Teach Abroad

How to Overcome Culture Shock While Teaching Abroad in Japan

Photo of Holly H. Jones
Holly H. Jones

Holly has been published in several print and online journals and anthologies, and has written two-column series, “Dispatches from the Anacostia” and “Dispatches from the Capital,” for McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.

Dealing with Culture Shock While Teaching Abroad in Japan

When I taught English in Tokyo, someone was always in the throes of culture shock. Some days it was another foreign, or gaijin, teacher in my school -- and sometimes it was me. No matter who had succumbed to that shock defined by Merriam Webster as “a sense of confusion and certainty that may affect people exposed to a different culture without adequate preparation,” it was never pretty for the culture-shocked gaijin or anyone else.

My Australian colleague once declared he was sick of living in a country that couldn't pronounce its "l" properly and decided to remove every word containing "l" from the reading material his students were to cover that day. Every student was handed a printout peppered with black marks and sentences, absent certain words, that made no sense. It made for a bad day for the students, the school manager and all of us who had to step into his classes.

One Monday morning my American colleague stormed in, sank into the chair beside me and began taking deep breaths into her hands.

“Are you okay?” I asked. She shook her head. “Are you hurt?” I tried next.

“Why can’t they just stand still?”

Hmm? “What do you mean?” I asked.

“The people in the train. The Japanese rush-hour commuters. If they would just stand still, no one would have to touch anyone else. No one’s hair would get in anyone else’s face. No one’s arm would bump into my side.” She lifted her head. Her mascara had smeared and her eyes were red. “Just. Stand. Still. If I knew the words in Japanese, I’d tell them that.”

I wanted to laugh. I didn’t. I’d already experienced some version of her culture shock a hundred times over. “You could say ‘shizuka ni tattete.’ But the Tokyo train network transports some eight million people every day. That’s a lot of people to expect to stand still, no swaying allowed, in a moving car. Especially for the women in high heels.” I offered her the last tissue in my Hello Kitty dispenser.

She made a face but took it. She blew her nose, wiped the smeared mascara away and took a deep breath. “We move home in three months and four days,” she said. “Ninety-six days.”

Culture shock happens to nearly everyone I know who travels and it will likely happen to you at some point in Japan. It’s never fun, for you or anyone impacted, but planning for it can go along way to mitigate its effects. Here are some steps you can take every day you’re in Japan to adjust to life what feels like a very foreign country and ensure culture shock never shocks you too far, or for too long, out of enjoying all the wonders of your host country.

Let the Aspects of Home You Love be a Bridge

Think of some of your favorite hobbies back home and find ways to do a bit or a lot of them in Japan. There is always a way to do some of what you love doing, in some form, in your new home. Finding that way will bring you in contact with people and nuances of Japan you wouldn’t otherwise encounter, and help you bridge the gap that can otherwise lead to culture shock.

Find an “Auntie”

Everyone needs an ‘auntie’ who, like your aunt or grandparent or some lovely older person back home, lends a sympathetic ear when you hit the proverbial brick wall of culture shock, gives you a pat on the back and a cookie or an ume boshi ball, and sends you back into the world feeling a little more supported than you did.

Aunties, and presumably uncles, abound in Japan. I found mine, or perhaps she found me, through my first teaching job. Her name was Okano-san and she tolerated more whining than anyone but an auntie would. When you find one, cherish them.

Make Gaijin Friends With Whom You Can Blow Off Steam

Sometimes you’ll want someone similarly displaced and far from home with whom to laugh more than you’ll want an auntie’s pat on the back, or dose of sympathetic wisdom and cookie. Whether it’s the challenge of finding clothes that fit you or surviving sardine can train conditions and those ghost hands that try to grope you, it will help to talk with someone who’s been, or is, equally bewildered.

Alone, the experiences that reinforce your culture shock can send you into a funk. Together, they can become a series of funny moments.

Count Up, Not Down

Dealing with Culture Shock While Teaching Abroad in Japan: Count Up

You will meet gaijn teachers who spend their entire time in Japan counting down to the day they move back to their country. They’ve usually come to Japan more for the money and less for the experience of living abroad. Avoid the temptation to join their countdown conversations.

Marking the time until you leave is a recipe for chronic homesickness and culture shock. There’s so much to be experienced and understood, about yourself and the world around you, when in another country. Count up the number of adventures, curious moments, or even types of vegetables you are experiencing in Japan. But don’t count down to a departure date. It will come soon enough.

Take a Deep Breath

We all know when we’re about to explode or say that thing we’ll regret later. I had moments in Japan when the same rituals that usually charmed me suddenly frustrated me. At these moments, the best remedy is a deep breath (or a few of them!).

Some people are told to never forget where they come from. In those moments of frustration, I would tell myself to never forget where I had come from and where I was. Put together, these two things could easily trigger culture shock. It’s a normal, if unfortunate, side effect of being adventurous enough to live abroad.

Take a deep breath, or three, and know that the moment will pass.

Give Yourself a Break

Dealing with Culture Shock While Teaching Abroad in Japan: Give Yourself a Break

Sometimes the best thing is to simply declare that, for one evening, a whole day or a weekend, you are on break from your adventurous life abroad, your role as a cultural ambassador, and the fun of navigating a culture so different from your own. Sometimes, you just need a break!

Buy whatever familiar foods you most like, even if they’re a little more expensive for having been imported. Binge-watch your favorite shows from home and Skype with your friends. Do whatever will leave you feeling the most recharged and ready to re-engage. While you are living abroad full-time, you can (and should) grant yourself full permission to have a break from Japan and do activities which bring you comfort and a sense of rejuvenation. However that looks for you, embrace it.

A Worthwhile Trade-off

In my most disoriented moments teaching in Japan, I tried to remember one thing: if I’d stayed in my hometown, I wouldn’t be riding this roller coaster but I also wouldn’t be learning new things and experiencing the world in such different ways. Holding onto that fact, I never regretted the trade-off.

Being culture shocked means you’re increasing your awareness of the other. Other places, other ways of living and other ways of thinking. It’s not fun, but the knowledge and personal growth are worth the trouble and will stay with you long after your culture shock, and your time in Japan, end.

Read Next: What You Need to Know Before Teaching English in Japan