Tofugu » Editorial A Japanese Language & Culture Blog Thu, 27 Aug 2015 13:00:00 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Questioning Japanese Creativity: Is Japan Really Creative? Mon, 13 Jul 2015 13:00:00 +0000 Ukiyo-e. Kabuki. The Shinkansen. Akira Kurosawa. Haruki Murakami. Hello Kitty. Attack on Titan. So, is Japan really creative? It seems like such a silly question. Why even bother to ask it? I imagine that most people reading this will wonder why I’m questioning such a self-evident truth. After all, there is even a study done by Adobe which found Japan to be […]

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Ukiyo-e. Kabuki. The Shinkansen. Akira Kurosawa. Haruki Murakami. Hello Kitty. Attack on Titan.

So, is Japan really creative? It seems like such a silly question. Why even bother to ask it?

I imagine that most people reading this will wonder why I’m questioning such a self-evident truth. After all, there is even a study done by Adobe which found Japan to be the country perceived most creative in the world.

However, this same study revealed something interesting. Japanese people themselves do not see Japan as creative. In fact, they were the least likely among the surveyed countries to describe themselves as creative or as “people who create.”

Within Japan, in business circles and in mass media, “innovation” has become a buzzword in recent years. But the practical model isn’t Sony. It’s Silicon Valley.

There’s a major gap between how outsiders view Japan and how Japan views itself. And I aim to find out why.

Japanese Creativity


Japan is certainly the birthplace of many creative things.

Visual storytelling mediums such as film and manga have been especially unique and innovative throughout the 20th century. Japanese characters like Hello Kitty have taken the world by storm. Beginning in the 1990s, Japan the world began to discover the depth of Japanese anime and games.

I personally remember growing up watching Digimon and battling caterpies in Veridian Forest on my Gameboy.

Then there’s also the list of Japanese inventions that Japan has provided the world. Not just the useless and weird ones, but very useful ones as well.

College students have Japan to thank for instant ramen. Party people thank Japan for karaoke machines. All kinds of gadgets, like the Walkman and portable CD player, were introduced during Japan’s industrial heyday.

For film you have recent award-winners like Departures and Confessions, not to mention works by Akira Kurosawa, Seijun Suzuki, and Shohei Imamura.

Japan boasts some notable musicians like Joe Hisaishi and Ryuichi Sakamoto, who is best known for his composition “Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence” (one of my favorites).

Japanese literature gave us novelists like Banana Yoshimoto and Haruki Murakami.

Need we even mention Tezuka and Miyazaki?

We could go on and on creating these lists, for every realm and sphere. So how then can Japanese people consider themselves to be uncreative?

And more to the point, does this prove Japan’s creativity?

Why Don’t Japanese People Consider Themselves Creative?


Photo by Angie Harms

To understand why Japanese people don’t consider themselves creative, consider the following explanations:

  1. There’s probably a bit of humility distorting the results.
  2. It used to be Sony that was offering new products to the world. The past ten-so years have seen Silicon Valley leading and Japan playing catch-up.
  3. Japan’s software side remains weak. Japanese websites are a prime example. Games are the exception. But games aside, I can’t think of a widely-used Japanese software or app that has gained traction outside of Japan besides LINE (do enlighten me if you know of one though).
  4. Entrepreneurial culture remains small (but it certainly exists and is growing). This article calls the situation in Japan an “entrepreneurship vacuum” and notes that it had the lowest rate of new enterprises appearing in the whole OECD.

Flagging corporations, weak software development, and a small entrepreneurial culture. And this from a country of 120 million. Despite our lists of creative works and heroes above, there is evidence to support the argument that Japan is not the most creative country in the world.

Japan’s Creative Strengths and Weaknesses


Naturally each country has its strengths and weaknesses and Japan is no different. It displays creativity in areas like cultural products and food. But entrepreneurship and software are entirely different fields.

I’ve mentioned before that the Japanese are not necessarily conservative, but risk-adverse. Thus, creativity expressed in Japan is likely to be in rather risk-free ways. Perhaps this is why we see creativity expressed through cultural products, fashion, and the arts. These fields naturally come with some cultural expressive space and demand something different.

This creativity is probably stifled in the Japanese boardrooms and corporate offices. After all, risk-adverse corporations are unlikely to make drastic and possibly upsetting moves. Individual employees are also unlikely to stick their necks out for a wild idea because of the responsibility that comes with it. Perhaps it is this aversion to risk which causes creativity to manifest itself unevenly in different fields.

Another point is the skills in which Japanese people excel. I have to say, from personal experience, IT education in Japan is poor. People enter university not having touched Microsoft Word before, much less with any programming ability. Also, even within Japan right now there is more respect paid to hardware engineers compared to software engineers. This explains the poor software sector in Japan.

On the other hand perhaps Japan’s strength in arts and music arises from the long artistic traditions and the educational institutions Japan has in these areas.

Creativity Is in the Eye of the Beholder


Illustration by David Gutteridge. Used with permission.

There’s also a lot of distortions when it comes to the outside view of Japan. A good example is “I survived a Japanese Game Show” which aired on ABC in 2008. It featured American contestants going to Japan to perform wacky deeds on a show called “Majide.” It fails to really show anything real in Japan. Even the NHK, which is funded by the government and biased, shows more of Japan’s reality. If anything ISAJGS shows people what they expect. These are things that non-Japanese people have already attached the “weird” label to. Usually, this idea of “weird” also connotes “creative.”

The typical tourist experience in Japan is another fine example. The typical tourist will probably walk through Harajuku at 7:00pm, stunned by the Gothic Lolita fashion. The typical Japanese working person however has to deal with the 8:00am Shinjuku station, one of the most dreary and uncreative scenes imaginable.

Obviously the typical tourist comes to Japan looking for what’s special about it. He or she will leave Japan knowing all about the glittery things. There’s nothing wrong with this. In fact it’s normal for any short term visitor. But it should be recognized that tourists view of Japan is narrow, as they miss the mundane, ordinary, and “normal.”

This also applies to cultural products. The anime that receive attention outside of Japan are likely to be the cream of the crop or have some exotic appeal to them. These shows are different from “normal” Japanese anime, and even more different from the “normal” TV you’d see by channel surfing in Japan. You’re more likely to stumble on formulaic travel or variety shows with one or two gimmicks thrown in and presenters yelling “oishiiii.”

In addition, I think lots of people look at Japanese culture and assume that it’s creative just because it’s different from their own. However, apply the same standards to Western culture and things begin to look off.

If we conclude that Japan is creative for inventing Pokemon then isn’t Belgium creative for inventing the Smurfs? Little blue men (and one woman) living in mushrooms. That’s pretty different and creative.

Saying that Japan is creative because it has KyariPamyuPamyu is like saying the US is creative for having Lady Gaga. Final Fantasy?  The US gets super creative points for Dungeons and Dragons then.

If any of the statements sound strange it’s because they are. If it doesn’t make sense to use Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as evidence for American creativity, then the same goes for using Hello Kitty as evidence for Japan’s.

Creativity as Defined by Whom?


I actually don’t have a straight answer to whether Japan is creative or not. I certainly can say Japan has creativity (duh!). If it didn’t, Apple wouldn’t be choosing Yokohama for their new research center. I can also say that Japan displays more creativity in some fields than others. Also, it isn’t 100% creative across the board.

I can positively say Japanese creativity, as perceived from outside Japan, has been massively exaggerated. Japan has been subject to a runaway media especially online but also offline. This has reduced a unique and complex country into a pastiche of weird food, Engrish, anime, and hentai.

Perhaps we should remember that, for the Japanese, things out of the Japanese normal, not the western normal, are creative. That is to say, no matter how novel (to the outside) and entertaining it may be, there is nothing really creative about yet another fan-service filled, formulaic shounen anime. Neither is it creative for Japan to (apparently) have panty vending machines (which I’ve never seen in all my time here). If there are already vending machines for cigarettes and soda, it really doesn’t take much of a creative jump to fill one with underwear.

Most Japanese people will probably consider Attack on Titan to be genuinely creative though. Because the themes and characters are rather fresh.

So perhaps instead of pointing to Japan as “creative” in long, distorted strokes, maybe we should think about what is really creative to Japanese people. After all, if creativity is the ability to create new things, then to judge this we need to look at what is pushing the envelope within Japanese culture, not simply Japanese things we’ve never seen before.

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JET Program Culture Shock Part 3: Coping with Culture Shock in Japan Fri, 10 Jul 2015 13:00:00 +0000 The last two articles, defining culture shock and preparing for culture shock, were leading up to this. Dealing with culture shock while you’re shocked is the most important piece of the puzzle. There are lots of ideas on what to do when culture shock stares you in the face. Below are 10 ways to cope with culture shock, […]

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The last two articles, defining culture shock and preparing for culture shock, were leading up to this. Dealing with culture shock while you’re shocked is the most important piece of the puzzle. There are lots of ideas on what to do when culture shock stares you in the face. Below are 10 ways to cope with culture shock, and 4 ways that may seem like a good idea, but actually hurt more than help. Even further below are links to some of the best resources, helps, and ideas I’ve found so far.

How to Cope


Once you’ve recognized your shock-ed-ness, it’s time to take action. With a little work and patience, you’ll be back on your emotional feet and loving life in Japan the way you wanted to.

  1. Acknowledge that your feelings are valid: More than likely, the culture shock feelings you’re experiencing may not be entirely wrong. The problem is that culture shock blows up those feelings exponentially and then spreads them over your perception of all of Japanese culture. For example your frustration at using a fax machine in the internet age may be entirely valid. But then the valid feeling becomes anger which turns into “This whole damn country is backwards!” These feelings spread farther to “Giving omiyage is so useless and stupid. This whole damn country is backwards!” Eventually everything you encounter becomes stupid, useless, backwards, illogical, and just plain wrong. And that’s where you become miserable. Take some time to write down all your grievances, no matter how angry or outlandish they may be. Get them down on paper. Recognize that they are your personal feelings and you are entitled to your opinion, no matter what it is. Then put them away. Put those feeling away in a box or drawer and forget about them. You’ve recognized that you’re in stage 2 and you’re not yourself. So put these feelings aside until you’re past this stage. You’re not dismissing your ideas, you’re just putting them aside because they’re getting in the way of your enjoyment of life. This is saying, “I’m not going to let my ideas of how Japan should work get in the way of enjoying the way Japan is.” After you’re past stage 2, come back to the list. Over time you may find that some of these ideas are not the way you truly feel about Japan. Some ideas will remain, though you won’t feel irrationally angry about them. You may end up feeling that the group mentality does have some positive effects, while you may still think using a fax machine in the 21st century is silly. But no matter what your opinion on Japan ends up being, you’ll be able to accept the country for what it is and enjoy your life.
  2. Join a club: Join a group activity at your school or in your community that involves Japanese people. When Japan’s cultural differences are bugging you, it may seem counterintuitive to join activities with Japanese people, which is exactly why you should do it. You may not fully understand the Japanese way of thinking or doing things, but being in fun, non-work situations with Japanese people will help you to start enjoying the company of individuals who are part of the culture that’s grating on you. Over time, it becomes easier to understand the Japanese way of doing things because you’ll have friends to connect that mindset with. You start to connect Japan with people you care about, rather than ideas or concepts you think about.
  3. Volunteer: This has the same benefits as joining a club or activity. But it has extra efficacy because you’re serving and helping others. Also, it refocuses your attention on people who need help, and gets you outside of your head and the negativity bouncing around in there.
  4. Differentiate between a cultural issue and an individual behaving badly: When deep in culture shock, it’s easy to take the behavior of one (or a few) jerks and assign it to the entire Japanese population. When a disgruntled salaryman elbows you on the train and tells you to go back to 外国, it’s easy to think, “Stupid Japan. Everybody here hates foreigners.” Pay special attention when you find yourself thinking these things. Is it really a Japan problem, or is it just that person?
  5. Remind yourself that you moved to Japan for the differences: If you wanted the same life you had, you would have stayed in your home country. But you wanted adventure and something different. True, some of that differentness is not always good or easy to deal with. Some parts of the adventure are sucky. But trudging through the sucky parts will eventually lead you to the treasure you set out for.
  6. Journal and Blog: Take some time to write down your thoughts in a journal and a blog. Notice I said “and,” not “or.” I suggest doing both, one for your thoughts for other people and one for personal thoughts. First use your journal to get out all your personal, angry, hurt, sad, or whatever feelings. Once you’ve done that, blog the ones you feel like sharing. This lets you do a lot of emotional parsing and keeps you from sharing things you’ll regret saying later.
  7. Take some alone time (but not isolation time): For all the getting involved that is good for you, it’s important to take time for yourself. Sometimes culture shock can be worsened by overwork and over socializing. So be sure to politely decline some events or invitations if you really need to recharge your batteries. The caution here is that you don’t let alone time become a period of isolation. People in difficult emotional states tend to isolate themselves and turn inward, which makes their situation worse. Make sure to reconnect with friends, family, and co-workers after your pre-determined recharge time.
  8. Focus on the similarities: Japan’s differences are all up in your face and irritating you. So try to look past them and focus on what makes you and Japan similar. What values do you share? What beliefs?
  9. Read about Japan online: This may be hard to do when you’ve got Japan overload, but read as much as you can. Not only is reading good for you, reading about news in your new nation can help you feel more aware of your surroundings and more connected with your new life.
  10. You are not your brain: Dr. Rebecca Gladding and Dr. Jeffrey Schwartz remind us that our brain is not us. It’s an organ that keeps us alive and tells us to do things, usually based on survival. This is great in the wild, but not so great in society where we have to be in relationships with other humans. This means you’ve got hope in the midst of culture shock. The emotional and psychological ups and downs can be controlled and limited. This isn’t accomplished easily, of course. But it can be accomplished. Your brain may order you in different directions, but you don’t have to do everything it tells you.

How Not to Cope


While enacting coping strategies, there are a few things to avoid, some that may even seem like they’re helping at first.

  1. Don’t rush yourself: As mentioned in number 3 of this list, you have  a lot of things to adjust to: new job, new people, new language (probably), new mindset, new living conditions, new weather, and the list goes on. Part of the reason culture shock happens is because the adjustment time usually outlasts the novelty of a new environment. So be patient with the shock. Do your best to cope but know it might take a while to even out.
  2. Facebook: Social media touts itself as a revolution in human communication. And it can be sometimes. But scrolling through friends’ news feeds while culture shocked is like feeding your homesickness. When you’re feeling down about your life in Japan, don’t consume (overblown) images and stories of friends in your home country doing swimmingly. Instead, opt for Facebook messages or tweets directly to a friend or loved one. Use social media for helpful communication rather than one-way intake of other peoples’ life snippets.
  3. Don’t isolate yourself: This was mentioned above, but it bears repeating. Don’t isolate yourself. It doesn’t take scientific research to know that isolation is bad for mental health, but here’s some anyway: scientific research.
  4. Don’t complain about Japan in groups: As Verity explains in her article on culture shock, it’s best to avoid what she calls “stage 2 parties.” This is where a group of foreigners get together to gripe about Japan, which usually validates extreme ideas in their minds and makes their culture shock worse. Make no mistake, it’s fine to let off steam. In fact, a bit of “I know, right!” with friends can be very helpful during stage 2. But try to be conscious of when this party has gone on too long, is not constructive, or is destructive. The goal of letting off steam is to let feelings go, not pile them on and weigh you down even more.

