What Makes A True Friend

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The Japanese have a term, kenzoku, which translated literally means “family.”  The connotation suggests a bond between people who’ve made a similar commitment and who possibly therefore share a similar destiny.  It implies the presence of the deepest connection of friendship, of lives lived as comrades from the distant past.

Many of us have people in our lives with whom we feel the bond described by the word kenzoku.  They may be family members, a mother, a brother, a daughter, a cousin.  Or a friend from grammar school with whom we haven’t talked in decades.  Time and distance do nothing to diminish the bond we have with these kinds of friends.

The question then arises:  why do we have the kind of chemistry encapsulated by the word kenzoku with only a few people we know and not scores of others?  The closer we look for the answer the more elusive it becomes.  It may not in fact be possible to know, but the characteristics that define a kenzoku relationship most certainly are.


  1. Common interests.  This probably ties us closer to our friends than many would like to admit.  When our interests diverge and we can find nothing to enjoy jointly, time spent together tends to rapidly diminish.  Not that we can’t still care deeply about friends with whom we no longer share common interests, but it’s probably uncommon for such friends to interact on a regular basis.
  2. History.  Nothing ties people together, even people with little in common, than having gone through the same difficult experience.  As the sole glue to keep friendships whole in the long run, however, it often dries, cracks, and ultimately fails.
  3. Common values.  Though not necessarily enough to create a friendship, if values are too divergent, it’s difficult for a friendship to thrive.
  4. Equality.  If one friend needs the support of the other on a consistent basis such that the person depended upon receives no benefit other than the opportunity to support and encourage, while the relationship may be significant and valuable, it can’t be said to define a true friendship.


  1. A commitment to your happiness.   A true friend is consistently willing to put your happiness before your friendship.  It’s said that “good advice grates on the ear,” but a true friend won’t refrain from telling you something you don’t want to hear, something that may even risk fracturing the friendship, if hearing it lies in your best interest.  A true friend will not lack the mercy to correct you when you’re wrong.  A true friend will confront you with your drinking problem as quickly as inform you about a malignant-looking skin lesion on your back that you can’t see yourself.
  2. Not asking you to place the friendship before your principles.  A true friend won’t ask you to compromise your principles in the name of your friendship or anything else.  Ever.
  3. A good influence.  A true friend inspires you to live up to your best potential, not to indulge your basest drives.

Of course, we may have friends who fit all these criteria and still don’t quite feel kenzoku.  There still seems to be an extra factor, an attraction similar to that which draws people together romantically, that cements friends together irrevocably, often immediately, for no reason either person can identify.  But when you find these people, these kenzoku, they’re like priceless gems.  They’re like finding home.


This one is easy, at least on paper:  become a true friend yourself.  One of my favorite quotations comes from Gandhi:  “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”  Be the friend you want to have.  We all tend to attract people into our lives whose character mirrors our own.  You don’t have to make yourself into what you think others would find attractive.  No matter what your areas of interest, others share them somewhere.  Simply make yourself a big target.  Join social clubs organized around activities you enjoy.  Leverage the Internet to find people of like mind.  Take action.

As I thought about it, there are four people in my life I consider kenzoku.  How many do you?

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  • Thank you for your thought provoking blog.

    I recently heard an interview with John S Spong, a former Anglican Bishop. He describes a true friend as someone who loves you more than they love themselves. Someone who would do anything to ensure you are out of harm’s way, and in extreme situations will give their life to save yours. I agree with him, but I would add a true friend is also someone who accepts you for who you are, including all your faults, and does so without judgment. That is why one is able to expose their vulnerabilities with their trusted friends.

    Indeed, true friends are rare but I am fortunate to have five such friends in my life, not counting my mom, brothers or sisters.

  • Its interesting that this is your topic today. I have just found out that my best friend and her family are moving far away and although I’m excited about this next chapter she’s about to begin—I am so sad for my own loss.

    There is a lot of “smiling through my tears.” I think about the void that will be there—and I realize how this friend helped me define who I am.

    I will miss our history that gave us a special language that had been perfected through many years.

    Although I am blessed with many good friends, her friendship is unique and is the one I reach for first.

    Take Care,

  • I’ve always believed that I get back what I put out (which I suppose is the street version of the beautiful Gandhi quote). When I was depressed and had low self-confidence, I attracted people who took advantage of me. As I grew more confident and happier, I attracted other confident people who supported my happiness. I now have some of the best friends I’ve ever had—which is a constant source of content for me.

  • Interestingly there has been an extreme difference in true friendship and romantic love in my life until recently.

    I have been blessed with close, wonderful, true, lasting friendships my entire life but was not so fortunate in the romantic love department until I was about 40 years old. It was then that I met the man who first became my best friend, and then my husband.

