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Expat Advice: Culture Shock in Tokyo, Japan

May 17, 2015

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This expat culture shock report about Tokyo, Japan was submitted by an experienced expatriate who has some great perspectives to share about moving to this cosmopolitan city. It also offers some advice on how to navigate your way through the adjustment process.

What is the name of the city or town that you are reporting on?


Did you receive any cross-cultural training for your move abroad? If yes, was it before or after the move?


Moving to Japan soon?

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If they speak another language in your new country, do you speak the language? If yes, did you learn the language before you moved or while abroad? If no, are you planning to learn the language?

Japanese is spoken but I don't speak it. I'd like to learn it.

Were you worried or concerned about culture shock before you moved abroad?

A bit, but because I had lived in the Netherlands previously for 3.5 years, I was better prepared emotionally and attitudinally for Japan.

How significant was the culture shock you experienced when you moved abroad?

Culture shock was worse for me in moving to the Netherlands than it was in moving to Japan. Having lived abroad before, I knew generally what to expect and what to watch out for. The biggest challenge is always the unwritten rules for the types of behavior that is expected in different settings. For example, in the US we tend to be a lot less formal than in Japan.

Expats often talk about going through the "stages of culture shock." Examples include the honeymoon phase, the irritation-to-anger stage, the rejection of the culture stage, and the cultural adjustment phase. Do you feel like you went through these or any other stages as you settled into the new culture?

I went through them all when I moved to the Netherlands, but I adjusted more readily to Japan, perhaps because I expected it to be very different from the US.

What, if any, were some of the changes you noticed in yourself that might have been caused by culture shock? These might include things such as anger, depression, anxiety, increased eating or drinking, frustration, homesickness, etc.

Nothing in particular.

What are some things you appreciate most about the new culture?

The respect the Japanese show for strangers, how they all clean up after themselves and go out of their way to help people, the customer service which is always provided with a smile, the fact that no one expects or accepts a tip.

What are the most challenging aspects of the new culture?

Riding the very crowded trains during rush hour. Finding my way around the city, given the lack of street names.

Did you "commit" any embarrassing or humorous cultural blunders? If you did and you'd like to share them, please do tell!

When leaving a business meeting, the Japanese walk you out and after you leave, you're supposed to turn around and bow, which I wasn't aware of until someone from my office explained it to me. I had just been walking out of the buildings whenever I had a meeting.

Do you have any advice or thoughts about culture shock you would like to share?

Taking time to observe how the natives of the country do things can be really helpful in figuring out how you should behave. Luckily, the Japanese are pretty forgiving of foreigners.

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