Tokyo is a huge, crowded city. Not so enormous that you can’t walk around it in a day, but full of millions of people. It’s easy to feel small, isolated, lost. It can also take a long time to make Japanese friends. I’ve written about this before; I don’t think it’s unreasonable on the part of any Japanese person to take their time getting to know someone, and in fact think that British people are exactly the same. Neither culture displays the same ready friendliness someone from North America would. It’s easy to think this is some kind of closed-off, unfriendly attitude on behalf of Japanese people in general, especially when you first arrive and really want to get to know people.
I came to Japan after living in China, where the business of making friends is completely different. In Chinese it’s quite normal to announce the formation of a friendship not long after meeting someone: 交朋友吧？ (Jiao pengyou ba? Shall we be friends?) Together you agree to a friendship, you are now friends.
In most countries it doesn’t work like that, and certainly not in Japan. I have a lot of wonderful Japanese friends, but I’ve been here over twenty years. That is not to say that Japanese people haven’t always been friendly, but friends? That took a while. I’ve made this point before, but I will say it again; Japanese people are the same with each other. In cities, houses and apartments are small, it is not common to invite someone into your home. People meet in cafes, bars or restaurants instead.
My nearest neighbours are not friendly at all. In fact, I would categorise them as Not Friendly and also Somewhat Antisocial. Although our buildings are only a couple of metres apart, someone plays the piano after 11pm quite regularly, I can often hear someone using a hairdryer at 2am, and I have seen their adult son try to start a fight in the street because a delivery truck was trying get past his parked car. Now that summer is here, they delight in wind chimes. One wind chime can be a pleasant sound, an occasional gentle tinkling on a hot day. My neighbours work on the principle that more is more, and quite regularly line up five or six to ring manically in a strong breeze. The man of the house likes nothing better on a Sunday afternoon than to go out into the narrow road and practise his baseball pitching by bouncing the ball against the wall. They appear to love loud, repetitive sounds. It can be annoying, but since I have seen evidence of their very un-Japanese willingness to be confrontational I have never said anything. By contrast, the family who live at the end of the road are always friendly and greet me whenever I walk past. When one member of the family inadvertently watered me along with her flowers one day she even spoke English to offer a mortified apology.
The shops in my neighbourhood are always friendly. If I go into the small drugstore next to the station and buy cold medicine I will receive a handful of cough drops too. The employees in the tiny post office are more helpful than their counterparts in my local post office in the UK. Even the people in the convenience stores, working early and late shifts and sometimes not seeing me for weeks on end are smiley and sometimes stop for a chat. I know it’s not the same as other countries. Most shops in neighbourhoods, even in a city like Tokyo, are still locally-run, and apart from the convenience stores they are not usually part of a chain. They all know their customers.
So this is my neighbourhood. The shopkeepers are friendly, but my neighbours are a mixed bag. Some greet me, others do not. I don’t know their names, they don’t know mine. Apparently the police will have checked with them when I applied for permanent residence, and no one torpedoed my chances. I must be doing all right separating my rubbish and have not alarmed anyone with overt displays of antisocial behaviour (unlike my immediate neighbours, I may add).
My brother lived in an apartment in London for a number of years, and every summer I stayed with him for a few days. I saw other people in the building but apart from a nodded hello I never spoke to them. I don’t know how much my brother knew them either. This is big city life in a country where the people are naturally reserved. It could be Tokyo, but it could also be London. People are busy, they spend their days on crowded trains and working hard. Of course we all want a little space, somewhere we can retreat to.
It takes time to make friends here, but the ones I have made are truly wonderful. I’m happy in my neighbourhood and with my neighbours, although I am slightly wary of the ones right next door. I appreciate being allowed to have my own little bubble in the heart of this great city.