Combating Culture Shock: Tips from a Survivor

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Those who have read my previous posts know how much I love Japan. In spite of its numerous imperfections, I remain happy and proud to call this country my home. I am fortunate enough to be able to enjoy the hospitable people, the temperate climate, the good food and the wonderful culture. Unfortunately, Japan can sometimes be a cold, lonely and hostile place.

For all its advanced technology and hospitality, Japan is unfortunately a country wrought by emotional issues. Japan consistently records one of the highest suicide rates in the developed world. Work stress, family problems, social exclusion and bullying are all factors. The Japanese compulsion to internalize negative feelings is also a major factor.

As a foreigner in Japan, I have to say I often worry for the mental well-being of some of my friends and colleagues. They work such long hours, have so little time for a personal life, and feel the constant pressure to put work and their job before all other considerations.

However, we foreigners are not immune to the trauma of mental or emotional instability either. The dreaded “culture shock” has probably afflicted all of us to some degree at one time or another.

“Culture shock” is probably best categorized as an extreme sense of helplessness, isolation, loneliness and fear. It occurs when the “honeymoon period” of enjoying the novelty of being in a new country wears off. We try to adjust to the daily grind of work, building new friendships, pursuing relationships and trying to fit into Japanese society, but sooner or later, we all feel a certain sense of alienation.

Whether or not this could actually be considered a form of depression or not is debatable, however the external manifestations of the symptoms are very similar. Sufferers of culture shock can become withdrawn, nervous around groups of people, prone to sudden mood swings or emotional outbursts and just generally very unhappy with their surroundings.

The question is, what can we do about it? If you feel like the day to day grind of life in Japan is becoming too much, in the first instance, there are a few steps you can take to remedy this.

1) Get out of town. Go to the onsen, do some hiking in the countryside, attend a local matsuri or cultural event. Remind yourself why it is you fell in love with Japan in the first place.

2) Make an action plan. Identify 4 or 5 things in your life that are making you unhappy. Write them down so you don’t forget. Once you’ve done that, write a paragraph about each one. Think of why this is a problem and how it can be overcome. Be realistic, but not pessimistic, in setting your goals.

3) Shake up your social scene. Perhaps your social life has been stagnating, and this is making you unhappy. Join a local sports club or activity group. Check the internet for local international parties or events in your area. Being around new people gives you the chance to just be yourself, without the usual peer pressures we can sometimes experience in our usual social group.

4) Talk to your Japanese friends. When I was feeling very down about life before, I talked with my closest Japanese friend at the time. Their insight into how to deal with the day to day struggles here was invaluable. I also learned at that time, Japanese people aren’t really that different from us, and we have more in common than you may think.

5) Re-evaluate your job. Is the current job you have making you unhappy? Are the hours not right for you? Do you have problems with co-workers? Maybe a new job in Japan is what you need to recharge.

6) Study Japanese. In many cases, our sense of alienation or frustration stems from an inability to understand the people around us. Without at least some knowledge of Japanese we simply cannot have even the simplest of day to day interactions, the kind of which we would take for granted back in our own countries. Attending a Japanese language school is not only fun but having even a few basic words in Japanese can open up a whole new world of interactions and potential friendships.

7) Avoid alcohol. For many it can be tempting to go and get drunk with your friends and forget your problems. As Homer Simpson once said: “Alcohol, the cause and solution to all of life’s problems.”. However, alcohol itself is a natural depressant, and drinking when you are already on a downer is not a good idea.

8) Go and see the doctor. If you are feeling the symptoms of depression, there could be many causes. It could be something wrong with your diet, a lack of sleep or exercise, and numerous other, easily resolved health issues.

In some cases, of course, depression can be more serious. If you have tried the steps above and you still don’t feel right, go and see a psychiatric doctor. Japan may still be a little behind some other countries in terms of societal acceptance of depression and other mental illnesses, but treatment here is improving rapidly. The political classes in Japan are finally waking up to the fact that depression and suicide are both bad for business. Healthy hearts and minds, lead to a healthier economy. Investment in treatments for mental illness in Japan, and moves to improve education and understanding are increasing.

The most important thing to remember is this. You are not alone.

There are millions of people across Japan, and indeed all over the world who suffer from depression to some degree. I myself have had issues in the past. Do not feel ashamed, do not feel embarrassed. No one will laugh at you; no one will ridicule you for admitting you need help.

If you’re really in a bad situation and you feel there is no way out, call Tokyo English Life Line: 03-5774-0992.

TELL is an anonymous English speaking counselling and support service available daily from 9am to 11pm. They have a network of support all across Japan and they really can help. No matter how dark things may seem, there is always a way.
Depression is like any other illness. With the right treatment, the right lifestyle and a proper system of support and follow up care, we can beat it!

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Teacher, journalist and now blogger.
  • Interela says:

    Great article!
    I myself suffer from depression due to imbalanced chemicals in my brain. And what I’ve heard from many people is that I shouldn’t go to Japan because of it. I’m moving there to study Japanese for two years, because I love the language and I love the country.

