• Life & Culture

Managing Culture Shock in Japan

man walking down an alleyway in Japan

Many people would agree that living abroad is a great experience that has its rewards. This could be found in self-discovery, acquisition of a new set of skills (such as a foreign language), or maybe a chance at a new career.  There are indeed many reasons to go and live abroad for some time.

That feeling we get when we learn something new, or devouring a never-to-before-eaten snack can be as exciting as a new love. What happens though when we don’t feel that?

Culture shock or cultural fatigue can creep up at any time throughout the journey, and most of us will experience it in some way or another. It might be as simple as the ATM that closes at 5 pm, or as stressful as feeling that you are unable to communicate with the people around you.

In this article, we are going to look at culture shock and cultural fatigue, as well as list some ways to overcome it, at each stage, so that you can remain on your happy journey of awesome self-fulfillment.

Since Interac is based in Japan, we will be looking through the lens of life in Japan.


1) Honeymoon phase: “OMG, they have Pocky.”

Ahh, yes, in the Honeymoon phase, just like the beginning of the Lego movie, everything is indeed awesome!

24-hour convenience stores, cheap restaurants, temples, and shrines. It is like around every corner there is something new to discover!

People? The people are so lovely, everyone wants to help, and everyone is so happy you are here! The old lady next door has even asked if you can visit for tea and cakes and help give her some English tips.


The honeymoon phase is a critical time, and if you are enjoying everything, great, this will make the next tip easier.


Basically, during this time between loving your new life, the best thing you can do is build a routine and a support network. If you are unique to Japan and you come over with a group like Interac, or JET you are in some ways lucky as you will be immediate with a group at training that comes from a background that has a shared experience.

“One way is to build a new habit (example take up a new activity like sport, music, art, etc.)”


Whether you come over with a group or meet a group during your company training/family or friends/online, you want to use this time to build a support network from something familiar. In addition to building a network of people from a similar experience, you should also use this excitement to set a routine. When it comes to setting a routine, there are two ways you can do it.

One way is to build a new habit (example take up a new activity like a sport, music, art, etc.) The second way is to try and adapt a routine similar to the one you currently have (e.g. wake up at the same time, eat at the same time, etc.) if you try this, it also helps if you have some items that are familiar to you.

Most of us can’t get away with shipping our bed overseas, but having a photo album or movie, even a simple snack can help blend what’s new with what is known.

In other words, you want to build solid foundations during your Honeymoon phase in both social and routines.


2) Crisis Phase: “How can a major bank close its ATMs at 5 pm for four days straight?!”

“It’s a public holiday? The fury of a thousand suns begs to be released!”


Welcome to the crisis phase! This is usually the time when culture shock or culture fatigue is the most acute. If this is your first time going through culture shock, it can generally be less of a shock and more of a general frustration at things not being the way you might feel they should be.

On a subconscious level, we are feeling a jarring sense of what we knew and what was convenient with something alien and often seen as inconvenient. Some examples in Japan might be the ATM closing over the Golden Week holiday, or perhaps something even smaller like there is no Pumpkin Spice Latte at Starbucks.

Maybe it is something more within the culture? Why do some people push so aggressively on to the train when there is another train 5 minutes later? Or if you are in a meeting, how can you talk about something for 4 hours and be less close to a decision than when you started?

Finally, for some people who have been here some time, it might be less of a thing that impacts us, and slightly more of a series of things that makes you apathetic and just tired of the time you’ve had here. Suddenly the old lady next door’s impromptu English lessons sound as appealing as a Natto-smoothie.


Culture shock or culture fatigue can affect us in different ways, but the result is the same. A sense of frustration, sadness, indifference, or general isolation. It is often during this time that you will want to most likely quit and retreat to something familiar. 

Once again, if this is your first time experiencing culture shock, it might be such a strong feeling of frustration or isolation you may even start to doubt your reason of coming to Japan in the first place, and seriously look at going home.

“Suddenly the old lady next door’s impromptu English lessons sound as appealing as a Natto-smoothie.”


“Just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should.” 


If you have been here some time, the feeling might cause frustration that causes you to get into complicated work or personal situations, mainly if you are more immersed in the local culture (working at a Japanese company, living with a Japanese partner or family).

In this situation, it is essential to reach out to those foundations we set up before and keep engaged with what’s familiar, while also finding that motivation to do something in between. Sports are great because they are the same in most countries and the rules are agreed upon.


Catch up with friends in a different town, or read books/watch Netflix. Give yourself some time to recover, and don’t be afraid to speak to a friend or even join an international group. There are many people who are going through and have gone through the same thing.


3) Recovery Phase “I guess it can’t be helped.”

During the recovery phase, you will be on the up and up. You have gone through the stress of the culture shock/culture fatigue, and hopefully, you are in more of an accepting mindset. Those things that caused you pressure may still annoy you, but it is all a matter of perspective.


During this time it is necessary to rebuild those foundations and continue to get involved in the culture where you can at the same time. It might be worthwhile to note that during the recovery phase, you may still go through ups and downs, but a good milestone during this phase is the gradual sense of acceptance.


As an individual, you are growing and becoming more aware of how the culture functions, and how the support networks and strategies you have help shape and build your new cultural identity.


4) Adjustment Phase “Pocky is still cool.”

Over time, you will find that the majority of misunderstandings that you face do indeed disappear as you become more familiar with the new culture around you.


There are many times that people from our team have returned to their home country and feel a slight disconnect to what was before. A common one that we often see is the level of service at a convenience store in your home country vs the level of Japan.


Be aware, though, that generally less severe than the first time, that you may periodically go through culture shock. So continuing to expand that social safety net will not only be suitable for your cultural experience but your mental well-being in Japan as well.


Coming from the US? Check out our dedicated blog comparing the costs of both the US and Japan.


Some quick tips to be aware of:

  1. When engaging in something familiar, be sure not to fully cut yourself off from your host country’s culture.
  2. Brushing up on local knowledge, and learning the local language to even a small degree, can really help.
  3. Comparisons never help – Every country has its pros and cons.
  4. Don’t engage in negative self-talk – Culture shock even after 10 years is completely normal.
Interested in living and working in Japan?  Check out ALT jobs with Interac here.

About the Author

Brian McDonough is a consultant at Interac, Japan’s largest provider of ALTs (Assistant Language Teachers). Originally from the US, Brian has lived in Japan for over 25 years, giving him a unique perspective on the cultural differences and challenges people face when moving to Japan. He has first-hand experience of working in Japan as an American.