What to Do If Culture Shock Becomes Overwhelming


Photo by Jes

If you feel the effects of your culture shock are too tough to handle on your own and you’re experiencing symptoms beyond your control, please reach out to someone. There are large networks of people who help JETs with all kinds of problems, culture shock included.

  • The AJET Peer Support Group: This is a group of individuals that work between 8pm and 7am, Japan time. They are trained to help JETs all over the country with all kinds of problems and offer counsel. Find out more information at the AJET PSG website, or give them a call at 050-5534-5566 or on Skype at AJETPSG.
  • Tokyo English Life Line: TELL is a non-profit in Tokyo that offers various types of counseling and support to English speakers in Japan. Check out their website or call them at 03-5774-0992.
  • Your Prefectural Advisor: Though their powers are now more limited than they used to be, your PA is still there for you. This is exactly the kind of thing they are meant to handle. Contact them any time you need help, especially in an emergency.

Resources for Coping with Culture Shock in Japan


Below are a list of resources I came across while researching this article series. Refer to them for extra information on understanding and dealing with culture shock. The official JET General Information Handbook had some of the most enlightening and helpful information on the subject. Also, an article called “The Values Americans Live By” by L. Robert Kohls was similarly enlightening, especially his list of American values set side-by-side with those of a more traditional country. Check that one out, even if you’re not American.

The Jewel and the Light


Photo by Orbital Joe

Overcoming culture shock is a tough subject because it’s different for everyone. It can be mild or severe and how or when it takes effect depends on the individual. But no matter who you are, I hope this series helps at least in a small way.

Personally, I dodged some parts of culture shock, but other parts hit me hard. I handled some things well, but others I didn’t, which kept me shocked longer than I needed to be. In the end though, I learned a lot about myself and Japan.

I’ll end this series with a quote from an excellent resource for JETs, KumamotoJET:

We are like a jewel, and culture is like the light.  When light comes from a different source or angle, the jewel looks different.  Sometimes just a little change makes the jewel shine, and other times it makes it look dull and unimpressive.  It’s not the jewel’s or the light’s fault, it’s the result of the interaction.  It’s not Japan’s fault, it’s not your fault.  It’s the result of the interaction between the two.

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A Japanese Citizen Studying “Abroad” in Her Own Country Fri, 03 Jul 2015 13:00:00 +0000 Just a couple weeks ago, I graduated college. I’ve been going through a whirlwind of emotions, good-byes and transitions into the “real world.” At the same time, I’ve been reflecting on my past 4 years as an undergrad. There are a lot of things that college grads easily remember. The friends we made, the countless all-nighters, silly (and perhaps stupid) shenanigans. But for […]

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Just a couple weeks ago, I graduated college. I’ve been going through a whirlwind of emotions, good-byes and transitions into the “real world.” At the same time, I’ve been reflecting on my past 4 years as an undergrad.

There are a lot of things that college grads easily remember. The friends we made, the countless all-nighters, silly (and perhaps stupid) shenanigans. But for some, study abroad tends to be the most memorable and most life-changing experience. I’m included in this. I studied abroad in Tokyo, Japan. Or as my friends call it, I “studied at home.”

I am Japanese. I was born in Japan and raised there for part of my life. I speak the language fluently and visited my home country countless times. So why did I decide to study “abroad” there?

Why Study Abroad in Japan?


I originally planned to study abroad in China. I wanted to continue working on my Chinese and take classes related to international affairs. A visit to Tokyo during my spring break in 2013 changed this.

My family often visits Japan during the summer or winter. So it was the first time in 12 years that I was going to see Japan in its springtime glory.

And boy, was it amazing.

It was probably the weather– scratch that, it was the weather. There was something so memorable about the sunny days with cherry blossoms in full bloom. The locals hosted ohanami (cherry blossom viewing parties) everywhere. Everyone looked happy, basking in the sun, drinking and enjoying themselves under the pink-petaled flowers so iconic to my country. Everything looked and felt so different. This wasn’t the “hot, humid and sticky summer” Japan or the “cold, icy winter storm” Japan that I was familiar with.

Springtime Japan gave me the idea, “why not study here?” My writing and reading skills definitely needed intensive work. I rarely wrote Japanese, aside from the text messages I exchanged with my parents. Aside from occasional glances at the Japanese news, I rarely read Japanese in college. I had also received approval to pursue my thesis research on immigration in Japan. Why not conduct field studies during my time abroad?

Last and most importantly, I had the strong desire to explore and see Japan beyond the concrete, busy metropolis of Tokyo.

Enamored with spring and filled academic goals, I decided to change my study abroad destination to Tokyo. My parents were pleased to have their daughter back in her birthplace and studying her own language and culture. As the day of departure approached, my head was filled with all sorts of dreams about exploring Tokyo, and going beyond the city to other regions of Japan.

But things didn’t go as planned.

Homesick During Study Abroad in Japan


Photo by Tracy Lee

Most study abroad programs (if they’re anything like my university’s) are full of orientations. Each session consists of discussion on everything and anything we might need to know before we leave. Once we get to our destination, they orient us even more. Much of it is very necessary, like understanding the school system, knowing what to do if you get sick, etc. Our Tokyo study abroad group had an extensive session on the psychological aspects of study abroad. Specifically, the struggles of adapting to a new environment and the homesickness that often comes along with it.

I’ll be completely honest here: I was naive when it came to these homesickness orientations. I am Japanese. I speak the language fluently, and had visited Japan many times. Homesickness was the last thing on my mind. “Why would I feel homesick in my own country?” I thought to myself. “There’s no way I could feel confused.”

Looking back, I want to slap that clueless girl in the face and tell her to straighten up. In reality, I felt like a total foreigner in my own country, for at least the first month of my study abroad.

Lifestyle changes hit me hard, both physically and mentally. As I commuted an hour and a half to get to school, shifting through the crowded streets of Tokyo, I began to question the mass media harping on about Japan’s population decline. I was physically and mentally exhausted by the hustle and bustle. How did locals manage to live with this every day? After a few weeks of post-arrival euphoria, I was sick of being in the concrete jungle.

Communication Struggle


I never imagined communication would be an issue. I understood what everyone was saying, and I was able to ask for help whenever I needed it. But for the first couple weeks, I couldn’t communicate “smoothly,” for a lack of better term.

Conversations felt strained and misunderstandings were common, especially with other Japanese students my age. Perhaps this was because I was unaware of how Japanese young adults talked with each another. For much of my life, my parents were the only Japanese people I spoke the language to.

There was a particular time when I was speaking with another Japanese girl in a club I had joined. I was speaking formally with everyone, ending all my sentences with “~desu” and “~masu.” Finally, the girl looked a bit offended and asked, “Why are you talking like that?”

I didn’t know that speaking formally is weird when the other person isn’t your sempai. She and I were in the same grade, and I created a weird “wall” between us. All because I didn’t know how to converse with people my age.

Because I was raised in the American education system, the concept of sempai-kouhai was hard for me to grasp. How do you determine if someone’s a sempai? Is it physical age, or is it grade? Is it the amount of experience they have on a particular activity? Or is it the position within a specific organization (i.e. clubs)?

Can’t I just talk formally to everyone? Oh wait, that builds an “invisible wall” around you. So why can’t we just talk informally to everyone, then?  Right, because it’s disrespectful.

Identity Issues


Identity issue was a little more complex for me to dissect and understand. It bothered me for weeks. Whenever I interacted with other Japanese students my age, they were confused.

“So you’re American?”
“No, I’m Japanese. I was born here, but raised there.”
“So you’re Jun-Japa?! (純ジャパ) Why are you studying here then?!”

At various school functions where local and international students interacted, many of them regarded me as an “American student.” But once we began to converse in Japanese (as any study abroad student should), they began to question my real identity. To them I was what they call a Jun-Japa (純ジャパ)– pure Japanese. But this Jun-Japa was NOT speaking and acting Japanese.

At times, I think this dual identity strained conversations and relationship-building. There I was, a Japanese national, who spoke and understood Japanese. But I didn’t look or act the part.

I spoke English better than Japanese, and donned the typical American college kid attire of T-shirt and jeans. I looked so different from the local Japanese girls and their impeccable appearance.

Maybe the “American side” of me was coming out a little strong in Japan, confusing both me and everyone else.

I also had trouble communicating with Japanese people outside school. Should I act American or Japanese? How do Japanese people my age act anyway? What does it even mean to be American?

Figuring It Out


I didn’t think it was be possible. But there I was, completely lost like a stranger in my own country. As exaggerated as it sounds, I began questioning my identity. Was I too Americanized to be considered as a “Japanese girl?”

Looking back, I realize that I was comparing Japan to the country that I visited when I was younger. Visiting Japan for just a month is far different from actually living and studying there for 4 months.

Perhaps it was because I didn’t take the thought of homesickness seriously. Maybe it was because I was reading Murakami’s Norwegian Wood (the most depressing sh*t ever). Nothing made sense and I became sad at the most random moments. Within weeks of starting my study abroad, I was missing the comforts of California, my university, and my friends and family. I quickly became frustrated, sad, and angry.

Shaking It All Off


Photo by きこう

For me, the first step to overcoming this sense of frustration was admitting I was naive. Yes, Japan was my birthplace. But for a girl who’s lived over half of her life abroad with little contact to a large Japanese community, Japan was a brand-new country. I had to take it in little by little, and stop comparing it to the country I had visited so often in the past.

I had to think about why I was struggling to live in Tokyo. I had to consider different approaches. I was tired of the concrete jungle, yes. But I hadn’t considered Tokyo to be more than it’s famous locations. Shibuya, Shinjuku, and Ikebukuro can be fun, but I hadn’t given other neighborhoods a chance. I ended up exploring the less-crowded spots, like quiet residential neighborhoods and the homely shitamachi (下町) areas. I often found solace just walking around these areas and finding little new things here and there.

I found great relief in talking about my issues with other study abroad students. It turns out most of us had felt pretty “out of place” at certain times during our time in Tokyo. We shared about times we felt bad, times when we felt good, and how we adjusted to the society. Just talking with others and learning that I wasn’t the only one feeling like total crap was reassuring.

I decided to go beyond my school’s campus and meet Japanese people doing interesting things. I took an internship at a journal publisher. I learned a lot from the editor-in-chief and other Japanese interns. I got a sense of what it was like to work along other Japanese people.

I even managed to catch up with some old friends– including ones I haven’t seen in 14 years! I also got to meet with students from other universities doing some really interesting projects.

Besides these, time and a whole lot of napping helped. There would be days I felt super energetic and ready to go explore. And then there were days when I felt too frustrated and just wanted to go home and nap.

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what made it go away. But little by little the feeling of being “lost” dissipated. It took time to come to terms with all the different people, sites, and ideas that I was seeing every day. But eventually I felt pretty situated in the country I once called “home.”

Rewards from the Journey

Me at the highest point in Japan, Mt. Fuji

Everything got better after the initial “slump.” And looking back, there’s a whole lot I have to thank Japan for.

My writing and reading definitely improved. I was surrounded by the language wherever I went. Not only was I speaking Japanese on a daily basis, but I was writing and reading a lot in class. I read Japanese newspapers daily. I was surrounded by Japanese ads on the trains and came home to a share house where Japanese was the common language. The effects of daily language engagement are still with me. It’s overstated, but being completely immersed in the language kicks up your skills.

I think the people I met and befriended, whether they were Japanese or from other countries, my time abroad special. I encountered people of all ages, employment, and personal backgrounds. It was always interesting to see how they viewed Japan, how they viewed America, and exchange thoughts on all kinds of topics, silly and serious.

I got to travel and explore Tokyo and beyond. I think I had somehow always tied “Tokyo=busy” and “Japan=Tokyo” to my psyche. But Japan can’t be defined by its capital alone. In a sense, I got a better view of the country in its entirety, not limiting myself to certain ideas or images that I grew up with.

But most importantly, I learned how the “familiar” can feel “foreign.” I realized my identity was not something that could be clearly defined. I was Japanese by citizenship and ethnicity. But because of my upbringing, I can’t completely associate myself with Japanese culture. All in all, I got comfortable living in this “gray” zone, mixing languages and cultures of the two countries that are a part of my identity.

In a sense, my time abroad gave me an idea of what it really means to be “open-minded.” We all claim to be welcoming of new ideas, people and values. But it’s not until we’re placed in a foreign situation that we realize how capable we are of embracing “foreignness.” For me personally, it turned out I was a little more stubborn than I thought. It took a little more time and thought for me to accept the ways my own country.

This summer, I’ll return to Tokyo, this time for an indefinite period and to work as a shakai-jin (社会人, “Member of society”). Hopefully I’ll be a little wiser this time around. Though I’ll expect to feel like a “stranger” sometimes, perhaps I’ll learn to move better with the pushes and pulls and find my place in this crazy but amazing country.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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JET Program Culture Shock Part 2: How to Prepare for and Recognize Culture Shock Tue, 30 Jun 2015 13:00:00 +0000 Now that we have a proper definition of culture shock, we can start diving into action. Having knowledge is only the first step. We have to put that knowledge to good use. We have the bricks. Now let’s build the walls of our culture shock defenses. How to Prepare for Culture Shock Photo by Caleb […]

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Now that we have a proper definition of culture shock, we can start diving into action. Having knowledge is only the first step. We have to put that knowledge to good use. We have the bricks. Now let’s build the walls of our culture shock defenses.

How to Prepare for Culture Shock


Photo by Caleb Roenigk

Nothing can guarantee you won’t experience culture shock at all. But the effects can be lessened. A lot of things are out of your control. That’s just the nature of life. Going to Japan means even less will be in your control. That’s why it’s important to do what you can.

Below are a few things you can do before you leave for Japan to minimize the impact of culture shock on JET. If you’re already in Japan, do these things before you culture shock sets in. If you’re in the middle of stage two, do them. Do these no matter what, but the sooner you do them the better. You want to do them when your head is the clearest.

Quick note: perhaps “do” isn’t the best verb to use for these exercises. They involve a lot of thought and asking questions of yourself. Some things are doing things. But for most the exercises, the “doing” comes in writing. That’s why most of these items are lists.

You could complete these by simply thinking. But I recommend physically writing them down. This gives you record of your thoughts to reference later (when you’re shocked). And it gives physicality to what you’re thinking. You want to make your brain do some work now before it’s overloaded later.

