One of the things I miss most about living in Tokyo is going places by myself.
Not only did I have more opportunities to go out alone (I lived alone and kept the unpredictable hours of a student) but I felt really comfortable doing so.
More so than other places in Japan, Tokyo seems to be a haven for the ohitorisama – a word that technically means ‘sir/madam on their own’ but represents freedom, particularly for women.
It wasn’t only my foreignness that made me feel comfortable going out alone in Tokyo – everybody else was doing it too. And I never felt like I had to pretend to be reading a book or sending emails to justify my lack of company, as I would probably do anywhere else. Most restaurants are designed with counter seating which meant that, as well as not feeling awkward, solo diners often get to jump to the head of a long queue.
Riding the subway in Japan, you see so many people travelling by themselves. Due to its vast size and transport network, it would be rare to live on the same train line as a friend, but I also think that
many of those travelers, like me, were heading out on their own.
Tokyo is a big city and a lot of people who live there were born and raised elsewhere. It’s only natural that you will have fewer friends in a place where you’ve moved as an adult and I suspect this is one of the reasons Tokyo is particularly ohitorisama-friendly.
This ok-to-be-aloneness also extends to all hours of the day. I liked nothing more than walking past a cafe on a Saturday night and seeing someone enjoying their coffee alone, or passing the gym and seeing a handful of people running on treadmills. Not only would these people be viewed as sad and pathetic in Australia, the cafes and gyms would not even by open to give them the option.
Perhaps what I liked best about going out alone in Tokyo was that I felt no-one was judging me as they would have in Australia. Whether they actually would in Australia, or whether it was just my perception doesn’t really matter. I just found it really liberating and enjoyed doing things exactly when and how I wanted to.
Although I have just said that people are not judged for doing things alone in Japan, I feel I should make a clarification. No-one judges you if they don’t know you, or if you’re not in their group in any
way. If you work at a Japanese company or study at a Japanese university and choose to eat lunch alone rather than with your group, I strongly suspect you will feel judged – harshly.
How about where you live? Do you feel comfortable going out alone? Do many people do it? How about your home town? Does living in a foreign city give you the freedom (or the push) to lose some of your inhibitions?
For another take on ohitorisama in Japan, here’s an excellent article.