Congratulations! You have made it to Japan and are ready to embark on your new adventure. You must be looking forward to all the marvels that Japan has to offer: yummy food, picturesque scenery, and wonderful people. However, creating those initial relationships after first arriving in the country can be daunting, so how can you make friends with Japanese people and experience their culture at an in-depth level? I once lived in Kumamoto City for two years and am happy to share some tips with you on how you can get involved with the local community through the following three approaches!
◼️ Use Online Meet-up Groups
With the prevalence of social media in our lives today, social networking sites are a great way to find local communities that are active in the prefecture you live in. Facebook in particular is an excellent platform for you to find groups managed by Japanese people and foreigners alike, as they wish to spread awareness of prefectural news and reach out to fellow residents. Personally, I benefitted from joining a group titled ‘Kumamoto International’ during my time in Japan. Occasionally, the regular posters there would post interesting events and functions such as St. Patrick’s Day and Christmas celebrations and invite members to participate in them. Through such events, you can meet people in real life and build relationships!
There are also plenty of non-localized groups that are geared towards certain demographics such as nationality or pertaining to other interests. With these, you should also be able to get more specified information depending on your situation.
Besides Facebook, you can use Meetup to get up to speed on the latest happenings in your city and join them. Meetup is an online platform where people can plan, share, and find events and other functions in their area. From large gatherings to smaller, niche hobby get-togethers, Meetup is a great way to find events where you can meet and mingle with other people.
◼️ Become a Regular
Becoming a regular at an establishment is a great way to become acquainted with the owners and other regulars. Such establishments can include your local ramen store, an izakaya (Japanese pub), or even a hair stylist shop. To truly get a homey experience, we recommend frequenting privately-owned shops rather than chains, as the owners will come to recognize you and are more likely to socialize. It can be daunting to venture alone into an establishment for the first few times, but Japanese people are famously curious in foreigners, so many of them will make the first move to ask you questions about yourself. Even if you don’t speak Japanese, you will be amazed by how much you can get across through animated gestures and facial expressions. Pretty soon, you will be considered as one of the gang.
There’s something comforting about dropping by your favorite establishment for a quick meal or drink before heading home. I made friends with the owners of the Thai restaurant near my house and was so chummy with them that I requested to use their restaurant as one of the venues for my pre-wedding shoot subsequently!
◼️ Take a Class
As you get to know more people and settle yourself down in your new home, it’s time to invest more time in building friendships. A great way to do that is to join a class that focuses on a new skill or hobby that you’ve always wanted to try, or it could even be something you’ve never heard of but were recently introduced to.
For starters, you can ask people around you or head down to your nearest community center to see if there are available courses that pique your interest. Meetup even offers classes as well! The sky’s truly the limit here, as a slew of possibilities will typically be offered, ranging from traditional arts like ikebana (flower arrangement) or tea ceremony to self-defense arts like kendo and even foreign language classes like French and Italian. These classes offer ready pools of people whom you are likely to build rapport with due to your similar interests and shared experiences.
◼️ Join a Club
Besides classes, another way to make friends is to join a club for something you are interested in and good at. Actually, your workplace may be an excellent platform to start with as many Japanese companies have clubs for their employees so that staff can engage in shared interests together and unwind after work. Alternatively, you can leverage your personal network and seek recommendations for clubs like photography clubs and choirs to join. To relate my experience, I joined a local yosakoi (a form of Japanese dance) group and spent many pleasant hours honing my dance moves with them. Although made up of amateurs, my yosakoi group actively accepted invitations to perform in front of the public. We even performed during the Kumamoto marathon!
Japanese people don’t do things by halves, so when they commit to a club, they invest a lot of time to develop their skills. This can be beneficial in your journey towards making friends as by participating actively in the club sessions, you are blessed with the time and space to truly get to know your members.
◼️ Mingle with Co-workers
One suggested way to be involved in your community is to socialize with your colleagues if the opportunity arises. Although it is true that not all workplaces are conducive for encouraging friendships with co-workers, Japanese people generally do not draw a clear distinction between their personal and professional lives, and coworkers are often encouraged to socialize outside of working hours as well. As such, it is not uncommon for colleagues to grab dinner and drinks together after work. Moreover, many Japanese companies hold gatherings to usher in festive occasions or commemorate significant milestones of the business year. Cherry blossom viewing parties, end-of-year parties, welcome parties, the list goes on and on. If you are lucky enough for your workplace to offer such opportunities, grab them by the horns as this greatly enhances your chances of forging workplace friendships.
The third way to get involved with the local community is through volunteering. Helping those in need enables you to give back to the community which has welcomed you with open arms as well as gift you a nice dose of endorphins. Volunteering opportunities are aplenty once you know where to look. Volunteer requests can be found at your local government office or through a quick Google search. It is important to remember that while there are volunteering opportunities that do not require any Japanese language skill, there are also plenty where a basic grasp is necessary. Keep this in mind when pinpointing an option that is fit for you!
Facebook groups like Foreign Volunteers Japan regularly post volunteering opportunities, as do respectable and established non-profit organizations. Keen to learn the ropes of farming? Sign up with WWOOF Japan. Wish to help support marginalized kids while experiencing the great outdoors? Check out Mirai No Mori. Want to donate time to the national food bank? Second Harvest is perfect for that. Wish to help out with the elderly? Look through the postings here.
◼️ Teach a Skill
As mentioned above, many Japanese people are enthusiastic to learn more about foreigners, so volunteering your time to teach others skills that you already have can be a great way to meet people. You can utilize something you are already proficient at as a way to meet new people!
Do note that most of the time, the following options are paid gigs, so in that case, you will need to check that you are able to participate depending on your visa and work status. Be careful to not violate any restrictions!
Why not teach an eikaiwa (English conversation) class with locals who are passionate about learning English? There are many “language cafes” around Japan, where foreigners and locals convene for language exchange! Looking up “language cafe” or “[insert desired language here] cafe” should yield some results depending on where you are! If there aren’t any language cafes in your area, why not try and partner with a local cafe and try setting up events yourself? Doing so allows you to share your expertise and exchange cultural insights with the participants of your class.
If teaching languages isn’t your thing, why not host culinary classes in the comfort of your home and teach the locals how to cook signature dishes from your culture? I am not a proficient cook by any stretch of the imagination, but it didn’t stop me from using premade pastes to show my Japanese friends how to cook some renowned Singaporean dishes like chicken rice. Nothing like food to bond people together!
Embarking on a new life in Japan may seem daunting at first, especially if you may not know Japanese well. However, if you make the first step to involve yourself with your community, be it involving yourself in meet-ups, joining a class, or even volunteering, you will definitely be able to make firm friends and enrich your time in Japan. There are numerous ways to try and get involved in your local community, so why not give them a try and make your time in Japan as enjoyable and rewarding as you can!
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.