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 stages, though not everyone passes through these stages and not everyone is in the new culture long enough to pass through all four.
"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."
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.
The Stages of Culture Shock
Culture shock could more readily be described as culture fatigue because it is not something that affects us suddenly, but rather is a gradual process with distinct stages:
- Initial Euphoria
- Irritation and Hostility
- Gradual Adjustment
- 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.
Robert Kohls (1984) states that “most people begin their life in a new country with a positive mind-set…. They come with expectations which are too high and attitudes that are too positive toward the host country and forthcoming experience.”
Pre-departure orientations inform JETs that Japan is an affluent country, with a strong education system. For some people this information can be misleading and vague, giving rise to expectations that hinder a more open-mind set. In this stage JETs concentrate on the similarities between Japan and their home countries, and from this springs the euphoria at encountering familiarity. This feeling of euphoria/excitement may last from a week or two, to a month.
The Emotional Roller Coaster - During this honeymoon stage, you are marching to your own drumbeat and life around you moves in ways that you don't understand. As such, it can often feel like you are on a roller coaster. When something good happens, it is so good that you will remember it for the rest of your life, and when bad things happen, you have the feeling that even though you are plunging downwards, everything will work out. The one thing you can't seem to do on the emotional roller coaster is find stability; this happens because your rhythm of life is out of whack with the rhythms that run through the host culture. Keep in mind three things as you enjoy your ride on the emotional roller coaster.
- Everything tends to work out when things go badly because other people work hard to make sure they do.
- Things aren't always as they seem to you; enjoy the good times, but remember that there are a lot of people doing things you are unaware of to make sure you have those good times.
- Don't take others' kindnesses for granted; remember to say thank you to people who are kind to you.
Insomnia - At the very beginning of the honeymoon stage, people tend to experience insomnia due to jet lag, but as jet lag fades away, troubles with insomnia may continue. Insomnia in the honeymoon stage tends to be caused by the fact that the brain is constantly encountering things it can't comprehend and so at night, many people experience the sensation of their mind racing. Exercise does wonderful things for this kind of insomnia, so if you can't sleep because your mind is racing, go for a walk and then try sleeping again.
Irritable Bowel Syndrome - Let's face it, you came to a new country, and you are living in a new culture: the bottom is in the process of falling out of your world, and unfortunately for the person in the next stall, the world is also in the process of falling out of your bottom. Some of this is caused by your stomach not knowing what to do with the food you are feeding it; it craves a nice steak and mashed potatoes, you feed it raw snails, and it gets revenge on you. Some of this is also caused by the fact that your stress level is high and everything is unfamiliar to you. Your rhythm of life is off. The best advice: buy extra toilet paper.
Loneliness - In the honeymoon stage of culture shock, the uncomfortableness caused by loneliness tends to be sharp and come on suddenly. The loneliness that people in this stage of culture shock tend to suffer is shallow because they have only lost meaning in their communications with others, the core values with which they were raised are still fully intact and relatively unchallenged. As such, a quick conversation with a good friend can be all it takes to make loneliness disappear. In the case that it doesn't try reaching to one of the prefectural advisors.
Irritation and Hostility
“Gradually your focus turns from the similarities to the differences. And these differences, which suddenly seem to be everywhere, are troubling. You blow up little, seemingly insignificant difficulties into major catastrophes. This is the stage generally identified as culture shock” (Kohls, 1984).
People experiencing culture shock often feel homesick and have a negative attitude toward the host culture. This is the most critical stage, because it is the one in which JETs are most likely to feel irritated or hostile.
Irritability - The frustration stage tends to set in when people's patience with what they don't understand is exhausted. Because you can't yet see the real problems that face you in the frustration stage clearly, there is a tendency to vent frustration by becoming irritated with small things that don't really matter. Having to pay 300 yen for 3 hours of parking can seem like an insurmountable obstacle. Take a moment, take a deep breath and remember that you are in the frustration stage and that even though it doesn't seem like it at the moment, you are learning a lot.
Loss of Perspective - This is related to irritability, but its a slightly different problem. When things irritate you, there is a tendency to blame it on Japan. When people irritate you, there is a tendency to blame it on "them." Who exactly constitutes "them" is as unclear as how the goal of an entire country could be to inconvenience a single person. When you face problems, take time to remember that your experience in Japan is, in fact, many experiences. Remember that some of these experiences are frustrating, but also remember that others are wonderful and that the two types come hand in hand. Don't lump all your problems into the category: "Japan sucks." When you have problems with one or a few Japanese people, take time to figure out who you are frustrated with; put a name to "them" and try to remember the kindness you have received from others. Don't blame all Japanese people for the actions of one or a few.
