Living in Japan: Culture Shock

A reader suggested to me a while back that I should write about being a Westerner in Japan, and what that means in terms of culture shock. Before coming, I had researched etiquette and customs, and looked at a few sites that touch on the subject, but I thought I’d write down a few of my personal observations and feelings when I first arrived, and how I feel now after being here almost a year.

cynthia popper

Culture Shock is Very Real

I have to be honest… I kind of thought since I’ve traveled so much all over the world, often for long periods of time, that I’d be immune to culture shock. WRONG. Visiting a country and living in a country are two vastly different experiences. Even to this day, sometimes when I wake up, sometimes on a train, or even at work, I think to myself “holy crap… I LIVE here now.” It’s a mixture of excitement, sadness, and bewilderment. I still can’t believe I took the plunge, even with a daily routine well in place here.

Buddha in Nara

The Stages

Lots of sites talk about the stages of culture shock: fear, resentment, depression, acceptance, and I have to say, they’re pretty much dead on. I was very reclusive when I first got here. Doing anything was difficult, from ordering food or buying basics at the drugstore, and dealing with that frustration on a daily basis was exhausting. But every day it gets easier—I figure out a new word, or a way to get things done, and those little successes really keep me motivated.

The depression for me wasn’t too bad. Moving to Asia has been a dream of mine for so many years I think on some level I was mentally braced for it. The frustration still gets to me sometimes—not being able to transfer money at the ATM without help, not being able to read my mail… these everyday errands take much longer than they should, and the lack of language skill has really motivated me to study Japanese much harder!

How to Get Over It

If I had one piece of advice for someone coming over it would be this: just because something is different, doesn’t automatically make it inferior. Yes… apartments are small. That means less to clean and less clutter to waste money on! Yes, the style here is almost insufferably cute. So what? There are no rules to fashion— and you don’t have to wear it! By accepting the differences and embracing your own as a foreigner here, your life will be so much richer.  Explore the new possibilities of your new home, and try something new every day.


From a physical standpoint, I think overall wellness helps with culture shock too. Sleep well, eat well, drink water…don’t neglect yourself. I walk so much more here I find myself hungry pretty much all the time. I’m eating way more meat than I ever did back home. The upshot is there are lots of healthy options in Japan, but there are LOTS of unhealthy ones too: fried everything, loads of snack foods and desserts. Rather than kick myself for eating tempura, I try to follow an 80/20 rule and enjoy all of the yumminess this country offers.

Friends at Sumo

Make Friends

It can be tricky making friends from another country, but luckily, there are loads of meetups and international parties you can check out, where Japanese folks go to meet Westerners. And the expat community here is incredibly supportive and there are plenty of art shows, concerts, classes, and nights out to enjoy with people who speak your language. Get out and be around people every once in a while. It helps a lot!

If you have questions or need advice, feel free to message me on Facebook.



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