Kashiwa Life Chapter One Part One: Culture Shock


I’m sure most of you have heard of culture shock before. It’s the feelings of confusion and frustration at dealing with an unfamiliar culture and the longing of familiarity. It can come from differences in food, climate, or even cultural mores that may go against how you were brought up. Culture shock is a perfectly normal experience that you can expect to have at some point here in Kashiwa, Chiba, and Japan. Each person experiences culture shock in different ways. However, there are some patterns of behavior that you can expect when it comes to encountering a new culture.

A Japanese man playing a crane game to win potatoes in an arcade in Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan

The Honeymoon Stage

You are in love with Japan. The culture, the sights, the food, the people-everything is wonderful and magical. It’s like a real-life anime. You find it hard to believe that you’re here and all of this is real. Every day feels like Christmas and your birthday combined. That fresh new feeling is bound to wear off, but it’s nice at the moment.

When I moved to Tokyo, I remember that my head was always slightly tilted up towards the sky. I came from a small New England town and I had never lived in a city, so I was amazed by the sheer size of the buildings and the lights that surrounded me. Crowded trains were a fun adventure. “Imagine…the amount of people that ride this train every day is almost 200 times larger than the entire population of my town”, I thought to myself. I stared in wonder at the occasionally amusing selection of snacks and drinks at the convenience store. Cheese-flavored ice cream? Gelatin juice pouches? Definitely not in America.

A lonely immigrant walking down a shopping street in Japan

The novelty of living in Japan will inevitably wear off and you will begin to try to settle into your new life. Yet, things will come up that make settling difficult for you. Maybe you aren’t accustomed to eating seafood or have some dietary restrictions to cope with. You could have trouble picking up on the indirect ways of communication Japan is known for. When these sorts of things happen, people can feel agitated, irritable, lonely, overly critical, vulnerable, or anxious. You may be tempted to avoid interacting with Japanese people or even avoid leaving the house entirely.

I remember when I moved from my share house to an apartment, the bank asked me for my new address…so they could send me the address change form. “What a ridiculous waste of time! Can’t you just change it in the computer…or better yet, digitalize the whole system? I have better things to do with my life,” I remember telling the person on the phone. I didn’t yell at her of course. It’s not her fault. But I could not understand why this system exists.

Another time when I had signed up with a job recruiting agency, I really had trouble with the agent. By this time, I could understand Japanese well enough to handle everyday conversation and handle my errands without using English. However, I was self-taught and therefore had little exposure to keigo. The agent insisted on using keigo and when I asked her to rephrase something for me, she reacted in confusion and said things like “oh, I guess Japanese is too difficult for you” and “hmm maybe this service isn’t right for you”. I ended up canceling the service in defeat, feeling extremely frustrated and dejected.

Kohai woman pouring nihonshu for her senpai

Entering my laboratory was completely different than anything I had experienced in my previous jobs and life in Japan. There were rules there, I understood that. I had chores. I did my chores. I had entered senpai-kohai territory for the first time, but I did not truly understand it yet. The second-year students didn’t talk to me. Nobody sat near me or greeted me when I came in. “What’s going on? Did I do something wrong? Why does everybody hate me?”, I wondered. Thankfully, one of my senpai lived in the US for a long time and understood what was going on. She filled me in on some of the unwritten rules I had unknowingly broken. For example, I should come to seminar earlier than everyone else and get the room ready. Once I learned the rules, everything improved for me.

Many people can move on from this stage with the right amount of openness and acceptance. If you’re willing to try some of the things below, you can be among those who successfully overcome culture shock.

A western girl in a yukata dancing at a summer festival

Accept that things will be different in Japan. I find the people who have the hardest time adjusting are the ones who expect life in Japan to be similar to life in their home country. They come to Tokyo and are shocked to find that the large apartments common in their hometown are expensive and hard to come across. Japanese food seems strange to them and they reject it immediately. The people I know who have happily lived here for years have all come to accept that Japan will not change for them and moved on from that way of thinking.

Be open-minded. Even though I rejected mayonnaise and corn pizza at first, I’ve gradually come to enjoy it. I think it’s exciting to try new things and have mini-adventures. After all, the worst thing that could happen is that you don’t like it. Japanese people generally appreciate seeing someone try something new, even if it’s not their cup of tea. That kind of openness will get you far in your life here since it makes developing friendships and getting job opportunities much easier.

Two western women in Osaka during the wintertime

Talk to the seasoned foreign people. It’s nice to talk to the other people who have just arrived since you are all going through the same thing. However, don’t be surprised when a number of the people who arrived at the same time you did find themselves on a flight back home because they were unable to cope with the cultural differences. You’re going to need the help and company of the seasoned foreigners who have been here for several years.

Talk to local Japanese people (including the ones who don’t speak English). Even seasoned foreign people often end up leaving the country. Of all the original coworkers I had when I first came to Japan, about half remain in the country. If you do not have any Japanese friends, be prepared to say a lot of good-byes and become very lonely. Plus, what’s the point of living in a new place if you don’t become friends with any of the locals?  

Keep your expectations low and reasonable. You will not become a big model as soon as you touch down in the country. You are not going to be able to find a 2LDK near your Tokyo office with a large kitchen and a closet for under ¥50,000. You are not going to become a voice actor right away without speaking a lick of Japanese. These are not reasonable expectations to have much of anywhere, let alone in Japan. Having this kind of mindset is a surefire way to end up extremely disappointed. Try to limit your expectations to things like “I am going to find an apartment with a closet that is within an hour’s commute” or “I am going to find a job in the entertainment industry with upward mobility”.

A western woman posing for a photo with Domo-kun at NHK Studio

Keep at it. Culture shock is normal, so you have to bear with this feeling for a bit for it to pass. Don’t beat yourself up for experiencing it. Self-reflect on your emotions and understand why you feel the way you feel. Check in with yourself. Do some self-care. If you’re really struggling emotionally, it might be good to get some counseling. Some counselors deal specifically with culture shock. If you work through your feelings, they will get better. If you allow them to consume you and shut yourself away from everything, you will be stuck in this rut. It’s worth putting the time and effort into improving your mental health. I can honestly say that whatever effort you put into adjusting will be paid back to you.

This article is written by:

United States




Hey guys! I’m Sydney, your friendly neighborhood foreigner! I moved to Japan in 2014, but I came to Kashiwa in 2019. Despite my name, I’m American not Australian.

When I first arrived in Japan, I was so relieved to find articles written by other foreigners about how to make my way in my new country. Now that I’ve been here a while, I’d like to share what I’ve learned as well and pay it forward.