Tokyo has one of the largest populations in the world but it’s also one of the loneliest cities.
The trains in Japan are usually quiet, even when packed full like a can of sardines. It’s unlikely that anyone is going to come up to you randomly and start a conversation.
Compare this to cities like San Francisco, where (even if it’s a bit uncomfortable) it’s pretty normal for you to strike up a random conversation. Whether that’s with your Uber driver or elsewhere.
How can Japan be lonely/boring? You might think of the following examples:
You can hang out at a Manga cafe all day and night. Using a ticket machine or touch screen to order your food you never have to talk to another soul. You have a shower too.
You can go out to a bar by yourself and have a peaceful night without feeling any pressure to talk to anyone. No one is likely to come up to you, even in the bar.
You can go to a “tech conference” with hundreds of people and somehow not get approached by anyone, even though the point is to network. After a speaker is done giving his speech, no one will raise their hands to ask questions.
You can be passed out drunk on the train platform and nobody is going to bother you. No one is going to come to your rescue. Until the train station closes, and then the train staff will kindly escort you out.
If you take these examples at face value, it would be easy to generalize and say that, “yeh, Japan can be a very boring place!” Bullshit. I think you’d be making a big generalization.
In reality, you can have a “boring” night in any city in the world.
Here’s the deal:
Japanese people tend to keep to themselves not because they are necessarily shy or “introverted.” If you become friends with someone in Japan you’ll find out that they can be extremely talkative, super fun and extroverted.
To the eyes of a more “open” or talkative Westerner, where public expression of one’s own beliefs is highly valued, Japanese people might seem quiet or reserved. Rather, not pushing one’s opinions on others and keeping to yourself is seen as a sign of humility in Japan.
If you don’t know someone, if you’re not in the “in group,” then it’s none of your business (honne and tatemae). The idea is that if we were always in each others business, conflict would arise. And on a small island nation, we’re all here together, conflict is to be avoided. Our goal is to live as harmoniously as possible. This is the fundamental difference.
But it’s not that different than where ever you’re from. There are certain things that are OK and not OK to say in public or in your workplace. We just happen to have these handy terms to refer to how we act in ingroup/outgroup situations and cool drawings like the one above.
This doesn’t mean Japanese people are “lying,” but if you cross the line and make a Japanese person feel really uncomfortable, then don’t expect to talk to them again. They will ignore you. This happens a lot if you speak your mind without taking into consideration the feelings of others and the contextual situation that might offend others around you (eh, especially on Tinder). Aka, reading in between the lines. Japan is a high-context culture.
My Japanese friends have an amazing amount of energy. They’re like the rest of us — they party hard, throw up, get angry with their bosses, and love adventures. They have no problem telling me I am wrong or calling me out on bullshit. They like going to 2-day raves and doing back-to-back karaoke sessions and wearing pasties on their nipples.
What does this all mean?
If you are a traveler in Japan you have to keep in mind that the society operates in a fundamentally different way. It’s very structured. Your pick up lines aren’t going to work. Your usual approach of just “winging it” as a backpacker might not work.
Let go of those expectations and beliefs.
You are unlikely to have a super, awesome fun time unless you A) Have a local Japanese guide or friend to show you around and/or B) Properly plan out a trip rather than just winging it.
If you’re living here, I’d say Japan is a great place if you are an introvert because you don’t feel forced to do things or go out. You don’t have the fear of missing out that felt so prevalent when I was in the U.S.
But when you want to find those things, when you want to go to a meet up or indulge or skydive or meet people or dance at salsa bars, there are plenty of people you will find that have similar interests.