Guide to Japanese Culture Shock
By Jashan | Updated November 30, 2020
Travelling to a new country can be exciting and frustrating all at once. You may find yourself becoming overwhelmed with new expectations and settings. Japan is certainly no exception to this phenomenon, as it is a truly unique country where western culture meets Japanese traditions. Japan is a perfect example of how old traditions live in harmony with the modern world. It can be difficult to navigate as a foreigner so we have compiled an article with an abundant amount of information to help you handle the transition!
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What is Culture Shock?
When you travel to a new country, the experience can be very complex. You may be unfamiliar with the new social norms, and the need to adjust may be a bit too abrupt. Culture shock is the result of this sudden change in environment where you no longer have control of conditions you were used to back home. This heavy load on your mind causes stress which can push you to your limit and make you burst with anger.
If you feel like you are experiencing this, here is a link explaining the symptoms of culture shock.
Stages of Culture Shock
Culture shock is not something that everyone experiences the same way, it's different for everyone. Some people are barely fazed by it, while others are pushed to feeling very isolated and depressed. However, there are 4 common stages everyone goes through; “honeymoon”, frustration, adjustment and acceptance. Take a look below to get a better understanding of what to expect at each stage.
Stage 1: The "Honeymoon"
This is the exciting stage where everything is new and you’re curious to see how everything works. In this stage you are still in “awe” by the new culture and your new environment. Just like a honeymoon, this stage is often the least stressful. That does not mean you won’t feel any stress, everything is new so of course there will be mixed feelings about things, but generally you are in a good mood. Just like all good things, the honeymoon stage will eventually come to an end as reality begins to set in.
Stage 2: Frustration
Here you begin to feel almost a type of anger towards the host culture. You begin comparing your home country to your new home. In this stage you often feel that the new country is inferior in many ways, and you get irritated by things you don’t quite understand yet. That excitement you once had begins to die down and a sense of doubt starts to grow in your mind on your future in the new country. You may begin comparing the negatives and the positives of moving to a new country and start leaning towards heading back home.
Stage 3: Adjustment
By the 3rd stage, you’ve gotten over the difficult part and are now beginning to come to terms with the differences. Maybe you’ve made some friends or figured out how to navigate through the streets. It’s allowed you to become more comfortable with your new life and things seem to be less irritating. The adjustment stage often depends on your ability to cooperate with your environment. If you are someone who is “hard headed” and do not enjoy making changes, the adjustment stage may take longer to approach.
Stage 4: Acceptance
The final stage isn’t really about full acceptance of the situation, but more so coming to terms with knowing your way through the host country. It means when you come home to your apartment/house, it feels like home and not a hotel. At this point you are able to thrive in the new country on your own terms because you’ve realized how to be ok with the new culture. That being said, you are still going to face difficulties in your new home. It is also possible to go back to a previous stage every time you need to adjust to something new, no matter how little of a change it may be.
There is no timeline for how long you will spend at each stage, everyone has their own pace and it’s important to not feel rushed. It is in a way a healing process because you’ve come to a new environment and are trying to build things up again.
Exploring Culture Shock Out and About
When you step out of your house in Japan, you’ve got the whole country to explore. It can be a lot to take in all at once. You will surely come across interesting aspects of Japanese society that can take some time to get used to. Here are the most prominent things foreigners have trouble getting used to in Japan.
Depending on where you live in Japan, you may find yourself having to navigate through large crowds. The city of Tokyo is the largest city in the world and that means it's also very crowded. If you come from a small town, you’re definitely going to have a little trouble getting used to pushing through crowds and getting squished on the trains. All you can really do is mentally prepare yourself to give up some of your personal space when traveling throughout the cities in Japan. Remember to stay calm and take someone with you so you don’t have the added stress of getting lost.
When eating out in a restaurant in Japan, many foreigners find the customs to be very different from the west. Here are a couple things foreigners usually are unaware of or forget to consider.
You may think that you are being kind and appreciative by leaving a tip, but it’s actually not seen that way in Japan. Leaving a tip may very well end up offending the chef or staff. I know, it sounds a little odd to someone from the west, however in Japan the service is expected to be worth the total bill.
While sitting at a restaurant in Japan, you may notice people around you making a little noise while eating. It is actually considered a way of showing appreciation towards the chef for the good food. In other parts of the world, people are told to eat quietly as a way to be polite, and therefore it can be a custom some foreigners are a bit unused to.
