Making Japanese friends is essential to having the consummate Japanese experience, and has the added benefit of helping you maintain your sanity.
Here are my top four reasons why:
1- If you’re studying Japanese, they are a great resource for natural nihongo.
2- Until you’re Nihongo proficient, they can help you with an array of things you need to do to improve your life in Japan.
3- If you want to experience Japan away from the typical Gaijin friendly places they’re invaluable.
4- Being with a Japanese person relaxes the other Japanese people around you.
1-Studying Japanese will help you preserve your sanity, as I mentioned in the post: Learn that Japanese. What I neglected to mention is how Japanese friends can help. They are native speakers, so obviously they can speak fluently. Duh! But that doesn’t necessarily mean they can teach how to speak it or answer all the questions sure to pop up while you’re studying Japanese. I’m an inquisitive mofo so anytime something doesn’t make sense I always ask the magic question: why? Why is a question only a teacher or someone who understands the language, culture and history very well can answer.
If you ask the average native English speaker, or anyone who isn’t a wordsmith with a thorough knowledge of etymology, to explain why, for example, in the word photograph the first syllable is stressed while in the word photography the second is stressed, I’m sure they’d look at you and say, “Why is the sky blue? Why is water wet? How the fuck should I know?” The same is true if you ask the average Japanese native speaker a why question. So most of the answers to why remain unanswered unless you put in the effort and read books on the language.
But that wasn’t exactly my motivation initially. My main reason for pounding the Japanese books was so that I could do some nanpa. Nanpa is basically flirting or picking up girls. I enlisted my first male Japanese friend, Takahiro (not his real name) primarily to assist me in learning how to do so in Japanese.
Takahiro and I met through an American friend of mine. He was a Salaryman, but a rock star in his dreams, so he moonlighted as lead singer and guitarist in a punk rock band. Life as a salaryman had been plan B so he had tattoos on his fingers that he had to hide every day by wrapping them with bandages. He could speak English a bit and was kind of cool, you know, for a salaryman.
He was in love with white girls, any white girl. One night, he met some white girl from Alabama on the internet and took to obsessing over her til I couldn’t stand him anymore.
He did teach me my first nanpa, though. I can hardly remember it now. Something about お茶しませんか？(Shall we have tea?) which was supposed to be code language for let’s get to know each other better right now, and 君は一番かわいい女の子なんとかなんとか(You are the cutest girl…something or other.)
Before Takahiro the only Japanese I knew I’d learned from books like the Japanese for busy people series (which are pretty good actually) and the likes. But, were useless when it came to my new goal: getting my hands on some of this cuteness running around half-naked all around me.
I should’ve known Takahiro was useless in this regard. He definitely wasn’t focused. While I was breaking my neck with every step at the over abundance of eye-candy, he hardly noticed. He had about as much interest in Japanese girls as I had in Japanese guys. Having seen this scene his entire life, perhaps it was difficult for him to get excited about it. What was exotic (and erotic) to me was totally commonplace to him. So, the friendship took a hit and we started drifting apart. I needed someone on the same track as me and, up to that point, those shoes were only being filled by my fellow foreigners.
Before we went our separate ways though he did school me about a few things.
I’d been seeing a girl at the time and she’d taken to helping me with my Japanese as I helped her with her English (surprise surprise, eh). I’d listen to how she spoke and I mimicked her sentence structure and what not. She’d say things like: Oohhh! You sound like a Japanese! And, I’d smile ear to ear. (I’d later learn it was Oseji -flattery) When I got with Takahiro I’d use some of that Japanese sounding Japanese I’d learned.
“Samui yo!” It’s cold!
Takahiro smiled. I could tell he was trying not to laugh.
“Fuck you smiling at?”
“You sound like a girl!”
“Really?” I shouldn’t have been surprised but I was. “What? My voice?”
“No, your words. Don’t use Yo like that. Girls talk like that.”
That fucked me up. In Japan, you hear “Yo” and “Ne” all the time, by guys and girls. Back in NY many people use Yo for everything, too, so I thought I had found something that I was already comfortable with using. The text-book says that “Yo” places a stronger emphasis on the preceding words so I thought “Samui yo” meant something to the effect of “it’s damn cold!” But, according to Takahiro it did just the opposite the way I’d used it. It made it softer. I sounded gay, he said, and finally released the laughter he could no longer contain.
Great. Him, with his perfect hair he spent half a day in the hair salon getting done… But, he had given me a possible explanation for why I had been getting giggled at by my students and by all the girls I’d spoken to before gleaning this info from Takahiro. It’s been my experience that most Japanese won’t tell you if you’re making an ass of yourself because you’re a foreigner and the expectations are very low for foreigners. And, this illustrates my point about the value of Japanese friends: They can give you the inside dope that those textbook writers may have either not been privy to, overlooked or in some cases the usage has changed as languages do constantly.
Thanks Takahiro -san!
