Home From Japan – Reverse Culture Shock

 

Reverse culture shock is the phenomenon of being ‘shocked’ by your own culture after spending many years in a different culture. After three years in Japan, I went to Australia and was surprised at how I wasn’t used to things. Now, I’d never been to Australia before, so I guess it can’t really be considered ‘reverse culture shock’, but since Australia is highly westernized, I’m going to consider some of it as ‘reverse-culture-shock’.

 

From Japan to Australia

After three years of hearing nothing but Japanese around me, when I first arrived at the airport in Australia, the main shock was to my ears. It almost felt like I’d been bitten by a radioactive spider, as the conversations and accents of the people in the airport flooded into my eardrums with a sharpness I wasn’t used to. It suddenly felt like I’d gained super-hearing.

It’s not often you’d hear an English speaker in Japan while walking about, but when I did, it stuck out like a sore thumb compared to Japanese. Surrounded by the buzzing chatter of those in the airport, I couldn’t help picking up on random conversations and inadvertently listening. It was quite a strange sensation.

The second thing I noticed quite soon was the number of people who were overweight to a level that is associated with serious health problems. Have no doubt, in Japan and the UK, there are plenty of overweight people – just not to the frequency or scale of what I saw in Australia.

Face tattoos, a lack of train stations, and inaudible Australian accents were other things that felt strange, too. Now, don’t take this wrong, I’m not trying to insult Australia – Australia is an awesome country that I really enjoyed… it’s just that ‘having lots of awesome beaches’ doesn’t really fall under ‘culture shock’.

 

Reverse Culture Shock in the UK

After Australia, I came back to the UK for the first time in nearly 4 years. The UK is very different to Australia, so once again I experienced some (true) reverse culture shock.

One thing, it was pretty damn cold! After a year-long summer (going from Japanese summer to Australian summer), I sure did feel the bitter coldness in the air!

Also, chocolate bars are really cheap, which is cool – not as cheap as they used to be though. If it is the effect of Brexit or just general inflation, I’m not sure, but some things have gotten expensive.

The main issue I found with the UK was the insane amount of litter. From a distant view, you may not notice it, but when you start looking in places that aren’t looked after, it can be like a dumping ground (mind this is Yorkshire, not London).

Over walls, in fields, and other places that aren’t immediately obvious is where most litter is. I don’t think it’s that people are throwing litter down there every day, but it’s just the fact that these places have never been cleaned, and one litter gathers, people suddenly think “one more empty crisp packet in all that won’t change anything”.

It would be nice if the government and councils invested a little into cleaning up these areas once in a while.

Learn Japanese with Terrace House (Netflix)

Netflix and Japanese

Netflix is quite amazing. For a rather low price, you can watch a huge array of new and old TV programs and movies. Not only that, but each subscription allows you to have three accounts?!

I’m not trying to advertise Netflix here, rather I’ve only been using it a couple of weeks, so I’m still a newcomer (unlike pretty much everyone else in the world).

Anyway, I’m not in Japan right now, but I still feel like watching Japanese shows as a form of maintenance (to try and keep my memory from forgetting as little Japanese as possible). That’s when I came across a TV show called “Terrace House: Boys and Girls in the City”. Apparently, there is an American version of it, so some of you may be familiar with it.

Now, you might like reality television – romance, arguments, and cringe-worthy at every turn… Or you could be someone like me, who when they hear the word “Big Brother” think ‘what a load of old potatoes’ (that’s me keeping the blog PG).

 

However, Terrace House has grown on me. I actually started enjoying it – should I be feeling ashamed now?

So what’s it actually about?

terrace house

The main idea of the show is simple. You move into a house that has three male members and three female members. You still work and go out whenever you feel like it, just when you come home, you’re welcomed by five other members and a house full of cameras. Many of the members sign up for the show with the idea of finding love.

 

Can you learn by watching?

