Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Are Foreigners in Japan Cold?

Today I was asked some interesting questions on Twitter. Someone, who lives and works in South Korea as a teacher was asking me about making the move to Japan. Of course, I have lived and worked in both countries and made a rather brief answer to her in a few tweets. I decided I wanted to sit down this evening and be a little more thorough with my answers.

Now, this Twitter follower mentioned to me that she is interested in moving to the Kansai area of Japan and has visited a few times. She commented that she noticed foreigners (gaijin) in Japan seem to stick to themselves as opposed to Korea where (waygooks) tend to socialize more. She is worried about being lonely when she comes here.

Being worried about the prospect of feeling lonely is a very legitimate concern. I also have to admit that when I first arrived in Japan a few years ago I thought much the same as she did. Within my first few months here I thought that gaijin in Japan were a cold lot and not at all welcoming. Although I didn’t miss Korea much, I longed for the foreigner camaraderie! Why don’t foreigners in Japan have that?

As I spent more time in Japan and was able to meet more and more people I made some interesting conclusions. Most of them had to do with the fact that the foreigner populations in the two countries tend to be quite different. Comparing the two is much like comparing apples and oranges.

To be broad, the variety of foreigners in Korea is much more limited. There are basically, migrant workers, brides from South East Asia, U.S. Army personnel and English teachers. The individual asking me the questions was mostly talking about the English teacher crowd I assume.

In Korea, English teachers for the most part, tend to stick together, move and party in packs and pretty much do everything else together. They normally come from the U.S Canada, the U.K Australia, Ireland, New Zealand and Australia. They are all university grads, or at least supposed to be, the only way to get a teaching visa and often are in their 20’s.

Many teachers come to Korea simply because they are not sure what to do after university, are looking for a “gap” year, are having trouble finding work in their native countries or would like to travel. Now of course there are many interesting stories and folks in Korea and many have left pretty amazing lives in their respective countries to simply experience Korea and try their hand at education.

Most people I met during my time in Korea never learn much about the country or language. They didn’t go to Korea to do that. They went there, worked and had a great time with like-minded foreigners. Every small town/city with any foreign population had a foreigner bar where most English speakers congregated on weekends to party.

That was my experience when I lived there from early 2002 to 2007.

Japan is an entirely different beast altogether. There are of course scores of young people who come here to teach English. There are also many people who come here to do other things as well.

If you are new to Japan or lived in Korea beforehand, you must be careful not to make the mistake I made. I assumed most foreigners here were assholes for not smiling at me or nodding their heads as I passed by. I suppose I know much better to think that now.

You quickly learn a lot about the different types of foreigners here and why they may not al huddle together in dark bars on Friday nights (there are many who do that of course, but not everyone). There are also many reasons why they may not want to interact with a friendly foreigner new to Japan and looking for friends:

1. The vast majority of foreigners in Japan are not teachers. Many of them (even if North American/European looking) don’t even speak English. For example, there are of Russian factory workers living around my neighborhood.

2. Many foreigners who came to Japan studied Japanese in school and are very interested in Japanese culture and language. They are keen to improve their language skills, learn more about the culture and would rather interact with the local Japanese folks (makes sense).

3. Unlike Korea, many foreigners in Japan have been here long term. They have set down roots, have families and simply aren’t interested in the bar life/foreigner community. They have created their own community with family and friends (both foreign and Japanese).

4. I have found that some groups of young people who work for the JET program, ECC, Aeon, etc. (not always of course) can be cliquey and mostly socialize with coworkers.

5. MANY foreigners you see walking around in major urban centers don’t even live here. They are tourists. Unlike Korea, Japan has a massive tourist industry (well, maybe not at the moment with the current nuclear issues). They have traveled here from other countries, have limited time here and are usually not looking to make friends I suppose. Their friends are waiting for them back home when vacation is finished.

6. Some foreigners are simply assholes. Yup, some are just not nice. There are many of foreigners who speak the Japanese language, but there are some who think that speaking Japanese better than others, makes them an actual better person. Believe me, you don’t want to hang around with a chucklehead who judges his/her own self-worth and that of others based on language ability (a little shallow me tinks!).

7. There are also folks who think they are better than others simply because they have lived in Japan longer than you. Their years of experience “in country” make them somehow better than others. I suppose if you met someone like that in your own country you would deem him or her obtuse or shallow or both!

8. Many people who live here are university exchange students. They normally come for a school year and tend to be busy with studies and having fun with classmates.

9. There are also many others I didn’t mention!

As you can see, there are all sorts here in Japan. Simply put, the variety and amount of foreigners living here is much larger than in Korea. With that variety comes a more complicated social tapestry I suppose.

Is there a strong foreigner community in Japan? Yes; just look at how so many foreigners in Japan banned together online and in person shortly after the earthquake and tsunami last month to help.

I suppose I should refer to it not as a “foreign community”, but as “foreign communities.”

If you are new to Japan, will you be lonely? If you are outgoing and willing to meet new people and try new things, probably not. Are most of the foreigners in Japan similar? Absolutely not! Can it be more of a challenge to make foreign friends in Japan than in Korea? I think so, but it is very doable. From what I remember, people teaching in Korea tended to make friends simply because they had "being foreign" in common. I have found that in my short time here, making friends is similar to making friends in Canada. I don't just befriend anyone. I tend to hang around people who have common interests, I think are dynamic, interesting, etc. I suppose with a broader foreigner population base (at least in urban areas), people can be more selective.

I have been here for more than three years and have some very good friends. Mind you, my own personal life has changed drastically. When I lived in Korea, I was single and always game to go out, met new folks and often both in clubs and bars. Now, I am married and have a young child. I no longer tend to go to bars and never clubs. I have also become a long-distance runner. My lifestyle is completely different than before. I may not have as many friends as I did when I lived in Korea, but I am still a very happy man.

Hope some of you thinking about living in Asia for the first time or moving from one country to another take something at least quasi-valuable from this post.


Jon Allen said...

Hi Kevin, I've lived in both Korea and now Japan and agree with everything you've said.

Couldn't have put it better!

JCF said...

This is a very good article. Thank you Kevin for your helpful insight!

Edward said...

Great summary, Kevin. To me, everything you said about the Japan part is right on.

amandaparks said...
This comment has been removed by the author.

I like the article very much.. my first trip in '50 was beer and drinking (army life)..But as spent more time and aged a little I saw and found so much more...and I am happy to say that I have REAL friends and memories that go back many years.. there are so many things that I miss there.. just no way I could list them all.. but do recommend the HOT bath each night and a trip to the barber shop...
Enjoy your life and health while you have have it.
Will Hayden
dingshinbashida ??Telephonepole..was my first name there many years ago.. and around 1980 it was HAGICHAN...

Atley said...

Sorry, I have not read enough on your blog to know this, but how many languages do you speak? if only english, do you find this to be a huge barrier? or do most people speak english?