It’s not uncommon to come across vending machines in Japan that dispense anything from fresh fruits to full meals. In fact, you can even grab a shot of sake at certain locations. How great is that! Of course, this can seem a little strange to people from abroad and can lead to some raised eyebrows.
Every country has its own diet and common meals and that can make moving to another place really difficult. Japan does have restaurants with international cuisine but we all know mom's home cooked meals are one of a kind. So if you are not used to seafood based cuisine you may feel a bit homesick as a lot of the menu items are prepared using either fish or seafood broth.
The drinking culture in Japan is something you will come across if you go out with friends to bars and restaurants. One main thing foreigners should remember is that pouring your own drink can come across as rude. If you are out with fun friends, they will surely continue pouring you drinks even if you politely say no. It can be an overwhelming situation for some people who have different approaches.
Interested in Japanese sake? Learn more in our Ultimate Guide to Sake Brewery
Japan’s transportation sector is a very elite system compared to the rest of the world. So as a newcomer you may be surprised to see some different norms that are practiced on your daily commute to work.
In many countries, late trains or buses are expected and it can sometimes be caused by the weather. However, in Japan it is crucial that the trains run on time so people can get to where they need to be on time. If a train is even a minute late, the train company will issue an apology and give late slips to the passengers to show their employers or school. So you need to always be at the stop on time or else you will surely miss your ride.
Talking on your phone with your bestie is just something most people are used to while on public transport. Well that's maybe not a great idea when taking the train in Japan. It is expected of you to be respectful of others and not make a lot of noise on public transport. The quietness often catches foreigners by surprise and can take a while to get used to. If you would like to talk to someone while on the train, try whispering instead of talking loudly.
Left side of the road
While most of the world drives on the right side of the road, there are places like the UK, Australia, India, South Africa and Indonesia that drive on the left. Japan happens to be a country that drives on the left as well. If you are someone coming from a country that drives on the right, this may take some time to adjust to. Now all the oncoming traffic is on your right side instead of your left. The steering wheel is also on the left, so things like parking are also an issue. However, your mind will slowly adjust and you will get used to the new driving customs but not without your share of road rage.
Many people in Japan take a lot of pride in what they do. They want to always offer the best service and get jobs done as meticulously as possible. Foreigners often really feel the difference in the work environment when they first start their jobs in Japan. A couple things that take time to adjust to are punctuality and long hours.
In Japan, there is no such thing as a “small job”, everyone has a job they are expected to do, on time. Being on time means that you are trustworthy and shows that you respect the people you work with, and the company you work for. It is a great way to show initiative and progress in your career. In the west, people tend to be a bit more lenient. Although being late is frowned upon, it’s not as big of a deal in the west. The stricter expectations on time usually put stress on foreigners and is an aspect of work culture that is easily targeted for hateful rants.
If you work a normal 9am to 5pm job in America, everyone expects to leave at 5pm. In Japan however, it could be taken rudely if you leave before your co-workers, so people often say “Osaki ni shitsurei shimasu” which is used to apologize for leaving work before your coworkers. By staying later and working longer hours, you are showing how committed you are to the job and how much you enjoy being at work. So if you catch yourself going home before everyone else, don’t panic, a lot of other people have been there and can relate to how confusing this can be.
Going out to eat with your boss and co-workers is not an uncommon sight in Japan. It is actually almost impossible to turn down the invites. Even if you have worked a long day and are not looking forward to going out, you better prepare yourself for a long night. The dinners are in fact a great way for the team to build a relationship and celebrate their work. However, foreigners usually find the dinners to be exhausting because you really have no way out, and like we explained above, if you are drinking with your friends, it is easy to get carried away.
Want to learn more about Japanese work culture? Read our Guide to Japanese Culture
If you land yourself in cities like Tokyo and Osaka you’ll have a wide range of stores to shop from. The culture around shopping is a bit different in Japan from many other places around the world. Below are a couple of aspects foreigners struggle to get used to when shopping in Japan.
When you first arrive in a store, or even just walk by one, a staff member will politely greet you and say “irasshaimase” and that translates to “welcome”. Staff will often stand outside stores and try to get you interested in shopping in their stores. Foreigners sometimes get overwhelmed by this and they may feel it’s invasive to their personal space. Although it is just a polite greeting and they are just trying to get customers, it can be too much for some people to handle.
