A Foreigner’s Guide to Surviving Japanese Culture Shock

by Christian Monson
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So you’re going to Japan. Japan is a very unique country, and you’re bound to feel at least some amount of culture shock. However, that’s no reason to worry.

Japan’s culture is rich, interesting, and beautiful. While some parts of it may seem very strange at first, they can be very rewarding if you can adapt. Being prepared is important to survive culture shock, so having a general idea of Japan’s cultural differences before you arrive can help a lot. Then you can take the necessary steps to adapt and make yourself comfortable in your new world.

This guide covers what shocks you can expect in Japan as well as how to overcome them. With the right approach, you can make your Japanese adventure as special and enjoyable as possible.

What is culture shock?

Culture shock is the sudden feeling of being out of place you experience when you travel to foreign countries. 

We often think of culture shock as big differences like food and language, but sometimes these can be a little easier to navigate. They’re right in your face, so it’s easy to keep them in mind. 

The hardest parts of culture shock are the little things, the little habits that are hard to break. For example, people in different countries stand different distances from each other when speaking. You might not even notice it at first, but subconsciously it could leave you feeling uncomfortable or awkward after a conversation.

These experiences build up and can make life in a foreign country stressful.

How will you experience culture shock in Japan?

The big three

Even though the culture shock is mostly made up of the little, almost unnoticeable differences between cultures, the major changes you’ll have to deal with are still worth knowing. Hopefully, you can adapt to them quickly, especially if you’re aware of them ahead of time.

I like to think of these differences as the big three—food, language, and entertainment. We’ll go over the first and then dive into the more subtle culture shocks.

1. The food

Japanese food is some of the healthiest in the world, but for Westerners, it can also be a little strange. It’s more than just a different spice pallet. Japanese cuisine uses ingredients, cooking techniques, and even chemical processes completely foreign to the Western tongue.

Raw seafood is one of the biggest shocks to people visiting or expatriating to Japan. It has a full, rich flavor absent in cooked fish, but it can still be strange. Sashimi is the main dish made from slices of raw fish, and it’s one of the finest and most important dishes in the country. Traditional sushi also contains raw seafood. 

Sometimes people worry about safety, but they don’t need to. Professional Japanese chefs are well trained in a long history of preparing these dishes. They take a lot of precautions. Additionally, typical Japanese condiments you get like wasabi, ginger, and vinegar serve to preserve the meat.

Additionally, when it comes to traditional Japanese food, Westerners might find a lot less sweetness than they’re used to. For example, many traditional Japanese desserts like dorayaki are filled with azuki red bean paste. This paste does have a mild sweetness, but not compared to the sugar-filled desserts of Europe and America. 

On the other hand, modern industrial Japanese food may surprise you in the totally opposite way. Japanese snack food and candy come in such a wide variety of flavors, some may seem completely bizarre. Did you know, for instance, that you can get sweet potatoes, matcha, and soy sauce flavored Kit-Kats in Japan?

2. The language

Most countries have a different language but believe it or not, some are actually more different than others. For English speakers, Japanese is ranked as one of the most difficult to learn. It’s ranked by the US State Department as a Category IV language, meaning it’s “exceptionally difficult for native English speakers” and requires 88 weeks or 2200 class hours to learn.

Outside of the tourism industry, most people in Japan don’t speak much English either. This makes sense since it’s as difficult for them to learn our language as for us to learn theirs. This can make it a big culture shock because although you can learn some basic phrases quickly enough, getting to a conversational level will take a serious time investment.

More than the spoken language, Japanese writing can be shocking for foreigners. That’s because there are four different ways to write. The Japanese write most things in a mixture of kanji, which are Chinese characters adapted for Japanese, and hiragana, a native Japanese phonetic alphabet. Poetry, foreign loanwords, and brand names are sometimes written in katakana, a separate but similar native phonetic alphabet. Finally, you’ll also see Latin letters in the form of rōmaji, especially in brand names or transliterations for Westerners on street signs and menus.

3. The entertainment

Japan is one of the best countries in the world for entertainment, but it can still be a little unusual for someone not used to it. From literature to video games, there’s no end to the ways you can pass the time. 

A lot of things only consumed by minority subcultures in the West are mainstream in Japan. Everyone reads manga, and you’ll see people of all ages reading comic books that cover a range of genres from business to scifi. Similarly, video games or game machines that might be novelties in Western Countries are everywhere in Japan. You’ll find arcades with multiple stories devoted to claw games, pachinko and more.

