Due to the differences between the US and Japan, members from one place living in the other place will experience feelings of disorientation, confusion, surprise and even anxiety. For example, not being able to tell the difference in what is appropriate or not due to having difficulties in assimilating coupled by strong dislike and disgust about certain aspects of the new culture will take place.
Phases of Culture Shock
Honeymoon Phase- In this phase, every little thing about your new life in Japan will seem romantic and intriguing. For example, eating sushi at a conveyor-style (kaiten) sushi bar, seeing salarymen being shoved into overcrowded trains by sharply dressed train conductors, riding in taxis with plastic seats being driven by well manicured drivers wearing white gloves may initially seem amusing or appealing at first.
Negotiation Phase- In this phase, the desire to have things as you did in the US will take place. For example, you may long for the chance to go to a restaurant that serves beverages in glasses slightly larger than a shot glass, getting to work without having your personal space violated on the train or would give anything to walk down the sidewalk with open space in front of you. The thought of eating white rice at school five days a week or little old ladies walking down the narrow and crowded sidewalk on a sunny day holding a big and bulky umbrella may annoy you.
Everything is OK Phase- In this phase, the new life that you started months ago begins to be part of your daily routine. For example, taking off and putting on your shoes several times a day may have seemed inconvenient now is a done without even thinking. Eating dinner off a low table and sitting on the floor may have been uncomfortable at first now is the preferred method of dining at home. Lastly, being stared at while riding the train at first may have made you feel uncomfortable now is managed in a more subtle way.
Reverse Culture Shock Phase- In this phase, you have become accustom to life in Japan and now are back in the US. The idea of being able to eat a pizza without squid or seaweed is greatly appreciated and finally getting behind the wheel of your car is like the time when you first received your driver’s license. Then, you get use to idea that mass transportation in the US is a farce where in Japan you could set your watch to it. Finally, you come to the conclusion that when it comes to customer service, the Japanese are the best in the world and the idea of walking behind the counter to grab the curly fries at your hometown Arby’s so that you can finally sit down does cross your mind but thankfully you do not act on it.
Coping with Culture Shock
I found that the more I prepared for Japan prior to flying out, the better I was able to detect a situation of disorientation, confusion, surprise and anxiety before it was to happen. Your predecessor and contracting agency would know better than anyone about your future home’s work setting, living arrangements and expectations. One thing that I struggled with was letting comments and questions roll of my back. You will be asked certain things because of the differences in the cultures. Once I realized this, I was able to dismiss it and moved forward. The biggest thing that helped was taking time out. I returned home for my grandmother’s funeral on bereavement leave and took several excursions with my wife to the different regions in Japan. Giving myself this break was similar to a summer back home between semesters. Lastly, the more open-minded I was and the more that I embraced the Japanese culture; the more the Japanese seemed to open up to me. If all else fails, determine who your allies are when you first arrive at your contracting agency and schools and partner up with them on your outings to deflect and control attention that you will bring being a JET.
Although your team teaching partner and contracting agency supervisor speak English as a second language, establishing a communication relationship with them is best by putting your issues and problems in writing. Depending on the situation, you may find it difficult to communicate with these people on a regular basis. By putting your communication in writing, you are avoiding strong feelings and preventing misunderstandings.
JET Support Services
JET Participants- These are your peers either at your contracting agency or nearby agencies. Use these people when you need assistance in coming up with a lesson plan, or need to talk to someone in your mother tongue, or need a like-minded person to relate to your situation.
Contracting Agency Supervisor- When problems arise, this person is the best person to start with. This person is your boss, not your parent, therefore it is your responsibility to maintain a professional relationship with this person at all times. This person is responsible for making out your work schedules, organizing training seminars for the JTEs and elementary teachers, and approving your paid vacation (nenkyu) and absence from work due to illness (byoukyu) as well as informing your schools about your time away from school on business trips (shucchou).
Prefectural Advisor (PA) and Self-Support Group Leaders (SGLs) – While PAs have received training, they are not professional counselors. SGLs also provide counseling and support in seven different languages. You can receive their contact information from CLAIR.
AJET Peer Support Group- This group consists of JET volunteers and is available toll free at 0120-43-7725 from 8pm to 7am 365 days a year. Conversations are confidential and anonymous.
CLAIR Program Coordinators (PCs) via JETLINE/JETMAIL- PCs consist of former JETs and are available via JET Line during business hours (9am-6pm), Monday thru Friday. PCs specialize in counseling and providing information and can provide assistance with workplace relations, mental health counseling and referral, culture shock, harassment, contractual inquiries, conferences and general information. JETLINE number is 03-3591-5489 and JETMAIL is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Counseling System Committee- If your problem requires the assistance from a professional English speaking counselor by phone; the CLAIR Program Coordinator can provide this information.
Sources: Wikipedia- http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Culture_shock
JET Program- http://www.jetprogramme.org/documents/pubs/GIH_e_08.pdf
Source: Daniel Stone’s contribution for the 2008 JETAA-SE Q & A Session for Departing JETs.