Clothing sizes in Japan tend to be smaller than in the west. If you are a size M in the west, you may have to size up to an L in Japan. The reason for this is because the average person in Japan is smaller than in the US or UK. Many stores also offer “japan fit” which is an addition to sizes in stores that normally carry US sizes, such as H&M. The “japan fit” clothing has shorter sleeves and is made to fit more petite figures. The sizing can therefore make it very difficult for foreigners to find clothes that fit them properly, especially at stores that are not American brands.
Japan is a booming and vibrant country for a number of reasons, such as its celebrations and advanced technology. Yet when you walk down the streets, there is one thing you’ll never miss, advertisements! Huge boards with funky fonts and bright colours are everywhere. Anything you can imagine is somewhere being advertised on a board or screen. The vast display of these advertisements can be a lot to take in. If you come from a more rural part of a country, the advertisements will surely be something to tackle.
People often go to an Onsen (Japanese hot spring) to relax and destress after long days of work. You may be shocked the first time you go to see everyone walking around confidently naked. That is completely normal and just the way that the bathhouses work. People from abroad generally don’t feel too comfortable with these customs surrounding a bath house, but many find they get used to it over time. Unlike the advertisements however, you can choose to not go to a bathhouse.
Culture Shock at Home in Japan
Creating a sense of home can be difficult in a foreign country. You may have grown up in a couple different houses back home, but generally they all functioned the same. So you got used to what a kitchen should look like or where everyone sits together, but that may look different in Japan. Here are a couple of things foreigners have trouble getting used to.
Bathrooms in Japan tend to be smaller and more compacted. It’s not uncommon that you will have to close one panel of something to reach the toilet or flip up something to make room for a sink. So, the layout is usually something people from abroad become frustrated with, especially in small apartments.
Many places in Japan have squatting toilets and toilets with advanced features. Although the squatting toilets aren’t very common, you may come across them at some point. However, toilets with advanced features are definitely seen in most homes in Japan. It can take a while to understand what each button or feature is, and sometimes it may even seem unnecessary to foreigners. Most people are actually quite intrigued by the technology.
When you sit down to eat, make sure you remember to say “itadakimasu” before eating. It's like saying “thank you for the meal” and is done out of respect. In many cultures there are similar traditions, such as saying grace before you eat with your family. After eating you may also say “gochisousama” which is another “thank you for the meal” but this phrase is meant for once you have finished eating.
Not so common in apartments, but if you do a homestay with another family, you will often find an ancestor room. The room is designed as a shrine to pay respects to deceased family members. It is important that you don’t disregard common courtesy to be respectful when entering this room. It may be a little strange to someone who is not accustomed to such traditions and therefore can make you feel out of place.
Sitting on the floor
While on the topic of eating, it is also not rare to see people sitting on cushions around a low table when eating. The tradition is usually followed in homes with tatami floors because the floors can get ruined with heavy furniture, such as dining tables. It can be especially difficult for people who have a hard time sitting on floors to become accustomed to this tradition. Therefore, foreigners are often told to think twice before moving into a home with tatami floors because they require special care.
Want to learn more about Japanese house etiquette? Check out our Ultimate Guide to Traditional Japanese House
If you are experiencing culture shock, or expect to in the near future, there are a few useful things you can do to help ease the stress.
Admit impact exists
The first step is to realize you are uncomfortable and in distress. By attempting to convince yourself that you are okay and ignoring your feelings, you may end up digging a deeper hole for yourself. It is important to treat culture shock like any other mental health issue because it can lead to depression and isolation. Keep in mind, you are not alone and that culture shock is a totally normal thing to experience, so don’t be too hard on yourself.
Learn rules of new country
By researching the rules of a new country, you are preparing yourself to be knowledgeable of the do’s and don’ts. The more you are aware of what to expect, the less anxious you may feel when you are in the country. It can also help to keep you out of embarrassing situations, and that’s the last thing you need as a foreigner.
You can check out our article on Japanese Customs to learn about practices you will encounter when in Japan.
Finding something you are interested in, such as music or art, and then getting involved in that can help ease you into the new culture. For example you may decide to join a recreational sports team. It may help you feel less like an outsider and you will get to learn about aspects of the culture you are interested in. The activity will also keep your mind off customs in Japan that you may be struggling to adapt to.