2- When I first came to Japan, I came under the aegis of NOVA. They were totally responsible for me. And, as a benefit I totally took for granted at the time, they took care of everything from getting me an apartment to arranging my healthcare benefits. They even got me my first Japanese cellphone. Very convenient. Of course NOVA had relationships with these Japanese companies which gave them an advantage over the competition, but that’s how it goes. It also cost us instructors a little more for we could have gotten several of these services for less money in some cases if we could speak Japanese and had shopped around…or if we had friends who spoke Japanese. But few of us fresh arrivals had either. So, the headache / expense ratio was acceptable at the time.
After I met my first true friend in Japan, Aiko, I learned most of this. When I told her about my cellphone and how much I had paid, she laughed and took me to a another company where I got a better deal and a better phone. She handled all the conversing and I signed all the contracts. When I told her about how much I paid for rent, she was aghast and took me to a neighborhood realtor where I learned that my Japanese neighbors were paying in many cases a third less.
One day, I had taken a nasty spill off of my bicycle and had to go to the hospital. Aiko was right there beside me explaining everything to the doctor and to me like my handy translator. Another time I threw my back out. If you’ve read “ducking and Bobbing” you know my drama with my back. Aiko’s mother also used to have back problems. Until she found this Chiropractor / Miracle worker out in Saitama. Aiko brought me there and he, using a combination of Western & Eastern techniques he’d learned in China, sent me home feeling like a new man.
I was a very independent person in New York. As a bachelor, I did everything myself for many years. Whatever I didn’t know how to do I could learn how to do or hire someone to do for me. But, in Japan, I felt like an invalid. A man stripped of his ability to see, hear and speak. A friend like Aiko took the sting out of this feeling so much. And did so without further emasculation. I wish I could have done half as much for her as she did for me but she was a totally self-sufficient person.
Now, that I can speak enough Japanese to handle some of my personal affairs, I’ve recovered some of my lost independence. But if it hadn’t been for Aiko I would have suffered much more than I did.
Thanks for all your help, Aiko-chan! You’ll always be the best!
3- I used to ask my students of a certain age for recommendations of cool places to hangout in Japan.
“You should go to Roppongi,” the majority of them would advise me. I’d already been to Roppongi, of course. Not a foreigner in the Tokyo area hasn’t. But, I wasn’t keen on the place, for a number of reasons. It’s a dodgy place, first off; the Tokyo version of Sin City, only much more expensive and you get less for your money. Secondly, it’s full of foreigners and the Japanese girls who prey on them-usually pretty skanky. If I wanted to hang out with Americans and skanky girls I wouldn’t have come to Japan to do it. There are plenty in NY.
“Why Roppongi? Do you like Roppongi?” I’d ask them. “How often do you go there?”
“No,” they’d invariably say. “I don’t go there.”
“It’s so crowded!”
“Oh, I see.”
“Abunai, deshou?” Dangerous isn’t it?
“Why would you recommend that I go to a place you don’t like and you don’t go to?”
“You are foreigner, deshou? Many foreigners go there. Foreigners like Roppongi! And many beautiful girls go there to meet foreigners!”
I’d let it go…sometimes. These conversations were my first insight into the mindset, especially when it comes to foreigners. The fact that the person didn’t see any problem with sending me to a place they thought to be dodgy spoke volumes.
Sometimes, though, I wouldn’t let it go at that.
“So, you recommend I go to a place you think is dangerous? Do you think I like dangerous places?”
“Oh, wait! I understand now. Because there are other foreigners there, and beautiful girls, I won’t mind a little danger…is that what you mean?”
I refrain from getting confrontational with Japanese about their bullshit these days, because maintaining a smile while discussing something like this is still a struggle. Some kind of emotion peeks from behind the smile and spits at them. I wind up unintentionally showing some feeling or putting an edge on my words that tend to make some people uncomfortable.
But, if you make a friend, then you can get some solid recommendations.
They’ll hip you to some places that’ll bend your ears back. Every onsen I’ve ever been to was recommended by a Japanese friend (who usually accompanied me). Every cool bar or club, not located in a gaijin-friendly zone ike Roppongi, I was directed to by a Japanese friend (often accompanying me.)
Case and Point: Satoshi:
He was the coolest mofo you ever want to meet, of any race. I was looking for a cool ass nihonjin- male for a change- that I could hangout with. Someone who could hip me to some cool places to hang out (I’d had it up to here with Roppongi, Kabukicho, Shibuya and the other so-called gaijin-friendly places.)
There was a beauty salon next door to my school. Sometimes when I’d go out to the smoke area there’d be this guy who worked at the salon out there puffing his Seven Stars. He had bleached dirty-blond hair, a goatee and big smile with a slight edge. One of them cool guys I’d see around Tokyo who’d whisper to each other like girls whenever I pass by them. When I’d see him through the salon’s main window, massaging conditioner into some cutie’s hair, I’d say to myself, “Now there’s a job that’ll- if he isn’t gay- turn any man misogynistic after a couple of years. Chances are he’ll have an edge.” I like people with an edge. Most New Yorkers are edgy in every sense of the word.
