Culture shock in Japan: My pre-Japan nightmares!

It’s all too easy for me, when I hear people talking about their fears and concerns about travelling to foreign countries, to dismiss their worries and just tell them to go out and do it. I’ve experienced lots of different cultures and foods and languages and customs and I have learnt that there is nothing to be afraid of as a traveller – that every experience, even those that are not altogether positive, is a great learning experience and a good story to tell.

When I interviewed Laura, our beginner traveller, recently, her fears about possible culture shock in going to Asia reminded me that I was not so different. Before I moved to Japan to teach English, I had very little experience of Asia – a few days each in Hong Kong and Singapore as a nine-year-old was it. And although I dearly wanted to move overseas, and the opportunity to teach in Osaka was a fantastic one, the anticipation of the move was certainly not without some anxieties.

Deer danger at Nara Park – one of my first Japanese excursions

Looking back, I can actually remember having nightmares about the move to Japan. From what I’d seen on TV, I could imagine every train I travelled on being absolutely jam-packed with commuters, and I’d seen video of the professional “train pushers” (my word, I don’t know what they’re called!) whose job it was to physically push people onto the train (white-gloved, of course) to make sure the train was filled to the brim. I actually had a genuine fear of this happening, and since I’d had anxiety problems in the past, I was sure I would end up having a panic attack alone in a foreign country where I didn’t speak the language and it would all be a terrible disaster.

My tiny local train station in Japan

Guess what? It was fine. First of all, I rarely needed to travel on trains at peak hour because my teaching hours were usually from midday to nine at night. Second, I wasn’t in Tokyo, where this commuter chaos is more common. Thirdly, I was a whole head taller than most Japanese so even when the train was crowded, I was well above most of them and could breathe perfectly well.

There were other elements of life in Japan that did give me some culture shock, things I hadn’t anticipated. The humidity of my early days there – I arrived at the hottest, stickiest time of year, coming from a mild Perth winter – took me by surprise and in the first week, anxious to explore some of the tourist sights before full-time work started, I ended up sitting close to tears on a stone wall in Nara park dazed by something approaching heatstroke. Trying to figure out what foods to buy in the supermarket confused me in the first few days, too, as I had expected everything to have pictures on the labels – they didn’t, and there were so many things I wanted to buy but couldn’t, and didn’t know how to ask for – I wondered if I would ever eat something approaching normal food again. It wasn’t a surprise to me to hear at the orientation session that a number of new teachers wouldn’t make it through the first week or two before deciding to fly home.

My local supermarket in Japan

Fortunately, once I started teaching and got plenty of tips and help from both my fellow ex-pat teachers and my delightful Japanese students, the culture shock rapidly retreated and I quickly got on with falling in love with life in Japan. I guess my incredibly positive experience there makes it easy for me to forget the first few anxious days. But I need to remember it so I can encourage potential travellers in a more sympathetic way – it’s not always easy to take that first step, but of course, it’s undeniably worth it.


  1. Ahh yes culture shock, I know it well ! Thanks for sharing this, it´s always interesting to read about other people´s experience. 🙂

  2. I would feel anxious too if I couldn´t figure out what food to buy! I think the worst for me is not being able to communicate and when the alphabet is totally different from ours (like Japanese, Chinese, Russian) where you just can´t take a guess…

  3. Great post!
    My sister and I were discussing where to go in September. We ultimate chose Europe as it suits both of our interests. However, we were both concerned about the potential shock of going to Thailand and Cambodia (our other option). Ultimately we decided to plan a trip filled with good food, wine and history.
    I have been constantly thinking about going to Asia alone or with a tour group for solo travelers just because it does make for a good story and I am a writer.

    The Wanderfull Traveler

  4. To be fair, I think Osaka is the most “western” place in Japan, and maybe Asia (Singapore and Hong Kong are close though) – it’s hard to really experience culture shock, also because people are so nice!

    • It probably depends where you are in Osaka – I ended up living in a suburban neighbourhood with no other foreigners at all and although the people were fantastically friendly, I still struggled the first couple of days (and couldn’t read or speak the language at all). Plus friendly people are no use if you’re too shy or shocked to talk to them!

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