Japanese people are a little bit like the Finns, i.e. relatively introverted and shy, and even though they might want to have a chat with you they are as eager to open a conversation with a foreigner as a squirrel is to cuddle a boa constrictor. Consequently, you might find it’s hard work to make Japanese friends… well, that is unless you are in Osaka, where on the train or in the park old ladies frequently engage with you in lengthy conversations in Japanese (regardless of whether or not you speak Japanese) and hand out to your children bags of sweets, bookmarks or pieces of fruit (regardless of whether or not you consent to it) and where random strangers tap you on the shoulder and ask (a) if you could be their foreign friend and/or (b) if they could practice their English with you. But elsewhere in Japan it might be more difficult to talk to the locals.
But not to worry, if you are visiting Japan and would like to experience authentic Japanese communication in a friendly situation or even make friends with some random Japanese people this is what we’ve found works marvellously:
1) in the evening, go to a small izakaya (gastro pub) or a standing sake bar, the smaller the better really, a 5-10 seater would be perfect.
2) sit/stand at the bar (in very small izakayas there are no tables anyway)
3) have a couple of glasses of dry sake, sweet plum wine or a pint of beer
4) start talking to the person sitting next to you. It helps if you know a couple of words in Japanese, after all, the chances are the Japanese person will have a very limited knowledge of English. The quickest way to start a conversation is to comment on the sport on the TV in the izakaya, or mention how delicious the sake or food is. Further into the conversation you should mention how much you love Japan (which shouldn’t be difficult as Japanese food, public transport, customer service, culture and nature are all amazing). Even though Japanese people love their country, what they love even more is foreigners telling them that they love Japan.
5) one additional tip for connecting with Japanese people at 11pm when you’ve jointly emptied the sake reserves of a small izakaya is to learn the lyrics to USA for Africa’s We are the World song before your trip to Japan. Seriously! Surprisingly perhaps, pretty much everyone in Japan, or at least in Osaka, knows this song (because the kids’ area at the Universal Studios in Osaka plays this song non-stop all day every day).
To convince you that the above method works like a dream here are a couple of random but wonderful instances of us making friends in Japan:
A German friend was visiting me in Osaka and we were looking for a place to eat. We stopped outside a small Korean izakaya to have a look at the menu (which was written in Japanese and we couldn’t understand any of it) and decided not to go in. But as we started walking away from the restaurant a salesperson from a bike shop across the road storms out of his shop and with a few words of English persuades us to go to the Korean restaurant, saying that the food is great and the mama-san (owner/manager) is very friendly. We felt obliged to go in.
We sat at the counter next to two salarymen and a lone guy. We struggled to order anything because mama-san and her sous-chef/waitress didn’t speak English so the lone guy next to us offered to translate. It turned out he owned his own restaurant a couple of blocks away but was having his ‘break’ (involving no food, but hefty glasses of sake). We had a chat with him about his visit to Canada some 20 year ago, and when he had to go back to work (a little tipsy), we turned to the two salarymen sitting next to us and to another group of men who had come downstairs (from the seating area upstairs) to talk to us. It was an interesting mix of people. There was a piano tuner, a university professor, a relatively famous actor, office workers, a car sales person, two crazy ladies behind the bar and me and my German friend, both of us university lecturers.
The night turned a bit crazy with singing, mama-san taking a gulp of wine, gurgling it and spitting it back in the glass and redrinking it, several of the customers ended up serving drinks/food behind the bar and the punters, mama-san and the sous-chef trying to pronounce my German friend’s name even in a remotely similar way to the way it should be pronounced.
It was a hilarious evening and ended in everyone exchanging their business cards to indicate friendship.
Standing Sake bar the size of a match box
My husband and I have a favourite standing sake bar in the Shinsaibashi area of Osaka. It is tiny. It literally consists of one table (which is really just a piece of wood balanced on top of some drinks crates) and a fridge to keep the sake cool. As to food, the owner is happy for you to bring in whatever you like (including take-outs from the local 7-eleven). And we like the place precisely because of these properties. The sake bar having only one table means that you have to talk to the people next to you, and the cold (or hot) sake helps with no single mutually intelligible language. Regardless of the fact that my husband and I don’t speak Japanese beyond the very basics and the other customers generally not speaking English beyond the very basics every time we’ve been to this place we’ve had a great time, maybe partly because most customers when coming in exclaim with delight kokusai (‘international’) party or because more than once when we haven’t managed to understand each other a Japanese customer leaves the sake bar, goes searching the surrounding bars and eventually comes back with a Japanese person who can speak some English to translate between English and Japanese.
We love this place so much that we often take our European visitors/friends there with us. Here’s a photo taken at my most recent visit with a friend.
And to prove that this is not only the case in Osaka, here are a couple of pictures of a sushi restaurant in Tokyo where I went with a Japanese friend and ended up having a great time with some other diners (who were eager to tell me that they had visited Europe and their son was an associate professor of English at a university in Nagoya) and the owner of the restaurant who wanted to practice his English. Having been able to talk to the owner, who was the sushi chef of the place, allowed me to finally put some words to the foods that I’ve been eating for the past 2 ½ years.
So, not only will you have interesting, hilarious and entertaining evenings interacting with random Japanese people after a couple of glasses of something slightly stronger than just green tea, but you will learn a lot about Japan and Japanese culture as well.
Even though I am posting this blog post on New Year’s Eve, the above tips are not really meant to be used tonight or any other NYE. After all, in Japan NYE is a little bit like Christmas eve in Finland or Christmas day in England, i.e it’s spent at home relaxing with one’s family eating too much, watching TV and maybe visiting a temple/church during the night. But if you are in Japan pretty much any other evening than NYE,why not try and make some Japanese friends. And if you are a bit shy to open the conversation, remember that the chances are that the Japanese person sitting next to you is as eager to talk to you as you are to them!