My SNA Visible Minorities column 47: “The Reverse Culture Shock of Leaving Japan” (July 25, 2023), with some pointers on how to resettle and reassimilate overseas despite all the things you might miss about Japan


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The Reverse Culture Shock of Leaving Japan

Caption: It’s tough to leave Japan when there’s so much to like and miss. But there’s also things to like and miss elsewhere, so it’s a matter of being self-aware about what you like.

By Debito Arudou.  Shingetsu News Agency, July 25, 2023.

SNA Editor Michael Penn is now doing SNA from the United States. Inspired by his big move, my previous column was about my leaving Japan in middle age, where I suggested readers decide whether or not to be a lifer in Japan by age 40. Accordingly, this column will talk about establishing a new life outside Japan.

I’ll open with a big caveat: These are my thoughts as a White guy born in America who spent a quarter century in Japan, half of it as a naturalized Japanese citizen, who eventually moved back. Readers returning to a different country of birth, or moving to a different third country altogether, may of course have different experiences. In my personal and anecdotal observations below, I’ll try to generalize enough for everyone but ground them in culturally specific examples. Keep the appropriate pinches of salt handy.

Soft Landings?

The biggest culture shock I felt after Japan was right after I arrived overseas. In the United States, for example, many big airport hubs are dirty, run-down, and relatively unpredictable compared to their Japanese counterparts. The waiting areas in particular feel like bus stations. Facilities are sometimes ill-maintained, instructions to your connecting flights or ground transit often monolingual and poorly signposted, ground staff often inattentive and inaccessible, and the food… well, it’s “airport food,” enough said. I quickly missed Japan’s clean, efficient, and plentiful public transportation that follows a schedule, and the restaurant fare that actually looks like the picture on the menu.

My theory is that Japan does travel hubs better because its international reputation is at stake. You can’t let the Gaijin tourists go home with a sour image of us! So signs are multilingual, maps are clear, and ground staff at least take pains to wave you in the right direction. In contrast, the US government seems relatively indifferent to tourists: “You’re obviously here because we are #1 and do things better than anybody—so no need to try harder to impress you.”

This initial culture shock starts fading once you’ve had a good night sleep and enjoy a few familiar things: Larger hotel rooms. Comfort foods like a thick steak with A1 Sauce or a spiral-cut ham hock. An apple pie that actually has more than one apple in it. Supermarkets full of cereals, dozens of flavors of canned soups, bulk goods, and cheap rice and vegetables. News media that is an absorbing read not just because it’s in your native language, but because the topics are interesting! Procuring a car so you can merge into society like everyone else.

But things will still grate for awhile: Being forced to tip. Dirty public restrooms that seem to be the norm, not the exception. Bureaucrats who seem to have little personal dedication to a job well done. Political discourse more concerned with riling you up than with solving problems. The din of people on cellphones or kids having public meltdowns that you can’t shut out because they’re speaking in your native tongue. And the biggest worry: Getting sick or injured and having to deal with American healthcare! It’s worse with family in tow, listening to their grumbles about future uncertainties and cultural differences and feeling helpless to offer quick fixes. During this purgatory period of constant irritability, the grass will always seem greener elsewhere.

Things Settle Down as You Settle Down

It takes months, but resettlement does happen. Things that you miss about Japan eventually get overwritten by new routines which you establish and things feel more like home.

Problem is, “home” will probably not be as you remember.

For me, after a quarter-century away, my country of birth had moved on and I felt like a foreigner here too. I had trouble pronouncing “ciabatta,” “pilates,” or the fast-food chain “Chipotle.” I had never watched cultural touchstones like Friends or Seinfeld, and was about twenty seasons behind on The Simpsons. I still can’t tell the difference between Techno, House, and Hip-Hop. I still say “Waikiki,” “karaoke” and “tiramisu” with a Japanese accent. And nothing in English quite captures the communally cathartic convenience of muttering Japanese words like baka! and mendokusai!

But that dislocation is softened when you rediscover things you really appreciate because you were so long without them: aspirin; dishwashers and in-sink garbage disposals; clothes washers and dryers that actually do their jobs; apartments that have real kitchens and balconies you can actually sit out on; houses with yards; trees that are allowed to grow without being culled like bonsai by the city government; full weekends without work; relaxed summers; week-long vacations without guilt; freeways that are actually free; speed limits that aren’t enforced by beeping speedometers in your car; traffic lights that sense when cars are waiting; right-on-red rules at intersections; beaches that don’t close down at particular times of the year just because it’s tradition; and the freedom of road trips.

