Culture Shock in Japan

Culture Shock in Japan

Let’s discuss the culture shock of first arriving in Japan. I’ve been living in Japan for over two years now and I can safely say there are still times where I myself am shocked by this country, but I definitely feel that I’ve reached the “acceptance” level of Culture Shock – so I’m able to reflect more openly on these experiences and see them through the lens of, “well, no country is perfect”. 

Recently I met with some very new arrivals in Japan. As the borders have opened up and more tourists and visa holders have been trickling into the country (great!); I’ve had chances to hear about their initial thoughts and reminisce on my first realisations about this country. Part of me feels a little nostalgic for those culture shocks, because I see these experiences as commonplace now. 

Ahhhh – the realisation that you shouldn’t talk on the phone or talk in a loud or animated way on the train. Ahhh – the realisation that you get strange looks if you blow your nose in public. Ahhh – the realisation that while there are arrows to walk on either the left or the right in the train station, no one seems to be following these. Ahhh – the realisation that you *don’t* respond to the “irasshaimase” from the shop workers. 

I feel there is a huge complexity in “fitting in” as a foreigner. Something I didn’t think about when I was in my home country – but why would I? I was part of the *majority* there and given a lot of cultural privilege. 

So, how do you navigate yourself in this country? Do you melt like chocolate under the social pressures and become remoulded as a “Japanese Person”. Or remain a hard cacao nib that never bends or breaks away from your home country’s culture, getting stuck in people’s teeth and causing upset?  

Also, that’s assuming that a “Japanese Person” is a blanket statement, but even in Japan – where fitting in and *not* standing out is paramount – there are still some diverse and fascinating characters to be found. Japan is a massive country with diverse cultural experiences in itself.

I have also found that spending time thinking about, or worrying about “am I doing the respectful to Japan thing” is quite exhausting. If I do A, then I won’t be looked at funny or thought of as just a “foreigner”. Sure – you don’t want to obviously offend or be disrespectful where possible, but overthinking about the “Japanese way” of doing something might lead to a complex. 

Regardless, that’s why I believe a mix is important – some gooey, melty parts that are respectful to the people around you and considerate of their space, with chunky nuggets of your own country’s personality that shine through and create a nice texture. 

Another excellent metaphor is feeling like a Triangle. Japan is Circles, and your home country is Squares. Ultimately you’ll never quite fit the space, but you can start to embrace the fact that, occasionally, you may be the token Triangle at the party, or in the workplace. People will ask you what life is like as a Square, and it may feel strange because you feel like you aren’t a Square anymore – but you’re also not a Circle. 

So, what can you do about those feelings of culture shock and stress around fitting in? Some helpful tips are: 

  1. Being aware of Culture Shock and arming yourself with the knowledge that whatever you’re feeling, or whenever you happen to feel it – is completely normal. Anyone and everyone is affected by this. But having an awareness that this may be part of your Culture Shock experience, may limit the effect it has on you.
    Here’s some helpful links to help you identify and understand the flow of Culture Shock
  2. The feelings of Culture Shock are an accumulation of stress over a long period of time. So knowing what your usual reaction to stress is, and prepare a little bit beforehand. Each trigger is different and each person’s reaction is different. And, even if you think you’ve “gotten over it” – chances are something new comes up (a new stage in your life, change of conditions) and you are back to experiencing Culture Shock.
  3. Having a feeling of “continuation’ is helpful. Being able to continue something you really loved doing in your home country. If you loved running outside, try to keep running outside. If you loved reading books, then continue reading books as your hobby. 
  4. Last tip – and the most important one – is to talk to someone about these feelings. Ideally if you can find people who understand and share these experiences of moving to another country. Lucky for you, there is Foreign Women’s Association Paruyon with lovely volunteers who are here for you to chat about anything (big or small). Join us in providing a safe place to talk about your experiences as a foreigner. We hear you and we’re here for you. 

This blog post was written by the volunteer AP.

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