Before I came to Japan, I was told that, in Japan, connecting with people and making friends is not an easy task. Japanese people are said to be quite closed and do not often talk about personal matters. I heard that talking to people on a train is considered impolite, and if I approached a stranger on the street, their first thought would be that I wanted to sell them something.
I also learned that as a group culture, Japanese people think in bubbles, and you are either inside (which is called “uchi”) or outside a person’s bubble (“soto”). Those bubbles might include one’s family, people one went to high school with, and the company one is working at. Since I share no bubbles with any Japanese person, I would be “soto” by default. And that would mean people would be friendly, but cautious; interested, but only superficially. It would take a long time to win someone’s trust and not be that strange outsider anymore.
Having those things in mind and prepared for the worst, I started my language and culture studies at the OMF center in Sapporo in January 2021. I grew up in a middle-sized city in Germany of about 80,000 inhabitants, and therefore the metropolis of Sapporo, with two million residents, was way too large and busy for my taste. So I counted the days until the snowy winter would finally be over and I could take a hike in nature as I used to do in Germany.
Eventually the thick layers of ice melted away, and a missionary colleague took me on a hike on one of the mountains surrounding the city. I enjoyed the lush vegetation, and was surprised to find so many other people hiking on the track too. What surprised me even more was that I was frequently greeted by strangers who crossed my path—something that had never happened to me while walking through the city. At some point we took a short break and a random Japanese hiker started a conversation with us talking about all kinds of personal topics.
Finding hidden doorways
Since then, I have had several other experiences of how easy it is to connect with Japanese people while being out in nature: whether in parks or during morning group gymnastics outside—an activity that is quite common in Japan. I have the impression that, in this country, being together in nature draws people closer and creates a new bubble. Everyone can enter this bubble just by joining in the same activity and the common appreciation for God’s creation.
Getting to know people seems to be not that hard after all, but it takes a while to learn to navigate in Japan’s bubbles and to find all those hidden doorways. But one thing is for sure, the closer you are to nature, the closer you are to the Japanese heart.
By Julian, an OMF missionary