A little while ago I wrote a post about my my lack of Japanese male friends. Today, I thought I’d write a little bit more about friendship and the long-term ex-pat English teacher. In truth, it’s easy to make friends when you first come to Japan. You just go down to the bar where the foreigners hang out and buy a beer. Unfortunately, most of the people you make friends with will disappear after a year or two. I suppose a few others end up like me, marrying a local girl and settling down, but the majority return to their former life or head off to pastures new. I made a lot of friends when I came to Japan, and I thought that as time went on my social network would grow and grow. It didn’t. Instead, my original friends gradually drifted away and just as the most of my very good friends had moved on, my wife and I moved town and started our own school. Now, I didn’t even have colleagues.
Many might say that it serves me right for choosing to mostly socialize with other foreigners when I came here, and not making friends with Japanese guys. Perhaps they are right, but I would argue that it is not as straightforward as just making a choice one way or the other. Circumstances dictated that it was easier to make foreign friends.
Firstly, of course, there are issues with language. Most foreigners who come to Japan to teach English are not fluent in Japanese; indeed most have only very basic skills in the local tongue. It takes several years, at least, to become extremely proficient, and, for me, that adds a bit of difficulty to making friends with the local populace. My Japanese back then was pretty poor and, call me a fusspot, but I want to communicate with my friends. Properly communicate, I mean. Not struggle by in a hybrid of broken English and Japanese.
Now, while that didn’t completely disqualify me from having Japanese friends, it did mean that a big percentage of the population was off limits. I could have struck lucky and found an excellent English-speaker but, bar a couple of students of mine, I didn’t and so to have a Japanese friend I would have had to be prepared to become friends with somebody I couldn’t really talk to. And if that were the case you’d have to wonder why the Japanese chap would want to be friends with me. I mean, honestly, why would any sane and normal Japanese guy want to befriend some guy with whom he can’t have a proper conversation? If you were in a bar and you met a guy from Belgium or Romania or somewhere and he didn’t speak much English but started trying to talk to you, you’d probably chat for a bit, be nice, maybe even buy him a pint but if he then started asking for your help at the post office or spending the best part of an hour to tell his most humorous anecdote, or trying to have a laugh with the aid of a bilingual dictionary, you’d probably just kind of wish he’d piss off, really. So I always think that the kind of Japanese guy that would have wanted to hang out with me back then was probably a bit of an arse. It probably meant he didn’t have any friends of his own, or just wanted to practice his English on me, and that’s the last thing you want when listening to broken English all day is your job.
I could have made, and indeed could still make more of an effort to befriend my students. As my students include adults who I generally get on well enough with in the classroom it would seem that I have a great source of potential friends strolling into my house each week. But a few things have stopped me from trying to become their best buddy. Firstly, I suppose, is the fact that they are mostly women – married women who come to class as a hobby and spend most of the rest of their time taking care of their family, working or lunching with other housewives. They are nice and all that, but not the sorts who would welcome someone clapping their hands together after a meal and saying, ‘Right, now lets go out and get rat-arsed!’ And anyway I’m sure my wife would find it extremely peculiar if I were to suddenly announce that I was thinking of asking one of them out for a drink sometime.
Of the few male adult students I teach, most are pretty nice guys. There area a couple I even think I could get on well with in a normal friendly way if they ever had time to socialize outside work. They might even welcome an invitation for a drink but, and here’s the biggest stumbling block, I really find it hard to shake off the fact that they are my students. They pay me to talk with them. There is already this relationship of me as teacher and them as students which will stop me, and probably them, from being completely at ease. They are my job and I just don’t want my job and my social life to become intertwined. They pay my salary and like most people, I’m sure, I don’t want to spend all my free time with the people who pay me my wages.
That said, I do occasionally get invited out by students. I’ve gone for dinner with some, I’ve played tennis with some, I’ve gone skiing with some, I’ve even picked tea-leaves with some, and whilst I enjoyed all of these occasions – well not the tea-picking. I mean, they owned a tea field and that was their job, so it would be like me saying to them, ‘I’m a bit short handed tomorrow. Do you fancy coming round and teaching a few of my classes? It will be something you’ve never done before!’ It was just hard work for which I didn’t get paid! – there was still always this teacher / student barrier there, too much ‘Oh, good shot!’ when it was clearly a shite attempt at a tennis return deserving of mockery. Real friends would have laughed at me when I fell skiing, or served like a girl in tennis. Real friends would be able to make me laugh like a drain. I like my students, many of them very much, but that’s what they are to me: my students.
My age might also be a problem when it comes to making new friendships. When I came to Japan I was in my late twenties, which was older than a lot of the foreign community in my town, but only by a few years. Lots of the other foreigners were in their early to mid-twenties and I was still of an age where they would view me as a peer. Now, however, ten years have passed. I could go down to the local gaijin bar and try and make new friends, but to do so would most likely only serve to forge new transient friendships with people who will again be moving on in a year or two. And anyway, most of them would now be ten to fifteen years younger than me. I’d be the sad old gaijin trying to get down with the kids. And I’m bald. I mean, who wants a bald friend? I don’t!
More sensible, especially now that my language ability is good enough to have Japanese friends, would be to seek out new friendships with Japanese people of my own age, or other long-term foreigners. I still have a few ‘lifer’ friends, but they don’t live particularly close by any more and time and distance means we rarely meet up. Befriending Japanese people my age is, to be honest, just not that easy.
Japanese men in their thirties by and large don’t have much time for any new friends. They made friends at school and university and they go out drinking with colleagues. They spend such ridiculous hours at the office, or at office-organised functions, that they barely have time to see their wives, never mind the local lonely foreign guy. Squeezing me in for a pint might not be out of the question, but I’m unlikely to find the kind of friends that will want to come round to watch football or speak to me on at least a weekly basis. And I can’t say I blame them. I know it’s not their duty to invite me out and make sure I’m having a nice time. It’s up to me to make the effort and I suppose I don’t really bother anymore. I just spend all my time with my wife, at work and away from work, and yet, somehow, she hasn’t yet killed me. I’d like to make some Japanese friends, but I simply don’t put myself in the position of meeting potential ones often enough.
Perhaps with the new year I will attempt to remedy that. Perhaps I will start going out more. Perhaps I will force myself to stop being the kind of guy who wonders if it would be possible to devise a way of asking the postman if he fancies a pint sometime. Perhaps I will stop making excuses.