Adjusting to Life in Japan (and Staying Mentally Well)

This article is for informational use only, should not be considered clinical advice, and does not establish a patient-therapist relationship.

Moving to Japan is one of the biggest transitions you’ll make in your lifetime and adjusting to life here is far from quick and easy. However, with an open mind, some research, trial and error, and patience, your experience in Japan will be a positive one.

In this article, I’ll address what culture shock is, some examples of culture shock specific to Japan, general ways to cope with your transition here, and specific Japanese laws you should be aware of.

Understanding Culture Shock

Our brains build a template to understand the meaning of facial expressions, body language, tone of voice, and phrases. This template is very useful in our own culture, however, it causes us problems when we’re in a new environment with an entirely new set of rules and values.

This is culture shock.

Culture shock is the result of a person being exposed to a new culture with unfamiliar social rules and values.

The bigger the difference between a person’s home culture and the new culture, the more intense the symptoms of culture shock will be.

Common symptoms of culture shock are:

  • Sadness/depression
  • Homesickness
  • Hypochondria
  • Anxiety
  • Irritation/frustration
  • Stereotyping host culture
  • Excessive drinking
  • Difficulty focusing

A popular way to understand culture shock is through the 4-phase model:

The Honeymoon Stage 

This stage is an infatuation with the culture. Everything is new and a person easily focuses on the positive and what works well in the culture. In this stage, it’s common to idealize the new culture and look down upon your own culture.

The Crisis Stage

This stage is when reality hits. The person’s focus turns away from the positive and toward the challenging and negative aspects of the culture. Constant misunderstandings and miscommunications lead to frustration, impatience, anger and sadness. In this stage, it’s common to begin seeing only positives about one’s home culture, and focus on the worst aspects of the new culture.

The Recovery Stage

This stage is when a person finds more balance. Though there are still plenty of cultural misunderstandings, the person’s knowledge of the culture is increasing and tolerance and patience for miscommunications are growing.

The Adjustment Stage

This is the final stage in the model where there is acceptance of the new culture and a general sense of balance of existing within the culture.

Though this model can be helpful in understanding our own process, there’s no research that supports its accuracy. One possible reason is due to the fact not all foreigners are alike.

Consider some of these examples:

  • An expat relocating with his family for a 1-year assignment to Tokyo
  • A foreigner gets off a cruise ship to spend 5 days in Okinawa with her group of friends
  • A foreign exchange student going to Hokkaido for 10 months and staying with a local family
  • A young adult setting out on a traveling adventure; starting off in Kagoshima, without a clue of where she’ll go after that or how long her trip will be total
  • An Irish-women relocates to Tokyo with her Japanese husband

Though all of these foreigners will experience an adjustment, each of their adjustments to Japanese culture will look completely different.

What’s most important to understand is that culture shock is completely normal, people go through different stages at different times and different orders, and we all adapt at different rates.

So, how should your adjustment to Japan look like? It can look exactly like the graph above or completely different. It should look how it looks. Make your own graph:

 

Now that you have a better understanding of what culture shock is, let’s go into challenges specific to Japan.

Culture Shock Unique to Japan

Google “Culture shock Japan” and you’ll be met mostly with surface-level, first impressions of Japan. Culture shock isn’t just automatic toilets or vending machines on every corner. Though these aspects are interesting and entertaining to talk about culture shock is much more than this.

Indirect and Ambiguous Communication

In Japan, there’s a heavy emphasis placed on harmony and the Japanese way of communicating reflects this.

To preserve harmony, when communicating, it’s common for Japanese to leave enough wiggle room in the meaning of their words to change course if they see a negative reaction from the receiver.

For Westerners, this can be very challenging as we tend to come at it from a, “Just tell me like it is” perspective.

It’s common for Westerners to meet this ambiguity with direct questions, which may actually result in an even more ambiguous response. For us Westerners, this is a certain recipe for frustration.

Also, in Japan, refusing or declining a request is usually done indirectly. For example, it’s very rare to receive an “I’m sorry that can’t be done.”

Instead, what’s more common is, “That’s difficult” or “Hmmm, I’m not sure.”

For Westerners, “That’s difficult” is not really an answer. In fact, what we hear is “This process might not be easy, but it’s still possible.”

“That’s difficult” is almost an invitation for a Westerner to press harder, and find a way to get it done.

Rule Following

To preserve harmony, in many ways, means to value the group above the individual, which is generally the opposite in the West. In Japan, this value of group above individual is reflected in its rule-following.

