How to Build Relationships in a Culture That’s Just Too Busy

The Japanese have a word, yoyuu, which encompasses margin, flexibility, room, and time. We often hear people say, “Yoyuu ga nai,” which means, “I have no margin, no flexibility, no more room, no time.” This could be margin for additional tasks or the mental or emotional capacity to invest in one more person or cause. And sadly, it often means no time or room to consider the deeper, spiritual decisions at stake.

The visual that comes to mind is a waitress who can’t add one more dish on her tray or she’ll drop the whole thing.

Shortly after we each moved to Japan, we realized just how full that metaphorical tray is. The Japanese are busy, always have somewhere to be, and are rarely idle. This makes it tricky to meet people, let alone initiate gospel conversations.

When you add in their commutes, fathers have fifteen-hour workdays, and more mothers are joining the workforce. People with jobs likely have only one day off a week, so they use that time to catch up on sleep or take their kids on a fun outing. Professionals take frequent business trips or have to relocate to another city for years at a time, which separates them from their families.

People in Japan can do a back-and-forth email chase for months trying to find a time they can meet. I (June) started corresponding with a Japanese friend on July 19 and finally found a convenient time to get together the first week of November. Meeting someone is usually a four-to-five-hour commitment, even if it’s just to have coffee. This includes travel time, which could be up to an hour each way.

Creating Margin

Japanese culture is bound by its nature as a group culture and by the spoken and unspoken obligations of extensive networks. People are widely and deeply connected in their relationships with family, former classmates—from as far back as kindergarten—colleagues, neighbors, their kids’ schoolteachers, and parents of their kids’ classmates. Being in an urban setting increases the number of people they can know, so it’s not surprising that people feel burdened when they meet someone new and have to weigh the risk of taking on more obligation.

Intentionality is the key for sharing the gospel in societies that lean toward busyness and productivity, whether that’s in Japan or the United States. Here are six effective ways we’ve found to mitigate cultural busyness so we can share about the Creator of time and space.

1. Form friendships quickly with new neighbors.

When a new person moves into the neighborhood, it’s good to meet them soon before they take on too many obligations and lose their margin to build one more relationship. In Japanese culture, newcomers take a small welcome gift to neighbors to introduce themselves. We adhered to this custom and brought our neighbors gifts when we moved into our respective apartments in our current building. This helped communicate that we were open to a new and ongoing friendship. I (June) also hosted a ladies’ Christmas teatime for neighbors on my floor, which allowed us to meet a woman who is now one of our closest friends. She is a gatekeeper to our apartment community and has, in turn, introduced us to countless other neighbors. Although she isn’t interested in the gospel, she continues to advocate for us and open doors to new relationships.

2. Meet the needs of the people closest to you.

Meeting felt needs is a great way to spend time with people. If we have something they perceive as valuable, there’s a greater chance to build a relationship with them. We have to learn what drives them. For instance, many Japanese parents want their kids to learn English from a native speaker, so we babysit their kids and teach them English and the Bible. Others like to pursue hobbies, so if we can offer a class pertaining to their interests, then we’re likely to see them on a regular basis.

3. Identify what motivates.

The book Experiencing God encourages us to see where God is working and then join him there. It seems that we have to do something similar with the Japanese in this group culture. We identify their goals and the purpose and flow of their activities, and then put ourselves in that flow. If we try to pull them out of their normal flow and onto the shore where it appears that nothing is happening, then they have a hard time identifying the purpose. The Japanese seem to be a purpose-driven people who are always doing something or pursuing learning. We offer English classes because even if they don’t foresee a chance to use English in the future, many will still attend because the pursuit of learning is achieved.

4. Join existing groups.

If you can’t offer them a class, join them in one. We’ve found that joining existing groups—karate for Amanda and basketball and international exchange groups for both of us—helps us meet people.

5. Be willing to adjust your schedule.

Time and location shouldn’t be barriers to the gospel. When possible, we go to the closest train station to their workplace or home to cut down on their travel time. We try to offer a time and place that’s most convenient for that person—a morning coffee, an afternoon teatime, or a late-night meal. Japanese apartments and homes are generally very small. It’s not easy for people to hide clutter in a spare room, and they don’t feel adequate in hosting others, so most prefer to meet out in a public place. If one of our apartments is nearby, we’ll offer one of our homes as a meeting place.

6. Pay attention to natural disasters and local hardships.

When we went to Tohoku to do disaster relief after the 2011 tsunami, we realized it literally took a disaster to give people time in their schedules to talk—and that’s because they had no workplaces to go to because they were destroyed. We not only could meet felt needs but also share the true source of hope and peace when people were naturally looking for one.