  • Study Japanese: The communication barrier is a big cause of culture shock. You likely won’t be able to improve your Japanese enough in a few months to destroy the communication barrier, but every little bit helps. If you’re going on JET with zero Japanese ability (like I did), at least memorize hiragana and katakana. That alone will help a lot.
  • Make a list of personal character traits: Culture shock often causes you to act differently than you normally would. You’re transitioning into new habits and a new way of life, which is something of an identity crisis. Write down a list of 25 character traits that you feel best describe you. Think of it as a little letter from your past self saying, “Hey self. This is who you are.”
  • Make a list of expectations: This should be as long as you can make it and it should be a list of your expectations of everything: Japan, your job, your behavior, your home, your treatment, everything!
  • Use the above list to research online: Check out information online (like on Tofugu, for example) to find out how your expectations will match up with reality. You won’t be able to completely adjust your expectations until you’re in Japan (reading is different than experiencing). But a little research will prepare you before you depart. Knowing what to expect makes some shocks not quite as shocking.
  • Make a list of goals: Culture shock is a big deterrent to goals. Your goal to study Japanese every day can get quickly derailed when culture shock symptoms lead you to party hard and binge watch Arrested Development (it’s a great show though). Refer to your list of goals to keep you on track, but be open to revising them. Your goal to revolutionize the Japanese school system may prove to be another unrealistic expectation.
  • Be ready to let go: One of the biggest obstacles to overcoming stage 2 of culture shock is a longing for things from home. Certainly do bring photos and reminders from home and request frequent care packages of favorite snacks. But prepare yourself to leave comfort foods like tacos and hamburgers behind. More than food, be ready to leave comforts like familiarity and ease-of-living behind as well. It can be frustrating to not have access to familiar comforts (“It’s just beef between bread. Why is that so hard?!”). But the key is being content. Find some new Japanese comforts. Kotatsu, ramen, and onsen are all particularly wonderful. One day you may be pining for these things back in your own country (“It’s just a triangle of rice filled with tuna. Why is that so hard?!”). So enjoy the comforts of Japan while you can.
  • Get excited: Going on JET means facing differentness. While the differentness may cause shock, it will also cause excitement. Whole worlds of opportunity will open squarely to you. Regional delicacies, local castles, prefectural yurukyara. These are all things you can be proud of in your new home. Though you’ll stand out in not so fun ways, you’ll stand out in good ways too. Japanese people may single you out to invite you to events and banquets not open to everyday people. Get ready to embrace your new life for all its worth and prepare your bicep for your new Kumamon tattoo.

How to Recognize Culture Shock


Now that you know what culture shock is and are prepared for it, it’s time to play the waiting game. But you’re not waiting, curled up in a closet hiding. You’re waiting atop the defense wall you built, fully armed and ready. Just the fact that you are aware culture shock is coming means you are much more likely to recognize it.

Even so, onset of stage two symptoms is gradual. So you may still find yourself in a funk without really knowing how you got there. Stage two generally begins for most JETs between 3 to 5 months after arrival, though it varies from person to person. Factors like circumstance, personal resilience, communication skill, and expectation make for a cocktail of variance. So one JET may experience stage two on the day of arrival. Another may experience it after a year or more.

Keep an extra eye on your emotional state when the beginning of winter rolls around. JETs are especially susceptible to get culture shock around this time. Stage 2 begins for most people between 3 to 5 months after arrival. For JETs this is the beginning of winter. Just as the newness of Japanese life is wearing off, the sky is getting dark and the air is getting cold. On top of this, many JETs may have found a groove in their ALT work, which makes life easier but also makes it a bit more boring.

The key to recognizing the onset of culture shock is to be mindful. Be aware of your inner and outer life, meaning your thoughts and actions. Refer to the list of symptoms above and recognize when you might be exhibiting one or more of them. You may be having an off day or you may have culture shock.

There’s not much you can do to recognize it  beyond just “recognizing it.” That said, here’s two tips to enhance your recognition ability.

  1. Set reminders on your phone or computer: Set a monthly reminder on some device that will appear and offer some kind of encouragement like, “You’re doing great, you wonderful person you!” or “Don’t stop till you reach the top!” or “You know what I forgot to tell you? You’re great.” and so forth. This may seem incredibly cheesy but it accomplishes 2 things: It gives you much needed motivation in a place where motivation may be scarce and it reminds you to be mindful of culture shock. When you see the reminder, its weird phrasing will hopefully encourage you and spark a memory of why you set it in the first place.
  2. Ask friends for help: A gradual and internal behavior change is tough to spot, even when you’re looking for it. Before you leave, tell some trusted friends or family members about the shock you might face and ask them to let you know if they see a change. People from home that you talk to have a special ability to spot changes because they’ll be interacting with you intermittently with weeks or a month in between contact. This will make changes seem more stark to them and give them a better ability to help you identify when culture shock has set in.

The Problem of Nostalgia


Photo by kadorin

One of the biggest factors in how long culture shock lasts and how deeply it affects you is rooted in nostalgia for your home country. It’s weird to think of being nostalgic for a country. Usually we are nostalgic for specific time periods, especially those farther away. But nostalgia doesn’t require time, only distance enough that we are able to forget the bad and only remember the good. This excellent AJET article presented me with a quote from a Woody Allen film, Midnight in Paris, which very accurately explains how nostalgia factors into culture shock:

Nostalgia is denial, denial of the painful present. The name for this denial is golden age thinking, the erroneous notion that a different time period is better than the one one’s living in. It’s a flaw in the romantic imagination of those people who find it difficult to cope with the present.

When times are tough, we step back and pine for a time when things seemed easier to manage. During culture shock, people tend to idealize their home country. Because the Japanese way of doing things contradicts the way it’s done in your country, it’s easy dismiss ideas that don’t make sense to you. Before long, you will stop analyzing ideas that don’t make sense to you and immediately mark it as inferior without time taken to consider it from the Japanese perspective.

I’m not trying to say that the way Japan thinks is right and that its culture is perfect (need I mention the fax machines?). Some ideas may be wrong, while others may be 100%, 80%, or 67% right. Most things will be largely a matter of opinion.

The point is, if you pine too much for your own country, not only will you be unable to enjoy your life in a flawed but awesome country, you’ll be robbed of the ability to rationally look at situations and gain insight into Japan and your own country at the same time. This ability to discover what’s preferable from your own country and Japan is not only necessary for survival, it’s arguably the best gift the JET Program has to offer.

Preparing to Cope


Photo by t-mizo

Whether we like it or not, life happens everywhere. Difficult things happen everywhere in the world, including our home countries. But at home, we can deal with difficult things more easily because we know what to expect and how to react. When the setting is unfamiliar and you feel like an outsider, difficult things can feel like a bigger deal because they come from unexpected sources or are dealt with in different ways in the new culture.

This is part of the “horizon broadening” process that’s not so fun, but is incredibly rewarding. How you deal with culture shock will teach you a lot about yourself and make you more prepared and resilient to problems in the future, no matter where you end up. And how to deal with culture shock as it happens is what we’re covering next.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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The Epic Diplomacy of Winter Sonata in Japan Fri, 26 Jun 2015 13:00:00 +0000 It’s no secret that Japan and Korea have a strained relationship. It wasn’t even 20 years ago that Korea lifted their ban on Japanese media (it was partially lifted in 1998, and fully lifted in 2004). While they aren’t the best of friends at present, they have definitely warmed up to each other. Kind of. Politically, […]

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It’s no secret that Japan and Korea have a strained relationship. It wasn’t even 20 years ago that Korea lifted their ban on Japanese media (it was partially lifted in 1998, and fully lifted in 2004). While they aren’t the best of friends at present, they have definitely warmed up to each other. Kind of.

Politically, Japan and Korea are still at a stand-off, disputing island territories, bemoaning past colonization, and inflating their nationalistic tendencies. The recent China-Japan-Korea talks are attempting to put bandages on historical wounds. Many were surprised that the meeting was planned at all.

Yet, culture-wise, Korea is making waves all over Asia, especially Japan. Where traditional politics failed, Korean pop culture has succeeded. K-dramas have persuaded Japanese people to take an interest in Korean history and culture. This “Korean Wave” all started with a love story and an actor named Bae Yon Joon.

The Beginnings of the Korean Wave in Japan

Winter Sonata in Japan

After a devastating civil war and rough transition into democracy, South Korea wanted to boost its economy . Through various government-aided plans, Korea began developing its soft power in the forms of technology and pop culture. The country was very successful, exploding in popularity in all of Asia and even as far as Iran and France. Yet, Japan still wasn’t on board. There were two reasons for this:

  1. The aforementioned frostiness between the two.
  2. Japan was not interested in Asian pop culture. They aligned themselves more with Western pop culture and found their fix with American, French, and Italian imports. They just weren’t interested in the rest of Asia.

Japan didn’t want what Korea was selling and, conversely, Korea wasn’t selling. Winter Sonata, in particular, was actually aimed at the Filipino audience.

On top of this, Korea’s grudge against Japan gave them no incentive to market to them. Their wartime past led to Korea banning all forms of Japanese pop culture until 1998. They wouldn’t even allow children to use Japanese mechanical pencils.

Despite all this, Winter Sonata was released in Japan. And it took off big time. Yoon Suk Ho, director of the drama, was stunned. Japan had a nationwide crush on the male lead. Japanese women were suddenly convinced that Korean men make good boyfriends. Interest in Korean culture and history spiked.

It was so popular that it even got adapted into an anime, manga, and two separate musicals. The anime was voiced by the original cast (in Korean) with Japanese subtitles. Later a Japanese version voiced with Japanese actors was made. A musical adaptation toured throughout Japan in cities like Tokyo, Sapporo, and Osaka before heading to Korea. For the 10th year anniversary, a new musical was created by prominent Korean musical theatre stars and composers, renewing the Winter Sonata fervor.

Bae Yon Joon, the male lead and superhunk from Winter Sonata, created a $2.3 billion rise in business between Japan and South Korea. Tourism from Japan to Korea rose 40 percent. Even the Japanese Prime Minister, Junichiro Koizumi said, “I will make great efforts so that I will be as popular as Yon-sama.”  You know you’re popular when a PM wants to be like you.

The Winter Sonata Breakdown


To understand why Winter Sonata was a success in Japan, you have to know the plot. Japan took an interest in Korean culture and Korean family politics because of how vital family structure is to the Korean household. Japan has a similar family structure, a familiarity which helped the show succeed. Seeing Koreans place importance on values that Japanese people also hold dear highlighted the similarities between the two cultures.

Furthermore, the romance in Winter Sonata is chaste, with only 2 kisses (closed-mouth!) in the whole series. The drama centers around the idea of a first love. Many claim that Winter Sonata’s nostalgia factor led to its popularity with middle-aged Japanese housewives.

The Bae Yon Joon character was also pivotal for the show’s success. He was seen as manly, yet sensitive and caring. He had deep affection for his love interest and respect for his mother, but was also intelligent and successful in his career.

Below is a spoiler-laden synopsis for those who want to better understand the story’s effect on Japan without sitting through 20+ hours of show:

Jun-Sang (played by Bae Yon Joon), the main character, moves to a rural city in South Korea. He is a talented, introverted student and is welcomed by his classmates. His mother refuses to tell him about his biological father and he begins to to have an identity crisis.

Jun-Sang develops a friendship with his classmate Yu-Jin. The friendship soon turns into…romance! Suddenly, Jun-Sang gets into a terrible accident, suffering brain-damage and memory loss. His mother, upset by the pain her son has suffered, takes him to a psychologist who erases the memories of his painful childhood. She renames him Lee Min-Hyeong, telling everyone that Jun-Sang passed away. They move to the United States and Min-Hyeong becomes a successful architect.

Min-Hyeong’s work takes him back to Korea where Yu-Jin sees him on the street, thus igniting the feelings of her first love. Min-Hyeong has no memory of his life in Korea and therefore doesn’t recognize Yu-Jin. This sets up the rest of the drama and suspense, as Min-Hyeong recovers his childhood memories and falls back in love with Yu-Jin.

Japan, Post-Sonata


Photo by Peter Kaminski

After Winter Sonata, the Korean Wave, which was already going strong in the rest of Asia, finally took off in Japan. Interest in Korean restaurants boomed. Travel to Korea from Japan increased. Winter Sonata’s filming locations enjoyed special attention, of course. Korean language schools received record numbers of members. There was an estimated $4 billion increase in trade between Japan and Korea. More and more Korean celebrities became famous in Japan, a market that is usually off-limits to foreign talent.

Kpop groups like Big Band and 2NE1 gained superstar status. Dramas like Coffee Prince, Brilliant Legacy, and You’re Beautiful followed Winter Sonata’s legacy and became hit TV shows.

However, after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, nationalism took root in Japan. Korean pop culture began disappearing from the mainstream. Although the programs and hype had fallen to a whisper, fans remained.  The Korean Wave became a niche interest amidst the nationalist movement. The Dokdo/Takeshima island dispute only further riled up the nationalism within Japan and Korea, thrusting politics upon celebrities and placing Korean idols in an awkward position. Either they distance themselves from the dispute and anger their Korean fans (and “betray” their roots) or side with Korea and Dokdo and no longer be marketable in Japan. Seriously, no win-win situation. World War II disputes (especially the heated topic of comfort women) flared up again, raising tempers and reigniting decades-old tension. Anti-Korean protests took place outside Fuji TV station and there was a decrease in the availability of Korean programming. The Korean wave seemed to slow to a mere trickle.

But after a few years lying low, the wave began to surge anew. In 2014, a Korean drama went primetime in Japan for the first time. Iris broke out of K-drama’s daytime TV status, and competed with primetime Japanese shows.

Just a few months ago on April 22, 2015, KCON The Korean Wave Fest was held in Japan with over 15,000 in attendance. This is the first time such a large celebration of Korean culture was held in Japan. The audience, primarily young people, celebrated Korean food, cosmetics, fashion, tech, and industry. Fans took part in mini dance competitions, copying idols’ iconic dance videos. Attendees learned Hangeul (the Korean writing system) to make signs for their favorite stars. Fans were even allowed to leave letters and notes in boxes for performers.

The Winter Sonata in Japan Continues


The cultural exchange between Japan and Korea has done wonders for the relationship between the two. A decade ago, Korea had just fully lifted the import of Japanese products. Now they are hosting a Korean culture convention in Japan with thousands of attendees. Healthy tourism, business, and entertainment trade continues to strengthen the soft power of their relationship.

The Korean Wave is not just about pop culture and trading fandoms. It influenced the politics and attitudes of entire countries. Most importantly it improved the relationship of two nations whose animosity seemed too deep to overcome. Such wonderfully positive things springing from middle-aged Japanese women and their crush on a hunky actor.

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Jet Program Culture Shock Part 1: Defining Culture Shock Tue, 23 Jun 2015 13:00:00 +0000 As you get ready to depart for JET, you’ll be researching a lot of things. Preparing for a new life takes a lot of work. In articles, handouts, guidebooks, and seminars you’ll come across a scary term: culture shock. You’ll definitely be told that it’s unavoidable and not very fun. Let me tell you two things: It’s […]

The post Jet Program Culture Shock Part 1: Defining Culture Shock appeared first on Tofugu.

As you get ready to depart for JET, you’ll be researching a lot of things. Preparing for a new life takes a lot of work. In articles, handouts, guidebooks, and seminars you’ll come across a scary term: culture shock.

You’ll definitely be told that it’s unavoidable and not very fun. Let me tell you two things:

  • It’s unavoidable
  • It’s not very fun

Now let me tell you a third thing:

  • It’s manageable and beneficial

Educating yourself about what culture shock is, preparing for it, and coping with it makes the situation a lot easier. Today we’ll start with defining culture shock.

What is Culture Shock?


Culture shock is often described as a “personal disorientation” that accompanies transition into a new culture. This is technically accurate, but it makes the experience sound like something felt after getting off a carnival ride. Disorientation implies a feeling you can identify, whereas culture shock usually arises unnoticed and fades over time.

Put simply, it’s the stress of transition. But the transition is taking place in nearly all areas of a person’s life at the same time.

