Guide to Work, Study, Travel and Living Abroad    

Living in Tokyo as an Expat

How to Survive Culture Shock

City scene in Tokyo
City scene in Tokyo.

The vast metropolis that is Tokyo offers an intense jolt to your system—a fabulous initial ride but one that can and will cause you to crash if you are not prepared. Within the confines of the city are millions of people, the latest technological advancements, downright bizarre contradictions, and enough neon to make Las Vegas hang its head in defeat. For these very reasons, there is little wonder why culture shock is so endemic among tourists and expatriates alike. The tourist has it relatively easy in this respect—home is never far off and such awareness helps to curb the stress of being in such an alien, intense, and diverse environment. Expatriates, however, arrive in Tokyo knowing that this is where they will be living for anywhere from months to years. As a result, culture shock can come on strong and put a serious damper on the early stages of adjustment. If you are contemplating a move to Tokyo, then the following points of advice should come in handy.

  • Because of its sheer size, reputation, and sense of what feels like a different planet, the urge to instantly dive into Tokyo upon arrival is a strong one. Resist. It is easier said than done, I know, but do not forget that this is your new home and that despite what will be a hectic work and life schedule, discovering Tokyo slowly is one of the most intriguing aspects of living in the city. Upon my initial arrival in Tokyo, I jumped right in, hardly even realizing that I was trying to keep pace with a city that I did not understand. The end result was complete and total burnout out several days later. I was disoriented, highly over-emotional and completely disoriented. 
Having traveled extensively throughout the world, I felt that I already knew of the full extent of culture shock. I was wrong. The culture shock I had experienced in Tokyo was far different than anything I had ever encountered anywhere else in the world. It was not an experience strictly exclusive to myself either, as I later found out when numerous friends and family came to visit. My initial warning to them was always the same: take it slow. These warnings were generally shrugged off, ultimately resulting in the same shock to the system that I had endured only months earlier.

The first few days after arriving are really the most important towards preserving your mental and physical well-being. Do not rely on or wait until you feel dead tired before you give in to sleep. Jet lag affects everyone differently and just because you do not feel tired does not necessarily mean that your body is not badly in need of a rest. You are entering a completely different environment than that which you are used to. Overload on your senses and body can easily occur. When this happens, an overwhelming sense of confusion, isolation, and panic can set in, otherwise known as culture shock.
  • There are no shortages of things to see in Tokyo. From Harajuku’s black clad Lolitas, to Shibuya’s neon smeared skyline, right down to the bohemian cosiness of Shimokitazawa—it is all out there. The general audio-visual power of Tokyo seems to manifest itself in its numerously diverse wards. As mentioned earlier, there is no rush. Wards like Shibuya, Harajuku, Ginza, Roppongi, and Shinjuku are more or less the most manic of all the wards in Tokyo. With every new ward visited, you will find yourself falling deeper into the intricacies of Planet Tokyo and it will not be long before you are not sure where you are, let alone what is going on around you. Cramming all wards—or even a couple of the aforementioned wards—into a day’s site seeing is one of the easiest ways to achieve sensory overload. Instead, give your eyes, ears and brain a chance to let it all gently seep in: a sort of cultural osmosis, if you will. Start small and do not bite off more than you can chew. A perfect place for the uninitiated to Tokyo’s madness is Kichijoji—small but still busy and a nice first look at some of the craziness. Wander around and build up a little tolerance before heading out to swim with the bigger fish. Even once you do decide to tackle the likes of Shibuya and Shinjuku, just pick one of them and spend the day there. A ward a day is a good method of self-preservation.
  • Don’t rely on people in Tokyo (or Japan for that matter) being able to understand and communicate with you in English.  Remember: you are in their country. The onus is not on them to understand you. The longer you spend in Tokyo, the greater the need to learn the language will be. Being cut off from an ability to accurately express yourself can be frustrating and just plain maddening. It can also be a major reason for feeling alienated and lost in a new and confusing world. 
Take the time in your home country beforehand to research some decent language courses and pick the one that best suits you and your schedule. If time or money simply is not available for language lessons, at the very least look into purchasing (or borrowing from your local library) audio lessons like Pimsleur.

