Making Japanese friends is important, and can have the added benefit of helping you maintain your sanity. Here are my top four reasons why:
1- If you’re studying Japanese, they are an invaluable resource for natural nihongo.
2– They can help you with the array of things you have to do to maintain your life in Japan
3– If you want to experience Japan away from the typical Gaijin friendly places
4– Being with a Japanese person relaxes the other Japanese around you.
1-Studying Japanese will help you preserve your sanity, as I mentioned in #3 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 it. 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. Most Japanese cannot answer why about anything having to do with their language, I’ve found. So, I did what any inquisitive mofo would do: I read books and searched the net for answers. Now, sometimes, I feel like I know more about their language than they do.
To be fair, the reverse is true too sometimes. Have you ever tried to take the TOEIC Test? If you have an ego about your English proficiency or grammar knowledge, do yourself a favor and don’t. It’s like something most of us native speakers have never seen. I have so much respect for my students who scored high on that test. Or, if you ask 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?” These were the kind of why questions i was asking them.
As I mentioned before, one of my initial reasons for pounding the Japanese books was so that I could do some nanpa. Nanpa is basically flirting or picking up girls and frowned upon by Japanese, but as you know I’m not one of them. My first male Japanese friend was
Fuyuto. We met through an American friend of mine. He could speak English a bit and was kind of cool. 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 was plan B so he had tattoos on his fingers that he had to hide everyday by wrapping them with bandages. He was in love with white girls, any white girl. He fancied some bleached blond from Alabama he’d met on the internet and took to obsessing over her til I couldn’t stand him anymore.
He taught me my first nanpa. I can hardly remember it now. Something about Ocha shimasenka (Shall we have tea?) which was supposed to be code language for let’s get to know each other better right now, and kimi wa ichiban kawaii nanto ka nanto ka (You are the cutest girl…and something or other) Before Fuyuto the only Japanese I knew I’d learned from books like 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 Kawaii-ness running around half-naked all around me.
I should’ve known Fuyuto was useless in this regard. While I was breaking my neck with every step at the over abundant eye-candy, he hardly noticed. He had about as much interest in Japanese girls as I had in Japanese guys. Having watched this movie I was watching for the first time for his entire life, perhaps it was difficult for him to get excited about it. What was exotic to me was totally commonplace to him. We started drifting apart. I needed someone on the same track as me, and so far that had only been my fellow gaijin.
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! I’d smile ear to ear. (I’d later learn it was Oseji –apple-polishing flattery) When I got with Fuyuto I’d use some of that Japanese sounding Japanese I’d learned.
“Samui yo!” It’s cold!
Fuyuto 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. “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 damn time. Back in NY we 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 fucking cold!” But, according to Fuyuto 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, calls me gay. But, he had explained why I had been getting giggled at by my students and being called Kawaii by all the girls I’d spoken to before gleaning this info from Fuyuto. 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 here anyway. And, this illustrates my point about the value of Japanese friends: They can give you the inside dope that those textbook writers may not be privy to or overlooked. Thanks Fuyuto-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 unfair advantage over the competition, but that’s how it goes. It also cost us instructors a little more for we could have gotten 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 did. 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. 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 of the conversing and I signed all the contracts. I told her about how much I paid for rent and she laughed and took me to a neighborhood realtor so I could learn that my Japanese neighbors were paying in most cases a third less.
One day, I had taken a nasty spill off of my Mamichari 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. 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 a little I can handle some of the above tasks. I still can’t handle a good number of the tasks required for a full life here, but I haven’t given up. I’m still studying and practicing whenever I can.
Thanks for all your help, Aiko-chan! You were 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 tell 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. It’s the Tokyo version of Bangkok, 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’s plenty in NY.
“Why Roppongi? Do you like Roppongi?” I’d ask them. “How often do you go there?”
“No,” they’d inevitably say. “I don’t go there.” Of course they didn’t. Only skanky hostesses and future skanky hostesses or girls that had been dragged there by their skanky hostess friends, or Japanese guys who like skanky hostesses and are willing to confess that to me 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 dakara.”
I’d let it go…sometimes. These conversations were my first insight into the Japanese mind, especially when it comes to foreigners. The fact that the person didn’t see any problems with what they’d just confessed about themselves and about their culture spoke volumes to me.
Sometimes I didn’t let it go.
“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 confronting Japanese about their bullshit nowadays, 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 kind of feeling and then they get all uncomfortable and shit goes downhill from there. But, back in the days, I used to get a thrill out of it. it was like getting revenge on them for the ignorance and offenses they had no problem flagrantly displaying before me.
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 friend (who usually accompanied me). Every cool bar or club, not located in a gaijin-friendly zone, I was directed to by a friend (often accompanying me.)
Satoshi: Coolest Mofo you ever want to meet. I was looking for a cool ass nihonjin- male for a change– that I could hangout with and could hip me to some cool places to hang out (I’d had it up to here with Roppongi and Shibuya and the other gaijin-friendly places.)
There was a beauty salon next door to my job. 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 perfect bleached dirty-blond hair, a big smile and a goatee. 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 a Japanese met a black man) 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. 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 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, while I grimaced inside.
“I guess so. You?”
“Who do you like?” I asked, bracing myself to hear Emenim or Snoop Dog. At that time, I’d spoken to several Japanese Hip Hop heads who knew Eminem very well but couldn’t tell me who Slick Rick 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 Japanese, with a lot of English mixed in, and the shit sounded tight, like old school Hip Hop. I started having visions of myself rapping in Japanese. he obviously had decent taste in Hip Hop but I had one question I asked of any Hip Hop head:
“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 Best Friends, I thought.
The next weekend he invited me over to his crib. His roommate, Takuto, from Hokkaido, is a DJ, and they had cartons of albums, two turntables, a mixer with a chalice on top.
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 crib and we just hangout, bungle communication and laugh. I love these guys!
At a time when I was coming to think that Japan just didn’t have any cool people (just nice 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 TV above his head was showing this commercial:
A man beside me on my right was not flinching. A woman on my left was standing against me and not looking freaked out about it. He noticed me looking around and nodding my head and asked me what was I thinking about.
“My life in Japan,” I said.
He asked me, for the first time, what did I think about Japan, so I told him quite directly since he was my friend, “Japan would be great if it wasn’t for Japanese people.”
He laughed. 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’s getting 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. Anyone who’s read my previous posts knows what the trains are usually like for me, but to sum it up: daily hell. But, the difference between my daily experience on the trains every morning and that moment right then was I was with a Japanese person.
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 sans nihonjin. 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. It actually 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 past five years so trust me this one is a sure bet. 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.” (-:
Up next: #6 : Avoid Gaijin, Gaijin Bars, Gaijin friendly areas and the Japanese girls who dwell there