Learn the language
Learning a new language can be difficult, but very rewarding. Even learning just the basics, such as common phrases or writing systems, can help you feel less overwhelmed in the new country. It will also allow you to immerse yourself in the culture more swiftly and you will be able to pick up the language quicker once you are in Japan.
Check out Japan Switch for affordable language lessons
Put your health first
Eating healthy and getting enough sleep are important habits on their own, but especially more when you are going through a tough time. It can be easy to turn to junk food or alcohol when you are stressed, however it won’t help your mental health. Having a balanced diet, sleeping enough and exercising are great ways to keep yourself strong and ready to take on challenges like culture shock.
Explore the country
In your home country, you probably knew your way around and you knew where all the good cafes were. When you move to a new place, you don’t know where anything is and that unfamiliarity can be frightening. Give yourself time to explore streets around where you live first so you can get a feel for the area and become familiar with it. Then move on to discovering places you enjoy being. You’ll be able to bridge a connection with Japan once you begin finding places you like to be.
Want to explore Tokyo? Read our Ultimate Guide to Planning a Day Trip From Tokyo
It can be difficult to go through a transition like this alone, so it’s important to have people around who you can talk to. Making local friends is a guaranteed way to feel more welcomed and immersed in a new country. Apps like Bumble make it so much easier to meet people who are also looking for friends around the globe. Like we said earlier, getting involved in activities you enjoy, will also help you meet people with similar interests in Japan.
Check out Bff Tokyo for a guide to making friends in Japan:
Contact family back home
Check in on family back home so you don’t feel completely disconnected from them when you are in Japan. It’s inevitable to feel homesick in another country when you stay there for a long period of time. Your family and friends are people you most likely feel comfortable talking about your issues with, so it can be therapeutic to vent to them. Surely it would make your family and friends feel better too knowing how you're doing!
Do stuff that reminds you of home
Whether it's a family recipe you enjoyed cooking or something as simple as riding your bike, little things like this can help you develop a feeling of home in your new home. Doing this will keep you in touch with who you are when things may seem a little crazy as you move to a new country. Maybe you could even introduce your new friends to the hobbies you enjoyed doing back home, so you can show them a bit of where you come from and your own traditions.
Avoid idealizing home country
It can be difficult not to compare where you lived before to where you live now, but try not to focus on just the negatives. If you keep idealizing your home country, you’ll miss all the great new things you can enjoy in your new home! It is also important to understand that the Japanese culture does not have to adapt to you, but instead you must adapt to it. Keeping an open mind and having a positive outlook will ensure that you have a smoother transition into the country. Of course it is ok to miss back home, just don’t do it at the expense of what the new country has to offer.
Resources for help
There are many resources to help you cope with culture shock in Japan. A good place to start is getting a check up done by a doctor so they can assess how your overall health is. Here are a few more specific resources to get you started.
Tell Japan is designed specifically for international citizens who would like to receive help for any issue they may be facing. They have 3 ways that they offer support.
- TELL Lifeline: this is an anonymous option for counseling over the phone. It’s quick and confidential.
- TELL counseling: This is a more face to face approach and you will get help from a professional psychologist.
- TELL Outreach: This program is for community outreach and offers mental wellness support on a community level.
If you would like professional help from a consulting firm, this program is for you. Especially if you are struggling in your work environment, they can provide one on one sessions to help you build connections within the Japanese workforce.
Another option is to join groups on social media, such as Facebook, with common backgrounds and interests in Japan. These groups often host parties and get togethers where you can meet friends and build relationships that will help you feel less isolated in Japan.
Japan also has many different religious institutions such as churches, mosques and temples. If you find harmony in religion, it may be a good idea to look for an institution where you can go to find peace in your new country. It may also help you feel less homesick if you regularly went to a religious institution back home.
Going Back Home
A common thing many people face is “Reverse culture shock”. When you go back home after living in another country for a long period of time, you realize not everything is the same as you remembered it. When you are away from home you may catch yourself often thinking about certain things you miss back home. These memories become so glorified that when you experience being home again after so long, it doesn’t feel the same. For example, certain foods may not taste the same as they did before because you've become accustomed to a new palette of flavours.
It’s important that you speak with your friends and family around you if you feel that maybe you are going through something similar to culture shock again.
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