For the majority of the last year I have been in Japan on a study abroad year and have had a unique, but challenging experience. There are several aspects of this that I may discuss in the future but today I’m going to talk a bit about my experiences being autistic in Japan and my attempts to make friends with Japanese people. Hence it became a quest for friends (hence the title as “tomodachi” means friend in Japanese). There isn’t too much information on the internet about this so I hope to add to it.
Disclosure: This is my own personal experience. Other autistic people may have had different experiences so this isn’t representative of all autistic people.
Before I talk about my experiences, I’d like to give some background information. Japan as a whole, from what I understand, is far behind in understanding autism compared to Western territories. This article by an autistic Japanese woman provides some good background information as well as some things I can correlate from my own experiences.
For example, Kana mentions the lack of an autism community. I found this too. I knew of no support services whatsoever in my part of Japan – neither government services nor charities offered specialist support for autistic people. Language is irrelevant when I say this. Hence the only form of support I had was my university I was an exchange student at. Ironically and crucially, their support was excellent. I was able to get the accommodations and support I needed. If it wasn’t for them, I would have failed my year abroad.
Another example outlined by Kana is the stigma. I didn’t encounter any negative discrimination however I was aware it exists. I think the stigma of autism partly links with the increasing number of hikkikomori in Japan and the negative connections many people have made between autism and otakus. For those who don’t know, hikkikomori is a term for someone who is a social recluse and spends their days in their room and not participate in society in the way many neurotypical people do. This link has been suggested by multiple sources (including professionals) and I think this is where the connection has been made in Japan.
To give an example, Japanese anime media also tends to beat around the bush when it comes to designing autistic characters. Creators tend to make characters with several autistic traits and behaviours but not attach the label. One recent example of this is Futaba Sakura from Persona 5. She is one of Persona 5‘s most popular characters with noticeable autistic traits (and even is a textbook hikkikomori when you first meet her in the game) but is never directly labelled in game or confirmed by anyone from ATLUS (the developer) as autistic. I’d wager if she was explicitly given the label in canon the social stigma surrounding autism would hurt her character, or even the brand as a whole. Much like LGBTQ+ issues tend to be swept under the carpet in Japan, autism issues are too albeit on a greater scale.
So with this information in mind, I am now going to talk about my experiences. The gist is that I had found making friends with Japanese people very difficult – but not without important lessons to learn. I think there are may be down to two major reasons – cultural differences and the fact that I may be unable to deal with them currently. This is due to not having the right social skills or knowledge to overcome the barriers they put.
The Japanese students were around my age and were all skilled in using English and our language of communication was English as I have struggled to learn Japanese. They were respectful, courteous and very friendly. I have never had any comments made about my behaviour that was related to being autistic and was welcomed and accommodated pretty much anywhere I went.
However they are noticeably distant. They tended to not talk to me unless they have to – usually in relation to classwork. This includes stating their opinions, accepting help etc. and only if I prompted them first. Conversations were therefore very active on my part but very passive on theirs – meaning I had to devote a lot of social energy into them. For a non-autistic person this is already challenging but for an autistic person is even more difficult.
This was even moreso the case for my presentation work with two different Japanese students where I did most of the communication but they kept me in the dark about what they were doing to help prepare for the presentation. This caused me huge anxiety as I wasn’t sure if we were going to be able to present on the day.
There was a communication breakdown at one point where my partner prepared the whole presentation themselves without me. Part of this was because they had no way to contact me (I’m not sure whose fault that is) so they ended up knocking on my door to talk to me about it. This is very surprising as this was a violation of my boundaries as I didn’t tell them where I lived. I really am not sure what to think of that however since they haven’t contacted me at all since our presentation I don’t intend to dwell on it.
One other thing worth noting with regards to cultural differences is that Japan is a very indirect culture and thus there is a lot of unwritten social rules about what is/isn’t acceptable likewise how to behave surrounding these rules. This does apply to Western cultures to a lesser extent as well however these rules also vary within Western countries. However, I am somebody who also needs direct communication as I find many of these ambiguous social rules difficult to understand and act on properly within my own culture. I had to learn many of them manually before coming here (ie. how to behave in a tatami room).
Subsequently I began to instinctively interpret the behaviour of the Japanese students as being rude and uninterested which has somewhat discouraged me from trying to build up connections with Japanese people. This is upsetting for me mainly because I don’t think this is intentional and I am implicitly applying my own cultural standards to them where I shouldn’t be. Furthermore, Japan has a culture and society I like overall and I see as superior to British and American culture in some ways and I wanted to learn more about it.
I am also trying to understand how the Japanese people could have interpreted my behaviour. I think the Japanese students may be unsure how to approach those from other cultures and may be unsure how to proceed. For someone like me whom contradicts many Western cultural norms they are aware of this is considerably more confusing for them as I am essentially a “unique culture” of sorts. I believe this is also an apt metaphor to describe how autistic people appear “aloof” or “in their own bubble” to allistics.
Due to Japanese people striving to maintain politeness they tend to ignore social errors by foreigners out of respect and courtesy. This is not unique to me as all foreigners are treated this way. However this was more noticeable with me because other international students were able to overcome these barriers yet I couldn’t.
The Japanese students are also anxious to speak English to other students hence they tended to avoid doing so and only speak Japanese unless it is required to speak English. This is common when it comes to learning a second language in general as I have shared the same anxiety about trying to speak Japanese. They were worried about making mistakes and aren’t how sure how to sustain conversations. The language barrier also added to group divisions leading to the Japanese students keeping to themselves and the international students did the same.
I can’t say for sure though. Unless a Japanese person tells me directly how I come across and what I am doing that is problematic I will never know. That will likely never happen as I have made no Japanese friends here and for them to do this would contradict a key element of their culture.
One of my limitations due to being autistic is that I find social interactions considerably more difficult than the average person and also need more prompting and engagement from the other party to develop a friendship. I found that the energy required to engage with them is more than it’s worth for me as I received very little engagement back from them. It was very confusing as they would not be direct and give me any sign that my social and emotional investment in them is worth it.
Thus I wasn’t able to get close to them and subsequently can’t add much more commentary about developing deeper friendships with Japanese people. This differed to the Westerners there whom engaged with me more and allowed opportunities for friendships to develop. Thus I was able to make friends with other people from Western countries.
Another factor worth noting is that due to the level of understanding regarding autism being very poor in Japan it was extremely unlikely that Japanese students would have been able to work out I was autistic and adjust communication accordingly on top of cross-cultural pragmatics. It also increased my reluctance to disclose as I didn’t feel it would be worth it as they wouldn’t be able to accommodate me and the stigmas may have led to them ending the friendship.
Considering what I have had to deal with over the last year, I feel like I did my best. I did really enjoy my time in Japan and would like to come back to Japan in the future. I would also like to try befriending Japanese people again too however I think I am missing something important that I need to factor in socially but I cannot work out what. With more social experience from other situations I may have better success in a few years’ time. What I have learned now can serve as a useful experience for life even if I never end up befriending a Japanese person.
That’s all for today.
Featured image is taken from here. All credit for the image goes to the original owners.