We are often asked how to become penpals with Japanese people, in order to practice your Japanese language and maybe more. We decided to write this post which summarizes different possibilities.
Of course there are several solutions, but Internet provides us ways to interact with Japanese people very easily, despite the distance. There are a few websites offering this type of services, but obviously some are better than others. What you're looking for is the audience, the existing database and chances to get replies.
Where to find Japanese penpals?
Here is the main site we recommend to get a Japanese penpal : Japan Guide (requires free registration)
There are two methods of "prospecting": passive or active. In passive mode, you simply post your message and wait to be contacted, while in active you directly contact persons of interest.
We would recommend posting your own personnal message rather than contacting potential penpals. Experience shows that we tend to quickly send the same message to everyone, and when we get an answer, sometimes we don't remember who it is...
How to put the odds on your side
Your message will be most attractive, of course, written entirely in Japanese. If you don't have a sufficient level, write your ad in English, accompanied by a short sentence in Japanese. This shows you can adapt. At the very least, you have to write よろしくお願いします (yoroshiku onegaishimasu which means "looking forward to meeting you" in this case). You could also add simple sentences such as "my name is..." or "I am X years old". Our advice here would be to seek the "give and take", that is to say a penpal who has roughly the same level in English you have in Japanese.
The ideal message contains your name, age, activity (field of study or job), interests and most importantly, what you are looking for: discuss with any Japanese people, find a girlfriend, learn about Japanese culture, finding someone to help you when you'll travel to Japan... Don't bother writing a novel, you have to be effective and succinct, that's why a few lines will suffice. But don't forget to be original! Everyday there are dozens of lookalike messages, so you really won't stand above the lot by writing "Konnichiwa, my name is John and I'm looking for a Japanese girlfriend. Answer me lol".
The person you're looking for has a life just like yours and the correspondence exchange, even over the Internet, requires a real motivation. Do not despair if you don't get 50 answers within the first half hour after posting your message (remember the time difference with Japan!). Aim for quality rather than quantity. Such an exhange is built over time, so feel free to send a small local gift to your new friend when you think it's appropriate. It helps building trust and that's what you're looking for.