Japanese television is also known for being strange and unique. When you flip through channels, don’t be surprised to find plenty of cartoons and bizarre game shows interspersed with normal programming.

Indirectness

Western countries all have varying levels of bluntness, but all are more culturally direct than Japanese society. In some situations, you may not even realize someone is telling you what to do or not do. They may even be criticizing your manners or telling you that you’ve done some kind of procedure wrong like going through the turnstiles at the train station, and you don’t even know.

Similarly, when you request something, the Japanese people may tell you “no” in a more round-about way interspersed with a lot of apologizing, even though they didn’t do anything wrong. Asking for a drink combo might just get a shake of the head in the US but a full-on detailing of regret in Japan.

Like most aspects of culture shock, this doesn’t really create any problems for you. In fact, it can even be refreshing that people are so kind and considerate. However, it may leave you feeling awkward after interactions. It may give you the sensation that you did something wrong, were too aggressive, or misread the situation. These little subconscious feelings of offness can build up and cause stress.

Politeness

Along with indirectness comes politeness. Again, this isn’t a bad thing. It’s just different and can leave you feeling on edge after a while.

The Japanese are very formal, and public conduct has a lot of unspoken rules. From bowing to whispering on the train, there are plenty of everyday habits that could catch you off guard. 

Of course, part of this politeness is that Japanese people will be polite to you no matter what. Even if you are accidentally committing faux pas like pouring your own drink, they’ll be very understanding and kind to you. You might be a little harder on yourself, though, and might leave social situations embarrassed because you forgot a certain rule of etiquette. 

Helpfulness

Most Japanese people will always be ready to help you and even inconvenience themselves to do it. Sometimes you might just have a simple question for a salesperson, and they’ll end up digging up maps and catalogs just to help you find it at a completely different store. They’ll do all this even though they don’t even speak your language. Still, they’ll be the ones to go through the hassle of using a translating app to communicate with you.

This helpfulness is great, but if you’re not used to it, it can feel over the top. You may be uncomfortable having someone go so far out of their way for you.

Order

Japanese is a lot more orderly than Westerners might be used to. The order might manifest in ways you didn’t really think about beforehand.

Lines are a great example of this. My first time in Japan, I wound up without a seat on the train because I didn’t realize I had to line up at specific points on the platform. I was just expecting the same free-for-all that happens on any American or European train platform. Similarly, I’ve gone to wait for a seat at restaurants only to realize after several minutes that I should’ve taken my place in an ever-lengthening line.

In reality, lines like these probably make things go faster and more smoothly, but when you absentmindedly miss your spot a couple of times, it can be frustrating.

Gender segregation

Gender segregation in Japan can be like a slap in the face if you aren’t expecting it. My fiance and I entered a massage parlor together only to have her swiftly shooed away because it was men only. We had to change our plans for the evening, and it was hard to find a parlor that accepted both men and women.

The onsen hot springs are usually the same. It’s mandatory to bathe nude, and men and women go to separate baths. Tokyo’s famous capsule hotels also have different floors for men and women. These things aren’t really big deals, but they can cause logistical problems for tourists. You might get frustrated when you can’t do things with your significant other that you’d planned.

Move to the left 

Japan is one of the few countries where you drive on the left. That’s not all, though. They also walk on the left. If you’re used to walking on the right, this habit is surprisingly hard to break. For starters, you’ll probably get on escalators and staircases going the wrong way more than a few times.

What’s more frustrating is when you wait for a taxi on the wrong side of the street or the train on the wrong side of the platform. You might even bump into a few people on the street.

Tech everything

Japan is full of technological conveniences. They make life a lot easier, but they can be a surprise if you’re not used to them. There’s definitely a learning curve figuring out how everything works.

For example, many restaurants have an automatic ticket machine at the front. You have to order and pay all at the machine. It’ll print out a ticket, and you give it to the server or cook. Trying to deal with all the order combinations, buttons, and payment slots, all while a line builds up behind you, can be a little overwhelming.

You might also find yourself waiting a long time for a waiter only to realize there’s a call button on your table. Robotic receptionists and giant automatic cleaning machines could be equally unnerving for the unsuspecting.

Crowds

Japan is a dense country. It has a population density of 347 people per square kilometer. Compare that to the United States’ 36 people per square kilometer, almost a tenth of the amount. Plus, Japan is very urbanized. Tokyo has a population density of 6,158 people per square kilometer.