Eventually it dawns on you why Japan never quite felt like “home”: the constant reminders of your outsider status; feeling constantly watched because you stand out; old ladies approaching you in the supermarket to peer into your shopping basket; obnoxious schoolchildren shouting English at you from the safety of a group; some businesses and rental agencies refusing you service just because the manager or landlord has a “thing” about foreigners.

That’s just what happened to me, but society as a whole just seemed to behave wrongheadedly at time.

People kept falling for those media-generated scares leading to egg and butter shortages every few years. Friends realized that their marriages were running aground because their partner was suddenly preaching the virtues of “sexless couples.” There is the frustration of never being able to have a “clearing the air” conversation because the default is to “put a lid on smelly things.” Annoying too is the “bureaucrats know best” of Japan’s “nanny-state” not only producing a shrugging, apathetic shikata ga nai public, but also dismissing any suggestion for how things might be done better. If you get an answer at all, it will most likely be a glib “there is no precedent for it, and besides this is Japan and you’re a foreigner.”

Ultimately, I realized my biggest issue in Japan was the relative lack of life choices. For example, in the United States and many other societies, if you wish to live in a more liberal environment, you can move to a liberal city. You can find “your people” and partake in self-sufficient communities celebrating alternative lifestyles, with voting blocs to match.

In Japan, however, the top-down structure of government and the ascription pressures of Japanese culture mean deviations from the norm are flattened, disenfranchised, and made secretive. It’s the “nail sticking out getting hammered down” and all that.

That’s why secret worlds abound in Japan. They are wonderful to partake in but they never become mainstream or normal. By definition, they’re secret. You can only inhabit them on a temporary basis. Then, at daybreak, you have to get serious and get back to work.

This goes double for foreigners and people who look “foreign.” For them to feel part of a community in Japan, they have to resort to a foreign enclave where by definition they do not belong.

The Lessons Learned

I believe the trick to straddling cultures is to inhabit what you like. I realized that there are a small number of things about Japan which I really like, but a large number of little things in Japan that I simply could not stand. On the other hand, there are a small number of things in the United States that I simply cannot stand, but a lot more little things I like. Of the two, the latter provides me with a lifestyle more attuned to my tastes.

Again, your own preferences may vary, but in any case be self-aware about what you like, and choose to partake in the best elements of each society and culture. Fly between cultures when you need to.

I enjoy Japan because I don’t need a car, a menu, or a can of pepper spray to enjoy it. I enjoy the United States because I can be left alone.

Ultimately, that’s the problem with being an international traveler. No matter where you are, you’re aware that nowhere by itself is perfectly suited to your needs. Something is always better someplace else. You know because you’ve experienced it. So that’s why you go where you can enjoy yourself until you get your fill.

As Michael Penn settles into his new lifestyle in a rural American town, may he use his knowledge of what he likes in Japan and America to fit in and flit between.

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8 comments on “My SNA Visible Minorities column 47: “The Reverse Culture Shock of Leaving Japan” (July 25, 2023), with some pointers on how to resettle and reassimilate overseas despite all the things you might miss about Japan

  • Thanks! I moved back to Australia about 6 months ago because after 12 years I was done with Japan.

    Tried to fit in worked hard was making about 8 million yen a year working 3 jobs. Travelled 2 hours each way to work every day working 6-7 days a week for years on end. Got level 1 JLPT, got PR had a kid… but none of it was enough. Finally decided “why am I doing this to myself?” I’m a qualified high schoo lteacher back home and teacher’s wages start at 7 million yen here maxing out at over 10 million. You get 12 weeks off and a great pension.

    Australia is not perfect and sure we have racism too, but society is progressing and now 1 in 3 Australians were born overseas and 2 in 3 have a parent from overseas.

    The national pension is also about double thatof Japan’s and empoyee pension is better.

    So yeah, I might retire to Japan one day (if things improve), but for now I’m done. I’m happy to visit once or twice a year on holiday and maintain my PR, but that’s about it.

    I am struggling a bit though. Japan has turned me into a bit of an anxious, conflict adverse, overly apologetic weirdo. It;s slowly getting better as I build my life back up here and wind things down in Japan… it actually feels similar to overcoming a drug addiction or something.

    I miss a few things. I miss being able to eat out for cheap. I miss the beer prices! I miss speaking Japanese because I still love the language. However, overall, I’m much happier here in Australia.

