Soto and Uchi: The In's and Out's of the Japanese In-Groups and Out-Groups


I had to do a lot of soul searching to do this article because I'll be honest with myself, I have very few Japanese friends that I would really call "friends". Is it because I am intimidating for the average Japanese? Is it because Japanese people are afraid of me (and other foreigners) because they think I might judge them based off their English skills? Is it something else entirely?

Right before Christmas, I was bumming around on the old Facebook and I noticed a "Friend Recommendation" for some guy who was based in Austria. Naturally I was curious and I clicked to see what this dude was like. To be honest... he seemed like a creep and was probably a troll/catfisher online. But suddenly, I noticed on his page that he had a post on his page for EVERYONE to see, and it went a little something like this...

"Its time to delete these fake friends who pretend to be friends but they are not

enough selfishness

especially the Japanese, who want friends but they never talk"

First, I had to really question this guy's crappy grammar skills, but his post really struck a cord with me. Perhaps he was going through some issues in making friends with the Japanese. But since I don't know this guy personally, I cannot judge (plus, don't post stupid stuff like this on Facebook for the entire world to see... though I do thank this jackhole for the inspiration for this article).

Later that night, Mama and Papa Gaijin took me out to eat and I brought this issue up with them. While attentive, they both guessed that the differences between Western and Japanese culture is just too great to overcome for both sides. While I could totally see where they are coming from, as a Japanologist, I just couldn't accept something that simple of an answer. I wanted to know why is it hard for Japanese and Westerners to become real friends, and after going through some soul searching of my own with my own experiences in making friends with Japanese people, I've come to the following conclusion...

For me, I am not a naturally trusting person. Even when I met people for the first time, I am always somewhat suspicious of their intentions (except if they come to me for Japanese or Japan related help). It takes a lot for me to fully trust someone and allow them into my "retainer band" (Samurai joke amongst my friends and I).

Nor am I exactly the warmest person out there either. Now don't get me wrong, I am polite and kind to strangers, but I do act sort of distant towards them in the beginning. Once I get to know people and they get to know me, I naturally warm up to them (unless they have done something I consider grievous). But generally speaking, it takes time for me to warm up to someone on a personal level, especially if they initiate contact with me first.

Take my best friend and I. When I first met him nearly 6 years ago at the University of North Texas, I was attending my pre-trip seminar for my first study abroad to Japan. He was there doing his Accelerated German. When it was break time for my class, it just happened that it was also time for his class's break too. By pure chance, I bumped into him as I was going to get something from the vending machine outside my classroom. I can't remember what he said to me initially, but it had something to do with anime and manga (my best friend is an otaku to the T). But before I knew it, he introduced himself and just kept going ON and ON about anime and manga. By the time the break period came to an end, I thought to myself "Who the **** was that?"

Regardless, Ryan and I became very fast friends, mainly due to his wit and my dry humor. In fact, our friendship has gotten so strong over the years, even when I was in "Winter Prison" in Akkeshi, Ryan and my other friends from college never really left my side mainly due to Facebook, FB Messenger, Skype, and LINE. Even 6,000 miles away our friendships still continued to grow and develop.

Perhaps ironically for me, I have very few to almost no Japanese friends... or rather, let me say that I know very few or no Japanese people that I would honestly consider a good friend (except for Ayaka and her family). It seems to me that most of my Japanese friendships (of course, outside of Ayaka) have been, for the most part, have been very superficial or almost even parasitic.

Now again I know that not all Japanese are like this. I am very blessed that my beloved Ayaka has been my best friend, love, and confidant and that (for the most part), her family supports our relationship and is very open to me.

Sadly though, when I meet Japanese people outside the work environment (where they are sort of forced to work/deal with me), both sides (including myself) usually tend to FUBAR any sort of friendships. This almost always happens when I try to befriend a Japanese male (I'll get to females later).

But could it be cultural and social differences between Westerners and Japanese also be a reason why relations go sideways? It is possible. Let's take a look at a few key differences between Western and Japanese thinking and social patterns...

First, one of the biggest things between the West and Japan is the concept of Soto (外) and Uchi (内), or better known as the "Out-Group" and the "In-Group".

Japan, a country that is almost 85-90% mountainous and having the majority of it's population living along the coast in a tight knit community. You think that amongst the population, it would be easy for one Japanese to move from one part of the island to the other and not be detected.