Loneliness - As the honeymoon stage fades out, the uncomfortableness caused by loneliness tends to deepen into a dull aching that is easier to live with than the sharp pangs of honey-moon stage loneliness, but also more difficult to alleviate. During the frustration stage, the loss of meaning begins to seep into your core values. You are being challenged to look at the world through new eyes, but you don't yet understand what your new perspective means. You might feel that people back home can't understand what you are going through. You also might feel that Japanese people who haven't left Japan can't understand what you are going through. During this time, remember the JET community. Most of us have experienced culture shock, and we help each other through the hard times. Don't be afraid to ask for help; its often the people who help you through the hard times that become your lasting friends.
Excessive Sleepiness - Wanting to sleep a lot is the brain's response to receiving too much new information. During this stage, give yourself a little extra time to sleep, but also try to get out of the house. Having a restaurant where you are a regular can be really nice during this time. You may be foreign to Japan, but at least you have one place where everyone knows your name and the food is just the way you like it.
Weight Fluctuations - Food and/or exercise are what tend to get people through this difficult stage of culture shock and both of these things cause your weight to change. So long as your weight remains within the healthy limits for your height, don't worry about it. Your weight goes up, it goes down, if you aren't going to die from it, it just doesn't matter. Let what happens happen. Eat wonderful food, play fun sports, whatever floats your boat, indulge.
Imagined Anxiety - You may find yourself imagining bad or negative situations that have never happened. Don't let these imagined situations cause you too much stress, after all, they haven't happened. What's happening is that your brain is coming up with responses to potential situations. Imagining your reaction to bad or negative situations is a sign that your brain is starting to figure everything out. In some ways, imagined anxiety is the light at the end of the tunnel. Your brain is moving from constantly reacting to unexpected situations to anticipating potential problems and this can be the first sign that you are beginning to understand the world around you.
Paranoia - If you find yourself thinking too much about people staring at you, try giving the JETLine a call: CLAIR JETline (Tokyo): Monday-Friday (9am-5:45pm) English and Japanese: (03) 3591-5489 They are removed from the normal process here in Akita, and you are guaranteed confidentiality when talking to them.
You stand out in Japan and people like to stare at you. This is a fact. On the other hand, the reason why any given person is staring at you can only be guessed at. Sometimes when the brain gets tired, it starts coming up with strange paranoid reasons for why people are staring. Its good to talk to someone who can walk you through the problem. Sometimes, when you need to call the hotline the most, your brain comes up with a billion reasons why you can't. Despite this, its easy to call and doing so will help you out a lot!
“The most difficult stage is over and you are on your way to adjusting to life in the new culture. This step may come so gradually that, at first, you will be unaware it is even happening. Once you begin to orient yourself and to be able to interpret some of the subtle cultural clues and cues which passed unnoticed earlier, the culture seems more familiar. You become more comfortable in it and feel less isolated from it. Gradually too, your sense of humour returns and you realise the situation is not hopeless at all” (Kohls, 1984).
Cognitive Dissonance Anxiety - This is a complicated name for a complicated thought. In the Gradual Adaptation Stage, you are beginning to look at life from a double perspective. There are times when the perspective of your home culture conflicts with the perspective of your host culture. The human brain isn't very good at dealing with this conflict and it can cause you to have trouble making decisions. The Gradual Adaptation Stage is the stage when you first begin to understand your host culture and as your understanding of the goals to which that culture deepens, cognitive dissonance tends to go away. To quote the author Pierre Boulle in his introduction to his novel The Bridge on the River Kwai:
"The insuperable gap between East and West that exists in some eyes is perhaps nothing more than an optical illusion. Perhaps it is only the conventional way of expressing a popular opinion based on insufficient evidence and masquerading as a universally recognized statement of fact, for which there is no justification at all, not even the plea that it contains an element of truth. During the last war, 'saving face' was perhaps as vitally important to the British as it was to the Japanese. Perhaps it dictated the behaviour of the former, without their being aware of it, as forcibly and as fatally as it did that of the latter, and no doubt that of every other race in the world. Perhaps the conduct of each of the two enemies, superficially so dissimilar, was in fact simply a different though equally meaningless manifestation of the same spiritual reality."
In order to overcome cognitive dissonance, read up on Japanese history. The Bridge On the River Kwai by Pierre Boulle is a nice place to start. Embracing Defeat by John Dower is particularly enlightening for foreigners in Japan because it looks at how Japanese people have struggled to reinvent Japan according to an imported political system while preserving the culture that makes Japan so special in the world. The more you know about the past, they more you can understand your present circumstances. History can be the key to understanding why the correct choice for a member of Japanese culture is not always the correct choice for you.
Loneliness - The loneliness experienced in the gradual adaptation stage has a somewhat different quality from the loneliness experienced during the initial stages of culture shock. Often people in this stage feel that they are caught between two cultures. People from the home culture and other members of the expat community don't quite understand what's important to you, but neither do the people members of the host culture. The best way to make this loneliness bearable is to stop trying to get others to understand what you are going through and instead try to understand what others are going through.
