Containing Culture Shock: Making Your Adjustment to Japan as Smooth as Possible

Photo: BRIEF on Flickr

Containing Culture Shock: Making Your Adjustment to Japan as Smooth as Possible

Liam Carrigan

Japan is, without a doubt, one of the world’s most intriguing, curious, and at times downright weirdest places to live.

The various unique quirks of the Japanese people and their country continue to draw millions of both temporary and long term residents every year. It is now 11 years since I originally moved here, and I am closing in on a total of 8 years of residency in the country. So, it’s probably fair to say that I am now something of a veteran.

However, even people who have been here as long as I have are not totally immune to the dreaded “culture shock”.
So what exactly is “culture shock” in the context of being a foreign resident here in Japan?


Pieterjan Vandaele on Flickr
Like so many psychological issues, it is often cited, frequently mentioned, but in all honesty, seldom fully understood.
Whenever anyone arrives in a new country, especially one as radically different from their country of origin as Japan probably seems, there is a spell of euphoria, joy and wonderment that envelopes the individual. We see fun, opportunity and adventure around every new corner. We want to taste every food, visit every temple and chat up every cute girl we see (ok so maybe that last one is just me!). It is a wondrous time, aptly referred to by many as the “honeymoon period”, indeed this is the time when one’s love affair with Japan burns with the greatest intensity.

But like all “highs”, be they chemical, emotional or artificial, they eventually come to end. Then the reality of your situation kicks in. You are in a foreign land, struggling to grasp a language you don’t know, trying to get to know and build relationships with people whose ways, at times, seem completely alien to you and if you’re working at an English conversation school, as I was when I first moved to Tokyo, there’s also a fairly high probability that your company is abusing you in one way or another.


顔なし on Flickr
Suddenly, the garden may not seem so rosy, you come to realize that those dazzling neon lights that so enthralled you when you first arrived are, in all likelihood, coming from either a smoke filled pachinko parlour or a sleazy love hotel.
Cynicism, depression and desperation can set in. This is what has come to be known, amongst the foreign community as the dreaded “culture shock”.


Yoshikazu TAKADA on Flickr
It’s not all doom and gloom though, don’t worry. These days, especially in our far more interconnected, sociable world, there are a number of ways to tackle culture shock before it becomes seriously debilitating.

First off, if you do start to feel this way for a few months, or even a few weeks into your Japanese adventure, it’s vital to realize that you are not alone. On the contrary, almost all foreigners who come to Japan alone will find themselves feeling this way at some point. How intense the feeling and how long it lasts depends both on your own individual personality, but also, more importantly, what you decide to do to deal with the problem.


Ignat Gorazd on Flickr
Once you’ve realized that you have an issue, reaching out to friends and family is a good first step. It may be something of a cliché but it really is true that a problem shared is a problem halved. I would advise though, if you have friends in your immediate area that you can confide in, go to them first. Friends and family in your home country may not be able to do much besides listening and you don’t want to worry them unnecessarily either.

Perhaps what you need is a change of scenery to alter your perspective. Traveling within Japan can, at times, be expensive, but even something as simple as just getting out of the city for a few hours, or spending some time in quiet reflection at a local shrine, temple or garden can be a great way to clear your head. If you can, try to get out of town for a weekend. Go to an onsen, or do some hiking. Even now, I still try to make a trip like this, at least once a month, to clear my mind and shed the weekly stresses of the office.

Consider your routine as well. When I worked in Tokyo for my first job, I realized that the combination of working shifts in the afternoon/evening, and not having 2 consecutive days off, was really draining my energy. Switching out this schedule for a different job where I worked Monday to Friday, really helped stabilize my mind.

Of course, even now, I still sometimes struggle with the early morning starts (I have to leave my house at 7am some days). But having my evenings and weekends free gives me a far more balanced life.

Finally, but I believe most importantly, learn Japanese!


Paulo Montenegro on Flickr
Much of culture shock’s most debilitating symptoms come from the sense of isolation, confusion and frustration that can come from not being fully aware of what’s going on around you most of the time. So, naturally, it stands to reason that the more effort you make to learn Japanese, and the better you are able to understand, but equally make yourself understood in the language, the easier time you will have overcoming culture shock.

However, it’s important to always consider your mental and emotional well-being.

In 95% of cases, culture shock is a short term issue, that passes as soon as you adapt to life in Japan, or overcome whatever social or societal barriers that caused the problem in the first place.

However, in a small amount of cases, it can be a symptom of a larger problem, such as depression, or bipolar disorder.
In that case, if time passes, and you’ve tried the steps I mentioned above but you still don’t feel any better, it would be wise to see your doctor and get a referral to a professional psychologist. There is no shame in admitting you may have a mental health issue. Believe me, I’ve been there, and Japan has robust laws to prevent discrimination against such people in the workplace.

But in all likelihood your culture shock is but merely a temporary setback on your path to getting to grips with your new life in Japan.

Good luck and stay safe everyone!