Expect to experience culture shock when you arrive in Japan. It is a completely normal reaction to an unfamiliar environment. Culture shock is a personal experience; each individual may experience it differently. Likewise, effective ways to deal with culture shock may differ from one student to another. Here are the general stages most people experience when encountering a new culture.
In this early stage, you are busy with preparations and farewells. You are also preoccupied with thoughts of the host culture and how you will adjust.
A time filled with excitement, expectations, and vivid initial impressions.
After some time, the novelty of being in a new place wears off. You may experience mental fatigue, irritability, isolation, and frustration in coping with the language barrier and cultural differences.
As the culture becomes more familiar, you begin to settle into your new environment and establish friendships. Your language ability improves, and you feel more confident.
You become comfortable with the culture. You feel at home and accepted.
Just as you are finally settled, you must prepare to leave your new friends. You realize how much you have changed and wonder if people at home will understand these changes.
You are expected to return to your previous role, but you are not the same person. Your family and friends may not fully understand your experiences nor share your enthusiasm.
Coping with Culture Shock
- Although you can’t avoid culture shock, the more you can prepare yourself for it, the less traumatic the transition will be. Here are suggestions for dealing with culture shock.
- Acknowledge your symptoms. Dealing with them as they arise helps you adjust much more quickly. Ignoring your symptoms doesn’t make them go away.
- Don’t try to cope with your feelings all alone. Find someone to talk to who can sympathize with what you are going through. Fellow student participants may be experiencing similar things. Use this opportunity to make friends and share your feelings.
- While it is normal to experience negative feelings like frustration, irritability, anger, and loneliness, you need to find an outlet for these feelings. Writing or calling home, keeping a journal, getting exercise, or listening to your favorite music are some ways to cope.
- Try to leave behind preconceived ideas about the culture, and instead observe with an open mind. Don’t rate Japanese customs as better or worse than your own, but try to accept them as equally valid.
- Pay attention to your physical health. You are better able to cope with each day’s challenges if you get enough sleep and eat right. In addition, a regular exercise routine is very helpful in combating stress.
- Keep your sense of humor, especially when you make an embarrassing mistake. It eases the tension for everyone involved.
- Be prepared to encounter some Japanese people who may have negative stereotypes about you as a foreigner. As they get to know you, they will see you are different from these stereotypes.
- Resolve personal or family problems before leaving. This allows you to focus all your energy on your studies and adapting to a new culture.
- Talk to others who have recently visited Japan to get their insights on adjusting to the culture.
- Become informed. Learn as much as possible about the Japanese culture and current events before arriving in Japan. For some useful resources, see our booklist.
The Ugly American
A classic opinion of thoughtful American travelers is that, because of the indiscretion of a few boorish tourists, many people around the world consider Americans abroad as rude, offensive, ignorant or uncaring of others’ customs. The stereotypical Ugly American expects to be served; believes that home is always better; has a constant need to express how Americans would do it—usually better; is loud and impatient; complains about inconveniences; and is wasteful and careless of money, material objects, energy, and the environment.
To avoid being an Ugly American (and to dispel the myth), respect patterns of polite behavior that may be new to you. Observe those around you; ask questions. Find a trusted person who can explain things to you. Above all, don’t complain—this habit endears you to no one.