  • My best friend of 48 years is my wife. Outside of a family of best friends there are others that just click as friends. Kind of hard to explain; I like them and they like me. Stuck on quotes, I picked these from my friendship page.

    “Friendship improves happiness and abates misery by the doubling of our joy and the dividing of our grief.”—Marcus Cicero

    “The only way to have a friend is to be one…A friend is a person with whom I may be sincere. Before him I may think aloud.”—Ralph Waldo Emerson

    “The rule of friendship means there should be mutual sympathy between them, each supplying what the other lacks and trying to benefit the other, always using friendly and sincere words.”—Buddha

  • Well, for the purely Japanese concept of kenzoku there is always Mishima’s Sea of Fertility cycle of novels, which chronicles Honda’s friendship with different reincarnations of the same tortured soul, and his final search for the last reincarnation which…but you should read the books yourself: Spring Snow, Runaway Horses, Temple of Dawn, and the Decay of the Angel is I believe the standard translation. I do not believe any writer gets closer to what Buddhism meant by referring to the world as an illusion than in the final scene between Honda and Satoko.

    Diana: Sounds like a great set of recommendations!


  • Peace to you, Alex and readers of this blog!

    Alex, thank you for this new concept of friend-family. I met several wonderful people in Japan with whom I have lost touch. I still think of them with deep gratitude for the intense, brief time we spent together sharing our history and hearts in cultural exchange. Only a kenzoku would have pushed me (a not-insubstantial euro-build gal) around Kyoto in their grandfather’s tiny wheelchair for a week so that I could visit the temples and the city after I broke my foot.

    BTW, I have a bit of your blog on resolve on my wall to cheer me on in my school work. “How many times should you get up after being knocked down…Once, twice, three times? How about *until you’re dead*”…I love it. Having a hard time right now but each morning that makes me smile. Maybe I’ll still be writing the dissertation when I’m in the old age home. If so, it’ll keep me busy.

    Elisabeth: Glad I could make you smile. Dissertations sure can seem like endless chores, but I’d be willing to bet you’ll have yours done before the old age home is ready for you.


  • Being shy and an extreme introvert, I always thought I was incapable of having friends. But over time I realized it was a blessing in disguise. For the people who were able to reach me through my shell, were the ones who proved to be strong friends whom I could count on always. My kenzoku score = 3 🙂

  • Two years ago the husband of a couple I’d been close to for twenty years died suddenly. I made it clear to the wife I’d be available to her and told her she could call me at any time because I’m a nightowl and don’t turn my phone off until midnight. I spoke to her briefly after the funeral and told her I had shingles. I left multiple messages on her answering machine asking her how she was doing, etc. About six weeks later she called me and said she got my messages but at this time on the advice of her counselor she didn’t think I had a place in her life. Actually, I’m not totally sure of her words; it sounded like a rehearsed set piece. Also I was on six percocet a day and was pretty brain dead. I didn’t need anything from her and never asked. She was my third close friend who’d lost a husband but the first to respond this way. I have three chronic illnesses but I’d always thought the friendship had been more than equal. I’d been there when they both had gone through hell when their son went to Iraq. I showed up; I listened. But now I felt like all my efforts were overshadowed by perceived needs. We spoke about six months later and the flow was still there. We’d spent our birthdays together every May (they’re a day apart) and I sent her an email last May telling her I still held a gift certificate from a previous year and would she like to use it with me. She did and I learned things had not been going well for her: she lost her job and her son had come back from Iraq with PTSD. Lunch was fun, not awkward. She talked a lot about her son, who I’d had a relationship with. But it didn’t bring her back into my life; she’s stayed away. I think of her and her son a lot (I was at his Christening) and worry about both of them. She does have family and a couple who seem to be “taking care of her.” It’s not just the pain of missing her (and her husband) but I wonder if I had misperceptions of a long friendship. Was I always seen as the needy one? Illness is isolating and I’ve tried hard to maintain relationships. I also realize that friendships end for many reasons. But this one is tough. My question: When does one give up on a friendship and accept it’s over?

    Andrea: I have no good answer to your last question. If you love this friend (and it sure seems like you do) I’d say always remain open in your heart to whatever friendship she feels she can give you. As you say, friendships end for many reasons—as many, I would think, as they evolve. You might ask her about the advice her counselor gave her, why he gave it, why she feels you don’t have a place in your life. People feel what they feel and we can’t argue them out of it, but perhaps if you understood the reason you might gain better clarity about how you want to proceed (or not). Tough situation.


