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
Recognizing culture shock is one its major challenges. Even self-aware people can have trouble. Symptoms are a major clue. These are things like:
- 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
- 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
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:
- The cultural values of the JET, which they use to assess communicative acts.
- 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
- 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
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?
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.
Get More JET Program Advice
This is only one article in our larger Tofugu JET Program Guide. It’s your experienced JET friend with the best knowledge and advice. Get help applying to JET, passing the interview, teaching, speeching, and more. The guide covers the JET experience from start to finish. It’s written by JET alumni and constantly updated.
Whether you’re applying for JET or already there, your new sempai will help you out.