Examples of rule-following, which many Westerners would consider a bit much:

  • A pedestrian waiting for the green light to cross a small side road with no traffic
  • When writing Kanji characters, each stroke should be written in a certain order; it’s considered wrong if written in a different order (even if the end result is the wrong order Kanji appearing identical to the right order Kanji)
  • A person sees a 10 yen ($0.10) coin on the ground, and places it somewhere that is visible so the owner can find it if he or she returns for it

Work

Japanese work culture is intense and is one of the hardest aspects for Westerners to adjust to. Whether you work for a company or are attending a Junior High School, chances are you’re going to put in long hours.

Japanese culture is synonymous with persistence and determination, which is evident from constantly hearing “Gambatte” or “Gambaru,” throughout the day, which translates to something like “Try hard” or “Do your best.”

Where in America the motto is more like “Work to live,” in Japan, it often feels like “Live to work.”

Narrowing the Cultural Gap

According to Craig Storti, the main reason we struggle when placed in a new culture is due to the fact that we expect other people to be like us.

Though the majority of people who travel and move overseas are likely to be considered (by others and themselves)as being open-minded, in general, our ability as humans to place ourselves in others’ shoes is often over-estimated. We’re actually not as good at it as we’d like to believe.

This expectation of others to be like us and the challenge we have with looking at the world from another’s perspective is the root cause of culture shock.

Another way to understand this difference is thinking of it as a “cultural gap.” By looking at it this way, it becomes clear, the way to get through culture shock is by narrowing the cultural gap.

And the way to narrow the cultural gap is to better manage our own expectations of how we think everyone should act (which our culture hammered into our brains) and be proactive about learning Japanese culture.

Learning About Japanese Culture

The best way to learn about Japanese culture is to not just read about it; it’s also not about just living in Japan. To really know the culture, you need both.

If you simply stay in your apartment and read about Japanese culture, intellectually you’ll understand how it works, but you won’t be successful at functioning here.

At the same time, if you simply come to Japan and try to navigate it by experience only, you’re likely going to miss the larger context and bigger meaning of life here.

If you want to ride a bike, the best way to learn is to read about it, watch YouTube videos, and then get out there and try it. Then rinse and repeat until you’re at a level that works for you.

Learning about Japanese culture is the same way.

Here are some helpful resources to learn about Japanese culture:

Adjusting to Japanese Culture While Maintaining Your Mental Health

What does adjusting to life in Japan actually look like? How do you know you’ve fully adjusted?

Narrowing the cultural gap shouldn’t be mixed up and interpreted as abandoning your own culture. This will just create a new type of problem.

Instead, it’s trying to find a balance between your culture and Japanese culture.

In theory, you have three options when trying to survive here in Japan (or any country for that matter):

  1. Reject the Japanese culture and just associate with other foreigners
  2. Reject your own culture and completely melt into the Japanese culture (the is called assimilation)
  3. Adapt to Japanese culture, by learning about and interacting with the culture, while at the same time maintaining values and traditions from your own culture (this is called acculturation)

Researches have found that option three is most likely your best option for maintaining your mental health while living overseas.

Simply put, the best goal to have when attempting to adjust to life here in Japan is probably to find a balance between your own culture and the Japanese culture. It’s not an either/or dilemma.

Creating a Support Network

One of the most challenging parts of a move overseas is losing immediate access to your friends and family back home. That is, your support network.

Arriving in Japan, you’re starting from scratch.

How easy it is to develop a new support network is going to depend mostly on your situation. If you’re attending a university or a language school, it’s probably going to be easier to make friends.

If you’re moving to rural Japan alone, it’s going to be far more difficult to find fulfilling connections and you’re going to have to work much harder at developing a network.

It’s also important to know your temperament. Some of us are blessed with a temperament that makes meeting others easy.

Others of us are more introverted and shy; meeting others and getting through the initial stages of a relationship requires far more effort. This is especially true here in Japan.

In Japan, there is less social pressure to come out and play, and traits like introversion and shyness are valued and accepted more than Western culture. Though this is comfortable for us introverts, it can be dangerous here in Japan.

At home, we can easily rely on others to motivate us to interact with others. Here in Japan, that doesn’t exist so much. That means you have muster up the energy yourself and take initiative to develop connections.

Regardless of your temperament, creating a support network is crucial to adjusting to Japan and feeling secure here.

Learning Japanese

Even if you’re not planning to relocate to Japan permanently, your experience in Japan will be deeper the more you know the language.

How to learn the language very much depends on your learning style. Some people pick up on a language more easily and are quite motivated and skilled at self-study. Others require a bit more structure and motivation, which a language school can provide.

Regardless of your learning style, a few months at a Japanse language school in Japan is a quick way to get the language ball rolling.