But even amongst Japanese, unless you are in a city like Tokyo (one of the largest on earth), it is very easy for Japanese people to discern who is an outsider from their community and who is apart of the in-group.

Take my time in Akkeshi for example. Akkeshi, 11 hours away from Sapporo by car, is as rural as you can get. Most of the towns folk (if you have read in my post) had their ancestors come as either prisoners of the Matsumae government in Hakodate or were exiled after the Boshin War - Meiji Restoration in the late 1860s. While I don't think for a minute that all Akkeshians are criminals now or had an ancestor that was a rouge samurai or convicted criminal, the point is that for almost 150 years, these people knew their neighbors, their kids, their grandkids, and their great-grandchildren, and their future offspring.

That said, if some new comer came to their town, the whole town would know within a week or so that there is an "outsider" in their village. This outsider, whether they be Japanese, American, Korean, or whatever, would almost automatically be put into the individual's "Soto" (外 - Out-Group). For a long time, these people would be considered "outsiders" because they were not a part of the "Uchi" (内 - In-Group), which in this case would be the interconnected townsfolk with bonds that go back, say, 5 generations.

For Japanese, this sort of grouping has gone back since the Muromachi, Azuchi-Momoyama, and Edo Periods (Roughly spanning from the years 1300s - 1868). For over 500 years, the Japanese islands were in a state of constant warfare between themselves. Each domain or region would have their own reasons for dominance, or keeping secluded to protect their homelands.

To give you an example, let's take a look at the patron samurai family of Chiba Prefecture.... The Chiba (yes, same name). And folks, while the history is real, I'm only giving you my interpretation of the events.

The Chiba were located primarily in the northern and eastern parts of Chiba prefecture. Their lord, in 1534, was a guy named Masatane. Mastane recently inherited the position of "Daimyo" (or regional king) from his father, Katsutane, whom died earlier in June 1532. While the Chiba were a strong family during the Kamakura Period (almost 200 years earlier), their power started to wane as their shogun allies (the Minamoto) went kaput, then being replaced by the Hojo Regents, and then them being replaced by the inept Ashikaga shogunate.

This would place the Chiba clan and their people in a very precarious spot


Not exactly a sexy map, but it will do the job.

To the north of them (in red), they had a rival called the Satake (whom are also destined to be the future "Noble" family of modern Akita Prefecture in Northern Japan). While the Satake supposedly had no interest in the northern Boso area (Boso is the former name of Chiba), they were constantly expanding in their Hitachi Province. While the Satake might have been one of the largest land owners in Kanto, most of their land was useless due to lack of waterways and heavy mountains in the north.

To the west was the Ogigaytsu Uesugi clan (in light green). However, they were already starting to wane in power. But at the same time, they were still much stronger than the Chiba Clan thanks to them having the backing of the Yamanouchi Uesugi (in sky blue), Nagao Clan, and the other various Uesugi clans in modern Niigata/Echigo.

To the south (in orange), they have the Satomi family and their band of pirates controlling the Edo Bay's eastern side. Their Lord, Yoshitaka, has constantly made threats towards the Chiba about taking their land. And to make matters worse, Yoshitaka had a key ally in the Kanto area...

Finally, due southwest of the Chiba lands (yet north of Satomi) were the lands of the 2nd son of the Kanto Ashikaga Governor, Yoshiaki. Yoshiaki (in purple), upset that his father passed him over for succession in the Kanto Kubo (yellow), runs off to his wife's family, the Satomi, and takes over a Castle in modern Ichihara City. He sees the Chiba as easy prey because he has the backing of the Satomi.

So with enemies surrounding the Chiba Clan, whom could they trust in terms of friend or foe? Fortunately for the Chiba, the managed to survive the Sengoku by assimilating into the Go-Hojo (or just Hojo, and not related to the Hojo Regents in black) Clan of Sagami.

But the point still remains. In a world where you can't trust your neighbors, how can you trust anyone?

Even amongst Japanese themselves, it takes a long time for Japanese people to make friends amongst each other. I personally do not believe that most Japanese people intentionally upset non-Japanese people due to their mannerisms. While it might irk us Westerners to no avail, I try to have some pity on the Japanese. Perhaps they are trying their hardest to try and interact with us the best they can, but really, not one culture is perfect.

As long as both Japanese and Westerners keep their hearts open, it isn't difficult to make friends with them. I guess even for me, I need to keep my heart open just a bit more. On the whole, Japanese people are shy people and it takes a little longer for them to naturally trust people. And that... makes me no different from them,


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