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Living in Tokyo as an Expat

How to Survive Culture Shock

City scene in full of skyscrapers and commercial signs in Tokyo.
City scene in Tokyo.

The vast metropolis of 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. There is little wonder why culture shock is so endemic among tourists and expatriates alike for these reasons. 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 severe damper on the early stages of adjustment. If you are contemplating moving and living in 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 strong. 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, slowly discovering Tokyo is one of the most intriguing aspects of living in the city. Upon arriving in Tokyo, I jumped right in, hardly even realizing that I was trying to keep pace with a city I did not understand. The end result was complete and total burnout several days later. I was disoriented, highly over-emotional, and completely disoriented.
Having traveled extensively worldwide, I felt I already knew 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. It was not an experience strictly exclusive to me either, as I later found out when numerous friends and family visited. My initial warning to them was always the same: take it slow. These warnings were generally shrugged off, resulting in the same shock to the system I had endured only months earlier.

The first few days after arriving are the most important for 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 even if you do not feel tired, it does not necessarily mean that your body is not badly in need of rest. You are entering a completely different environment than you are used to. Overload on your senses and body can quickly occur. When this happens, an overwhelming sense of confusion, isolation, and panic, otherwise known as culture shock, can set in.
  • There are plenty of things to see in Tokyo. From Harajuku’s black-clad Lolitas to Shibuya’s neon-smeared skyline, right down to the bohemian coziness 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. Neighborhoods like Shibuya, Harajuku, Ginza, Roppongi, and Shinjuku are more or less the most manic of all the wards in Tokyo. With every new neighborhood 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 neighborhoods mentioned above — into a day’s sightseeing 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 cultural osmosis. 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 an excellent 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 tackle the likes of Shibuya and Shinjuku, pick one and spend the day there. A ward a day is a suitable method of self-preservation.
  • Don’t rely on people in Tokyo (or Japan, for that matter) to be 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 your need to learn the language. Being cut off from an ability to accurately express yourself can be frustrating and just plain maddening. It can also be a significant 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 is unavailable for language lessons, at the very least, look into purchasing (or borrowing from your local library) audio lessons like Pimsleur.

Finally, purchase a comprehensive Japanese/English dictionary during your everyday travels around Tokyo. Learning Japanese is a demanding endeavor 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 not the reality of the situation. I don’t want to give any false impressions here: be aware that most Japanese are incredibly gracious hosts, respectful, curious, and 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 during your time in Japan—certainly not. Instead, you must understand 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 precisely because of their skin color. To date, I know of no laws that prohibit hiring practices based on racial discrimination. You will feel the impact of this isolation. Suppose you’re not prepared for this reality of life in Japanese society. In that case, being an outsider will be 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 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 few months of life in Tokyo as immunity to potential future culture shock. Though less of a problem than when you first arrived, stress is still a significant 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 clear your head. When that happens, please 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 are 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 return to nature. It is surprisingly easy to make a day-long exodus and remain within city limits. Places like Takaosanguchi, Kamakura, and Enoshima Island are refreshing little excursions into the forests and seaside of the neighboring countryside. Breathe in some fresh air, watch the sea, hike in the woods — 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.
  • 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 hangouts in Tokyo. Among the better ones is The Pink Cow in Shibuya. It caters to various 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 favor and take the advice listed above. Also, remember that even if your new homeland gets the better of you initially, 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 and loving life in one of the most fascinating cities on the planet.

For More Information on Living in Tokyo

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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