How to Make Japanese Friends while Studying Abroad
Before I came to Japan, my greatest concern was whether or not I could make Japanese friends. I realize that everyone makes friends differently, but now that I'm here in Japan I would like to share a few tips about making friends with Japanese.
Tip #1: Speak Japanese
Everyone who comes to CIEE comes in with varying levels of Japanese: some people are very proficient, while others are just beginning. But it's really not about how well you speak Japanese. It's about how willing you are to speak Japanese. For example, I have a friend who is conversationally fluent in Japanese but refuses to speak it because he's not comfortable. As a result, most of his friends here are Americans. On the other hand, one of my friends is still a beginner but makes an effort to practice Japanese whenever he can, even at restaurants or with strangers. Even though he makes a lot of mistakes, he has been able to make Japanese friends. I think once you get over the fact that you are going to make mistakes and sound silly sometimes, speaking becomes a lot easier and it's easier to make friends. Even if the Japanese people you're with speak some English, it says a lot when you're willing to work hard to speak their language and converse in a way that's comfortable for them. So whether it's with your classmates, your club mates, or the people in your dorm, ask them to speak Japanese with you!
Tip #2: Say Yes
When you first start meeting Japanese people, whether through your classes or your school clubs, they're going to say things like, "Let's get lunch!" or "Let's go hang out!" At first, they may be the ones to initiate. I recommend saying yes as much as you can (obviously don't go out so much that your grades suffer). Even if it feels a little outside your comfort zone, or if you normally aren't the one to go out very often, spending time with people outside of class is really important. It's where most of the bonds are made here. If you're naturally shy, this may be where you have to stretch
yourself a bit. But I think it's worthwhile to spend time with the Japanese friends you make here, even if it's difficult at first or if you're not really sure how to approach it. You also may have to be the one to initiate and push yourself to invite people to eat together at lunch. But Japanese people really are friendly, and most of the time when people can't hang out it's because of their part time jobs. So try to make time for them during lunch periods or ask them when they're free.
Tip #3: Be Present
At the beginning of the semester, you may be at every club meeting and sit at the same lunch table every day with your Japanese (or foreign) friends. But as the semester goes on, schoolwork gets busy and you have to start skipping lunch to finish your homework, or you don't go to the Friday lunch period meeting because you need to study for a test. While you are here to study and be a student, a lot of those last-minute homework assignments could have actually been done at home. Your time here is precious, especially if you're only here for a semester. So rather than spend your lunch period doing homework that you should have done last night instead of going on Facebook, I recommend getting your work done so you can go to the club meetings or eat lunch with your friends. As midterm season hits, your Japanese friends will get busy too; it might get harder to meet outside of school or on the weekends. So go to the club meetings. Even if nothing important happens at the club meetings, it will matter to them that you're there and you're willing to just hang out and talk with them.
Tip #4: Don't Worry, and Be Yourself!
This is the key to making friends in any culture, but I think it’s especially true when trying to navigate in a new cultural context. While you may find yourself stretching outside your comfort zone, at the end of the day you are still the same person you are in your own country. There may be days when you don’t feel the same, but trying to reinvent yourself completely when you come to Japan is going to be very difficult and exhausting. Also, being sincere about the things you like and dislike will help you find people with whom you get along. If you like anime, find people who will go to Akihabara with you; if you like sports, find someone to play basketball in the park with you. On the same token, don’t feel like you have to go out every weekend if that’s not the kind of person you are. Ultimately, be who you are and you’ll find Japanese people who appreciate that. You may be surprised how some of the people you will meet are so similar to you, too!