I’m often asked by people back in the US, “Is it difficult to make friends in Japan?”. While finding new friends anywhere in the world can be challenging, this is especially true for foreigners in Japan, where the majority of residents are not conversationally fluent in English. Thankfully, with a bit of determination and technological assistance, nothing is impossible. Whether you already live in the country or planning on moving here soon, read on to learn about 5 of the most effective ways to make Japanese friends in Japan as a foreigner.
1. Find a Language Exchange Partner
The first thing that anyone hoping to make Japanese friends might want to do is to improve their Japanese. If you’re not keen on the idea of immediately meeting up with strangers or would like to make friends before you even come to Japan, a language exchange app could be just the thing for you. Like finding a digital penpal, these apps allow you to search for and chat with users in Japan who would like to practice English. While there are many different apps available, HelloTalk is perhaps the most popular among Japanese locals and is available on both Apple and Android devices.
In addition to just chatting, HelloTalk includes many tools for those interested in learning Japanese as well. The app allows you to highlight words in the chat window to see dictionary definitions, hear pronunciations, and to send and receive text corrections from your partner. It’s the perfect way to pick up some helpful phrases before moving or to brush up on your conversational Japanese while living here. Even if you’re still in the beginning phase of planning your move to Japan, you can still use this app to find new Japanese friends from anywhere in the world.
For a more personal connection, HelloTalk also gives users the option to participate in voice or video calls as well. Best of all, all of the features described above are entirely free. I personally used this app during my first year in Japan and made several friends that I still hang out with to this day!
2. Visit a Standing Bar or Local Izakaya
Maybe the high tech approach isn’t for you. For those who prefer to make new friends the old fashioned way, one of the easiest places to meet people in Japan is at a traditional Japanese-style bar. Traditional standing bars (known as tachinomi in Japanese) and small counter-room-only izakaya (Japanese pubs) are beloved by locals for their no-frills atmosphere, small plate menus, and reasonably priced drinks. They are especially popular with hard-working salarymen looking to unwind after a long day.
While these kinds of bars aren’t hard to come by, finding a fluent English speaker at one will be a far less common occurrence. Thankfully, draft beer and whiskey highballs are somewhat of a universal language. If you have an outgoing personality and can memorize a few sentences in Japanese, you can be drinking and laughing along with the locals in no time (even if neither of you really understands what the other is saying). When I moved to Japan three years ago, I made some of my first friends in the country this way. Sure, the conversations were very simple at first, but with enough time and liquid courage, I found I was learning more useful Japanese phrases than I ever did from a textbook.
If you’re in Tokyo and wondering which areas to check out, I would recommend one of the neighborhoods with a younger and more internationally-minded crowd such as Ebisu or Naka-Meguro.
3. Attend a Meetup Event
Since walking up to a stranger and introducing yourself is an understandably uncomfortable experience for many people, group events are a great way to overcome these social hurdles. In cities around the world, people can organize public events through the website Meetup. In some of Japan’s larger cities, like Tokyo, Osaka, or Kyoto, there are typically gatherings posted for every night of the week.
From sushi making classes, to poetry readings, to business networking parties, no matter your interests, you are bound to find an event that resonates with you. What’s more, knowing that everyone in attendance has a shared interest will serve as a great jumping off point for conversations. Into sports? Meet fellow athletes in an amateur badminton league. More of the arts and crafts type? Why not join one of Tokyo’s most popular knitting groups. If you want to make friends while also learning some Japanese, language exchange events are the perfect place to meet Japanese locals looking to make foreign friends and practice their English conversation skills.
If you can’t find exactly what you’re looking for on Meetup, a quick google search for your hobby or interest in your local area is likely to turn up a page of groups that you can join.
4. Search for Friends on Bumble BFF
Outside of designated events like the ones described above, it can be difficult to strike up a conversation with Japanese locals in English. According to a recent survey, over 70% of the population between the ages of 20-40 speaks very little or no English whatsoever. In searching for that other 30%, you are bound to be met with a few awkward silences. Luckily, an app called Bumble (available for both Apple and Android devices) makes it much easier to find people nearby that you can communicate with.
No, you’re not mistaken, Bumble is first and foremost a dating app. However, one of its lesser-known features, called Bumble BFF, will only match you with other users who are seeking friends. What’s particularly nice about this approach is that Bumble will match you with other users based on your proximity. Want to hang out with people in your neighborhood? Set the distance to 5 km or less. Up for a bit of exploring? Feel free to increase the distance to just over 150 km. Looking at other user’s profiles, you can easily find things you have in common, which will come in handy for conversation ice breakers.
Of course, you are always free to keep the conversation strictly online if you don’t feel comfortable meeting in person! If you do choose to meet in person however, it’s always advisable to do so in a very public place, such as a cafe or shopping mall.
5. Sign up for a Homestay
Without a doubt, the best way to experience a new culture is to fully immerse yourself in it. While this can be done to a degree in your own apartment, to get a complete picture of the Japanese way of life, foreigners can participate in a homestay program. Ranging in duration anywhere from a weekend to several months, homestays offer the opportunity to live with a local family in their home and experience Japanese life through a truly unique lens.
More than just a place to sleep, homestay guests can share meals, stories, and experiences with their host families. There are many different websites that put guests in touch with hosts, but one of the most reputable in Japan is Homestay in Japan. Through their website, they connect users with homestay hosts throughout the country offering everything from casual weekend stays, to extended language learning programs, to guided local tours. Most importantly, many homestay guests tend to keep in touch with their host families, leading to lifelong friendships. I have several friends who still make annual trips to catch up with their homestay families from their experience years before.
While texting directly from your phone may be common practice in the US and many other countries, most phone plans in Japan don’t include text messages as a free service. Rather than paying the extra fees, most Japanese people use the messaging app, Line, to send texts to friends. This free app has essentially the same functions as Whatsapp and is available on both Apple and Android devices, allowing you to call, text, and video chat over wifi or a data plan. If you want to keep in touch with your newfound Japanese friends, be sure to download this app on your phone!
It goes without saying that the world today is a very different place than it was even just a short while ago. The once insurmountable language barrier that kept us from forging global friendships is now a minor language speed bump at best. Through technology, homestays, and maybe just a bit of alcohol, there is nothing stopping you from making great new friends during your time in Japan. Also, if you’re interested in meeting someone as more than friends, be sure to check out our other article on dating in Japan!
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.