Symptoms of Culture Shock


Photo by Tim Dawson

Recognizing culture shock is one its major challenges. Even self-aware people can have trouble. Symptoms are a major clue. These are things like:

  • Anger
  • Boredom
  • Irritability
  • Anxiety
  • Intense homesickness
  • Panic attacks
  • Loss of motivation
  • Excessive amounts of time spent on insular activities such as sleeping or watching TV
  • Loss of self-confidence
  • Feelings of helplessness or hopelessness
  • Associating only with other JETs or foreigners
  • Withdrawal
  • Compulsive behavior
  • Suicidal thoughts

Though this may look like a nightmare list from a pharmaceutical commercial, don’t fret. Few JETs will experience all or the most severe of these symptoms. Though the majority experience several symptoms at one time.

Symptoms can happen gradually, increasing in intensity. Also, you’ll experience cultural frustrations. These may feel the same as culture shock, but the feeling dissipates when the cause of the frustration is resolved. Because of this, culture shock is hard to self-diagnose.

The Two Components of Culture Shock


Photo by mrhayata

Dr. Bruce La Brack has an excellent explanation as to why culture shock occurs:

Culture shock arises as a result of cumulative, largely puzzling encounters resulting in equally negative perceptions. For that reason, the “shock” is deceptively gradual. Those who enter another country with an attitude of what anthropologists call “naive realism” the view that everyone sees the world essentially as they do are susceptible to being quickly disabused of that idea as reality sets in. If the naive realist also holds an ethnocentric belief that his or her cultural ways are preferable and superior to all others, the likelihood of some kind of conflict escalates enormously.

From this description, we can break down culture shock into two ingredients:

  1. The cultural values of the JET, which they use to assess communicative acts.
  2. The cultural values of the host nation which are used in all communicative acts, including those received by the JET.

We all use our own cultural values, preconceived notions, personal attitudes, and other ideas to determine how to react in a given situation. The majority of the time, this is easy in our home countries. The messages we receive from people, media, and even the physical landscape at home tend to agree with our cultural values.

Sometimes though, we encounter a situation that doesn’t agree with our cultural values, and we have to choose how to react. These are misunderstandings.

Consider how often misunderstandings happen between people of the same culture. How much more will they happen between people of different cultures? The low number of matching cultural values causes the likelihood of misunderstanding to increase.

Recognize, however, that misunderstandings come in all shapes and sizes. They range from severe to benign. Many JETs spend years in Japan and only encounter a few severe misunderstandings. So the shock doesn’t come from a few horrible catastrophes. The awesome KumamotoJET website posits that it’s more like a continuous drip. A JET encounters the same benign, but possibly annoying or inconvenient cultural differences over and over. The shocks accumulate. This is why negative culture shock doesn’t happen right away. The amount of shocks needs time to build before entering the second phase.

Phases of Culture Shock


Photo by elston

Culture shock is usually broken down into phases. Depending on the source, it can be between 3 and 5. The most commonly used breakdown has four:

  • Honeymoon: This is the phase experienced when you first arrive in Japan. Everything is new and exciting. Even the smallest things seem fascinating. Those who have been to Japan before still feel excitement about their new life and job.
  • Frustration and Hostility: This stage is what people call “culture shock.” Though in reality it’s the low point of the culture shock cycle. Eventually the newness of exciting things runs out. You are left with the newness of different things, but no excitement. The situation may not necessarily be good or bad, but its differentness presents a challenge as you try to adjust. This adjustment naturally includes miscommunications, mistakes, roadblocks, and frustrations. These events tend to highlight the difference between Japan’s way of thinking and doing things and your own. All these differences and transitions introduce the symptoms listed above.
  • Adjustment: Gradually you adjust to the differentness of Japan. After passing through a lot of new and difficult situations, you learn how to navigate them better the second and third time around. This forms routines like those you had in your home country. Soon, many of the negative symptoms of culture shock disappear.
  • Accommodation and/or Biculturalism: This is an ambiguous and debatable stage. It’s a stage beyond adjustment in which you feel at home in Japan. When it happens is hard to say, because the four stages of culture shock tend to repeat. The term “biculturalism” seems to suggest a personal achievement of balance between integration into Japanese culture and retention of your personal identity.

Since culture shock is different for everyone, it’s hard to know when you’ll experience what stage. Many factors are involved, like how much you prepared beforehand, your personal values, your preconceived ideas about Japan, the negative experiences you face in Japan, and much more.

These four stages are actually a cycle. Many who have lived in Japan (or elsewhere) for 10 to 20 years report experiencing stage 2 symptoms of culture shock from time to time. Is it always as severe as the first time around? That depends on the person, but more than likely not.

The reason for culture shock’s cyclical nature has a lot to do with the foreign experience. A visiting person has many things to learn when integrating into a new culture. At the same time, it’s necessary to retain parts of their identity. Adjusting to a host culture means becoming as like the host people as possible. The immigrant has to craft a new self. But the old self is still an important part of them. It would be unhealthy to deny or suppress where you came from.

Thus, living in Japan for many years can still present frustrations. Even though your new bilcultural self accepts the new home, there will always be your old self that clashes with certain aspects of it. There’s nothing wrong with this. It’s just the nature of being a bicultural person.

You’ve Experienced Culture Shock Before


Photo by The Muuj

Hopefully all this hasn’t gotten you apprehensive about your new life in Japan. Culture shock is nothing to be afraid of. In fact, you’ve probably experienced it before. Maybe you just didn’t have a name for it.

Culture shock is actually a subset of a larger idea called transition shock. It has the same stages and symptoms as culture shock, but it’s felt in varying degrees depending on the transition. Because of this, I think it’s fair to call any transition a “culture” shock. Most transitions involve lifestyle changes and new groups of people with which to integrate.

  • If you’ve ever moved to a new place, you’ve experienced culture shock.
  • If you’ve ever changed schools or gone off to college, you’ve experienced culture shock.
  • If you’ve ever started a new job, you’ve experienced culture shock.
  • If you’ve ever met a group of people you didn’t know before, even that is a type of miniature culture shock.

Though you may not have noticed or don’t remember, you probably experienced a brief period loneliness, nervousness, self-consciousness, or even depression during a transition. These times might have been easier to deal with than moving to a new country because your language and cultural structure didn’t change.

But even with a new language and culture to learn, the basic idea is still the same. You need to adjust and adjusting takes time. In Japan it will take more time than it did during other transitions, but it will happen. You’ve done it before. You can do it again.

JET Program Culture Shock Defined. Now What?


Photo by Montaplex

As you get ready to leave for JET, prepare for culture shock but don’t fear it. Treat it the way you would (should!) treat failure. Not something to loathe, dread, or hate. But rather something to learn from. Steer into it. This may seem scary, but it ultimately offers a lot more control. Like losing control of your car on ice, steer into the slide rather than away. Instead of losing control of the vehicle, you get it back. It may not be the kind of control you’d prefer, but it’s a better and more resilient control than you would have otherwise.

Bonus Wallpapers!

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Staying Safe in Japan Wed, 15 Apr 2015 13:00:00 +0000 During my eight years in Japan, I’ve been to my share of conferences and they’ve covered all sorts of topics. Some are repeated every year – like “Successful Team Teaching” and “Fostering Student Communication.” A few topics provided life-saving information like how to perform CPR, use an AED, and prepare for an earthquake. Others pointed out the obvious, like not destroying hotels rooms or driving under the […]

The post Staying Safe in Japan appeared first on Tofugu.

During my eight years in Japan, I’ve been to my share of conferences and they’ve covered all sorts of topics. Some are repeated every year – like “Successful Team Teaching” and “Fostering Student Communication.” A few topics provided life-saving information like how to perform CPR, use an AED, and prepare for an earthquake. Others pointed out the obvious, like not destroying hotels rooms or driving under the influence.

One crucial topic remained curiously ignored, however: staying safe in Japan.

But Japan ranks as one of the world’s safest countries! Home to an incredibly low crime rate! The chances of anything bad happening are slim to none, right? Why worry?

Ironically, Japan’s reputation for safety gives the issue even more importance. Don’t get me wrong, Japan is safe; safer than the countries most foreigners in Japan hail from. But that feeling of safety makes it easy to grow too comfortable, too complacent. And that’s where danger lies.

Japan’s crime rate may be low, but crime still exists. The special circumstances foreigners in Japan face as unique individuals in a homogenous society make the topic all the more important for visitors and ex-pats alike.

But fear not! An ounce of prevention can be all it takes to avoid becoming part of the small percentage of victims.

Japan’s Safe Reputation


Photo by Arria Belli

A 2014 Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development study ranked Japan as “the safest country in the world.” The country touts “the second-lowest homicide rate after Iceland and the second-lowest assault rate after Canada.”

So it’s no surprise that people in Japan feel safe., a site dedicated to statistical information of countries around the world, lists Japan as number one in people feeling safe walking alone at night. In overall worries about being attacked, Japanese citizens ranked third least worried. Living in Japan offers the undeniable luxury of safe feeling.

Rocketnews24 seconds that notion. In a poll ranking “the top ten instances people feel thankful to be Japanese,” public order and safety ranked second behind Japanese food. One participant commented, “I can sleep on the train in peace, and even if I walk alone at night, it’s not as dangerous as it is overseas.” Interestingly, that comment was made by a 23-year-old female, a member of one of the most at-risk demographics.

The media, both in Japan and abroad, promote this safe, worry-free atmosphere. To people overseas, Japan’s low crime rates seem like an amazing oddity. Children walk home and explore shopping malls with no adult supervision. Lone women stroll back allies and dark streets in both populated and unpopulated areas. People leave bags unattended while going to the bathroom.

I’m not alone in these observations. Lucy Rodgers of BBC News explained, “I had been informed that Japanese people did not lock their doors, left their cars running with the keys in the ignition and would never rip you off.”

Japan’s lack of crime and worry in everyday life shocks visitors used to caution as an everyday practice. Unaccompanied children riding the subway astounded Michael Weening in his article entitled “Is Tokyo Really Safe?” His blog continued the tale of how a man came to Mr. Weening’s aid when he had lost his way in the mountains. His reply to the title question: “The answer is yes, (Tokyo) is that safe.”

Anecdotes like that are common. An internet search brings up stories of lost wallets being found and returned with money intact, bicycles and even homes being unlocked with no negative consequence.

Japan’s lack of crime makes headlines, impresses tourists, and provides a point of pride for the country and its citizenry. Japanese citizens worry about crime less than any other people in the world. The message is clear – Japan is safe.

But examples of safety are just that, examples. Remember, a low crime rate doesn’t mean crime doesn’t exist. That fact is key to avoiding victimization.

Foreigners’ Special Circumstances


In a homogenous country like Japan, physical differences stand out. Size, hair-color, eye-color, skin color, and language all highlight the fact someone is not “Japanese.” Foreigners stick out as exotic exceptions to the average Japanese build and appearance.

Considering the permeation and popularity of western culture and the English language, this can attract both wanted and unwanted attention. Lucy Rodgers explains,”There is a certain fascination – which may have something to do with how foreigners are portrayed on the TV – and you are probably the closest thing some people have to meeting such people, particularly in more rural areas.” Any foreigner asked to take photos with random bystanders can attest to feeling like a pseudo-celebrity.

The less foreign people in a particular area, the more one stands out. This is particularly true for foreigners in small towns and secluded areas, where your name, address, and job become common knowledge. Random people might (think they) know your favorite foods, the onsen you frequent, your hobbies, or your love life.

Those with an interest in English may seek you out, hoping to practice. Some even go as far to make you feel it’s your duty to provide such services – you know, being a foreigner in Japan and all.

Usually it’s just fun, innocent gossip. Local foreigners provide an exotic flavor to everyday life and a chance to learn about life and culture beyond Japan. But occasionally those with an interest in foreigners, particularly of the opposite sex, aren’t so innocent.

Holly Lanasolyluna of The Japan Times writes, “In a way, white women become plastic here: imports without feelings — strange, exotic dolls. And if we are dolls, perhaps the groping, leering, stalking and attacking is somehow justified in the perpetrator’s mind as a game rather than a crime.”

Despite the feeling of safety, people can feel reluctant to get involved, even when a crime is taking place. Holly Lanasolyluna reveals the details of an attack that occurred in Osaka. It was 10am when a stranger overpowered her and dragged her towards a love hotel.

Our struggle went on for at least 10 minutes, and none of the many onlookers helped or even appeared concerned. Finally, I saw a police officer down the street and screamed at my attacker, “Look! Look! It’s the police!” That seemed to frighten him, and at that point he walked over to a nearby vending machine, bought me a water, said “gomen nasai” (sorry) and walked away.

Perhaps the language barrier is partially to blame. Even police officers fear dealing with communication difficulties. Attackers can feign ignorance if faced with charges. Add a culture of looking the other way to the mix and you have ingredients for disaster when the rare attack strikes.

“I now know I can’t rely on the goodwill of strangers, as I have in the past when I was verbally harassed in countries such as Mexico,” Lanasolyluna admits.

But just how rare are these kinds of attacks?

Women’s Special Circumstances


Photo by Shadowgate

Holly Lanasolyluna‘s police officer blamed her for the attack, “You’re a young girl, and maybe you shouldn’t be out by yourself alone at night.”

“No details about the incident were recorded,” she reveals, “Not only had every bystander ignored my pleas for help, but the police had also given me a terribly disappointing response – basically, ‘Shō ga nai, ne?’ (What can you do, eh?).”

Confused and ashamed, Lanasolyluna took the situation to the internet. The results were disturbing.

I posted a description of what had happened on Facebook and asked if people had had similar experiences. The response was overwhelming: stories of being attacked while jogging, being stalked by male and female students, being groped on the street in broad daylight, men masturbating on trains, attempted kidnappings. All of these stories came from strong women who put up a vicious fight but still walked away with psychological (and sometimes physical) injuries. In all of these stories, the victims had been in a “safe” public place but no one tried to help them or call the police. If this is so common, why does Japan maintain a reputation for being so safe? And is this image of safety actually facilitating these incidents?

She’s not alone, Vivian Morelli of Japan Today writes:

Over my three years living all over Japan, I can recall numerous incidents involving a stalker, or a “chikan” (groper) on crowded trains or empty streets. Those Japanese men are usually curious or obsessed with foreign women, they’re mentally unstable, and the experience is terrifying and unsettling.”

The harsh reality is, women experience a greater rate of attacks no matter the location. In The Gift of Fear, Gavin de Becker explains, “Women… live with a constant wariness. Their lives are literally on the line in ways men just don’t experience… At core, men are afraid women will laugh at them, while at core women are afraid men will kill them”(77).

Although these personal accounts don’t represent the norm, it’s important to take them into consideration. When it comes to one’s safety, it’s better to err on the side of caution.

Is Japan safe? Yes.

Is it one hundred percent safe? No.

Is it as safe as Japan would like us to believe? Apparently not.

The Horrible Truth


These accounts add suspicion to the growing evidence of police misappropriation of data in Japan. As a result, crime rates are higher than “official” reports would lead us to believe. By ignoring or failing to report crimes, particularly “unsolvable” crimes, Japan’s law enforcement agencies keep crime rates low and success rates high.

In 2014 Asahi Shinbun broke news on police data manipulation in Osaka.

