Essential Tips on Getting Used to Japanese Culture as a Foreigner in Japan

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Moving to a new place is always a little scary. It’s filled with unknowns, and when you get there, you always feel like a bit of an outsider. Be brave. 

If you go in with a plan, the culture shock of a new country is actually a great opportunity. After all, being an outsider just means you have a lot to learn. Getting used to Japanese culture is an adventure, and if you do it right, it’s something that will enrich and improve your life, not just in Japan but forever. You’ll meet new people, have new experiences and gain new insights into the world and society around you. 

To do that, follow these ten tips. Keep them in mind when you go to Japan, and you won’t just adapt to the culture, you’ll thrive in it.

10 Tips on Getting Used to Japanese Culture

1. Get Out As Much As Possible

These days you could probably get by without ever leaving your apartment. You can order your food delivered and telecommute into work. Plus, there’s endless entertainment on TV and the internet. 

With all that, going out can be intimidating. Turning down plans and staying home on Saturday night is certainly the path of least resistance, but you’re cutting yourself short. If you want to learn about Japanese culture, you have to spend time in it.

Lucky for you, Japanese culture is rich with many different aspects to explore. For example, if you’re into health and fitness, consider joining a martial arts class or visiting an onsen. If you enjoy the outdoors, hike a pilgrimage route or try some of Japan’s world-class ski slopes. There’s something for everyone. 

The key here is leaving your comfort zone. In the end, doing something is bound to be better than scrolling through your phone in bed. You never know what you might find.

2. Make Friends With The Locals

Of course, when you go out, you can’t sit in the corner by yourself, either. Talking to strangers can be scary, but you’ll be glad you did. One of the easiest ways to do this is to find people with similar interests. If you notice people at a bar enjoying the same music as you, strike up a conversation. If you visit a hobby store, find out when people meet.

3. Integrate Into The Local Economy

Similar to making friends with locals, you also need to use locals for goods and services. You may be tempted to go to expat doctors and dentists or even shop at international grocery stores. Again, this might be a lot easier, but you’ll remain an outsider in the country. 

A big part of culture isn’t just socializing and recreation. Especially in Japan, there are certain customs for formal and business situations. Getting used to these will help you adapt to the culture in general.

4. Travel Around Japan

Foreigners often have a singular and shallow idea of Japanese culture. However,like any other country, it’s full of different regional identities and subcultures. 

Just like visiting New York won’t give you the complete picture of American culture, spending all your time in Tokyo will give you a very narrow view of Japanese culture. 

Thanks to the shinkansen bullet trains, you can get around the country quickly and comfortably. Take advantage of it. Visit rural Japan, classical cities, the north and the south. The more of the country you see, the more you’ll understand how it all blends together to create the whole of Japanese culture.

5. Travel Around The World

This may seem counterintuitive, but spending time outside of Japan will actually help you adapt to Japanese culture. If you’ve moved to Japan for an extended period of time, consider taking regular trips to other countries. 

This will help you understand what’s unique about Japanese culture. Some things might not actually be specific to Japan. They might be quite common in the international community, but for whatever reason, you haven’t experienced it in your home country. Traveling helps you calibrate your experiences. 

Additionally, traveling lets you notice what’s special about your own culture and therefore what you can expect to be different in other countries. For instance, in my travels, I’ve come to learn every country has its own rule about shoes. Japan is no exception. Thanks to my past experiences, though, I knew to ask what to do with my shoes as soon as I got to Japan.

6. Keep An Open Mind

You’d think this would go without saying, but it’s something to be vigilant about. Many people travel or move to Japan with an open mind, but after a while, this fades. They get into a routine and get tired of anything outside of it.

Japan is no place to be closed off. It’s a very creative culture that’s always innovating and coming out with new inventions and ideas. Add this to unique traditional customs, and you’re going to have a bad time if you don’t appreciate the new and weird.

The secret is to always look on the brightside. Sometimes certain cultural practices might get irritating or seem inconvenient after a while. However, they almost always have some benefit that you can appreciate.

One common example is the complicated recycling scheme in Japan. Foreigners often begin to get frustrated with all the different categories and little details like washing disposable plastics. The benefits, though, are obvious. In such a dense country, recycling like this saves resources and the environment. If you keep an open mind, you’ll come to enjoy the cultural quirks instead of resenting them.

7. Try New Things

You can’t get used to Japanese culture if you keep doing the same things you’ve always done. Imagine a sport. You might get a good idea of baseball by watching it, but you’ll never have a complete grasp unless you play.

It’s the same with culture. You have to do more than watch. While you’re hanging out with the locals and keeping an open mind, try new things. Maybe you’ve never tried karaoke before, so when your local friend group decides to go, join them. Even if you don’t like tea, get up early for the tea ceremony. Having these new experiences will help you adapt much more quickly.

8. Be Ready To Share Your Own Culture

Cultural exchange is just that. Exchange. As a foreigner in Japan, expect Japanese people to be interested in you and your home culture. Making friends with them and learning about their culture will be a bit of give and take.

For example, many Japanese people will be happy to show you the best parts of Japanese entertainment, be it manga, video games or classic literature. In return, they might want tips from you on Western films or music. 

This could be more complex, though. One of the best ways to make friends is to have something to offer. For many Westerners, this might be insight into Western customs or even language exchange.

9. Learn the language 

That brings us to arguably the most important part of adapting to Japanese culture. Learn the language! For one thing, everything else on our list will be a lot easier if you do. Going out, participating in the economy and making friends will go a lot smoother if you can speak with words instead of pointing and gestures.

It starts a cycle. To learn the language, you need to get out and talk to people. By doing that you’ll make more friends that will give you more reasons to learn the language. The biggest hurdle is taking that first step out of your comfort zone.
Plus, a lot of aspects of Japanese culture are difficult to understand without at least some knowledge of the language. Languages are how we process the world, so knowing Japanese will give you insights into why they do things the way they do.

10. Don’t Give Up

While working on these tips, keep this one in the front of your mind. For Westerners, Japanese is about as different as it gets. Getting used to the culture won’t happen overnight. Don’t get discouraged and don’t give up. If you keep a positive attitude and follow these tips, you’ll adapt. And you’ll have fun doing it.

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