Culture Shock in Japan: A Guide for International Students Studying in Japan

Moving to a new country, regardless of whether it’s for work or study, should be an incredibly rewarding experience. At times, however, it can be a frustrating and stressful experience. Inevitably, after a honeymoon period where everything seems fantastic, you will experience a crash where your pining for home will seem unbearable. This feeling is what we call “culture shock”. The extent to which you experience culture shock will come down to a variety of factors, including your individual living situation, and the support network you have both in your new country of residence and back home. People are bound to struggle with culture shock to some degree no matter where they move, but moving to Japan can be particularly jarring due to linguistic barriers, though technology does alleviate this somewhat.

In this article we will discuss the commonly recognized stages of culture shock, and what you might do to mitigate it, minimize it, or perhaps largely avoid culture shock while you are studying in Japan.

Examples of Culture Shock You May Experience in Japan

Culture Shock in Japan: A Guide for International Students Studying in Japan

  • The expectation of punctuality (eg: arriving 10 mins early to a meeting equals arriving on time) 
  • The lack of physical contact in greetings
  • The overall lack of spoken English in the service industry and the lack of English menus in many venues
  • The high-context nature of the language
  • Having to bathe naked with strangers if you go to an onsen (hot spring)
  • And many more!

The Stages of Culture Shock

You will find a variety of descriptions of the stages of culture shock online, but a fairly agreed-upon division of the stages goes:

  • Honeymoon
  • Frustration
  • Adjustment
  • Acceptance

No matter where you are on this continuum, it’s important to remember that you’ll find other people living in Japan at each of these four stages, and your “Senpai” are a great resource for helping you through it. Just remember to listen to their advice.

Stage 1: The Honeymoon Stage

You’ve just arrived in Japan, and everything is awesome. The culmination of all your planning and hard work has paid off, you’re finally here. The food tastes better, the temples and shrines look amazing, and you can find all your favorite Japanese goods at a fraction of the price back home. You’ve never posted this much to your social media before, as everything is fresh and new and photo-worthy. You’re making new friends and seeing the sites together.

Stage 2: The Frustration Stage

Lonely man on an urban street in a foreign city

You’ve blundered your way through yet another conversation with a local; why don’t people respond with the Japanese you’ve learnt in your Genki textbook? You think you’ve heard the word gaijin uttered in your presence one too many times, you are certain people are always talking about you, and if someone comments on your chopstick handling skills one more time you’re going to scream.

Most of all, you miss home. Surely things were simpler there. Weren’t they? Why don’t they sell my favourite foods and snacks here? You’re sick of not being able to read packaging easily.

Congratulations, the honeymoon is over, you’ve lost your rose-tinted glasses and you’ve entered stage 2, frustration. When we talk about culture shock, it is really this stage we are referring to. It could certainly be argued that international students get a double dose of culture shock. Not only are you adjusting to a foreign culture, but you are also adjusting to the transition to the culture and responsibilities of being a university student.

Some symptoms of culture shock at this stage can include:

  • Irritability
  • Being quick to anger
  • Anxiety
  • Intense homesickness
  • Panic attacks
  • Loss of motivation
  • Excessive amounts of time spent on solo activities such as sleeping, gaming or watching TV
  • Loss of self-confidence
  • Feelings of helplessness or hopelessness
  • Associating only with other foreigners
  • Withdrawal

Sounds horrible doesn’t it, but it is important to realise that everyone goes through this stage to some degree or another, and that you will come out of it. Adjusting to a new culture is hard. If you were lucky enough to arrive in Japan at the same time as a group of other people that you’ve made friends with, no doubt you are all going through this at roughly the same time.

It is important that you talk about your feelings with those around you and with a counsellor if needs be. However, remember that you will come out of this second stage due to your efforts to adapt to your new culture and surroundings. So, what are some ways to get out of stage 2 faster?

Keep Studying the Language

Once the honeymoon stage is over, getting to the adjustment stage can be a struggle. If you want to make the most of your time in Japan, you’ll need to study Japanese hard in your first few years here. You’ve got reading and assignments for other subjects of course, but make sure you set aside the time to do it. Studying a language is like going to the gym, only through proper nutrition and training will your language ability increase. You need to take what you’re studying and apply it in the real world. Moreover, studying Japanese is not as hard as you think. Get out there and join a school club, take part in activities on campus, or get a part time job in the kitchen of an izakaya or something. There are jobs here where you don’t need to be given too many instructions, and watching the dynamic in the kitchen and the restaurant floor is a great way to learn the practical, real-world Japanese that probably isn’t in your textbook. So, take a job where you can observe people and interact with them, even if the pay isn’t great. Push through the work, the awkward weirdness of many miscommunications, fail, fail, fail again, then rise. Eventually, the language ability will be there, you’ll have earned it. You’ll get more responsibility in the kitchen or wherever you’re working. You’re part of the team now.

