Culture Shock walks into a karaoke bar in Japan

{Photograph by DP}

Okay, I have been putting this post off for some time but today I am going to tell you a little story about culture shock and me. What’s truly shocking about culture shock is that it can still happen after we have lived in Colombia, Mexico, Spain and Thailand. And yet…

The good news is that from our cosy little holiday flat in Istanbul, it finally feels okay to make this wee confession.

I am not in love with Japan.

Gasp! (You.) Sigh. (Me.)

It might still happen… I mean, it could. There’s still time for our relationship to deepen and it’s not that I dislike Japan. But, if I am being honest, there’s a little voice in my head saying, “Really, Japan, it’s not you… it’s me.”

As a Canadian, I thought that I would love (I’m talking about LOVE here) the structure and order that characterize life in Japan. I have a deep appreciation of both but, as it turns out (and who could have predicted it) not THIS much!

There are rules for every (single, blooming) thing in Japan. If you are Japanese, these rules must be imprinted on your DNA… or perhaps there’s a handbook somewhere that I have not yet been able to get my hands on. An example. I was waiting to use the ATM at the train station a few weeks ago and I wanted to give the person at the machine a bit of privacy so I leaned against the wall to wait. Along comes a woman and she proceeds to stand directly behind the woman at the cash machine. WTF? (You know… I never say that!) And then, in the midst of my red-hot righteous indignation, I see that the woman-in-waiting is standing exactly where she is supposed to be standing – exactly where I am supposed to be standing – on the large green footsteps painted onto the floor so that people will not become confused about how to form a line at the ATM. It’s not her fault… she is doing exactly what she is meant to do. It’s not you. It’s me.

So you might be thinking any or all of the following:
1. Big deal.
2. Pay closer attention to the footprints.
3. It’s a lovely country… they have sushi.
4. Stop whining and/or suck it up.
You would not be wrong. But what you’ll need to factor in is that every transaction and interaction in Japan is governed by a zillion formal and informal rules and I am in constant violation of a majority of them. I could write a whole series of posts about the ridiculously complex recycling rules at my apartment building. If we get evicted from our apartment, you’ll know that I put the plastics in the wrong bin and that is just. not. permitted. So you’ll need to take the ATM example, multiply my frustration by 10,000 and then you’ll start to have an idea of how I am feeling. I’m a control freak who cannot control all of this control.

I do love a happy ending, though, and Japan and I may get our happy ending yet. A funny thing is happening as a consequence of my interaction with all these rules. I am becoming rebellious. (Really!) Sometimes I walk on the wrong side of the stairs or the sidewalk just to shake things up. On a more serious note, I am beginning to say no. “No, that’s too much… or not enough.” “No, that’s not a good idea.” “No, I totally disagree with your point.” “No, I do not have an opinion about this issue nor could I care less.” No.

You know what?  This feels freaking great. A little scary but also amazing. Awesome.

If you know me, you probably think of me as a person who speaks her mind but the truth is that I always have quite a lot on my mind and only a very small fraction of that mind-i-ness gets expressed. (Ask DP, he’ll vouch for that.) In fact, I have spent many years biting my tongue, playing along, and trying to be a good, cooperative (oh-so-Canadian) colleague and employee.

Do you know Alanis Morissette’s song Thank U in which she thanks India for having taught her important lessons that she needed at the time?

So, thanks, Japan for unintentionally teaching me to stand up for myself. (Now that’s ironic.)


  1. Monna – you are one of the quickest ‘see-ers’ of Japan I have met yet. I guess for most, each new country is characterised by a honeymoon period where all in the garden is rainbows and unicorns. However Japan holds a fascination in its bright lights, strange smells, often alien people, but frequently beguiling daily interactions.

    In short, know that there are many fellow rebels here who will ( to reclaim their humanity ), wear bright orange in a see of grey, sing on the train and go the wrong way, not wait for the green man when crossing the road, drink beer in the sento and hijack their code, shortening the language to glottal stops, feeding the crows, and not doing the weekly shop, smiling all the way to the atm queue.

    Happy holiday you and DP


  2. Have you read Learning to Bow by Bruce Feiler? I have always taken his experience as a kind of template for what I think many North Americans would experience in Japan. As you know, it’s that time of year — the international school shuffle — and during one conversation about where to apply, an American colleague said to me, “I think living in Japan would probably be the most completely foreign experience one could have.”

  3. I’ve said this to you before, but I spent much of my first year in Japan flabbergasted at all the rules and systems. And I moved here from Germany. I did not “get” Japan. And there is a constant struggle between wanting to fit in (which is impossible here) and wanting to dance on the subways (also, often impossible). Second year here has revealed another layer to Japan to me. The small ways people swim against the current are just beautiful. I still don’t know if I’ll understand Japan, but I find myself more intrigued every day.

  4. Hey James,

    Beguiling is exactly the right word. (You’re a damned wordsmith, aren’t you?) I never feel a sense of anger at Japan or at the Japanese… I simply feel hemmed in. Albatrossed… if you know what I mean. I will so miss your fellow-rebelliousness next year but I’m depending on the other crazy blokes from the Science Department to help me maintain my commitment to non-conformity. I will endeavor, on your behalf, to sometimes wear orange in a sea of grey.

    Much love,

  5. Dear Jocelyn,

    Thanks for writing here. I totally love… and agree with this comment: “I think living in Japan would probably be the most completely foreign experience one could have.” Interestingly (perhaps… strangely) it’s only living here that I see the truth of that statement. This feeling was especially intense right after we returned from Turkey where life is lived right out loud… the people are big, passionate and aggressive. Chaos reigns… but it’s also a chaos that works. (See: Mexico when we lived there.)

    In Japan, one is able to let her guard down about issues of safety and security and I am definitely grateful for that… but because people do not share/show their feelings, the onus is on me to interpret their intentions and act accordingly. That’s a lot of responsibility… and I think I’m just going to let that go.

    Thanks for recommending Learning to Bow by Bruce Feiler… I look forward to reading it.

    I hope you are well and thriving.


  6. Hi Rebekah,

    Thanks! It makes me a little punch-drunk to think that my second year may be easier. I really loved your explanation that your second year offered you a different Japan. I totally agree that it’s impossible to fit in or “belong” and (unless you are James M.) equally impossible to dance on the subway but I’d like to find a place in between where I can live a lovely, authentic life without a constant awareness of the disapproving frown. (You know the one!) Perhaps, in the second year in Japan, one begins to see past the frown. I loved your observation that, “The small ways people swim against the current are just beautiful.” I hope that I get there… both in terms of seeing and swimming… and I really appreciate that you took the time to write.


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