    They said I should fix my depression first and that I shouldn’t go because it will make me even more depressed because of the bad mental healthcare over there. And all these negativities I get actually make me doubt myself. But I have medication and I have the papers that allows me to take with my medications.

    But it is really depressing to see that people tell me not to go, because I got depression.

  • Kiwiimoon says:

    Hello!

    I have just recently returned to my country after staying in Japan for 1 year as an exchange student. I don’t know why but I think that I didn’t feel that much of a culture shock when I was in Japan. I might be wrong and have gone through a culture shock just different but I felt like “this is where I belong” when I was in Japan.

    The problem is now, that I got back to my own country, I was going through several reverse culture shocks and I am feeling down and low spirited for around 2 months now. Still can’t forget the time I spent in Japan and I feel like everyday I miss it more and more.

    Might be because I was gone for 1 year but I feel out of place when I spend time with some of my friends and sometimes even with my family. I miss the people I met in Japan, my friends, the culture, my boyfriend… well at least it makes me strive to do my best to one day be able to go back to Japan.

    • Liam Carrigan says:

      Thanks for sharing your experience. I totally understand how you feel. When i went back to Scotland a couple of years ago, i felt like an alien. It seemed i had changed but everyone else had stayed the same. The feeling passes with time. But i hope you will be able to return to Japan someday 🙂

  • Arthur_77 says:

    Thank you Liam,
    that´s a great post with many helpful thoughts and insights.
    I myself are a foreigner in Japan who wants to settle here and I have experienced days with exactly such kinds of bad mood you have described.

    In this context I want to add that enough and good sleep (also connected with avoiding too much alcohol, for example) is also a very important thing. If you feel tired all day, the world and the own situation always seems more gloomy. Or in other words, if you feel fit and fresh, obstacles and problems don´t seem so big anymore…
    Thanks again,
    Arthur

    • Liam Carrigan says:

      Thanks Arthur,
      You make a very good point. Lack of sleep and depression are often interconnected and both need to be tackled if a person is to regain balance in their daily life. I am not ashamed to say i have used sleep medication before, and i may well need it again in the future.

  • AndrewCh says:

    Love this post, and the blog. It is good advice whether or not you are a Japanophile, like I am, and it appears you are.
    Keep up the funny and interesting stuff.
    Andrew

  • ChaotiX64 . says:

    Point number 6:
    Study Japanese

    This should be number one for any expat in any country.
    People from other than English speaking countries considers it not only to be rude but also stupid to even consider living abroad without learning the local language.
    It’s veging on colonialism to believe you can manage a fulfilling life in Japan without knowing Japanese.

    • Liam Carrigan says:

      I think you make a good point. I will admit my Japanese isnt very good, but my friends and colleagues certainly appreciate my efforts. A little effort does indeed go a long way.

  • TLD_0819 says:

    Outstanding blog Liam! It is easy to slip into alcoholism in Japan as everyone seems to be handing out drinks on a night out and everywhere sells alcohol.

    • Liam Carrigan says:

      Thanks, glad you enjoyed reading. I think alcoholism is unfortunately a growing problem here. As you say, alcohol is so freely available here and public drinking doesnt seem to have the same stigma attached here as it may in most western countries. As a non-drinker myself, i have to say it is quite disconcerting when I go into a bar or izakaya here and the soft drinks are often just as expensive or in some cases even more expensive than beers!

  • TELL says:

    Yes, the Lifeline is free and open from 9am-11pm.
    03 5774 0992

  • Ariel Monaco says:

    9. Learn Japanese, immediately. 10. Find yourself a Japanese girlfriend / boyfriend who wants to learn English.

    • Liam Carrigan says:

      Actually i’d say the opposite. Try dating people who speak little or no English and you’ll be amazed how quickly you pick up Japanese 🙂

  • Robert Chandler says:

    The other sometimes obvious answer if this is long term thing maybe going home should be considered.

    • Liam Carrigan says:

      Thanks for commenting Robert, and i think you make a good point. Some move to Japan, or another new country believing it is some kind of magic bullet that will solve all their problems and sadly that often isn’t the case. However, as I’ve pointed out in previous articles, in some cases the prevailing economic conditions, and certain nations’ frankly racist immigration policies mean that some people don’t have the option of going home. From experience I can say that being depressed and unemployed is a lot worse than being depressed and in work.

      • Robert Chandler says:

        Your quite right with that. I am here as much as for economic reasons as for my interest in Japan.

  • frank says:

    Homer Simpson “Alcohol, the cause and solution to all of lifes problems.” Quote fail. Otherwise a good article that hopefully helps some of the forlorn out there.

    • Liam Carrigan says:

      Oops sorry about that. Actually i took that quote from a t-shirt i saw of Homer Simpson. Since I havent really watched the Simpsons regularly for the last 10 years I assumed he must have said it at some point.
      Anyway, glad you liked the article 🙂

  • Nathan Shanan Crookes says:

    Good job with writing this article Liam, thanks!

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