Pay keen attention, mirror what people do, and say what they’d say. In this way you’re continuously understanding the place better, allowing you to engage in it on your own terms. There are some basic rules for working in Japan. Stay positive, don’t mess with the Wa (the harmony), be polite, and most importantly, always be reliable. That is the number one thing asked of you here, reliability. Remember that and you’ll have the time of your life; people will continuously surprise you.

Develop and Maintain a Circle of Friends

You should also put aside time for friends on campus, and living in a dorm must be a hive of energy. Building a community of people around you is the best way to get through stage 2, because when it hits you’ve got friends to go through it together. Nothing bonds people more than the experience of being thrust into a new culture together. Something should be said about the onset of stage 2, it affects the lonely quicker.

Remain Culturally Curious and Objective

When you move to a new country you will see many things that shock you, annoy you, or confuse you. The key is to be curious, not outraged. React calmly and make mental notes of it.

Picture a typical David Attenborough nature documentary. Does he yell things like “Oh My God! That beautiful gazelle got murdered by that cheetah! How Horrific.”? No, he says something like “And the graceful gazelle is taken down by the majestic cheetah”. When you see or experience things that don’t match your cultural expectations you need to be like David Attenborough.

Avoid sweeping generalizations and try to remember that in many situations openly commenting on the culture leaves you open to comparing it to your own in a way that may offend people. Being humble about yourself is an important part of being polite in Japan. Saying things like “In my country we do X…” may sound like you think the Japanese way is inferior and therefore, you will sound rather rude. This is yet another reason why you need to retain a close circle of friends, so you can discuss these things privately and decompress with them. You will need a soundboard, and having multiple soundboards is always better.

“Living in Japan for a year now, I’ve experienced so many situations where I felt the cultural difference between my home country and Japan! It is always a bit confusing to adapt to a new culture and environment, but all these situations I’ve experienced, (some of them quite awkward!) usually turn out to be good surprises or funny stories to tell later. I think a lot of people will agree with me, when it comes to a good cultural shock, Japanese punctuality is the first one that comes to my mind. Compared to France, there is such a big difference with how people manage time and make plans. Being on time in Japan means arriving before the given time while in France, you never really expect someone to show up on time, even in a professional context. Trains here are also perfectly on time, it makes it easier to make plans without stressing about arriving late.

Another cultural shock I’ve experienced is the gift giving culture here. In France, we exchange presents on special occasions, or we sometimes give small gifts to children when meeting someone’s family. In Japan, I feel like it is more common (and sometimes implicitly required), especially with the omiyage culture, which is like a souvenir you would buy for your friends and family after traveling. Each prefecture has their own sweets and while I was a bit confused with what I should buy, for who and how much, I’ve started to get it and it’s become a new habit for me!”

Lucile – 2nd year student from France

Lucile – 2nd year student from France

Stage 3: Adjustment

You are beginning to get the hang of existing in your new country now. Depending on how deep you crashed, you have become more empathetic, have learned a lot and are less and less annoyed by cultural differences. Your initial honeymoon love for the place is slowly being replaced by a richer and deeper understanding. You’re working your way back to a position where the country, and the experience, will be better for you long term. The frequency and intensity of culture shock symptoms are decreasing by the day. Don’t get down on yourself if you have a little blow-out though, it happens to all of us.

Stage 4: Acceptance

A group of friends watching a sunrise

It can be somewhat difficult to recognise when you’ve finally reached stage 4. Perhaps because things just seem normal to you now. You’re usually just getting on with your day. You are perfectly capable of living here forever. Your quality of life at this stage may be largely up to the level of effort you’ve put into becoming fluent in the language. If you do decide to return home after studying or working here for a while, you may even get to experience reverse culture shock!

My first memory of culture shock after arriving in Japan for study abroad, was riding an escalator. In my home country, we must stand on the right side of the escalator or stairs at train stations, shopping malls, etc. However, in Japan’s Kanto region, it’s the opposite. At first when I rode on escalators, if I realized I was standing on the side that is incorrect, I had to move to the left side or walk up quickly so as not to block the other passengers. Now, it’s second nature but when I go back to my home country, I must remember to stand on the right!

Lucile – 2nd year student from France

Pannikarn – 3rd year student from Thailand

Conclusion

Culture shock is an inevitable part of moving to a new country for work or study, wherever in the world you’ve decided to make your new home. It is not a syndrome unique to those who have recently started studying in Japan or working in Japan. It’s important to remember that you are not going through it alone, and if you are studying here and really struggling with it there are counselling services available. Most importantly, recognize that it is temporary, and better yet, you’ll have some new stories to tell at the end of it.