Culture Shock

Culture Shock or culture fatigue is the difficulty in living in a country or culture that is very different from one's own. For most of the JETs working in Akita, this includes you. The shock of moving to a foreign country often consists of distinct phases, though not everyone passes through these phases and not everyone is in the new culture long enough to pass through all four.

Adjustment Cycle

  1. Initial Euphoria
  2. Irritation and Hostility
  3. Gradual Adjustment
  4. Adaption and Biculturalism

One JET may experience a long stage one, while at the same time a JET living close by may be experiencing the low period of stage two. When a JET “comes out of” stage four they may return to stage one, thus the culture shock cycle is by no means limited to first year JETs. It may continue for years.


Culture Shock: A Close Up

"Culture shock", which is usually manifested in the second stage of the cultural adjustment cycle, is the "condition of emotional upset and tension that becomes chronic for a period of varying duration. It is experienced because you have been exposed to life in an unfamiliar setting, so you react with anxiety, irritation and frustration."

But why?

When people leave home they leave familiar, manageable surroundings, routines and social patterns for a new environment completely unfamiliar, without close friends. Everyday life now consists of new customs and social/ethical standards that are very different from your previous way of living. At first, it is difficult to adapt to these new codes of living, regardless of effort made to do so because adaptation to a new environment is a slow process. Loneliness and frustration at not having control of the situation wears the mind and body down emotionally. How emotional somebody is by personality then affects the level of culture shock they experience.

Factors that increase the intensity/duration of culture shock

  • ENVIRONMENTAL/ CULTURAL DIFFERENCE: If Japanese culture, customs and ethical standards are different from your "natural environment" of the same elements.
  • VOLITION: If coming to Japan was not entirely your own decision. Not as in, “my mum made me go!” but as in subconsciously running away from something or doing it for financial gain.
  • FLEXIBILITY: How much previous experience you have had in adjusting to new environments and situations, and how successful those experiences were. No doubt this is why we were asked, when we filled out the application form for JET “if we have ever lived abroad for an extended period of time and what we have learned /gained from such an experience” (well, that was in the British JET application form anyway!! - Sheila).
  • SECURITY: the degree to which you are emotionally secure with yourself, based on old and/or existing relationsships with family, friends, peers, etc.
  • SUPPORT: the amount of emotional support you have received from your friends and family back home and your new found friends in Japan.
  • MONEY: the degree of economic difficulty you encounter while you live in Japan.
  • THERAPY: the availability of professional therapeutic services to you in Japan.
  • PLAY: the availability of recreational facilities (Izakaya’s, parks, karaoke boxes, local cinemas, whatever you like to do in your free time) where tensions can be released and steam let off.
  • SERVICE: the opportunity for you to do something outside of school, that allows you to develop a higher sense of self-worth, usefulness and self-respect.
  • CULTURAL ABSOLUTISM: the degree to which learned cultural and religious patterns have encouraged a tendency to absolute certain standards and judge everyone by them.
  • LINGUISTIC SKILLS: the degree of competence in your own language and the Japanese language. Sudden inability to communicate with the people around you (i.e. people at work, in your neighbourhood, at a train station, restaurant) leads to discomfort, stress and can aggravate any of the other factors mentioned above.

Signs that someone is experiencing culture shock

  • A free-floating anxiety that effects normal everyday behaviour. Free floating anxiety means a person is anxious but they do not know why. Something is bugging them.
  • A lack of self-confidence
  • A lack of energy or interest in life
  • Panic attacks
  • A loss of initiative and spontaneity
  • Excessive anger over small problems (delays) and minor frustrations
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • A strong need to be with people of your own cultural background, especially your own nationality.
  • An excessive amount of time spent sleeping or reading, introverted activities that do not involve exposure to the foreign environment.

What culture shock is not

Culture shock is similar to frustration. The same behaviours are exhibited for both, but are qualitatively different. The cause of a person’s frustration can be traced to a specific situation (i.e. I’m frustrated with my apartment because I have not been cleaning it) and the cause can be remedied by removing the cause of the frustration (i.e. cleaning your apartment).

Culture shock is qualitatively different from frustration because:

  • "It does not result from a specific event or series of events. It comes from the experience of encountering ways of doing, perceiving and valuing things, which are different from yours and which threaten your basic, unconscious belief that your (own) customs, values and beliefs are ‘right.’"
  • “It does not strike suddenly or have a single principal cause. It builds up slowly, from a series of small events, which are difficult to identify.”

These events can include:

  • Being separated from the cultures, in which we initially developed as people and formed our yardstick sense of the world. In Japan, that yardstick disappears from the new environment. Japan has its own yardstick which we, as people from other cultures, do not know how to measure from."
  • Having to function in situations where rules, objectives and goals are not clear. This occurs frequently with non-Japanese people, who are given a job to do but are told little about what the job involves, or how to go about completing it. Ambiguity, in other words.
  • Having our own values challenged, by their being measured up against a new set of values. The cultural values, which we once thought existed as absolute, now exist in a comparative framework. This framework is Japanese culture. And EVERYONE around us lives by these rules!!! We are suddenly forced into evaluating our own culture and thus OURSELVES, which threatens the validity of our own cultures and contentment.

Coping with culture shock and loneliness

Ignoring or dismissing culture shock is a bit like ignoring a hole in the head. Not doing anything about it just makes it worse! Most people WILL EXPERIENCE CULTURE SHOCK OF SOME DEGREE, AT SOME POINT. People first need to admit to themselves that they are experiencing culture shock, and then go about alleviating the problem.

  • Eat well. Drink less (alcohol that is). Relax. Exercise. Allow your body to recover from the rigors of too many late nights. Your body chemistry can greatly affect your mood.
  • If you're usually a party animal, take a break. You don't have to go to every party.
  • If you're usually a hermit ... go out! Organize an outing somewhere, introduce yourself to someone you've not had the opportunity to meet yet. Changing your environment may help you readjust your emotional well being.
  • In your home countries, you probably engaged in many activities that may have alleviated your stress (e.g. exercise, conversing with close friends and family, hobbies). Moving to Japan may have disrupted usual routines of stress management. Start playing the guitar again, draw some portraits, have a long chat to a friend overseas. Sometimes something old and familiar can help you re-establish your equilibrium.
  • Karaoke! If you are feeling a little "nomihodai'ed out" (all you can drink), just do juice bar.
  • Start a regular movie night. Each month should have a theme like comedy, romance, horror, Bollywood, or Charles Bronson appreciation.
  • Traveling is easy and can be relatively inexpensive. A refreshing adventure can be had by simply taking the train to a new town or prefecture. A good resource for travel is our wiki's travel guide
  • In short break up your routine a little and take a break from what has become all too familiar.

Support hotlines

Don't be afraid to ask for help! There are people out there who are waiting to help you if you encounter various kinds of problems during your time in Japan:

  • Akita-ken's Prefectural Advisors
  • AJET Peer Support Group: National AJET is responsible for the Peer Support Group helpline. The Peer Support Group (PSG) operates its helpline every day of the week from 20:00 to 7:00 (basically, when the CLAIR JETline is not operating). It is run entirely by current members of the JET Programme. These are volunteers selected according to their experience with psychology, help lines, and with counseling. Every night (8pm-7am) Toll Free: 050-5534-5566 or SKYPE at AJETPSG
  • Tokyo English Life Line (TELL) Tokyo: Everyday (9am-4pm & 7pm-11pm - by appointment): (03) 3968-4099
  • Women's Hotline (counselling - Legal and psychological support) Yokohama: English and Chinese: (04) 4271-0091

Understanding culture shock

See also