As a result, Japan, especially the cities, can feel really crowded. This is something that can subconsciously wear on the mind. In the supermarket, on the train, even just on the street, you might start to feel claustrophobic. With so many people moving and talking on all sides, you might begin to be on edge.

Similarly, the Japanese don’t have as big of a personal bubble as Westerners. They might talk a little closer to you and have no problem squishing right up against you on the train. While they’re perfectly comfortable, this could feel like an invasion of your personal space.

Cleanliness

Most people who visit Japan come back impressed by the nation’s dedication to cleanliness. Obviously, this is a great thing, but it can take some getting used to. I was certainly surprised by the army of cleaning people who swept through Shibuya just after the New Year’s festivities.

The biggest way the cleanliness shocks you, though, is the very particular waste management system, specifically recycling. The convenience with which you can just toss a food or drink container in the US just doesn’t exist.

Throwing something away means following strict recycling rules including washing your plastic. If you get a bottle of water on the street, it could be a long time before you find somewhere to discard the empty bottle.

How do you adapt?

Everyone deals with culture shock

The hardest part about culture shock is that it’s, well, shocking. It doesn’t have to be, though. One of the best defenses against culture shock is to go in expecting it.

That said, some people get caught off guard because they arrive in a foreign country and, at first, they feel fine. This is just the honeymoon phase. When you first experience all the subtle differences of a different culture, it’s all new and interesting. Most people enjoy this in the beginning.

You may begin to think that you’ve avoided culture shock altogether. Eventually, though, the novelty will wear off, and as you strive to adapt, the differences can begin to weigh on you. Be ready for it and don’t let your guard down.

Also know it’s normal. Even the most adventurous globetrotters feel culture shock. There’s no reason to think that it means you’re not cut out to live in a foreign country. This is especially important because oftentimes culture shock isn’t right in your face. It’s feeling frustrated in the evening after a day of misreading social cues. Remind yourself this is culture shock, and these feelings will pass once you adapt.

Culture shock is temporary

Just like the novel honeymoon phase in a foreign country, the culture shock phase doesn’t last forever. Keep this in mind. Feeling stressed and out of place in a new culture will pass. Think of it as a rite of passage in your adventure.

Don’t do too much at once

My first feeling of Japanese culture shock came with an extreme feeling of claustrophobia and agoraphobia in a crowded and cramped supermarket in a busy part of Tokyo. It was late in the afternoon, and I hadn’t been able to find food for lunch. I was dealing with jetlag and extremely tired. All these things added up to a lot of stress.

If you try to take on every aspect of a foreign country and adapt to them all at once, the culture shock will be a lot harder to overcome. Go easy on yourself, and take it slow. Whenever you feel yourself getting overwhelmed, take a step back, and make sure your needs are taken care of.

Make a conscious effort

Recognizing that what you’re feeling is culture shock is half the battle. The other half is adapting and getting used to these differences. 

A big part of adapting is making a conscious effort to assimilate and follow Japanese cultural and social customs. Depending on how long you plan to be there, this could mean learning the language, figuring out how to use the machines and follow procedures, and conform to Japanese etiquette.

Other things you may not have to start doing yourself, but you will have to accustom yourself to them. For instance, you can leave as much distance between yourself and others as you want, but you’ll have to accept that they may come to a lot closer to you. This is just part of being in a foreign society.

Look on the bright side

More than anything else, optimism is your best defense against culture shock. Remember when you first arrived in Japan, and everything was new and interesting? You can feel that way again.

If you noticed when reading through the more shocking aspects of Japanese culture, most of them are quite positive. The food is healthy, the country is clean, the people are kind, and the technology is convenient.

Whenever you feel yourself getting frustrated or stressed by an aspect of Japanese culture, take a moment and step back. First, look for why. The Japanese people probably have a good reason for doing what they do. Second, look for the positive. Obviously, Japanese society must benefit from these parts of their culture. You can too.

It’s an adventure

Finally, would foreign countries really be that fun if culture shock weren’t a part of it? People wouldn’t bother traveling if it were just like home. Different cultures are more than interesting. They can teach you a different way to see and interact with the world. Even if you don’t adapt to every aspect of Japanese culture, you can certainly learn something valuable.

Whether you’re just taking a vacation in Japan or moving there for a long time, go in like an explorer. Expect your time in the country to be an adventure, even if that means a little culture shock along the way. You’ll remember it for the rest of your life.

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