Osaka police have admitted they did not report more than 81,000 offenses over a period of several years in a desperate bid to clean up the region’s woeful reputation for street crime. The revelation came earlier this week when embarrassed authorities said they had kept the data out of national crime statistics between 2008 and 2012… The vast majority of covered-up crimes were for theft… but hundreds of more serious offenses such as muggings and even murder may have been omitted from official crime data.

Havard Bergo of Nation Master Blog writes, “Former detectives claim that police (are) unwilling to investigate homicides unless there is a clear suspects and frequently labels unnatural deaths as suicides without performing autopsies.”

Bruce Wallace of the Los Angeles Times blames a taboo in regards to handling the dead, but criticizes instances of falsified autopsies.

Forensic scientists say there are many reasons for the low rate, including inadequate budgets and a desperate shortage of pathologists outside the biggest urban areas. There is also a cultural resistance in Japan to handling the dead, with families often reluctant to insist upon a procedure that invades the body of a loved one… (But) police discourage autopsies that might reveal a higher homicide rate in their jurisdiction, and pressure doctors to attribute unnatural deaths to health reasons, usually heart failure, the group alleges.

Instances of falsified data force us to view crime rates with a shrewd eye and remind us not to grow too complacent. Perhaps Japan’s crime rate statistics are too good to be true.

Too Comfortable


Photo by akira535

After the attacks, Holly Lanasolyluna reveals,

Interest from strangers that I could have dismissed as innocent curiosity a few years ago now gives me the chills… When I first moved to Japan, I tolerated the staring, following and persistent nampa (pickup artists), but after being assaulted twice in public, they have taken on darker undertones.

Lucy Rodgers admits growing too comfortable after her arrival in Kochi, a rural prefecture in Shikoku. But a highly publicized attack changed Rodgers attitude. The lesson learned is one that anyone visiting or living in Japan should take to heart. Rodgers explains, “The incident was an early warning to all of us that Japan may not be as safe as it first appeared.”

When we constantly feel and are told we are safe, we start to believe it and drop our guards. We might leave a bicycle unlocked one day. Then a second. Then it becomes a habit until one day the bicycle disappears.

Lucy Rodgers puts it best, “There are always exceptions to the rule, and you need to remember that.”

Strategies to Stay Safe


Despite Japan’s ranking as the world’s safest nation, crime happens. Women have the most to fear, but everyone can benefit from learning safety measures and taking extra precaution. The following strategies can get pretty heavy and might leave you feeling paranoid. My intent is not to instill a sense of fear but a sense of preparation, understanding, and even confidence. We are not helpless and being proactive can reduce the chances of falling victim in Japan, or anywhere.

Understand Who the Criminals Are


Since crime and violence involve perpetrators, it’s important to realize who the potential criminals are. Few criminal lineups feature men in trench-coats with eye-patches, facial scars, and hook hands. How many times has the news reported, “He seemed like a normal, polite guy that liked to keep to himself”? As mild acquaintances often attest after the fact, criminals appear to be normal, even kind and friendly people.

Anyone can be a criminal.

In his book, The Gift of Fear: Survival Signals that Protect us From Violence, violence prediction and management expert Gavin De Becker explains, “When we accept that violence is committed by people who look and act like people, we silence the voice of denial, the voice that whispers, ‘this guy doesn’t look like a killer.'”

Acknowledge Intuition


By gaining a greater understanding of criminals, criminal tactics, and human nature we can gain an edge against potential crime.

De Becker explains that nature has armed us with a very powerful safety tool – intuition. De Becker describes intuition as a useful, smart, intuitive impulse. He writes, “Intuition heeded is far more valuable than simple knowledge… Trust that what causes alarm probably should, because when it comes to danger, intuition… is always a response to something and always has your best interest at heart.”

Intuition usually comes as a “gut feeling” based on subconscious environmental cues. But intuition differs from ordinary worry. De Becker explains, “Worry (is an) habituated, often projective and pointless activity that just makes us needlessly paranoid in situations where we don’t have to be.” Intuition, on the other hand, occurs out of the blue, often times without discernible reason.

If a situation doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t, even if you can’t figure out why at the time.

Pre-Incident Indicators and Criminal Strategies


Photo by umjanedoan

But how should we react when facing confrontation? De Becker presents Pre-Incident Indicators – or PIN’s – to help avoid falling victim to violence. The first step is accepting that anyone has the potential to commit crimes. The second is being aware of criminal strategies.

  • Forced Teaming – When someone attempts to establish a connection, making us feel like we’re facing a similar problem. Usually it’s a simple statement to make us feel like “we’re in the same boat.” De Becker gives an example of a conversation between two strangers seated together on a plane that set off his alarm. The man commented to the woman, “I hate not having a ride.” The woman responded, “Wait you don’t have one either, shall we get a cab together?”
  • Charm – Motivated niceness. “To charm is to compel, to control by allure or attraction” (De Becker). Charm is difficult to overcome because we want to trust kind, charming people. Remember that acting nice can be a strategy to make us feel safe and open up. No matter how charming or engaging someone appears, “you must never lose sight of the context: he is a stranger who approached you.”
  • Too Many Details – “When people tell the truth, they don’t feel doubted, so they don’t feel the need for additional support in the form of details.” Liars and criminals say too much in an attempt to prove they’re trustworthy. Be wary of strangers that offer too much information.
  • Typecasting – A man labels a woman in a critical way (maybe even an insult), hoping she’ll feel compelled to prove him wrong. Statements like, “You’re probably too cool for a guy like me,” are actually accusations used to create a sense of guilt. It’s safer to live with the guilt than to prove yourself to a potentially dangerous stranger.
  • Loan Sharking – A criminal wants to help you “because that would place you in his debt, and the fact you owe him something makes it hard to ask him to leave you alone.” Beware of helpful strangers, particularly when they wear out their welcome.
  • Unsolicited Promise – Criminals often try to strike deals to get closer to victims. “If you just talk to me for five minutes, I’ll leave you alone, I promise.” De Becker points out, “There’s no compensation if the speaker fails to deliver.” Be wary of coercive deals and promises.
  • Discounting “No” – “No” is a word that must never be negotiated. “The person who chooses not to hear it is trying to control you…. With strangers… never, ever relent of the issue of ‘no.’ ” Once you say “no,” do not bend. It sets a dangerous precedent (that persistence will overcome) that you can be coerced.

By assigning labels to “approach strategies,” De Becker makes them understandable, easy to discuss, and (best of all) memorable.

Ignore Empathy


Don’t worry about angering or disappointing a stranger who approaches you. Anyone with good intentions will understand that receiving the cold shoulder from a stranger is a natural reaction. If the person does become upset or angry, all the more reason to avoid them.

Appear Strong


Never appear weak to a stranger or potential attacker. Stand straight, look them in the face, appear strong and able. De Becker explains, “It is better to turn completely, take in everything, and look squarely at someone who concerns you. This not only gives you information, but it communicates to him that you are not a tentative, frightened victim-in-waiting.”

Treat Japan as Everywhere Else


Although Japan might feel safe, always maintain the same habits and caution you would in your home country. Vivian Morelli of Japan Today suggests, “It’s fundamental to not put yourself in situations that could potentially be dangerous: walking alone at night in sketchy areas, taking dark roads/streets, not locking the door, or going inside the house of someone you barely know. NEVER, EVER do that.”

Falling victim to crimes often follows committing actions, habits or feelings that defy logic. “He wouldn’t do something like that,” “She seemed so nice,” or “It wouldn’t happen here,” are excuses on the road to ruin. Morelli continued, “People forget and think they feel safe, but they may not be and it can end tragically.”

English teachers best heed extra caution. Take prudence when dealing with customers, students, and coworkers. Morelli explains, “If you give private English lessons, NEVER go to their house, only meet in a crowded cafe.”

Tell Someone


If something worries you don’t keep it secret. Tell your friends, trusted coworkers or the police. Keep important contacts at hand at all times. Don’t worry about overreacting. It’s better to feel silly afterwards than to become a victim.

Morelli writes:

Avoid any situation or place where he might try to approach you. Take the women-only car in the train at rush hour, even though lurkers sometimes find their way in. Most importantly, live in a safe neighborhood and building, know your neighbors, and always be aware of your surroundings.

Now That We’re All Feeling Grim…

Of course not everyone is out to get you, although these strategies (and reading The Gift of Fear) might leave you with that impression. Since I started writing this piece, even I’ve been feeling a bit on edge.

The challenge lies in balance; being careful but not allowing worry rule your life. When dealing with new people, use extra caution. Until you’ve gotten to know someone well, limit activities to crowded places at reasonable times of day. Try not to allow feelings to overwhelm logical decision making. In the end, hopefully you’ll separate the keepers from the riff-raff.

Remember, these tips and techniques apply anywhere, not just in Japan. We are not helpless. By taking extra precaution, acknowledging intuition while overcoming illogical feelings of obligation, empathy, and fears of overreacting we stand a better chance at avoiding victimhood.

Please Stay Safe and Enjoy Japan!


Photo by Guwashi

My arrival in Tokyo in the summer of 2007 coincided with one of Japan’s most intense manhunts. Lindsay Hawker, an English teacher, had been murdered by one of her male students. The haunting wanted posters served as a reminder that even in a country as safe as Japan, we should always be cautious.

Yet, amidst all the media coverage and activity, the issue of safety was never brought up in work related meetings, lectures, or events. Hopefully it’ll never be necessary, but The Gift of Fear inspired me to write this piece, thinking it might help someone, someday.

Japan is an amazing place with amazing people. Despite a higher crime rate than official data implies, it’s still an astonishingly safe country. The Japan Times points out, “Even though the economy has been in the doldrums for two decades, the crime rate has not risen the way it often does in countries facing tough times.” But even if Japan was as safe as statistics imply, it’s still best to use caution.

Like CPR, AED, and earthquake lectures, I present this article hoping to offer useful, empowering information without any intent to fear-monger or victim-blame. And please remember, there is no fool-proof way to avoid crime, but learning a few strategies can help prevent the worst.

“I would have gone anywhere and done anything,” Lucy Rodgers admits. “Especially where I was in rural Japan, but also in the big cities, everyone is so generous and friendly, you forget about safety issues. You don’t have the radar for it (danger) anymore.”

Please take caution, keep your danger radar turned on and protect yourself. Enjoy everything Japan has to offer, but never lose sight of possible dangers.

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Getting Famous in Japan the One Direction Way Fri, 27 Mar 2015 13:00:00 +0000 Japan is a popular target market for pop singers that want to take their fame internationally, particularly, it seems, when it comes to debuting in Asia. Is it because of the infectious fan base? Is it because the fandom of Asian pop music has not gone unnoticed? There are numerous stars who try, working to […]

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Japan is a popular target market for pop singers that want to take their fame internationally, particularly, it seems, when it comes to debuting in Asia. Is it because of the infectious fan base? Is it because the fandom of Asian pop music has not gone unnoticed? There are numerous stars who try, working to organize tour dates and scheduling media appearances in Japan, but are met with a relatively low breakout success rate. The ones who succeed are those who understand that while Japan is a big market, it is also a very different one. The most recent and relevant example of this: British boy band sensation, One Direction.

First, let’s characterize J-pop


Japan is the second largest music market in the world, just behind the United States with a retail value of over 3 billion dollars back in 2013. The Japanese market is dominated by (surprise!) Japanese artists. Japanese pop, or J-pop, is a genre that entered the musical mainstream of Japan in the 1990s, and was coined by the Japanese media in order to distinguish itself from foreign music. Japanese musical idols (or アイドル /aidoru) are a significant part of this music market, with girl groups and boy bands regularly topping charts. Some well known examples are Arashi, SMAP, Morning Musume, and, of course, the wildly popular, AKB48, who currently holds the Guinness World Record for being the “Pop group with the greatest number of members”.

For those unfamiliar with the idol culture in Japan, typically they are are young stars and starlets who are promoted as being particularly cute, manufactured to be a universal role model for everyone. They aim to play a wide range of roles as media personalities, and must have a perfect public image so as to be good examples to young people. As a consequence, a unique characteristic of J-pop is “cutesey” music, and the female artists’ subtle fusion of sexuality and child-like traits.

Another characteristic of J-Pop stars is that they have appearances that span a variety of media. In SMAP for example, group members appeared on at least ten regularly scheduled music and variety shows in the mid-90s. This added to their individual personalities and group persona. At present, they have their own weekly variety program called SMAPxSMAP, which has been airing every Monday since 1996. In addition, individual members also appear in many commercials and television dramas (Any Kimura Takuya fans out there?) Similarly, another aforementioned group, Arashi, also went on to have their own variety show as well, as well as stand out actors such as Matsumoto Jun, well known for his role on Hanayori Dango (Boys over Flowers).

This omnipresence is important for pop stardom in Japan because it creates a sense of intimacy between the artist and the fans. Since J-pop has a focus on marketing effectiveness, the fans are key. Between a curated connection with the fans and the branding of these pop stars as good-looking talents who are also portrayed as emotionally sensitive and caring (as is successfully done through constant media presence), fan-directed marketing is a huge driver for success.

The Stars of the Moment

Japan the One Direction

How, then, does One Direction fit into this world? The British band probably needs no introduction. They are the poster children for boy band pop today, and if the name doesn’t sound familiar, this song probably does:

Or this one:

In a nutshell, they are an English-Irish pop boy band based in London who came to fame from the British Television show The X Factor. They were propelled to success with the help of social media, which we will see is an integral part of their popularity in Japan.

In January 2013, One Direction (1D) touched down in Japan for the first time, donning traditional Japanese red happi coats that had “One Direction” written in katakana on the lapels. What can be assumed as a conscious homage to the Beatles from the 1960s, it was a smart choice for the boy band that was in Tokyo for a short, packed schedule of fan events and media appearances. Harry Styles tends to be the heartthrob of this boy band, but in Japan, it seems as though Niall, from Ireland, is the most popular. In an interview, Harry Styles stated that “In Japan Niall [is the most popular]. Because he’s got the blonde hair they go crazy for him.” Niall’s response was simply that “They’ve never seen people like me before. Little Irish people coming in with dyed hair and dancing,” which probably speaks more to the stereotypical Japanese affinity for things of novelty.

Branding in Japan

Japan the One Direction

The header image from

The finale of 1D’s Take Me Home Tour had a recorded audience of about 12,000 Japanese fans, which might be considered underwhelming for those who are used to performing for thousands and thousands of shrieking adolescents. But in the eyes of industry veterans, it was quite a showing. For every performer like The Beatles, Lady Gaga, and now One-Direction, there are numerous international acts that gets met in Japan with widespread indifference. Shows being cancelled, as both Kanye West and Selena Gomez have experienced, are not a surprising result.

Instead of letting themselves succumb to that same fate, 1D had a slower launch into Japan, duly noting the market at the time. Their arrival into Japan for media appearances mentioned above, gave Japan just enough to keep buzzing nationwide about this up and coming music group and their newly announced Japan tour.

But what really got the Japanese media’s attention was Sony Music Japan’s branding of the group. This was the start of the official Japanese Facebook and Twitter accounts, which showed translations of the members’ social media. Their first record had a delayed release in Japan but their sophomore album “Take Me Home” was positioned for a simultaneous release. And an even bigger social media innovation was to provide them with what most J-pop acts have: their own fan club.

