Guide to Overcoming Culture Shock in Japan

What are the common causes of culture shock in Japan, and how do you cope and overcome it? Believe it or not, culture shock is a common experience for people who encounter a new and unfamiliar environment. For those moving to Japan, the country’s unique customs, values, and way of life can be both a source of excitement and disorientation.

Whether you are a language school student or someone coming to work in Japan, learning to navigate the cultural norms of Japan can be a challenging but rewarding experience. 

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What is Culture Shock?

Culture shock is the feeling of disorientation that occurs when a person is exposed to a new and unfamiliar culture. It is a common experience for travelers and people who move to a new country or region and encounter a culture so different from their own. There are many factors that trigger culture shock, including language barriers, differences in social norms and expectations, changes in daily routine and lifestyle, and even food differences. Symptoms of culture shock may include homesickness, anxiety, frustration, loneliness, lethargy, lack of interest in anything, lack of appetite, and more. 

It is widely recognized that there are four stages to culture shock: 

  1. The Honeymoon Stage when everything about the new culture is exciting and interesting
  2. The Frustration Stage when you start to feel disorientated and uncomfortable at the new culture after the initial excitement has worn off. This is when you will start exhibiting culture shock symptoms like those mentioned above.
  3. The Adjustment Stage when you gradually adapt to this new environment and make a place for yourself.
  4. The Acceptance Stage is when you have made peace with the new environment and have fully adjusted. You have accepted the cultural differences and embraced them, feeling comfortable in the now familiar environment. 

While culture shock can be a difficult and uncomfortable experience, it is part and process of adapting to a new culture. There is also comfort in knowing that it is temporary and many people experience and have successfully overcome it. Eventually, you too will overcome culture shock and fully embrace your new surroundings. 

Culture Shock in Japan

Now that you have a basic understanding of culture shock in Japan, the why and how it occurs, let’s have a look at the “what” that causes it. Below, we will introduce the common causes of culture shock in Japan. 

Language Barrier in Japan

The only country in the world that uses Japanese as its main language is, of course, Japan. Therefore, unless you have prior knowledge and education in the Japanese language, you will most certainly face a language barrier. Even for people who have self-studied Japanese to a certain level, being fully immersed in a Japanese environment for the first time can be a jarring experience. Needless to say, beginners coming to study Japanese from scratch may find themselves at a loss. 

There is no avoiding the language barrier, however, there are ways you can mitigate its impact of it. Learning basic Japanese phrases is key and watching Japanese dramas and movies as a practice also helps a lot. The first few days or even weeks will still be difficult but you will get used to native speakers’ speed and dialects much faster as you can recognize common phrases used. 

International students in Japan might have the option of taking Japanese classes immediately once they arrive. However, your options might be limited if you come to Japan as a foreign worker. In that case, it’s best to look for short-term courses with flexible class hours (such as evenings or weekend time) to make sure you’re learning Japanese consistently. In this case, why not take a look at private or part-time courses at Coto Academy to get started?

The Difference in Communication Style in Japan

Japanese people often communicate differently than people from other cultures, using nonverbal cues and subtle gestures to convey meaning. This can be confusing for people who are not used to these communication styles. A common problem many Japanese learners have is the lack of subject matter in sentences, conversations and instructions in Japanese, often leading to pure confusion and misunderstanding. 

There is no other way around this other than getting used to it. The more you communicate with people and listen to conversations, the more you will understand the subtle gestures and hidden contexts. Have comfort in the fact that the locals are understanding of the fact that you are a foreigner and are learning Japanese as a foreign language, and are very willing to explain if you do not understand. In fact, they are simply elated that you have taken the time and are doing your best to learn their language and customs, so no pressure! 

Differences in Social Norms and Expectations in Japan

Bowing as a greeting instead of shaking hands is one of the classic examples of differences in social norms and expectations in Japan compared to other countries. Others include taking off shoes before entering someone’s home and certain buildings and rooms, the usage of polite speech, and adding honorifics or titles to someone’s name

Before going to Japan, it is a good idea to look up beforehand about the cultural and social norms to avoid committing a social faux pas. 

Not Used to Japanese Food and Diet

Japanese food is well-known throughout the world, particularly sushi and ramen. Having your fix of Japanese food when the craving arises is fine and all but having Japanese food daily in replacement of your usual can lead to culture shock. This can be especially challenging for vegans, and people with dietary restrictions or allergies. It is not surprising to have a lack of appetite and become sick of Japanese food. 

