it, even when I sent them the gift in the mail because they were “busy”. I found this to be quite offensive and harmful because I was once a negative dependent person that transformed in to a positive independent lady because of their kindness.

    I know for a fact that I was completely vulnerable in the past and expressed everything without thinking about how they felt about it. I am completely guilty of that, but I grew up, still I feel that even with the new positive change and paying attention to them rather than me, I got a message back from one of my kendo friends being buzzed soo much that he said “You is gaijin because you could not keep words. You open mouth too much”

    I immediately felt hurt. So I started to accept this way of life, but while at the same time being depressed and shutting even other Americans or gaijin out whenever they wanted to be open about things. I became afraid of even saying anything at all, for the fear of things being held against me or I would loose someone just because of what I said about me or my personal thought on others, even if it was a compliment.

    Being 23 and about to start a new transition in life working in Japan, its a hard transition. I bet it was hard for you and for anyone who came to realize themselves and how the culture is very socially different.

  5. Hi I'm Vince says:

    I know this may be inappropriate but…the comments almost made me cry….
    Such a loved people, but such a loveless people. They’re rich and intelligent, but in all my years of loving them and finding out all sorts of things about them that amazed me, and motivated me to move there, among all of them there was always one thing missing; love.

    I know so many people may not agree and really find my views foolish but I’ll say it because I’m unafraid. These amazing people first need acceptance, then they need realization of their need for help, then they need love; but they need love first and second also, they need it most.

    I am a Christian..not like the ones who only call themselves one but no difference exists between them and anyone else, but I know God and He loves the Japanese people more than anyone else could. Jesus Christ wants them all to be saved by Him, and live an eternal and lovely(love-full, if you will) life, free from everything and I heard Him..and He says that He will do this, and He’ll do it soon. All of them may not make it but as many as accepted Him are the people who are forever with Him.

    I’m done..you can approve my comment now :)

    • Kim Nguyen says:

      I feel your comment is arrogant, but I don’t think you will ever be able to understand why it is arrogant. You mean well, but you have no subtly in your soul.

    • James says:

      Mercifully, Japan has Shinto and Buddhism, and no need for proselytizing. ‘They’ don’t need help from anyone; what ‘they’ could use is some self-determination and less paternal infantilization from the US. But that could be applied to the rest of the world.

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  8. Mike says:

    Learn to listen before you learn to speak. I am a fellow American and am very guarded when conversing with others. Its easy to find a person willing to talk to you(rather than listen), but when people are so blatantly open about their personal lives and emotions the situation becomes awkward. This is because i feel obligated to either endure debilitating silence or reveal aspects of my personal life. This isn’t to say I haven’t had really awesome conversations over the years because I HAVE. Even with my family/best friends I have trouble opening up but still have amazing conversations. Perhaps they simply know my rules?

    You do not need to reveal everything to become friends. You simply need trust and loyalty.

  9. A very interesting read, Friendship always start with a smile, making friend is just like in any other places. The only hard thing in japan is some of them cannot speak in English so try to learn their language at least some basic words, get involved in activities and/or hang out with people from work or school and expand your circle from there.

    • 392U says:

      Reply to “loveinjapanese2014”:
      What a stupid comment…. Clearly coming from someone who has either not lived in Japan or not understoood Japan. If not speaking English was the only problem, Japan would simply not be what it is now. Japan is unique and different in many ways and this article is perfect to explain some aspects of the Japanese culture.
      Thank you for this great article, as other people mentionned it feels good to know that other people are experiencing the same situations and to have some proper explanation.

      Thank you.

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