It wasn’t long before we bumped heads in the smoke area and he said what’s up. And, over a smoke, he asked all those typical When nihonjin met gaijin… questions, or rather, When Nihonjin met kokujin… (When Japanese meet black men) cause he seemed to zero in on what seemed to be race-related inquiries. I’d gotten used to it. It’s my selling and repelling point in Japan. No way around that.
He couldn’t speak a lick of English, though, which was good.
I’ve found that most of the Japanese people who can speak English tend to be overly arrogant. Like their English speaking ability makes them special (which, unfortunately, it does in Japan) and that having been exposed to the West (which is, I’ve found, the only way a Japanese person can learn English to any significant degree) they feel obligated to show you in an overt way that you don’t intimidate them at all. Perhaps to compensate for all the years they’d felt intimidated by English speakers before they’d gone bilingual. And, God forbid, their exposure to the West was in England. FORGET ABOUT IT! You want to throw them thru a fucking window, they’re so goddamn arrogant! (No offense to my British readers…gomen ne!)
“You like Hip Hop?” He asked. I smiled outwardly and grimaced inside.
“I guess so. You?”
“Who do you like?” I asked, bracing myself to hear Eminem or Shaggy or Ne-Yo or some shit like that. At that time, I’d spoken to several Japanese Hip Hop heads who knew Eminem very well but couldn’t tell me who Biggie Smalls was if I’d shoved my I-Pod up their asses.
“Rhymester. Do you know them?”
“Rhymester? Nah, never heard of them…”
He whipped out his handy I-Pod and plugged me in. It was in Japanese- to my surprise- with a lot of English mixed in. And, My God, the shit sounded tight, like old school Hip Hop! It actually gave me visions of rapping in Japanese myself someday. He obviously had decent taste in Hip Hop but I still had one question I asked of any Hip Hop head; a kind of litmus test that tells me all I needed to know about their knowledge and appreciation of Hip-Hop.
“Who do you think is the best Hip Hop artist of all time?”
I told myself, even if he says Tupac, which I would whole-heartedly disagree with, I’d give him a pass.
“Nas,” he said without hesitation. My jaw dropped. We were going to be friends.
“No, make that Rakim!” he said. Make that good Friends, I thought.
The next weekend he invited me over to his crib. His roommate, Takuto, from Hokkaido, was a DJ. They had an impressive music collection, two turntables, a mixer!
Make that REALLLLLLY good friends I decided then and there.
We got lifted listening to some 80′s Dancehall reggae I’d hipped them to. Just like I used to do with my friends back in NY. Sometimes they come over to my spot and we just hangout, bungle communication and laugh.
I love these guys!
At a time when I was coming to think that Japan, though replete with kind, friendly people, it just didn’t have any cool people, cool places (that would let me in the door) or anything worth listening to, I meet Satoshi and Takuto and they prove me wrong. If you hang around long enough, Japan will surprise the hell out of you!
Big shout out to my boys, Toshi-kun and Tak-kun!!!
4- I was kicking it with Satoshi one day on the train to his apartment. He was standing against the door. A women beside him was writing a text message. A subway television above his head was showing this commercial:
The man beside me on my right was not flinching. The woman on my left was standing against me, actually touching me, and wasn’t looking freaked out about it.
Satoshi noticed me looking around and nodding my head and asked me what was I thinking about.
“My life in Japan,” I said.
He then asked me, for the first time, what did I think about Japan, so I told him quite frankly, since we’d become friends and all, that Japan would be great if it weren’t for Japanese people.
He laughed out loud. The woman besides him smiled, too, revealing that she was listening to our convo though she appeared to be engrossed in her cellphone. Satoshi likes my sense of humor and he’d gotten to know me well enough to know when I’m fucking around and when I’m serious.
He knew my answer was half both.
“What’s wrong with Japanese people?” he asked.
I didn’t know how to say, “nothing a little waterboarding couldn’t fix” in Japanese, so I said “Nothing right now, because you’re here.”
Something was happening at that very moment that he couldn’t notice because it was way below his radar. But my antennae are always up and alert like a cockroach’s.
When you’re with a Japanese person Japanese people react differently to you. Mind you, it’s no less offensive because of the contrast with how they behave when you’re without an Japanese escort. It’s like by virtue of your being with a Japanese person, it suggests to the Japanese in your vicinity that you’ve been vetted, appraised by a trustworthy authenticator (one of their own) and found true. Actually, I’m trying to be nice. More accurately it feels more like you’re some type of animal that if allowed to roam free is dangerous but in the hands of a master trainer (one of their own) you’re safe to approach and in some cases even pet. I’ve noticed this phenomenon hundreds of times over the years. If you can forget the statement this change in behavior makes and just luxuriate in these moments of normality, it will do wonders for your sanity.
I couldn’t express any of this well enough in Japanese, either so I just told my friend, “You’re so ugly you make me look good.”
Who is this guy, Loco, anyway? Click here!
PS: This is a re-post