Finally, purchase a very comprehensive Japanese/English dictionary to use during your everyday travels around Tokyo. Learning Japanese is a very demanding endeavour that takes time, practice and dedication. Keep at it, get your basics down and significantly lower your alienation/disorientation.
  • In a perfect world, expatriates would have no problems adjusting to life in Japan and a general feeling of belonging would blossom like a cherry tree. Cynical though it may sound, unfortunately, belonging is just not the reality of the situation. I don’t want to give any false impressions here: be aware that the majority of Japanese are extremely gracious hosts, respectful, curious, and very friendly to outsiders. Nonetheless, arriving in Japan believing that you will break down the social and cultural barriers and be accepted as you are regardless of your status as a foreigner is not only naïve, but also wholly over-zealous. You are a foreigner and the Japanese are Japanese. No more, no less. As a foreigner, expect to always be on the fringes regardless of whether or not you live in the heart of Tokyo or on the shores of Okinawa. This is not to say that meaningful friendships, relationships, and experiences will be denied you during your time in Japan—certainly not. Rather, you must develop an understanding that the sooner you come to terms with the barrier between locals and foreigners, the better.
Be prepared to have everything from housing to employment refused to you based solely on not being Japanese. Something along the lines of 90% of Japanese landlords will not rent to foreigners. Jobs can be denied based on race. Those of African descent for example, can be passed up for work specifically because of their skin colour. To date I know of no laws that prohibit hiring practices based on racial discrimination. You will feel the impact of this isolation and if you’re not prepared for this particular reality of life in Japanese society, the sting of being an outsider will be that much more biting. Tokyo is already a place whose inhabitants are relatively sealed off from each other on a day-to-day basis. Be realistic about your expectations and the feeling of isolation in Tokyo will not mount and overwhelm you. Make some money, eat some fantastic food, meet some great friends, and have fun.  Just do not arrive in Japan thinking that you are going to become accepted as a native. By so doing you will have far fewer disappointments and frustrations intensifying your already fragile cultural adjustment.
  • Once you have ceased to be a tourist and have settled down in the city with a job and a place to live, once the novelty of Shibuya and Shinjuku has slightly faded, you are left to face the realities of life in Tokyo. Do not mistake a couple of months of life in Tokyo as immunity to potential future culture shock. Though less of a problem then when you first arrived, stress is still a major ingredient in the cultural loss of balance. Noise remains a factor, as do crowds, and the intensely real lack of personal space. All-too-often you will feel the need to just clear your head. When that happens, do not ignore it with shopping and binge drinking, as many Tokyoites are apt to do. 
Exercise and a good diet are excellent ways to keep your mental health and spirits up. Fortunately, healthy and very fresh foods are readily available in Tokyo. Swimming pools in Japan, though laden with rules, are clean and swimming laps is an excellent method for keeping your head clear and focused.

It is also a good idea to make the odd weekend escape from the city and get back to nature a little. It is surprisingly easy to make a day-long exodus and still remain within city limits. Places like Takaosanguchi, Kamakura, and Enoshima Island are refreshing little jaunts into the forests and seaside of the neighbouring countryside. Breath in some fresh air, watch the sea, hike in the woods—just escape long enough to chase the seemingly incessant buzz of Tokyo from your skull and remind yourself that yes, you’re still living on earth.
  • Perhaps the simplest solution to the absence of familiarity or general disorientation with your new surroundings is to meet other expatriates. Conversing with people who are experiencing similar emotions will help you to realize that you’re not alone with your feelings. There are plenty of expat hang outs in Tokyo and among one of the better ones is The Pink Cow in Shibuya. It caters to all different sorts of interests, including art shows, a film club, and open mic nights.
When all is said and done, of course not everyone is adversely affected by the culture shock of Tokyo. Everyone handles stress and change differently. However, if this is your first time traveling abroad or if you tend to get nervous, tense, or just plain uncomfortable in new or strange environments, then do yourself a favour and take the advice listed above. Also remember that even if your new homeland gets the better of you in the beginning, the intensity of such feelings will gradually lessen and diminish completely. It will not be long before you are zipping along, keeping pace with the locals themselves and loving life in one of the most fascinating cities on the planet.

For More Information

Japan survival tips (Japanese Immersion Language School)

The Japanese Friend Connection (Free Japanese Lessons)

Silence, Spontaneity and Saving Face: Insider Tips for Living in Tokyo

Related Topics
Living in Japan: Expatriate Articles and Resources
More by Mike Jones
The Japanese Job Interview
Working in Japan: What to Expect in the Japanese Workplace

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