Friends · Life

Life of an ALT: Making Friends in Japan

DISCLAIMER: Some of the activities mentioned are not necessarily applicable during the current pandemic.
However if you partake in any of the below, please follow local and national government guidelines including avoiding crowded, unventilated areas, practicing social distancing, washing your hands and wearing a mask.

However hopefully in a few years when things have may have improved somewhat, this advice will still be relevant. Thanks in advance for reading!

Ahhh, the one major worry everyone has before moving anywhere new, especially if it’s abroad.
And you don’t speak the language.
And there are cultural barriers between locals and fellow gaijin alike.

“How the hell will I make friends?”


I’m happy to report after 15-ish months in Japan I’m at a point now where I have a few small, solid circles of friends – and not just acquaintances I spend time with out of convenience. (Believe me, there’s a huge difference!)

While it’s very tempting to hide away in your Leopalace eating konbini bentos, remember – people won’t come to you! The best advice I can give you is to try and overcome shyness and put yourself out there.

But how exactly might one do that? Here are some suggestions:

Go to a bar, restaurant or café and chat with the locals.

Every city has at least one ‘gaijin bar’ where the local foreigners seem to gather. It’s a good place to start to meet your fellow expats.
Otherwise hit up your local ramen, soba, gyoza, kushikatsu joint – the smaller the better – and chat away to the staff and your fellow patrons if they look friendly.
If your Japanese is not up to scratch, gestures and a smile go a long way, but it’s also a great chance to practice!

Get to know the teachers in your school(s).

While it’s intimidating at first – know that you’re not the first ALT they’ve met and you certainly won’t be the last. If you’re teaching at a junior high school, the Japanese English teachers (JTEs) will have a high level of English. But also try to get to know the other teachers as well – ask your tantou for a copy of the staff roster with names, photos and subjects if possible. Or you can go around and ask everyone yourself.
Don’t forget the school administrator, janitor, lunch staff and nurse!

You never know where a connection will lead – my young tantou at elementary school was particularly friendly, and when she said she liked sushi I said “We should go to my favourite sushi restaurant sometime!”
We did, and we’ve been friends ever since!

Another time a teacher brought me an local mikan orange – seriously the best orange I’ve ever tried – and delightedly, she told me it’s from her father’s farm and guess what…? She’s since driven me to see the trees and even having a go at harvesting them! An experience I definitely wouldn’t have otherwise had!

One thing to note however is that Japanese teachers are very busy and work long hours – so try and catch them when they look like they’re in-between doing something important. The best time is often at the end of sixth period – usually after 3:15ish.

If you’re invited…say yes!

When the infamous Farrah returned to Hamamatsu for her birthday, my pal suggested I go along to meet her.
I felt kinda bad about crashing a birthday party, but it was obvious after ten seconds that she didn’t mind a bit. We now chat at least every few days, and even recently met up for a super fun girly weekend in Tokyo.

I also made friends with some of the other party attendees!
After keeping in touch, I met up with Donna at a beautiful cafe in the summer. And also me, Elizabeth and Ama grab dinner at least once a month – and we’re also having a girly weekend in Nagoya for over Christmas break!
So unless you have a prior engagement, always ALWAYS say yes – you may not be asked a second time.

And remember – if your friend is friends with someone, there’s often a fairly good reason why!

Attend your school enkai.

I personally believe that every ALT should at least go to one school enkai – aka: the teacher’s booze-up.

While there are several smaller enkais dotted around the year, unless you’re really pally with your teachers you’ll likely just be invited to the main ones at the end of term or after a big school event such as sports day.

I’ve written about my experience at my first enkai here. It sounds pretty nerve-wracking on paper, but it’s actually quite a relaxed affair and interesting to see how different everyone can be after a few rounds of nomihoudi.
(At the most recent one we had pre-‘rona, I may or may not have ended up in a drinking competition with the vice-principal. And being from Newcastle, TRUST that I was victorious.)

Don’t be intimidated however if you don’t drink alcohol – many teachers don’t and certainly won’t (or at least shouldn’t) judge you. Being all you can eat and drink, you can have as much pop/soda, tea and coffee as you’d like – and a lot of the places I’ve been to even offer mocktails!

While what happens at the enkai stays at the enkai, you’ll find a lot of teachers do warm to you and feel more comfortable chatting to you at school. And again – you never know where simply a polite chat will lead!

As above, be sure to attend the first one you’re asked to – or have a valid excuse why you can’t go. You may be invited to the next one, but definitely not the one after that.

Find your local gaijin community on Facebook.

A quick search should bring up events if not in your local area, then at least the next city over. Although Hamamatsu has a huge expat community, the more interesting events are in neighboring Shizuoka city or Nagoya.

You’ll have to likely run for the last train home – but who knows, you might make a pal who will let you crash at their place next time!

Network with your fellow ALTs.

Ugh, networking. I know, I know.

At the very least, be friendly at initial training and get everyone’s Facebook, Line or email address you gel with. Even if they end up on the other side of the prefecture – who knows, you may keep in touch and then you’ll have someone to potentially meet up with and show you around if you’re in the area.

Because we’re a bunch of nerds we invited the head teacher and trainers for drinks with us on the last day of training. They’re very different once their ties are loosened and they have a few drinks in them. They’re also likely to be living fairly locally and been in Japan a while so will be able to give you advice and recommendations of things to do.

Join a sports team.

I mean, I can’t relate lol. Sports suck. But if that’s your jam, then have at it. Your local community centre or city hall should have flyers about teams and clubs you can join.

Take up a hobby.

Painting, calligraphy, yoga, taiko drumming, D&D…there’s going to be something for you to sink your teeth into. Even if you only go once or twice, you never know who you might meet!

Join a language exchange.

A language exchange is a regular event – usually in the same bar or cafe – that is a fairly even mix of Japanese and gaijin. There is a timer where you speak in Japanese for a certain about of time, then a bell rings and you switch to English.

If your Japanese isn’t there yet – many of the Japanese attendees will be happy to try and chat to you in English. (Just don’t let yourself be fobbed into a free lesson – that’s fairly common.)

There’s usually a small entry fee – around Y500 and includes a welcome drink.

A smile and a hello!

You’ll also end up making friends completely by chance and where you least expect it: I met of my closest friends here because we got the same bus to our schools!
I was too shy for ages to say hello until a few weeks in and I worked up the courage to ask for local recommendations. A smile and hello can go a long way!

I hope this has been somewhat helpful – and if you’re living in Japan and want to share how you made friends, please leave a comment below!

~ Carla