Cultural Conundrums / Getting to Friendships: The Challenges of Context-driven Social Relationships

Friendships sustain us in life, keeping loneliness at bay and providing us with a chance to grow through shared experiences. Yet the expectations of friendships, and even the basic how-to of their cultivation, can vary according to culture. When setting out to find an amiable companion, it can be useful first to define the parameters of the friendship sought.

There are several Japanese terms that fall under the general umbrella of “friend.” Based on in-depth interviews with Japanese informants, intercultural communication researcher Aaron Cargile made a fascinating study of five of these — mikata: someone who will support you in times of conflict; nakama: someone who belongs to the same companionable group; tomodachi: a catch-all designation; shinyu: a very close, long-term friend, and tsukiai: someone you associate with because such association comes with the situational territory, for example, a work friend. Cargile suggests these terms not only describe various relationships but serve as cognitive vessels through which Japanese people give form to these affiliations.

Cargile found some differences in the nuances described based on the gender of the informant. But, more significantly. he found specific attributes of these Japanese types of friend that differed from American corresponding notions. He particularly noted their structural quality: friendships are not navigated individually but rather emerge contextually.

The importance of context in friendship — and the difficulty of transcending it — was the main theme of last year’s NTV series “Brush-Up Life” (English title “Rebooting”). The program was ostensibly about reincarnation, as the main character Asami, played by Sakura Ando, goes through five cycles of the same life, hoping to gain enough karma so that she will be able to move on to another life as a different human being. There are multiple story threads, as well as an exceedingly droll performance by the comedian Bakarizumu (who also wrote the screenplay) as an administrative clerk for the newly deceased. But more than anything, Brush-Up Life is an astute and poignant exploration of female friendship-building in Japan.

Starting in elementary school in the early 2000s, Asami has two close friends, Natsuki and Miho. (Some plot developments will be omitted in this article to avoid spoilers.) Their friendship is enacted and secured through various activities, including trading stickers, taking Purikura photos and convening a “drama club” in which the three pretend to be critics analyzing popular TV dramas. As they grow older, they continue to meet regularly, celebrating milestones such as when Miho gets her driver’s license and their birthdays. They also have special nicknames for each other: Aachin, Natchi and Miipon.

The long-term friendship seems effortlessly fulfilling for all three. However, Asami’s four reincarnations allow the factors permitting such intimacy to be tested and explored. In her first two reincarnations, the friendship remains intact even as some of her life circumstances change. Although Asami no longer lives in their hometown due to her work as an adult in cycle 3 of her life, the geographical distance does not affect their closeness, and Natsuki and Miho frequently drive to Tokyo to spend the night with Asami. But in Asami’s last two cycles, due to plot developments, she must focus much more on studying, starting in elementary school. In so doing, she forfeits her chance to achieve an unforced familiarity with the other two, who remain affable toward her but do not view her as part of their group, now composed of only two. Like many other classmates, she is a nakama, not a shinyu.

The phrase “ki o tsukau” appears repeatedly in the remaining episodes. Its common translation as “be considerate” does not sufficiently render the frequent feeling of anxious tension embodied in the expression, which is closer to “taking pains in order not to offend.” When Asami formally asks Natsuki and Miho if she can join one of their sticker-trading sessions, they welcome her, but when trading they refrain from choosing any of her good stickers and instead choose very small ones. In her mind, Asami dismally characterizes this as “settai kokan” (a business dinner-like exchange) rather than true, uninhibited negotiation. Natsuki and Miho do not mean to exclude Asami. They simply do not know how to engage in a relaxed manner with her.

Similarly, as adults in cycles 4 and 5, Asami and another friend, Mari, run into Natsuki and Miho at a cafe. On the first occasion, Asami and Mari greet the other two but refrain from asking if they’d like to join them at the same table. The ki o tsukau mandate of not putting them on the spot with a sudden offer results in the regretful relinquishment of a chance to become closer. In cycle 5, Asami takes the leap and invites the two to sit with them, carefully couching her invitation in planned words that would allow Natsuki and Miho to say no without awkwardness. When Natsuki and Miho agree to join them, it is revealed that they too wished to do so — after all, they were BFFs in three of Asami’s past lives, so they are clearly well-suited — but didn’t want to impinge upon Asami and Mari. Both sides long for greater familiarity but find it almost impossible as adults to overcome the contextual barriers to friendship that have been erected in childhood.

It is hard to imagine how this situation could play out realistically in a U.S. setting, even a fictional one. It would be a more fitting scene for portraying the awkwardness between potential romantic partners than friends. After all, it is just an invitation to have a cup of coffee together after meeting by coincidence; surely it need not be so fraught! And still, as they relax and laugh together, Asami can’t help but notice that they do not refer to her as Aachin, instead using the friendly but more polite Asami-chan.

Cross-cultural sociologists use the term “relational mobility” to describe the relative ease or difficulty people in a given culture have in striking up friendships and other relationships based on personal inclination. Researchers typically make use of a relationship mobility scale developed by social psychologist Masaki Yuki and colleagues that asks people to think about those around them and agree or disagree on a scale from 1 to 6 with statements like, “There are few opportunities for these people to form new friendships.” Various studies have confirmed that Japanese culture is marked by low relational mobility. “Brush-Up Life” seeks to investigate whether it is possible to be a shinyu when the context does not support it.

Regarding Japanese friendships, the common English advice “To make a friend, be a friend” might be more accurately be framed as, “To make a friend, join a friendship-fostering context.” It’s not as catchy or simple, perhaps, but when navigated properly, it’s well worth the attempt.

Kate Elwood

Elwood is a professor of English at Waseda University’s School of Commerce.