January 2013 marked the establishment of One Direction Club Japan, which was the group’s only official fan club anywhere at the time. Members would pay approximately 5,000 Yen annually for enrollment which would come with perks such as first choice concert tickets, the opportunity to buy fan-only merchandise, and other special accesses. Even as social media’s influence in Japan grows, official fan clubs like this continue to be integral to J-Pop fandom. It’s the maintaining of that omnipresence that we talked about before. Having a fan club like this becomes smart for international artists since they are only in Japan for a few days out of each year, making it difficult for fans to have a connection with the artists. A Japanese style fan club is paid, it’s exclusive, and perhaps most importantly, it’s something familiar to Japanese people, crafting a perceived intimacy. Having a constant presence is a challenge that overseas artists face with the Japanese market, and it’s an advantage that K-pop (Korean Pop) bands enjoy, because of proximity.

One Direction has bridged that gap with their exclusive online fan club. This fan club not only made 1D’s Japanese fan base comparable in size, but also in breadth. The fact that international pop aimed at teenagers in Japan can find an older audience as well is an idiosyncrasy of the Japanese music market.

In comparison, consider the infamous Justin Bieber, who amassed an impressive fan base of over 40 million on Twitter, and proclaimed his love for Japan. The response from Japan, however, wasn’t quite as reciprocated. It’s all relative, of course, but One Direction’s two 12,000 capacity shows in Japan sold out immediately, while Bieber still had tickets available at the door for his single, 15,000 capacity venue. Even Creativeman’s Yoshinari Hirayama, 1D’s promoter for those Chiba concerts, seemed surprised: “I believe the response was much greater than anyone expected.”

The 1D Café?

Japan the One Direction

Photo by Victor Lee

AKB48 has their café in Akihabara so maybe it’s time for One Direction as well? The rumor mill heard stories of plans for a 1D café to open up worldwide, starting with Shibuya. It was supposed to have opened on Feb 11, 2014. The success of the café in Shibuya would go on to determine whether or not the chain would appear in other cities such as London, New York, Paris, and Berlin. Dissimilar to “pop up” shops, these cafes would stay open year round, selling merchandise of various types for younger fans.

The Story of Their Lives?

Japan the One Direction

It is unclear what the future holds for One Direction in Japan though they are arguably one of the most successful international musical groups that have infiltrated the tough Japanese market. Will One Direction be just another “boom” with a timely end to their popularity? Or will the Japanese fans continue to adore them even when they are old news? Japan can be a great country for an aspiring international artist’s debut, you just have to know how to approach the market and break in. It seems that Japan loves overseas bands, but the bands that make it in Japan are equally as enamored with Japan as well. Harry Styles, for example has taken on the role of incorporating some Japanese to his performances. On a tour stop in the US, Harry led the fans in a chant of “Gambarimasu!”, followed by an exuberant, “Yes! I’ve always wanted to do that!”

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Why Quantity, Not Quality, Makes You Fluent In Japanese Mon, 26 Jan 2015 17:00:00 +0000 I’d like the start this article with a quote from “Art & Fear”, a book written by David Bayles and Ted Orland. The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the […]

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I’d like the start this article with a quote from “Art & Fear”, a book written by David Bayles and Ted Orland.

The ceramics teacher announced on opening day that he was dividing the class into two groups. All those on the left side of the studio, he said, would be graded solely on the quantity of work they produced, all those on the right solely on its quality. His procedure was simple: on the final day of class he would bring in his bathroom scales and weigh the work of the “quantity” group: fifty pound of pots rated an “A”, forty pounds a “B”, and so on. Those being graded on “quality”, however, needed to produce only one pot – albeit a perfect one – to get an “A”.

Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the “quantity” group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.

These two paragraphs are what inspired Tofugu’s 500 Japanese Sentences (which later became 4500 Japanese Sentences, available now btw), a workbook that gives you a lot of Japanese sentences to translate, based off of words that are ordered by frequency of use. The focus, of course, is all on quantity, not quality. If you don’t know how to translate something and can’t figure it out quickly, move on. If you’re confused, move on. If you’re stuck, move on. Do what’s at your ability level and what’s slightly above it and skip the rest. It’ll be there waiting for you on your second run through.

This goes against what most people are taught in school. In fact, there’s a popular saying you’ve probably heard a lot: “Quality over quantity.” It turns out, though, that quantity creates quality, and this can be applied to pretty much any skill you’re trying to develop, Japanese included.

Let’s Make Some Assumptions First


Photo by Graham Watson

To understand why quantity trumps quality, we first have to come to a belief about how one acquires language. Today we’re going to look at one particular hypothesis known as the “Input Hypothesis” by Stephen Krashen. That being said, it is just a hypothesis (not a thesis or a law!). But much of my support for it does come from personal experience, the experience of others, and a few poor souls that I’ve experimented on.

There are five parts to this hypothesis, but we’re only going to look at one. It is:

Input Hypothesis: A learner’s progress in their knowledge of the language when they comprehend language input that is slightly more advanced than their current level. Krashen called this level of input “i+1″, where “i” is the language input and “+1″ is the next stage of language acquisition.

I’ll admit, there are some parts to this set of hypothesis that I don’t like, but there are other ideas that I love. This will probably change tomorrow, but for now let’s roll with it and take a look at what this has to do with quantity over quality.

+1 +1 +1 +1 +1 +1


The Input Hypothesis says that progression in the language that you’re learning comes from when you can comprehend language input that is slightly above your current level. Comprehending something that is +1 above your current ability level isn’t all that hard. It’s only +1, after all. Comprehending something that is more than +1 is, according to this hypothesis, not a good use of your time. Trying to comprehend a sentence that is, for example, +10 above your current level likely won’t teach you anything new. Mostly it’ll befuddle you and make you frustrated.

While I don’t think this is true in every situation, I do see where he’s coming from. I follow a very similar philosophy with the lessons I write. Everything is +1 +1 +1 +1. Many small steps that build on each other. But, this is true when you look at the bigger picture too. Cut out some of the outliers and exceptions to the rule hypothesis, and you see a lot of real-life examples pop up. Are any of these you?

Kanji Learning:

Quality: To learn a single kanji, you learn every single meaning and reading, and you also learn how to write the damn thing. With your precious hands. Arguably, these are all important things, and I do think that it’s important to learn them all eventually. The “quality” group will learn kanji like this, one by one by one, and it will probably take a while.

Quantity: Instead of learning everything, you learn the bare minimum so that you can hurry up and learn the next kanji. In extreme cases, that just involves you learning the meaning of the kanji and that’s it (Heisig’s). In our corner (WaniKani), usually we have people learn just one meaning and one reading.

You skip a lot of information while studying with the quantity over quality method. But, there’s a funny thing with kanji study that I see in student after student after student: the more kanji they know, the easier it is for them to learn the next kanji. There’s a few reasons for this and I won’t go into too much detail, but experience does beget experience. By cutting the fluff (removing less important readings, meanings, and handwriting) you end up with way more kanji “done” in the same amount of time.

This is important because you need a lot of kanji to be able to read real Japanese. Think of it this way. Say you’re reading Japanese text (a blog, cooking site, book, manga, etc). You come across a compound jukugo word. If you don’t know the meanings of the kanji already, you have to look that up, the readings, and then the meaning/reading of the word. Certainly not +1 (more like +4). That means it is too high above your level for you to naturally comprehend it. But, say you run across the same word and you know the meanings and readings of the kanji that make up the word. All you need is to look up the meaning of the word because you can read it already. Also, the meaning of the word is related to the meanings of the kanji. Something like that is +1. Or better yet, you guess the meaning of the word based off the meanings of the kanji. Without having to look anything up you know the meaning of that word. That’s an easy +1.

Sure, you can do this in the quality camp as well. But, the opportunities for this to happen go down dramatically. Reading Japanese only to have to look up 75% of the kanji/words on the page is a very frustrating experience. But if you go the quantity route with kanji, you’re setting yourself up to do a lot less of that. With quantity comes quality.

Sentence Studying:

Now let’s look at sentence studying. The idea here is that you’re using sentences to study / improve your Japanese. You read them and you translate them. Let’s assume you’re at an intermediate-ish level or above, or at the very least the sentences are tailored to your level. That being said, there are way fewer beginner-level sentences out there to study (compared to the plethora of real Japanese sentences that exist).

Quality: You spend a lot of time on each sentence. You try to learn and memorize every single word. You make sure every bit of grammar is absolutely perfect before moving on to the next one.

Quantity: You don’t spend much time on each sentence. You’ll look up grammar the best you can. You look up words too. But, if you get stuck you don’t worry about it. You’re trying to stay at or slightly above your ability level. Any part that’s not, you just skip.

The important thing here is that you’re moving on quickly. You don’t worry about memorizing every word. If it comes up enough you’ll start to remember it, after all. If you’re at the right level, studying with sentences is an excellent way to get a lot of +1 feedback loops. The hard part is embracing the idea that “It’s okay to move on. Quickly.”

The great thing with this is that you’ll start to see patterns, which is only possible when you focus on quantity. Seeing 500 sentences over the course of a month (quantity) is much different from seeing 500 sentences over the course of a year (quality). Patterns get too spread out to see when you take too long to move on to the next sentence.

Also, while we’re buying into the Input Hypothesis, think of sentence studying in this way:

In a single sentence there might be one or two things that are a +1 to your current skill level (if you’re lucky). There will also be things that are +5 and +10. If we’re assuming that these things don’t really help you to get better, then spending all that extra time on a sentence to figure out the +5 and +10 stuff isn’t going to help you as much. If you brute force through a lot of sentences, you’ll see a higher number of +1 improvements. In the long run, you’re coming out way, way ahead. Then, when you finish, come back to the stuff you didn’t understand. I think you’ll find that the things that were +5 before are more like +1.

Kanji and sentences are just a couple of examples. If you think about your Japanese in this way, you’ll see that it’s true everywhere else you look too. If you want to get good at speaking… well, you should probably speak. A lot. Then do it some more. Don’t get hung up on being perfect because it will slow you down (and make you scared to speak). This goes for reading, writing, listening, and every other aspect of Japanese learning. Think about what you’re having trouble with right now. Does the cause have anything to do with your focus on quality instead of quantity?

Oh, That Immersion Thing?


At this point you might be thinking about how to add quantity to your Japanese studying routine. What about immersion?

Well, immersion is just quantity over quality pushed to the extreme. You get so much friggin’ input that you can’t help but learn something. This is simply because you’re getting a lot more +1 opportunities. It is the brute force of brute force strategies, and it works. There’s a reason why most people say immersion is the best and easiest way to learn a new language.

But, immersion isn’t realistic for many people. Whether that means creating an immersive environment for yourself or going to Japan to live there, that’s usually not an option.

So we have to come up with a compromise… one that favors your Japanese progress. To do that, you must…

Find A Good Teacher


I’m not necessarily talking about someone who stands up at the front of a classroom or sits across a table from you, though sometimes that will be true. I’m also including “you” in this list. And textbooks. And the raving posts of Japanese learners on various message boards. Teachers comes in many different shapes, sizes, and bytes.

But, there is a good way to figure out which ones are good and which ones aren’t. It comes down to quantity over quality and how they go about applying this to your studies.

A good teacher won’t make you perfect. They’ll know what is out of reach and instead focus on the things that will incrementally make you better (+1).

A bad teacher will focus on perfectionism. This will make you neurotic. It will make you too worried to make a mistake. You’ll slowly focus on trying to figure out how to not screw up, which will usually result in you speaking and using Japanese less and less. You’ll try to make a few things perfect but everything else will be nonexistent.

A good teacher will let you make mistakes, and lots of them. As Michael Jordan once said: “I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.” Mistakes are an important part of learning, and if you don’t make enough of them you can’t get better. Actually, many studies show that mistakes in grammar are actually just a part of the learning process. They’re a step on a set of stairs. Without them you can’t move up.

A good teacher will be smart about the quantity they give you. It should be the thing you need to level up, not just a bunch of stuff for the sake of being a bunch of stuff. Quantity is good, but it stops being useful when there are very few +1 opportunities inside.

A bad teacher will tell you to learn something “because that’s how it’s always been done.” This will often be +10 above your ability level. You’ll hear things like “Just learn it!” but there won’t be any reason behind it. It won’t be broken down into +1 pieces. As a beginner, it’s really hard to break something up into +1 sized chunks. That’s the teacher’s job, at least until you get a little better at this whole “learning Japanese” thing. When this happens, you spend a lot of time trying to figure out this +10 task when you could have been spending the same amount of time making 100x +1 progress.

A good teacher makes you comfortable to use your Japanese more. To do this, they have to make you feel less bad about messing up. If they can do this, you’ll use your Japanese a lot more, get better, and be fluent in Japanese faster. This is the biggest difference between a quantity and quality focused teacher.

The list goes on and on, I’m sure. Being able to know when and how much quantity you should apply to your studies is difficult. To figure it out, you have to try a lot of different things sometimes. A good way is to ask the pros what they wish they did more of when they were first starting out. With Japanese, I think a lot of people might say something like “I wish I knew more kanji”. In this way it’s easy to identify what you should get a lot of.

How do you apply quantity to your Japanese studies? Or better yet, where can you do a better job applying quantity instead of obsessing on quality? I’m sure many other people will completely disagree with all of this as well, so get your words in the comments.

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How To Survive Japan’s Medical System Wed, 21 Jan 2015 17:00:00 +0000 While I was living in Japan, the scariest thing for me was the thought of getting sick. Having to deal with medical issues in a language I didn’t fully understand and in a system I wasn’t familiar with sent chills through me. I tried to live healthily and for two years and successfully avoided the […]

The post How To Survive Japan’s Medical System appeared first on Tofugu.

While I was living in Japan, the scariest thing for me was the thought of getting sick. Having to deal with medical issues in a language I didn’t fully understand and in a system I wasn’t familiar with sent chills through me. I tried to live healthily and for two years and successfully avoided the hospital. But eventually my fears became reality, first with a bout of norovirus and then with a bus accident. Though a harrowing experience, it left me with a wealth of information on the Japanese medical system. Hopefully, by sharing my experience of the Japanese medical system as well as those of other people I know, it will help you understand and overcome a very difficult situation.

Clinics for This, Clinics for That


Photo by Roger Walch

If you get sick in Japan you need to get yourself to a hospital or clinic. These are two main types of medical facility in Japan: hospitals and clinics. There is not really a system of GPs or family doctors like there is in the UK or elsewhere. Usually the first port of call is a hospital. If it’s an emergency, you aren’t sure where to go, or all of you hurts, you go to hospital. This is the place to go, whether you’ve been injured or just have a really, really bad cold. You might then be referred to a more specialised clinic. Alternatively, you can just find a clinic yourself if you know what kind you need. Japanese hospitals are much like those in the west, with emergency rooms as well as facilities for operations. It felt odd going to a hospital for a minor problem that I would have usually gone to my GP for back home.

Clinics are the other kind of medical institution. They tend to be highly specialised. You go to a eye clinic for eye problems, a heart clinic for heart problems, a maternity clinic for pregnancy. In rural areas, hospitals tend to take care of a broader range of problems as there aren’t as many specialised clinics as in the cities. However, if you need long term treatment, you will probably end up in a clinic. Clinics are owned and run by doctors. Although they get their money mostly from the public insurance system, they are run as private businesses. Each one will have a different atmosphere and rules. One thing that is the same wherever you go: you’re going to have to pay for it.