  • I wanted to comment on the attraction factor and the “family” factor. I have a situation where I have truly been blessed. My brother, who was eight years older than me, died at thirty. We were unusually close. He had a year-old daughter. His wife remarried a British man, moved to London and I saw my niece about once a year. When she was twenty-eight she moved to Manhattan. I had no idea what our relationship would be like; I had no other nieces or nephews. But it is a gem, a diamond really. She is my niece, but she is also my dear friend. We have the same wild sense of humor; call each other with reminders of our favorite TV shows, then discuss them. Of course, I am still the aunt, and on occasion when we argue, I do have to remember who’s the grownup. I’ve been blessed with much kenzoku within my family. All family is not kenzoku!

  • It took me a while to respond to this post and hopefully I can answer a bit of Andrea’s question. One of my favorite poems is “A reason, a season, and a lifetime.” If you google it, it will come up; as a matter of fact it was on my refrigerator for a long time. It gives insight as to why people come in and out of our lives so fast and why some people remain with us for our entire journey.

    Friendship can be rich and wonderful but also just as painful as a romantic relationship when they end; over the years I’ve learned to become a much better friend. I cringe at the thought of ending friendships so coldly because I didn’t like a character flaw or having tons of expectations for people that I was disappointed with if they didn’t live up to.

    I think all the factors of history and common interests are what brings us together but it’s acceptance of who they are with all their faults and a genuine caring for their best interest, goals and aspirations to come true that strengthens them.

    I had an awakening when Rhea (Alex’s wife and good friend) hadn’t returned my calls as quickly as I liked (LOL, I know). I left a message on her machine that I didn’t appreciate this and she replied with a very loving, honest but firm response as to why she can’t and doesn’t get back to people for a while (when it’s not urgent). She also very kindly told me she understood if this didn’t work for me. I adored Rhea and couldn’t imagine such an amazing friend gone from my life. This really got me thinking, as to what kind of friend I was myself and why I had all these demands and expectations of people.

    It then made me look at my life many years down the line and how I could be old, bitter, friendless and lonely with no loving solid life-long rich friendships that developed because I had no tolerance for people’s shortcomings, and God forbid I was perfect. LOL. I realized I would never want a friend like myself. This was a painful realization, but transforming.

    It took chanting to realize all I needed to do to have good, sincere, loving and rich friends in my life was to be exactly that kind of friend FIRST; no worries about anyone else; just be the kind of friend I would dream of; years later I have some of the most amazing, rich, deep friendships that have changed my life and inspired me to be the best I can be for humanity.

    To Andrea’s question as to when to know when they’re ending: I think some people are in our lives for short periods, some longer and some a lifetime. If you really ponder it you will know which one, what they’ve taught you, and you’ll be able to move on faster. I always think friends are like hand prints on your soul; they may not be in your life as much anymore but they will never be forgotten.

    Mary: Very wise words. Thank you for sharing them.


  • Mary, I’ve let this one go; this friend and I have had no harsh words, etc. My concern for her is that her life is at a brutal place but it’s clear she doesn’t want me in it now. I’m sixty-five and a few people I’ve had long, close friendships with have drifted away. I’ve been able to handle the loss of those friendships much easier; they did not cause me this kind of pain. And with one lost friendship, I always say to myself that she did so much for me at the worst point in my life, it would always be enough. But feeling no loss (and I dearly miss her late husband) after twenty-four years of what I thought was a mutually giving friendship is not easy. Also, if people are kind to me and loving, I might be aware of their shortcomings, but it’s easy for me to look the other way. I’d rather be happy than right.

  • I consider myself to be very lucky to have the friends that I have. When I was younger (before and during high school) I didn’t have any friends. It wasn’t until later in high school that I started to make friends. The friends I made then were the first real friends I’d ever had and I was so happy. I actually wanted to go to school and not fake being sick so I didn’t have to go. (I used to get picked on a lot in school, so I’d fake being sick so I didn’t have to go.) I had one friend in particular that I considered to be my best and closest friend. He really showed me how to open up, be myself and be confident in what I do. Without him I don’t think I’d have the friends that I have today. After high school, I stopped talking to most of my friends except for him.

    Once I was done school I got a job and made some pretty good friends there, more then I could have imagined. There is one who stands out from the rest though. He’s without a doubt, the closest friend I’ve ever had in my life. I feel that fate brought us together. We went to the same high school and knew of each other, but we were never friends. I even found out that we sat beside each other in one of my classes. A year after we graduated he got a job at the same place that I’d been working, and just like that we were friends. And after 6 months I knew he was my best friend. It’s just like we clicked; suddenly we were hanging out more and I knew I could trust him with anything. He’s like my big brother and I look up to him, and he loves me like his little bro.

    He recently moved pretty far away though. But despite the distance, I know we’ll stay friends for a long time. I hope for the rest of our lives. There’s no one in my life that I love more then my best friend, and I know that even if we aren’t close forever, he’ll always have a place in my heart. He’s a kenzoku. I can proudly say that my kenzoku count is 3 (including him). I love my friends! 🙂

    Lucas: Three is a pretty lucky number. 🙂