Culture Shock in Japan
Getting Past the Zen and the Kimono
by Alan J. Wiren
Traveling to Japan, especially for the first time, is a great adventure, full of discovery.
Whether your trip will be a short tour or a long stay, there is no end to what you can learn.
Having a handle on Japanese society before you arrive can only give you more opportunities to make deeper discoveries. It might even help you avoid difficulties that more naive travelers commonly have.
Throughout its history, Japan has been isolated in one way or another, and social customs and taboos have developed here with little pressure to conform to any other society's norms. As an archipelago it is physically cut off, a factor that is not insignificant, despite modern communication and transportation; and the Japanese government, for long periods of time, imposed political isolation.
It is not uncommon for modern-day Japanese to inquire of visitors whether Mother's and Father's Day are celebrated in their home countries. Some are curious as to whether Western people wear their shoes to bed. Others assume that foreigners eat beef at every meal.
These kinds of misconceptions are not exclusively Japanese. Without taking some time to research Japanese culture, you will probably have to spend valuable time getting over faulty preconceptions of your own. On the other hand, no amount of preparation will let you avoid the natural process of adaptation to a foreign culture.
We learn our own culture so well that it simply seems to be the natural way to live and relate to other people -- until we have something to compare it to. Over the past sixty years or so the number of people from various walks of life traveling to foreign countries has rapidly increased.
During that time the ways in which people adapt to a foreign culture have become an important subject of study, and a common pattern in people's reactions has emerged.
Early on, at a time when the focus was mainly on the negative consequences of international travel, the term culture shock was coined to describe this pattern.
A more modern view of intercultural contact acknowledges that experiencing a foreign culture first hand is usually fun and interesting, but learning new ways is inevitable stressful. The symptoms of stress, however, can be recognized and coped with in positive ways.
Along with acquainting yourself with Japanese culture, understanding what to expect from yourself as a visitor or foreign resident in Japan is one of the most valuable preparations you can make. If you manage your reactions well, they will become your most valuable and permanent souvenirs.
Your first reaction to Japan is likely to be quite positive. If you are like me, you will be daydreaming about everything that might happen there even before you get on the airplane. This is often called the Honeymoon Stage because your new surroundings seem so full of exciting potential.
There is nothing wrong with enjoying the thrill of being in a new and different place, but it is best to keep these feelings from overwhelming you.
Generally, the Japanese are well aware of how unique their society is. Many think it is superlative as well. You will probably hear claims that Japan is the safest country in the world, that Japanese food is the healthiest, or that Japanese society is the ultimate way of life. "We Japanese" (ware-ware nihonjin) is a phrase you may often hear because many Japanese take it for granted that they conform to a typical national profile.
Japan - not Shangri-la
During the Honeymoon Stage you could be inclined to accept such claims at face value. You need to remind yourself that, while Japan is a relatively safe, modern, and intriguing culture with much to offer the rest of the world, it is not Shangri-la.
Acts of God, crime, disease, and opportunities for an unhealthy lifestyle all occur in Japan, and are just as dangerous as they are anywhere else. The people living in Japan are just as unpredictably unique as anyone in your home country.
Establish some kind of reality check. You might set aside a regular time to make an honest assessment of what is really different about your life and the way you live it, and equally as important, what is still the same. Many travelers keep a journal, which could help you evaluate unfamiliar experiences and feelings.
The second stage of cultural adaptation is often called "Rejection." When the novelty wears thin, travelers tend to dwell on and exaggerate the difficulties inherent in living abroad. They often glorify their previous lifestyle and the customs and attributes of their home country.
If you find yourself seeking out your home country's food more often, spending time exclusively with folk from your country or other expatriates, or if your conversations turn frequently to Japan bashing, you have probably reached the Rejection Stage.
During the Rejection Stage it is common for travelers to adopt the attitude that cultural differences do not really matter, or that the things they do while living in Japan do not really count. Ignoring Japanese mores can lead to miscommunication and cause disapproval of well intended behaviors on both sides of the fence, which only makes matters worse.
The prescription, again, is a dose of reality. Take the time to clearly assess what difficulties you are having in adapting to Japan, make practical plans to overcome them, and carry out those plans. Maintain contact with Japanese friends and colleagues, and try to make new friends. Although they may seem to be the source of the problem, native members of the society are your greatest help in understanding it.
There is no question that this will be a stressful time, so exercising, eating and sleeping well, and generally avoiding excess will go a long way towards making your time in Japan as rewarding as possible.
Managing the Rejection Stage well will help you to move on to a more interesting way of living in Japan. The common pattern of adaptation begins with a period when a traveler has strong emotional reactions and unrealistic beliefs about their new environment, followed by a longer period during which the traveler's understanding of the culture becomes gradually deeper and more sophisticated.
How long the latter stage will last depends on the traveler's personality and the opportunities he or she finds. After my own experience of nearly twenty years, I am still learning about Japan, and about myself, through Japanese colleagues, friends, and family members. I have no doubt the most fascinating discoveries are still on the horizon.
Other articles by Alan Wiren
'To the Stronger Spirit': Nanzenji Temple Complex, Kyoto