whispering Japanese girlsThe general foreigner’s view on the Japanese is that you cannot have a deep conversation with them, that they are reserved and polite and friendly and very reserved. My experience is a bit different. Of course, if you chat to random people they are friendly and polite, but you won’t get anything of substance out of them – just like in the West. But I have noticed that people here are more willing to disclose very personal things about them very early in a relationship, things that would take a Westerner years of close friendship before spilling them.

Exhibit one:
When I was fresh in Japan, I looked for somebody to have a language exchange with. The idea is that you meet for an hour or so, you talk 30 minutes in one language and 30 minutes in the other. On a notice board I found the advertisement of a Japanese woman my age who was looking for somebody who speaks English. I called her up and we met for coffee.

So far so good, I found her nice but also a bit odd, somehow, and then… During that very first meeting, she told me that she had some sort of mental disorder and she was on heavy medication and in and out of a mental hospital here in town. That was totally unsolicited, and I would never, ever tell that to anyone I just met and wanted to be friends with. We did meet for a couple of months or so, but then she became very pushy, so I am not seeing her any longer.

Exhibit two:
In the beginning of this year I was advertising English classes. I got an email from a man and we met for 30 minutes to get to know each other and to find out whether to move forward with classes. He – a soldier in the Japanese army who doesn’t want to kill anyone – talked for 25 minutes straight about the time when he went to Australia to visit a friend for Christmas and got promptly in the plane already hit on by an Australian MAN. Funny story to look back at for sure… However, I could see that he was still deeply disturbed by it all these years later, and such a story I would not disclose to anyone (and he hadn’t told his family about it he said).

What I found disturbing about the meeting was that we briefly talked about where to do our classes and he said “Oh, just give me your address and I’ll go there…” Nononono, that’s not how this is going! We have not met since; he only contacted me twice afterwards and I was very, very busy indeed… I don’t think seeing him on a regular basis is a good idea, but I don’t really know how to tell him that.

Exhibit three:
I met a lovely elderly woman in a friend’s cafe, and she chatted me up and we decided to meet regularly. The second or third time we met, I asked her to “tell me about you”, which she did – not leaving out any details. She told me that she didn’t have kids because she had had three miscarriages before she and her husband gave up trying. That’s a very sad story and even though I would tell it eventually I guess, I would wait for the relationship to have deepened a little more.

Which it did, actually! We have now been meeting for almost two years, and we always have great fun together. She is very intelligent (studied Chemistry back in the days) and has an amazing amount of energy, and although we mostly meet at her place to sit and chat and drink tea and eat chocolate cake, we sometimes go out together. I’m very glad I have met her, and we have had many very personal moments together since.