    I still get really triggered when I read news articles like the recent one where in Kumamoto 90% of people voted against allowing foreigners to vote in local elections. That really erked me because there are about 10,000 Australians living in Japan and about 50,000 Japanese living in Australia and they have way more rights in my country and many have access to our generous welfare system.

    Also, seeing the anti-foreigner filth propagated on social media (for example, blaming foreingers for the state of Kabukicho) still makes my blood boil. But, over time I guess I’ll stop caring so much.

    Anyway, I’d better stop ranting. I just want to say, if you’re thinking of leaving, just do it!

    —- Thanks for sharing. I too was anxious, overly conflict-avoiding, etc. That will wear off after a year or two.

    • Just a small correction, Kumamoto didn’t even want to give foreigners the right to vote in local elections, they just wanted to include foreign residents as citizens in an ordinance. Things are actually that bad in Japan. A city can’t even mention the fact that foreigners are citizens of said city in their own ordinance without causing nation wide outrage.

      • I read somewhere “Abe took a lot away from the Japanese people and taxed them more, but in return gave them a greater sense of nationalism and belonging.”

        Outrage at giving foreigners anything- as these are the only people they can lord it over in Japan- is all they have left.

    • -8 million yen a year working 3 jobs. Sorry to say this is very so so indeed compared to other world cities and presumably that’s before tax. THREE jobs. However in Japan’s defense I will say I was able to claim back up to a million yen a year in expenses (I took a lot of taxis from my office and kept a pile of receipts though the tax office never asked to see them), despite early Japanese employers trying to tell me “not to claim too much back or they’ll get suspicious”. However I kept receipts for everything I felt was work related including half my rent as I had a study specifically for work purposes, and had no qualms in doing so.

      So this liberal tax return was a plus, although NJs could NOT submit it online which was a clear case of discrimination. It was also quite arcane and intricate (in Japanese) so required the advice of a tax lawyer at first.

      I too was walking on eggshells/tenterhooks, over apologizing etc. but conversely it would wear off a bit every time I left Japan but when I came off, I would soon be chastised by a boss or peers one way or another for being “Fumajime” i.e. not taking things seriously, or being rude in other words not apologetic, self-doubting and nervous enough.

      No thanks.

      • Hi Baud,

        Yes 8 million yen isn’t so great (the average full time worker in my part of the world in Australia makes around 10 million, and you’ve got to remember that if you’re comparing to US dollars the US dollar is worth so much more), but when the average 40 something male in Japan earns 5.5 million, 8 million isn’t too bad.

        But the pension returns were terrible and always being treated like an outsider no matter how hard you try was frustrating.

        In Australia the national pension is about 2.4 million a year after 35 years vs Japan which is about 0.8 million a year after 40! That’s triple! Plus you get 12% on top of your wage go into your employee pension fund (e.g. If you earn $100k a year then you get $1k a month go into your fund). Plus that usually gets 5-6% per annum growth.

        Moving home was a no brainer.

    • Hey Ben. Good to hear you got out and are feeling happier. Mirrors my experience.

      I lived there for a five year stint, graduated from Kyoto U with a masters, got lvl 1 JLPT, worked in Tokyo as an in-house translator, and my non-Japanese partner who was a fellow Kyodai grad working at a big name gaishi-kei. But my pay rate was pretty abysmal, time off was scarce, and living quarters really cramped. Worse was my partners workplace was exploiting her to the hilt, combined with all the other human relation difficulties. So getting bullied, but also working 14-16 hour days, but also not getting actively trained so she could advance properly.

      We moved back to Aus in 2016, and she had to start again with a fresh masters to break into the local job market (we didn’t plan this move well and could have strategized it better). But after a few years transition, she’s now getting paid a decent amount to mostly work from home, with ample career advancement. Still has to deal with bullies, but its easier when you know you can shift jobs with less hassle.

      I noticed myself that I was immediately a lot happier in Aus. But certainly took some work to get less conflict-averse and shy. Australia felt a bit like the states. A foreign country where everything and everybody was a bit too loud and pushy. I think it took 6 months all in all it took before it felt like I had never left.

      Definitely miss the beer prices. And miss the language and good quality books at decent prices. But quality of life here is just so much better overall.

  • Hi Daniel,

    Yeah, Aussies can be pretty blunt and this can be mistaken for aggression. However, at my current job when there’s an issue my boss is usually like “Oh well, we can only do our best.” or “OK, we’ll fix this it’ll be OK”. VS all the unnecessary stress and massive panic of the Japanese workplace.

    It’s not a perfect country, but I think there are way more opportunities than Japan!


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