If you’re looking to get a jump start before arriving or plan on a self-study here are some helpful resources:

Finding Work

It can be difficult to find work in Japan as a foreigner. The majority of Westerners find work as English teachers or working on U.S. military installations (which the majority of the jobs are located in Okinawa).

As your cultural understanding grows, and more importantly your Japanese language ability, your doors will open a little. However, in general, it’s going to be more difficult to find fulfilling work here.

Knowing Japanese Laws

Foreigners are often surprised by some of the laws in Japan and it’s your responsibility to know what they are. Being foreigner and ignorant of the laws won’t hold up as a valid defense.

Here are some important laws to know about in Japan:

Driving Under the Influence (DUI) / Driving While Intoxicated (DWI)

In Japan, it’s illegal to drive a vehicle with a BAC of .03 or more. If you’re caught driving with a BAC of .03 to .079, it’s considered a DUI; .08 or more is considered a DWI.

Many foreigners get in trouble not the night of drinking, but the morning after. They go to sleep after drinking and wake up thinking they are fine to drive. But, because the limit is so low, they still have enough alcohol in their blood to be considered a DUI.

Be very careful if you plan to drive in Japan.

Knives are Restricted in Japan

There’s a lot of conflicting information in the foreign community (online and offline) about what the legal blade measurement limits are for each type of knife. As a result, you should probably avoid carrying around a knife entirely. If not, you better do your homework and check it twice.

Some Over-the-Counter Medications are Illegal

Drugs are heavily restricted in Japan and have heavy punishments. Even medications that are commonly sold over-the-counter in Western countries may be completely banned here in Japan.

If you must bring in medication, it’s very important to educate yourself on the latest laws and procedures for bringing in medications:

Managing Homesickness

Homesickness can be triggered by an email, a song, a smell, and often times comes out of nowhere. And homesickness can be intense.

When you do experience homesickness, it’s important to first know that it’s completely normal. It doesn’t mean you’re weak and it doesn’t mean you have to catch the next flight home, even though the urge might be strong.

After you remind yourself it’s normal, it’s important to acknowledge the emotions you’re experiencing rather than attempting to quickly escape or ignore them.

Journaling and some alone time can help with this acknowledgment process.

After, it’s important to talk to someone about it. Often times we feel pressure to report back to friends and family back home that we’re having the time of our lives, and that our experience in Japan is a non-stop, action-filled adventure.

To get the support of others, you need to honest and authentic about your experience here. And likely, that is, Japan is amazing, it’s interesting, and I also miss home a lot today and need to cry with someone who knows me.

After all of this, it’s important to get back out into Japanese culture.

Again, it’s balance. If we don’t acknowledge our feelings, they build up and come back twofold next time. And if we stay put, talking to our loved ones 5,000 miles away every day, we avoid the uncomfortable adjustment process and never actually get over homesickness and culture shock.

Conclusion / Knowing When to Reach out For Help

Adjusting to life in any country takes time. This is especially true for Japan because of how different it is to Western culture.

It’s important to understand that strong emotions are very normal during your adjustment period. And emotions can come and go quickly, seemingly out of nowhere.

Trying to establish some sort of routine early on will help bring some known in a world of unknown. The routine could be as easy as visiting the same coffee shop every morning or meditating for 15 minutes before bedtime. The more known you give your brain, the more it will be kind to you.

If at any time you feel like you want or need extra support, that’s a good time to reach out to someone.

If you’re having difficulty leaving your house to go to work or school it’s very important that you reach out for help.

If you’re having thoughts of not wanting to live or thoughts about killing yourself, you should contact a helpline immediately:

People usually reach out to me for one of the reasons below; all of which are great reasons to reach out to any professional:

  1. There are no major problems and the person is just looking to get further ahead or get through a transition a little quicker
  2. Emotions are getting stronger, but day-to-day things are still ok. The person seeks help to prevent things from progressing to something more serious
  3. Functioning day-to-day is a challenge and solving the issue doesn’t seem possible on his or her own

References

The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently…and Why

The Japanese Mind: Understanding Contemporary Japnese Culture

The Art of Crossing Cultures

This article is for informational use only, should not be considered clinical advice, and does not establish a patient-therapist relationship.

Author: Brian O'Sullivan, M.S., LMFT

Brian O'Sullivan is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist from California. He works with clients online living in California and Japan helping them with anxiety concerns. Brian is a Clinical Member of the California Association of Marriage and Family Therapists (CAMFT) and a Clinical Member of the International Mental Health Professionals of Japan (IMHPJ).

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