Welcome to the Japanese Insurance System(s)


Photo by Nemo’s great uncle

Luckily, all Japanese citizens, permanent residents, and non-Japanese people living in Japan with more than a year-long visa are required to be enrolled in either National Health Insurance or Employees’ Health Insurance. Between these two plans, everyone living or working in Japan has access to healthcare with insurance that covers 70% of the bill and a cap on how much you have to pay on the other 30%.

If you move to Japan and are required to enroll in a health insurance plan, you must do so within two weeks. Signing up for National Health Insurance (国民健康保険, Kokumin-Kenkō-Hoken) is a case of visiting your local ward or city office. There you will be given your Health Insurance card. Once you get that card, don’t let it go. If you don’t have it with you when you go to a hospital, you’ll have to pay 100% of the cost upfront. You can claim it back later, but that will take some time.

Employees Health Insurance (健康保険 Kenkō-Hoken) is all taken care of by your employer. The cost is shared between you and your employer. For many foreigners working in Japan, this is the insurance system you will be using. I didn’t have to do anything to sign up for it as it was all set up by my employer. However, there are some exceptions, such as people employed by companies like Interac. This English Teacher supply company keeps its employees’ logged working hours (29.5 hours a week) just below the level they would need to get Employees’ Health Insurance (30 hours a week). In reality most work longer, up to 40 hours a week. These employees are responsible for joining the National Health Insurance plan by themselves and Interac makes no contribution. This is one of the ways private ALT companies cut costs, and it is important to be aware of this if you are thinking about teaching in Japan.

Whether you are covered under either plan, the benefits are the same. 70% of your health care costs are taken care of as soon as they arise. All you have to do is hand over your insurance card in a hospital or clinic. There are a range of options to cover the missing 30%. There is private health insurance, as well as insurance schemes run by employers directly. When I was in Japan I was covered by the JET insurance plan which took care of 30% of any medical costs.

Around the world, Japan’s healthcare system is admired for providing good service for a low price. The Japanese spend half of what Americans do on health care and have longer life expectancy. Still, the idea of it being provided for a price at all was a bit confusing to me. When I had to go to the hospital because of norovirus, I had to pay for the 30% of my treatment that wasn’t covered by my Employee’s Insurance. There was an ATM right there in the hospital lobby so people could pay in cash. I was given a receipt and was able to claim back the final 30% from my JET insurance later. It felt very strange handing over cash in exchange for medical treatment, even if I knew I was going to get it back later. Britain’s NHS spoiled me, I guess.

Alternatively, if you are simply visiting Japan, all you have to do is get travel insurance. It is usually pretty affordable. With it you can enjoy your trip without worrying about what will happen if you fall down some shrine steps or have a bad plate of fugu.

The doctor is in… control


Photo by Angelina Earley

The power dynamics of the doctor-patient relationship are different in Japan than in many Western countries. These days in the UK, there is a lot of focus on patients having choices on how and where they are treated. Doctors have authority, but are expected to work with the patient to help heal them, not dictate from on high.

In Japan, doctors, especially in hospitals, have a lot more say over your treatment than you do. This can extend from the medicine you are given to the food you are allowed to eat. One friend of mine who had broken her elbow, ended up checking out of the hospital early because of the discomfort she experienced with this power balance. She wasn’t allowed to take a shower. Her food was weighed before and after she ate and she was criticised for each gram she didn’t finish. She wasn’t informed about her own condition or what they planned to do with her. The final straw came when she was expected to stay in the hospital for two weeks, a far longer stay than she felt was necessary for a broken bone. Once she was plastered up, she checked herself out and went home where she could be comfortable.

The hospital likely wanted her to stay partly because it would bring in more money for them. The longer a patient stays, the more money the insurance pays. If you find yourself in a Japanese hospital, you have two options: 1.) Either get the treatment and get out against doctor’s orders, like my friend did, or 2.) surrender yourself to the medical system and endure its oddities and indignities. Be prepared to have your preconceptions challenged though.

As many clinics are owned and run by doctors, the sense of authority doctors feel can become inflated. You can see this in cases such as Japan’s maternity advice to expectant mothers. Japanese doctors tell pregnant women to “save their weight” meaning they shouldn’t gain more than 10 pounds during their pregnancy. Clinics will even refuse to treat expectant mothers who gain more than their guidelines. For many years, this orthodoxy in Japan has made it the only developed country where maternal weight is going down. The bad news is that low maternal weight contributes to low birth weight and low birth rate is associated with many health problems in adulthood including diabetes, obesity, and poor cardiac health. Japanese doctors have been informed about these problems in study after study, but most refuse to change their policies. Some Japanese doctors operate in an environment where everything they say goes. Changing the mind of someone used to that level of authority is no easy task.

Communication Is Only Half the Battle


Photo by Nina Helmer

For me, the biggest cause of my fear of the Japanese medical system was my lack of understanding of medical Japanese. Daily life Japanese and medical Japanese are completely different challenges. If you aren’t confident that you’ll be able to understand everything, having a friend or coworker with you to help translate will make the experience far better. Most doctors in Japan speak some English, however it can often be very limited. When I had to have a set of X-rays for my whiplash, the technician and I communicated in a mix of broken English and Japanese. It was not the most relaxing way to spend a day.

However, language isn’t the only barrier you can face when you seek medical care in Japan. Even if you are super ペラペラ (fluent) in Japanese, that doesn’t guarantee you’ll understand the things that happen to you in a Japanese clinic. A friend of mine who speaks excellent Japanese went to a gynaecologist. She was led to a room where one wall was just a curtain. A disembodied voice told her to take the clothes off her bottom half and sit in a chair. Since her feet were cold she kept her socks on. They were cute socks with mameshiba’s face on them. Mameshiba is a half dog, half bean who loves trivia. My friend sat down in the chair stripped to the waist apart from her cute socks and waited. The voice asked her if she was ready. She said yes, but she certainly wasn’t ready for what happened next. The voice said, “動きます!” (ugokimasu) which is usually said when buses depart. Suddenly the chair lifted up, spread her legs apart and swivelled round. Her feet swept the lower portion of the curtain aside, but the upper curtain still hung down, separating her from the doctors and nurses on the other side. One of the nurses exclaimed, “Ah! Mameshiba!” in great surprise, when she saw my friend’s socks.

When my friend told me all this I laughed, but behind the humour, it’s also terrifying. My friend sat on a piece of medical equipment that was not explained to her. You can see an illustration of the chair here. She was subjected to an invasive medical examination without even seeing who was performing it on her. Coming from a culture where we expect to be able to see our doctors, it can be quite shocking, even more shocking than her socks were to the nurse!

There are also problems that hospitals face when treating non-Japanese patients. Before my fiancé had an operation on his foot he had to tell the hospital where his family was registered, just in case anything went wrong. The problem was that being Canadian, he didn’t have a family register. All Japanese people are required to be registered on their household’s koseki (戸籍) or family registry. The hospital administrators couldn’t understand that there was no equivalent system in Canada. They explained it to him over and over again, while he explained that he couldn’t give them information that didn’t exist. In the end his whole surgery ended up being delayed by a day while the hospital tried to work out a solution. Trying to get these sorts of things straightened out while you’re dosed up on pain meds isn’t easy. Even people with good Japanese can struggle when they simply can’t tell the hospital what it needs to hear.

No Bad News Can Be Bad News


Photo by Yuya Tamai

Another aspect of communication that disturbed me about the Japanese medical system when I first learned about it, was the attitude toward the patients’ right to know.

I had a student who was applying to medical school. He had to write an essay about whether he would inform a terminally ill patient that they were terminally ill. I checked through his English, but what shocked me was his opinion. He said that he would not tell the terminally ill patient that they were going to die. His reasoning was that it would only upset them. To me this was horrifying. The idea of going to a doctor, someone I trusted, and not being told the truth about my own body, my own life, filled me with dread. We debated it for a while and were joined by another Japanese English teacher. She sided with the student and told me that it was perfectly normal in Japan not to tell patients they only have a short time to live. The thinking is that it is better to just continue living and working as before right up until the moment you die. In some cases, the family of the patient will be told, but not the patient themselves.

While I don’t imagine this is a problem that most foreigners living in Japan will face, it does illustrate that while many of the techniques and medicines may be the same, attitudes can be very different. Personally I think those attitudes are very important when it comes to something as fundamental as health. The Japanese Journal of Clinical Oncology laid out guidelines on the importance of telling patients the truth, but admits that change has been slow, as it is in many aspects of the Japanese medical system.

Navigating Japan’s Medical System like a Pro


Photo by strikeael

Maybe I’ve freaked you out a little with these horror stories, but don’t worry too much. The Japanese health care system, for all its quirks, is actually very good. If you are working in Japan, you are guaranteed to be treated for a very reasonable cost. It may be stressful, but getting sick always is. Also, there are many resources to help you navigate your way through Japan’s medical system and back to health.

Japan Health Care Info provides a service finding English speaking doctors and booking appointments for you if you need it. This can be a great help when you’re faced with the huge array of clinics and aren’t sure which one to choose. Their website also has lots of useful information about health care in Japan.

This website, has a list of clinics where English or other foreign languages are spoken. You can browse by type of clinic and see if there are any in your area. Of course, the closer you live to a major population centre, the more likely there will be an English speaking clinic nearby.

The Institute of Mental Healthcare Professionals is an organisation that provides mental health support to people of different nationalities living in Japan. Their website has a search function that can help you find a therapist to meet your needs.

This guide to purchasing over the counter medications is quite useful. Learning the kanji for dosage and frequency is a very good idea. I had a lot of success going to the pharmacy in my local supermarket for medicine. At first I always asked the pharmacist by pointing at whatever body part hurt and looking up the word for my problem, and I always walked away with the right kind of medication. Later, the technique I used was looking at the pictures on the packets. If it had a picture of a giant mosquito and a mosquito bite being soothed, I guessed that it would help with my painful mosquito bites. I wouldn’t recommend this technique for more serious problems though, and especially not for drugs like painkillers. If in doubt, ask. Mime and a dictionary can get you a long way.

There are some prescription drugs that you will find very difficult to come by in Japan. Many antidepressants and more modern hormonal contraceptions are not easily available. If you know that you will need medication for more than a month while you are in Japan, you’ll have to fill out a Yakkan Shoumei Certificate. This will allow you to import a year’s supply of your prescription medication. However, there are some drugs that you cannot bring to Japan at all. Many ADD and ADHD medications are completely illegal in Japan, as well as narcotics and even some nasal congestion relief drugs. If you are planning a trip or move, check that all of your medications are not controlled substances in Japan. If they are, consult with your doctor at home to see if there are any alternatives.

Finally, in case of a medical emergency, dial 119. This is Japan’s emergency number, equivalent to the USA’s 911 or the UK’s 999. If you need an ambulance say, “Kyukyusha onegai-shimasu.” Then give your name and location.

I hope that most of you will never need any of this information. But if you do, I’d urge you to keep in mind that your health should be your priority. Looking back, I probably let my fear of the health system keep me out of the hospital several times when I should have gone (like the time I ate Hell Ramen, but that’s a story for another day.) In the end, when I did end up in hospital, it wasn’t as bad as I’d anticipated, even if I wasn’t as comfortable as I would have been at home. Stay healthy and happy, in Japan or wherever you are!

Bonus Wallpapers!

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How To Cope When Japan Isn’t Perfect Mon, 24 Nov 2014 17:00:54 +0000 Life is life wherever it happens. Even if your dream of living in Japan has come true, you can still be blindsided by awful things sometimes. Bad things happen everywhere, but living in a foreign country can add an extra layer of challenge on top. During my time in Japan on the JET Programme, I […]

The post How To Cope When Japan Isn’t Perfect appeared first on Tofugu.

Life is life wherever it happens. Even if your dream of living in Japan has come true, you can still be blindsided by awful things sometimes. Bad things happen everywhere, but living in a foreign country can add an extra layer of challenge on top. During my time in Japan on the JET Programme, I faced plenty of troubles, the worst of which was a bus accident during my commute which caused severe injury to my face (I’ll just say that the name “safety bar” is deeply ironic.) The accident was ugly and tangled me up in medical, insurance, workplace exploitation, compensation, and legal issues. This, on top of the everyday stresses of living in Japan, certainly took a toll on my mental well-being. Though my physical injury is not yet completely healed, I’ve been able to deal with the practical, mental, and emotional aspects of the accident thanks to the support I received. So it feels only right to share what I learned while dealing with these troubles. A few of my solutions will only apply to JETs, but others will help anyone who lives in Japan. But no matter your situation, I hope my experiences can do something to help you cope with crises in Japan.

Culture Shock


Photo by Joel

Culture shock is the disorienting, overwhelming feeling that often affects people living in foreign countries. It’s the most common problem faced by foreigners moving to Japan. I don’t think I know anyone who didn’t get a touch of it. Culture shock has many causes including, language barriers, information overload, social stress, and change in diet. There are four stages, sometimes called 1) Honeymoon, 2) Frustration, 3) Adjustment, and 4) Mastery.

One of the main causes of culture shock in Japan is people’s expectations before they arrive. As Buckaroo Banzai once said, “No matter where you go, there you are.” Going to Japan might change your life, but it’s not going to change you. For some people this can be hard to accept. You’ll be taking your strengths and weaknesses with you. Keep this in mind when comparing your life in Japan with life back home. Other people have difficulties caused by excess expectations of Japan itself. If you arrive in Japan thinking you’re going to be living in an anime, you’re going to have a difficult time and miss out on the good things about the real Japan. Tempering your expectations and approaching Japan with a fresh mind can help.

However, even the best preparations won’t prevent culture shock completely. I knew a guy who proved that culture shock can happen to anyone. He had studied in Japan, was fluent in Japanese, and had Japanese heritage. Yet even he got stuck in the dreaded stage 2 of Culture shock. In some ways it was worse for him because he didn’t recognise what it was for a long time.

Recognising culture shock is the first step to dealing with it. If you’ve been feeling down, angry, sleeping too much or too little, eating too much or too little, unmotivated to study Japanese, or found yourself frustrated at Japan you might have culture shock. Even if you’ve been living in Japan for a long while, you can still experience it. Unfortunately going though culture shock once is no guarantee that you won’t go through it again. It is a cycle. I went through the cycle several times in three years, and had to learn to keep an eye on myself.

Coping with Culture Shock


Photo by Pank Seleen

Thankfully, once you’ve recognised that you’re being culture shocked, there are some practical things you can do to help you feel better. Compare your eating, drinking and socialising habits with how they were back home. Then try to reclaim the things which made you happy in your home country. If you drank less at home, try to drink less in Japan. If you got more sleep, try to get more sleep. Do and eat things that remind you of home. But, as with all of this advice, don’t go to extremes. I knew someone who moved into an apartment that their JET predecessor had been living in. The new JET found a room full of American drinks and candy. Every time his predecessor had seen a bottle of Coca-cola or a snickers, he’d bought it because it reminded him of home. He hadn’t eaten them though, just kept them as a shrine to America. So snacks from home are good, but don’t take it too far. In fact, when dealing with culture shock, moderation should be your watch word.