Luckily, there are many options for foreign cuisine in Japan, especially in major cities. Thai, Indian, Chinese, Korean, Western, Italian, etc. all sorts of restaurants can be found. You can also choose to cook, get supplies from supermarkets (check out our recommended grocery stores and supermarket in Tokyo), or online, or bring from your home country.      

Manners and Etiquette in Different Situations

Each culture has its own manners and etiquette. Japan in particular is very strict on manners, with different etiquette for different situations and places. For example, proper dining etiquette, manners to uphold when taking public transportation (different manners for different vehicles), visiting manners, shrine and temple manners, specific event manners (funeral, wedding, hospital visits), etc. There is so much to learn that it can be confusing and disorienting for someone experiencing it for the first time.

There are many articles available about the different manners and etiquette to practice in different scenarios in Japan so with some time and effort you can easily learn them. Also, you do not need to learn all of them which can be overwhelming, so just learn them as the occasion arises. It also does not hurt to ask people who can teach you. 

What do foreigners find shocking in Japan? 

There are many things, but what stands out most are:

  • Bowing to people as a greeting and sign of respect. In companies, the staff stays bowed to customers as they leave until no longer in sight. 
  • Bathing naked with strangers is the cultural norm when visiting hot springs in Japan. 
  • All manner of raw and fermented foods. Natto, which is fermented soybeans, is particularly difficult to accept due to its strong pungent smell and sticky slimy texture. 
  • Tipping is not part of Japanese culture, never give tips in Japan.
  • Omotenashi, the Japanese form of hospitality, frequently shocks visitors to Japan. Hotel and ryokan staff will go out of their way to assist and provide hospitality to customers. 

How to Overcome Culture Shock in Japan

  Image by Shad0wfall from Pixabay 

If you are experiencing culture shock in Japan, it is important to remember that these feelings are perfectly normal and will likely fade with time as you become more familiar with the culture. For most people, just letting time do its work is sufficient to recover from culture shock, but for some people, a little effort may be necessary. Let us look at some things we can do to speed up the recovery from culture shock in Japan. 

Embrace the Culture and Try New Things

In some cases, settling down to a regular routine in Japan can cause culture shock as you become disillusioned by Japan. “Japan wasn’t what I expected,” “I thought it would be better”, and such thoughts may plague you. In this case, most likely you have gotten bored with your new routine. We recommend trying new things in Japan. If you’re an international student at a Japanese university, join a club or society and learn about Japanese cultures that you do not already know. 

If you’re not a student, there are ways to immerse into the culture, such as through Japanese language exchange events.

Build a Social Network and Make Friends

Another reason many people have culture shock in Japan is the feeling of isolation and loneliness from leaving friends and family behind. So, go out of your way to make some new friends and build a social network in Japan. It will make Japan feel more like home, and certainly a lot more fun. 

Learn About and Understand the Cultural Differences

Instead of remaining confused and disorientated by the new culture, take some time to learn and understand this new culture so different from your own. Doing so will make it a fun and at the same time learning experience. Once you have undone the knot of confusion that is Japanese culture, not only do you resolve your culture shock issue, but you will also have gained an understanding of Japanese culture. 

Maintain a Healthy Lifestyle and Practice Self-Care

A common problem for those afflicted with culture shock is the neglect of one’s health, so take care of yourself during this transition. Things you can do include maintaining a healthy diet, getting enough sleep, and learning to manage your stress through exercise, meditation or relaxing techniques. 

Seek Help if Necessary

If you are finding it difficult to cope with culture shock, it may be helpful to seek support from friends or families or even professionals such as therapists or counselors. There is no shame, so do not be afraid to reach out for help if you need it. 

Conclusion

Worry not if you are having culture shock in Japan, it is a common experience for people who encounter a culture so different from your own and in many cases will naturally go away as time passes. There are ways to speed up the recovery from culture shock as we explained above, so give them a try and see which one(s) work on you best. 

Visiting and living in Japan is a wonderful experience that will become a lifelong memory so do not worry too much about culture shock. Bad things always accompany good things, and darkness is always temporary, so we wish you all the best if you are suffering from culture shock in Japan as it will surely pass.

If you want to learn the Japanese language and navigate through the complicated Japanese culture, have a free online consultation with Coto Academy. Let’s discuss together the best courses that fit your lifestyle and long-term goal in Japan!


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