Melancholy - Melancholy tends to come from the same root cause as the loneliness. During this stage, you are beginning to recover meaning in your life and you can understand a lot of what is going on around you, but it lacks a sense of reality. It is as though you are watching others enjoy life while you are on the outside. Melancholy differs from depression in terms of the outlook of the future. When you experience depression, you have difficulty feeling happy, and you even have trouble imagining that you will ever feel happy again. When you experience melancholy, you do have difficulty feeling happy in the present, but you are fueled by a sense of purpose; you have some goal that you are working towards that is keeping you going even when the going is tough.
The act of creating something can bring the warmth of happiness back into your life. Try making pottery, or music, or tea. Learn kendo, or judo, or write an essay for an essay competition. Even creating wiki pages can help. It doesn't matter exactly what you create, but if you create something, the feeling of being an outsider watching other people have fun will begin to disappear.
Adaption and Biculturalism
“Full recovery will result in an ability to function in your own and in Japanese culture with confidence. You will even find a great many customs, ways of doing and saying things, and personal attitudes which you enjoy- indeed, which you have to some degree adopted- and which you will definitely miss when you return home. In fact you can expect to experience reverse culture shock upon your return to your own country.” (Kohls, 1984)
Most foreigners are likely to experience some degree of culture shock when they move countries. The information included in this article is there to help you identify where these feelings are coming from. Just being aware of the source of these feelings can help to alleviate the distress you feel and help you to regain control of your emotions. Culture shock is an entirely normal reaction to movement between cultures.
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.
Difficult times of the year
November, December, January
During these months, the weather turns cold and bleak and the lack of cultural activities (such as preparing for the holiday season) can make Culture Shock seem particularly unbearable. There are many things you can do to help with this:
- Plan a trip home.
- Remember, others are in the same situation, connect with them and make an effort to plan activities (get people together for Thanksgiving Dinner, Christmas Dinner, Hanaka, Fall Equinox, etc.)
- Get involved with local community events (take private Japanese lessons, pick up a new sport)
March, April, May
During these months, the cultural differences in the working place become very apparent. This is the time of the year when Japanese people are particularly busy being Japanese. In March: Students are preparing for entrance examinations, kohais are preparing to step into the role of being senpais, teachers are preparing to be moved at the whim of the Board of Education to a new school. In April: Students are taking exams, the school year is ending, and teachers are transferring. In May: Schools are coming together as finely tuned educational machines, students are finding their places and learning to work with others, and teachers are feeling out their new co-workers. There are many things you can do to help with this:
- Accept that you will have a lot of downtime at work during this time. Bring your own work for the days when you have class and consider taking paid leave during Spring Vacation.
- Try not to waste your private life complaining about your work life. Make a conscious effort to leave your work at work and enjoy the good weather during your free time.
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.
Coping with culture shock and loneliness
If you are like many people who travel abroad, you may think that culture shock is something that happens only to the close-minded, but that isn't necessarily true. In fact, the more open minded you are and the more actively you pursue experiences outside your own culture, the more likely you are to experience culture shock.
Culture shock is a buzzword that's often used to scare people. But it shouldn't be that way. It's only natural that when we move to new places and change our lifestyle radically, we'll have some difficulties adjusting. Which is to say, experiencing some culture shock is just fine. It's when we have difficulty coping with our new surroundings that problems can arise.
Adjusting to a new culture is a learning process and however you feel right now is going to change as you gain more experience. This can be a difficult, knowing that everything you think you know could be wrong. The best way is to trust your own perceptions, even if you change your mind later.
It is important to be humble and recognize that you don't have the full picture. Trust others, listen, ask for advice, be actively curious, and take time to reflect on your experiences.
The more you know about the process of culture shock and the more time you take to reflect, the easier your life in Japan will be. At times life will be good, and at times life will be hard, so enjoy the good times and try your best to be prepared for the hard times.
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.
Three possible outcomes of culture shock
The Constructive Marginal
This is a big word, but you break it down and it isn't so scary. The word "Constructive" simply means that your actions and opinions benefit yourself and others around you. The word "Marginal" means that your actions, while they may be beneficial to yourself and others around you, are not "normal" actions and opinions found within the culture where you live.
Constructive marginals has learned to constructively let their lives intersect the culture in which they live where one's own interests and values are common with the interests and values of members of the host culture. Constructive marginals have also learned to go their own way and to do their own thing in those cases where their own interests conflict with the interests and values of members of the host culture.
People in this state do what is called "Going Native," they learn to function entirely within the bounds of the host culture.
People in this state find that there is something fundamental about the way the host culture operates that causes them to be unable to function. People who reject the host culture tend to retreat from any experience involving the culture. The most self-destructive manifestation of rejection occurs when a person retreats into themselves and loses contact with the outside world, home culture and host culture. If you feel that this is happening to you, please consider calling one of the help lines listed below.
The most constructive manifestation of rejection is to leave the host culture and go home. This may sound like harsh advice, but if you are unhappy in the host culture, it is important to remember that there are other options.
The middle ground between retreating in on oneself and going home is to establish a life in the expat community.
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
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.