Exercise can seem like the last thing you want to do when suffering culture shock, but it really helps. Even just going for a walk can be good for you. Get out of your house and connect with people. They will be your lifelines when things are roughest. You might feel watched if you go out for a jog, but don’t let this get you down. People are going to comment on the things you do. The sooner you can come to terms with it, the better you’ll feel. Just put in some headphones and get in the zone.

Try to eat well too. Fruit can be expensive in Japan, but indulge yourself sometimes, or try tinned fruit, which is cheaper but still healthy. Don’t live entirely on kombini meals. Yes, they are convenient, but they are also loaded with stuff that will ruin your energy. Getting to grips with Japanese cooking is not only healthier, but learning about Japanese food will also make you feel more confident when you walk into the supermarket, which will help in making Japan a home for you. When I first arrived I felt overwhelmed by all the unknown packets and bottles. For my first three months I only bought food which had pictures of what it was on the package. Going shopping was a big frustration for me. I tackled this by researching more about Japanese food. Cookpad is a great Japanese home-cooking recipe site in both English and Japanese.

Learning more Japanese is another good way to battle culture shock. If you are having frustrations in an area of your life, focus your studies on that area to overcome them. I used to dread going to the post office. It stressed me out until I sat down and crammed some vocabulary. This wasn’t an instant cure for my culture shock, but being able to regain some control helped bring me out of my stage 2 slump.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, talk to someone. This can be hard for some people, but remember talking to people is a sign of strength and decisive action. Luckily we live in the future, so even long distance video calls are possible and cheap or free! Talk to people back home. Getting a perspective from outside Japan can help, as well as reminding yourself that there is a place beyond Japan.

However, don’t get trapped only talking to friends and family outside of Japan, some of whom might want you to come home sooner than you’d like. Sometimes this means talking to other foreigners in Japan who might have gone through similar things. Be wary of “stage 2 parties” though. This is where lots of expats get together and moan about Japan. It’s fine to let off steam, but don’t let that sort of thing suck you down further. Try to get a wide range of perspectives, foreign and Japanese.

However, there may be some times when you feel as if you have no one to talk to at all.



Fear not! There is always someone for you to talk to! If you are a JET you can call the AJET Peer Support Group (PSG.) This is a telephone service that runs from 8pm to 7am every night of the year. If you call 050-5534-5566 or Skype AJETPSG (for free!) you will get through to a member of PSG. They are trained listeners who also point you in the direction of all sorts of resources; medical, legal, counseling and more. All of the members are drawn from the JET community, so they will understand the sorts of problems you are going through. You don’t have to tell them your name and they have a strict confidentiality policy so they will never tell your employer or anyone else anything you say to them. The only exception to this is if they feel you are in danger of hurting yourself. Then they will take any steps necessary to ensure your safety.

Don’t think that you have to be in a really serious situation to call them though. While they are trained to deal with severe problems, you can also call them for any reason at all. If you are undecided about recontracting, it can be very useful to bounce ideas off someone. If you’re having difficult times at work, they can help you think of ways to improve your situation. If you want to talk about personal issues, they will give you a non-judgmental space to express yourself. They don’t work for the JET Programme, they work for JETs. You’re not going to hear the usual official lines from them and they won’t just say, “Every Situation is Different.”

If you do need to hear the official lines though, then calling the JET Line, which lets you speak to one of the Programme coordinators at CLAIR in Tokyo, is the way to go. The line operates Monday to Friday from 09:00 to 17:45. You can reach it on 03-5213-1729. I had a mixed experience calling the JET Line.The first response I got from the JET line was the basic “Every Situation is Different,” which didn’t address my problems. My Prefectural Advisor, who was herself a fantastic source of support and an angel in human form, encouraged me to call again after the problems got worse. The second time I called, the JET Line was much more effective. The JET Line spoke with my Contracting Organisation on my behalf. After that my Board of Education slowly began to change the situation. You should keep in mind though, that as a JET, you are employed by your Contracting Organisation, not CLAIR. The JET Programme can’t do more than put pressure on your employer to improve your situation. JET acts as an agency, placing you with employers, but does not directly employ you.

There is often a feeling in the JET community that we should put up with a lot because we are lucky to be here. While I agree that JETs should try their best to adapt to cultural differences, foods and so on, that doesn’t mean we should let ourselves be exploited. JET is a large programme, and there are going to be problems in it. Things like the JET Line and the Prefectural Advisers system are mechanisms to fix those problems. Take advantage of them when necessary. It’s not failure to ask for help.

Workplace Problems


Photo by ancorena

The English teaching market outside of JET has its own problems. There are a lot of dodgy businesses out there. Even respectable businesses can turn nasty if you get sick. I had a friend who was fired but not fired because she got a lung infection. Her doctor told her she needed rest to recover fully. Her employer just told her not to come back, but that she wasn’t being fired, so they wouldn’t pay her severance. Of course, this is illegal under Japanese law. If you find yourself in a situation like this, call your local Labour Standards Bureau. They will provide a free mediation service between you and your employer. Some offices have English speaking staff. This option is not open to you if you are a JET or other kind of public servant, only if you are employed by a private company. There are also unions which defend the rights of foreign workers and language teachers in Japan and may be able to offer you advice and legal counsel.

Wherever you work, take some time to read through Japan’s Labour Standards laws. They are surprisingly generous to workers in some cases. Of course, this won’t be much comfort if you’re working for a black company, but it’s still good to know the ground you are fighting on.



Photo by Emran Kassim

If you aren’t a JET, there are also people for you to call. TELL (Tokyo English Life Line – operates a phone service across Japan. The number is 03-5774-0992 and the line is open from 9am to 11pm daily. They offer support to anyone going through a hard time in Japan, as well as dealing with emergency calls and providing information. Their directory ( is also a great place to look for contacts to other services that could help you with a specific problem, covering everything from counseling services to housing disputes. TELL also offers a face to face counseling service, based in Tokyo and Yokohama ( .

Living in Japan, particularly taking part in workplace drinking culture can cause problems for some people. There are some familiar support organisations that also operate in Japan. For example, Alcoholics Anonymous (, Al-Anon ( for friends and family of alcoholic, and Over-eaters Anonymous ( There is also JHelp which offers emergency assistance across Japan. If you live in Tokyo, you can get help from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Foreign Residents’ Advisory Center. These organisations can provide you with support in English.

Don’t forget that you can also contact your Embassy. After I was unable to get the forms I needed to claim an accident insurance payment from my employer, I called the British Embassy in Tokyo. The staff was incredibly helpful. They contacted my employer and were able to get me the forms. Of all the people I called following my accident, the British Embassy were the most compassionate and helpful. The US Embassy also provides a useful list of sources of help in Japan.

Finding Different Perspectives


Photo by Adam Sharron

Life in Japan can be stressful. It is easy to fall into the trap of blaming Japan for all your problems. Take a moment to consider which of your problems are really caused by Japan specifically and which could happen to you anywhere.

Personally, after the traffic accident that left me severely injured, I was very angry at Japan. It took me time to realise that accidents happen all over the world. It wasn’t Japan as a whole I needed to be angry with.

We can never know what would have happened if we’d made the choice not to come to Japan. All we can do is face reality as best we can. That doesn’t mean rolling over and accepting our fate though. While I came to terms with the accident, I still fought to get the compensation I was entitled to and for change in my commuting situation so that the same sort of accident wouldn’t happen again.

Dealing with problems in Japan requires a fine understanding of what you need to adapt to and what you need to fight to change. It’s tough, so don’t beat yourself up if you fail sometimes. Just take a breath and get the help you need.

Bonus Wallpapers!

[Phone – 640×1136]

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Miyagi 3 Years after 3.11: Slogans Are Cheap Wed, 05 Nov 2014 17:00:06 +0000 It’s been three and a half years since the disaster struck Japan. After writing about the situation in Fukushima prefecture, I was able to visit the tsunami disaster areas in Miyagi prefecture. Three and a half years after the tsunami, I have to wonder: how smooth has the “recovery” has been? How is it going now? How […]

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It’s been three and a half years since the disaster struck Japan. After writing about the situation in Fukushima prefecture, I was able to visit the tsunami disaster areas in Miyagi prefecture.

Three and a half years after the tsunami, I have to wonder: how smooth has the “recovery” has been? How is it going now? How it will be in the future? The rubble may have been cleared, but there is still a lot to do.

Sendai and Matsushima


Is this what you would call disaster?

I first set off on a Monday morning on my trip from Sendai, the largest city and population hub for everything in the Tohoku region. Sendai, as you can imagine, shows virtually no signs of the disaster at present. At most there may be temporary housing for refugees but even those aren’t obvious.

The recovery is going well here then, I suppose.


New buildings at Tohoku University

My friends living in the city have told me that “recovery” has been pumping Sendai full of money. Aside from the reconstruction of damaged buildings, Tohoku University has been getting brand spanking new buildings and central funding. The city is finally going to have a new subway line next year. The Sendai which I arrived to on a Saturday evening was positively bustling. People shopping, young couples hand in hand – not very different from what you might find in Shibuya.

I first headed off to Matsushima, one of Japan’s “Three Views“. Nothing really seems off at all, but it wasn’t that heavily damaged by the Tsunami in the first place. On top of that, as a tourist location, it had to be cleaned up quickly.


The recovery is going well here too, it seems.

I boarded the train from Matsushima station towards Ishinomaki, the first major disaster spots I visited.

Matsushima → Ishinomaki


There is a reality of Japan that most tourists, zipping around with JR Japan passes do not see. Many think that Japan is all convenience with punctual and reliable public transport. That is true! However, forget “convenient” once you’re out of the big cities.

When you get to the more rural parts of Japan, the trains come once every hour or two and often only have one or two carriages. Train stations may often be just an elevated concrete platform. This is the Japan where a car is a must. The majority of people on the trains I saw were students too young to drive and the elderly too old to do so.


The rural landscape in late September Tohoku can be summarized by golden field after golden field. Beautiful, but the crisp chill in the air heralds the coming winter. The rice has just been harvested – you see the hanging bushels strung up on poles. These fields are broken only by the occasional settlement or wooded area.



How can you bring recovery to what was already sick?

Ishinomaki was one of the worst affected cities by the earthquake. It was – and is – a port city. Aside from the port being entirely destroyed, 3,533 people lost their lives and another 434 are still missing.

In the southern part of the city there is a ridge. If you look at 3.11 disaster pictures, pretty much everything south of it was flattened.


This doesn’t look like a city that was flooded by a tsunami.

A sense of normalcy has been restored to the city. There were no obvious signs of the tsunami aside from the “Ganbarou Ishinomaki” signs near the station. Looking around you can see some buildings which look very new, newer perhaps than what would have been without the disaster. There is some building damage here and there, but you can’t be sure that those aren’t relics of three years ago.

The question is: if the earthquake didn’t damage this city, then what did?


Walking around, you notice rows upon rows of closed shutters in the shopping district, and entire streets of unused shop space. On some streets the number of open shops, outnumbered the shoppers. And while I would like to chalk it up as a symptom of Monday afternoon, the Monday afternoons I’ve seen in other places certainly haven’t been half as dead.


Ishinomaki was already losing residents long before the earthquake. Its population peaked in the 1985 census, after which it began to decline. Between 2005 and 2010, it lost around 6500 residents, or around 4% of its population. Latest statistics indicate a further decline with a loss of more than 10,000 residents between 2010 and 2014.

Look at official statistics and you’ll see that the largest age group in the city are those between 60 and 64 years of age. At the moment, they’re still considered part of the “labor force”, but a few years from now they’ll be part of the heavy inverse population pyramid driving the city into the ground.


Exploring Ishinomaki city center left me with a few questions. Was the decay I saw really due to the disaster or a part of the slow decline that would have happened anyway?

There are two disasters here: the tsunami and the crumbling population. Ishinomaki may have “recovered” from the first, but with second unaddressed, it has transitioned from a free fall to a slow downward glide.

Understand that the Japanese word for recovery is 復興 – a return (復) to prosperity (興). But fundamentally, how can you bring back to prosperity that which has not been prosperous for twenty years?

Ishinomaki → Minami-Sanriku


Yanaizu BRT station – the train platform can be seen in the background.

The trip to Minami-Sanriku involved more small trains that come once every hour or so. I had to switch at Yanaizu to a “Bus Rapid Transport” system which has replaced the destroyed portion of the Kesennuma Line.

JR East has not announced any plans to rebuild the train track. It doesn’t take a genius to see why. It’s not worth it.

Railways, trains and stations are expensive to build and buy and, even if they did rebuild the train line, would there be anyone to use it? Or would it be one of those lines causing huge losses like those that JR Hokkaido operates?

The buses are comfortable enough. A train ride would have been smoother and probably faster, but beggars and tsunami victims outside big cities can’t be choosers.



If Ishinomaki’s city center felt only whispers of the disaster, Minami-Sanriku was screaming Tsunami all over. The answer to the disaster seems simple. Rebuild what was destroyed.

And there is a lot to rebuild.


There’s nothing but wild grass and a few skyscrapers in the majority of the area. The shops that do exist are operating out of angular temporary buildings. Among the flat land there’s the building pictured above though. Am I the only one who sees the parallel between this and the Nuclear Dome in Hiroshima?


Aside from this, there is grass and grass and grass and construction vehicles rushing around doing reconstruction work which I couldn’t see anywhere. In some sense, it seems like they’ve tried to wipe away any reminders of the disaster by clearing the rubble. To me that just made the scene even more poignant. The debris would make the scene that of what was, now the lack of it smells of what had been.

You can see things in the area, some not very obvious, that have not been cleared yet. For one, they’ve entirely cleared any traces of the former train tracks and what used to be the main train station of Minami Sanriku, Shizukawa station. But they haven’t been able to clear it off Google Maps.


Below is what Google Maps led me to.



This used to be the station.


And this, perhaps is the most symbolic thing I saw in Minami Sanriku. Interpret it as you wish.

The population left in Minami-Sanriku is still trying to live their lives and have the same Japanese hospitality as everywhere else. Living and working in housing which resembles containers, there was a clear sense of perseverance and the Japanese sense of enduring with dignity.

Maybe it was the encroaching twilight, but there were wisps of despair all around. Three years after the earthquake and the future is still up in the air, tossed between the very tall grass, waving in the wind.



“A step towards the future, Ishinomaki; The breath of hope, Ishinomaki” – Ishinomaki High School.

After March 11, 2011, a few slogans became prevalent in Japan: がんばろう日本! (Work Hard Japan!), it’s sister slogans of がんばろう 東北!(Work hard Tohoku!), 絆 (kizuna, human bonds) because the disaster jolted Japan into (re)appreciating their loved ones and lastly, the aforementioned 復興 or recovery.

No doubt the Japanese have endured the crisis well with minimal chaos. But whether they’re actually working hard, or more importantly, effectively, to recover from the disaster is a different question. “Recovery” remains heavily uneven and, for some places, there may be no going back.

Because it isn’t as simple as recovery and ganbarou. It isn’t as simple as kizuna. To the disaster victims getting bashed online and Minami-Sanriku citizens visiting sparkling Sendai, the aforementioned slogans probably sound cheap.

But there are realities to deal with and loud unspoken questions: how much longer until things return to normal? How “normal” can “normal” possibly get? And more cynically, is returning to normal even worth it?

Bonus Wallpapers!

[Phone – 640×1136]

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