Advice for Newbies: Culture Shock

Hundreds of new JET Program ALTs will soon be rolling into Japan, so I’ve decided to do a little mini advice series. For the first installment, the most important thing you will be faced with: culture shock. It is real, my friends.

Culture shock affects everyone in some way. Even people who have spent extended periods of time in Japan before experience it. Many ALTs are placed in very rural places, and there are many regional differences in Japan. All the new smells and strange insects and constant Japanese buzzing through your ears will make you want to throw up some times. Or punch something. Japan is probably nothing like your home country. That’s probably why you wanted to come here, but it also might be why you crash and burn here. This culture is quite shocking, I’ll tell you, but there are ways to make your transition go a little more smoothly.


1. Don’t overextend yourself. You’ll likely want to jump into Japan head first and immediately start exploring. Exploring is good, but don’t overdo it too early on. The majority of you will be coming in the heat of summer, and it’s so easy to get worn out fast. Take it easy. I’m not telling you to turn down all invitations and stay inside by any means. Everyone needs a breather is all! And a lot of times we ignore our own well-being when we are busy having fun. It helped me a lot in the beginning to stay home and relax when I was feeling tired. Which brings me to #2.


 2. Nest. Build your home. Decorate your apartment. Decided where you want your pictures, computer, books, etc. to go. Having a space that is your own makes you feel settled. And when you are having a hard time, retreating to your own cozy space helps calm you down!


 3. Make friends. This one was a little hard for me. I take my friendships very seriously and don’t lend out my affections to just anyone. It’s really easy to find English speakers around you, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have anything else in common. You might not find your next best friend in Japan. But then again, you just might…and more. Putting yourself out there is extremely important. When you do feel comfortable being alone in Japan, become a “yes man” so to speak. If someone invites you out and you aren’t busy or too tired, go! Go diving with your office acquaintances, or go to the beach with the lady at the resale clothing store. Japan is pretty safe, so if you are smart and take a friend, nothing should happen on adventures with strangers new friends. You might not really get a long with those people on a deep level, but creating a network is so important. And sometimes we can’t be too picky in rural Japan. That being said, you DO NOT have to hang out with all the other ALTs in your area. Be nice, be open, but don’t feel like you have to hang out with everyone because you have the same job.

That being said, I have met some amazing people in Japan. ALTs and locals. This is in part because I’ve tried to be more forward than I was in America, but also because out of necessity, I’ve grown a great deal since coming here. I also find that when you don’t have a lot of superficial commonalities, you resort to talking about human issues, which just makes you realize how similar we really are.


4. Admit defeat and ask for help when you need it. Culture shock does crazy things to people. It changes their personalities, and sometimes you wonder how some people made it this far. But most of the time it’s just the ill effects of culture shock. Sometimes, you have to tell your circle you’re going through a hard time. The ALT community can be super supportive, but because us older kids are sometimes experiencing life ourselves, it’s not so easy to see when you need help. Ask…let your friends know you’re having a hard time or are being weird because you are scared or sad. It’s okay. We’ll get through it. It’s happened to all of us, so we do understand.

Talking to your teachers, boss, neighbors, dry-cleaners, etc. can also help you so much! They might not want to here you rant about weird culturally quirks like your ALT friends do, but they can help put some of your issues into perspective and give you a sense of belonging, both of which are invaluable!


 5. Try to keep a routine. Preferably the one you had before.

When I got to Japan I practically ate my weight in conveyer belt sushi and conbini food (read: cheap and not-healthy). Obviously, that’s a bad idea. I just wanted to experience Japan through my mouth and I was depressed apparently. But gaining even 5 kilos in a country where people will tell you you’ve gained 5 kilos is even more depressing. Now, this isn’t about weight. I also got so tired because it was hot and I was eating horrible food. All I’m telling you is to keep track of that. You’re going to be here for at least a year; you have plenty of time to try honey toast and all the many kinds of ramen. Again, take it easy. Your body and soul will thank you. (the converse of this is not eating enough because you’re depressed or too busy living. I would just suggest, again, taking it easy at first. Fortunately I’m back to my normal healthy self, but for a while I was miserable). Keeping a solid diet and exercise routine will keep you healthy and give you one less thing to worry about!


I know, this advice is not all Japan specific. But I know many people will not have experienced this before and it’s the most important thing to moving to a new country. Especially if that country speaks Japanese and eats all of the seafoods. Asking questions goes a long way. Good luck!