How can I be closer to my Japanese coworkers?

Get closer to Japanese coworkers at enkais by eating potato salad, grilled chicken, sashimi, and other Japanese foods on dishes together

When I first started working in Japan, I couldn’t help but find my workplace downright chilly. My coworkers rarely asked me (or each other) about weekend plans. Work acquaintances would bail on dinner plans at the last minute. Sometimes I went an entire day without much human interaction, sitting silently at my desk wondering – am I that unlikeable? How can I be closer to my Japanese coworkers?

Five years later, some of my closest friends are former coworkers, and I miss my old staffroom all the time. While there’s no doubt I got lucky with some incredible coworkers, I also tried a lot of different strategies to putting my best foot forward. Here’s my advice on how to deepen your relationship with the people you spend 40 hours a week with:

1) Attend enkais (宴会, dinner party)

Even if you don’t speak much Japanese, even if you don’t drink, even if you’re vegan and there’s nothing on the menu for you besides edamame – go.

Potato salad, grilled chicken, sashimi, and other Japanese foods on dishes.

Attend as many enkais as you can to get to know your coworkers better!

Although they’re typically after contracted hours, enkais are considered the most appropriate time to socialize with and be closer to your coworkers.

While Western workplaces often include more staff bonding through small talk or team lunches at work, many Japanese workplaces are all-business while on the clock.

It’s after the workday ends when people let themselves relax – and if you’re never present then, you’re definitely missing out.

I’ll be at the enkai.宴会に参加します。Enkai ni sanka shimasu.
I’m so sorry, I won’t be able to make it this time.本当に残念ですが、今回は欠席します。Hontou ni zannen desuga, konkai wa kesseki shimasu.
Cheers!乾杯!Kanpai!
I can’t drink today.今日は飲めません。Kyou wa nomemasen.
I can’t eat (meat/gluten/shellfish).肉・グルーテン・貝)が食べられません。Niku / guruten / kai) ga taberaremasen.

2) Bring omiyage and thank-you treats.

Especially when you take time off work to travel. Especially if others helped cover your job duties. All major train stations, airports, roadside stations (道の駅, michi no eki)and even many convenience stores will have plenty of omiyage (お土産, souvenirs – typically food) to choose from, and staff will be happy to give you their recommendation for local specialties.

What omiyage do you recommend?おすすめのお土産は何ですか。Osusume no omiyage wa nan desuka?
I’m so sorry for the trouble I caused.*大変迷惑をかけてすみませんでした。Taihen meiwaku wo
kakete sumimasen deshita.
Thank you for everything you’ve done for me.お世話になりました。Osewa ni narimashita.

*This is a very formal expression. If your workplace is more casual, you can skip it.

3) Make small talk – in small doses.

Chatting about family or weekend plans is definitely less common in Japan than in the West (although in any country, it depends on the specific workplace culture). But that’s not to say that you can never have a personal conversation at work to get closer to coworkers.

A computer and mug of coffee sit in the foreground on a desk, with people in a staffroom in the background.

Don’t be afraid to start conversations, but always take care to read the air.

Start with a brief comment (“How are you?” or “Beautiful weather today”). This gives the other person a starting point if they want to keep the conversation going, but an easy exit if they’re too busy.

The more you can read the air and sense if your coworkers are just responding to be polite or have some downtime and are actually interested in having a conversation, the better. 

Also, it never hurts to ask about a work thing – how did the meeting last Friday afternoon go? How is that student you were worried about last week?

How are you?元気ですか。Genki desuka?
It’s gotten so hot (cold) recently.本当に熱くなりました(寒くなりました)ね。Hontou ni atsukunarimashita (samukunarimashita) ne.
How did the X meeting go?Xの会議はどうなりましたか。X no kaigi wa dou narimashitaka?

4) Volunteer for tasks.

This is an obvious one. Being a stellar employee will not only help you professionally but will also give you more chances to form relationships and be closer to your Japanese coworkers. Whether it be volunteering for that extra committee or grading those papers in record time, go above and beyond whenever possible.

Is there anything I can help with?できることがありますかDekiru koto ga arimasuka?
Shall I take care of X?Xをしましょうか。X wo shimashouka?
Leave it to me!任せてください!Makasete kudasai.

5) Ask others for help – and thank them!

Obviously, don’t ask questions constantly or about things you really should be able to do by yourself, but asking for help when you need it is a great way to deepen relationships with and be closer to Japanese coworkers.

When new teachers at the school where I worked asked me questions about where the brooms were or how to use the coffee maker, it made me feel in-the-know and eager to help them. Asking others for help when you need it can give them the same feeling of fulfillment – and help them get to know you and your work. 

Could I get you to help me?手伝ってもらえますか。Tetsudatte moraemasuka?
Could you please show me how to use the (printer)?(印刷機)の使い方を教えてもらっていいですか。(Insatsuki) no tsukaikata wo
oshiete moratte ii desuka?
Would you please do X for me?*Xをしていただけますか。X wo shite itadakemasuka?

* ~いただけますか is a more formal version of ~もらえますか typically used for people above you, like your boss.

6) And finally, adjust your expectations when needed.

We spend so much of our lives at work, that – especially for those of us living far away from friends and family – it’s natural to want to turn coworkers into friends. But sometimes, it just doesn’t happen. Maybe the coworkers you want to be closer with have families to get home to. Maybe they’re too overworked and over-scheduled. Maybe they just suck! 

Let yourself occasionally vent or cry if you need to, but don’t let yourself dwell. Remind yourself that you don’t know everything going on in other people’s lives – and also by remembering that ultimately you deserve friends who actually want to hang out with you. There are lots of places to meet people, and work is just one of them.