However, the main reason I chose this program was because it came with Japanese subtitles. Your Japanese won’t improve if you watch it with English subtitles, but Japanese subtitles will give your brain that little extra push to pick up what everyone is saying. And what’s even better – all you have to do is look at the subtitles when you don’t know a word, type it into a Japanese dictionary, and bingo – you’re actually studying.

 

Japanese isn’t the only thing you can learn from the show though. What I’ve been finding more interesting is looking at the behaviors, gestures, and manners of each of the appearing members. I think it’s a good insight into how Japanese people are when they’re not talking to a foreigner.

 

Anyway, those were my thoughts on Netflix’s “Terrace House: Boys and Girls in the Big City”.

terrace house, keys

HOW I LEARNT JAPANESE

First things first – if you ever think learning Japanese ends, you’re terribly mistaken. I’ve spent a damn long time studying Japanese, but I still have decades worth of improvement left.

And this certainly isn’t a guide to how to learn Japanese (I think I will make one at some point), this is simply how I learnt it – good or bad.

In the beginning

When I first started, I had no idea how hard it would be, or just how far I would take it. For six months, I downloaded and listened to Pimsleur Japanese audio lessons. They are a bit dated, but they served their purpose of introducing me to the language. I would listen to them when I went out walking or when I was driving, so it barely even felt like I was investing time .

On Youtube, I watched a series called “Let’s Learn Japanese” that followed the adventures of Yan, a foreigner learning Japanese. This series is also pretty outdated now, but the Japanese it teaches is still a good place to start – not only that, but the adventures of Yan can be pretty amusing at times.

I’d now listened to each Pimsleur audio lesson several times, so I searched for some new content. Japanesepod101 is what I found. It has hundreds (thousands?) of Japanese audio lessons that you can download. A trial subscription is free, so you can download as many lessons as you think you might need before your free subscription ends.

With what felt like an unlimited amount of audio lessons to listen to, I also thought that I’d better get working on my kanji since I had not studied any! I searched the internet for the best way to learn the several thousand picture-based characters that Japan uses.

Heisig and Anki

remembering the kanji, heisig, hiesig

What I came across was the Heisig method. James Heisig published a book in 1977 called “Remembering the Kanji” that breaks down each individual kanji and uses mnemonics to remember them. I worked my way through the book while making 10-20 flashcards each day (it was really time-consuming). It probably took me between 6 months and a year to finish the book, and then even more time to make sure I didn’t forget it afterwards. A hint of warning though, the Heisig method doesn’t actually teach you to read Japanese, it teaches you the alphabet and familiarises you with the rough meanings of each character.

 

When I realised that my Japanese reading ability was still terrible because I wasn’t reading actual Japanese, I started to panic. This is where I downloaded Anki. Anki is flashcard software that allows you to create or download flashcards. When you get a flashcard correct, it increases the amount of time until the flashcard appears again. This is called spaced repetition.

Depending on whether I got the flashcard right or wrong, the card would be brought to the top of the deck or pushed further down the deck.

I had decks for nouns, kanji, names, and verbs; but the most important for me at that point was sentence decks. A sentence deck is just the same as any other deck, just that what appears on the flashcard is a full sentence.

I continued with Anki for years. I had over 50,000 cards in total, and if I missed just a few days, it would take me hours and hours to catch up.

Now I was confident I had my listening study and my reading study down. Now it was time for speaking!

 

Actually using Japanese

I searched for websites such as conversationexchange, sites aimed at connecting people who want to practice languages together. Today, however, there are a lot better websites out there. I started talking to people here and there, and if we got along well, we’d exchange Skype info.

Now, I’m a pretty shy guy. Talking on Skype to a total stranger made me nervous – but talking real Japanese to a real Japanese person? Uh-oh.

The first couple of calls I made, I didn’t even dare speak Japanese! I’d spent years learning it, and I knew I could do It, but it just felt so strange! I know some people recommend having a glass of wine or two to help you along. I didn’t go with alcohol, I just spoke a little bit more Japanese each time, until it was sliding out of my mouth fairly naturally.

Next, I needed to improve my writing – one of the hardest parts of learning Japanese. I’d learnt to write hiragana and katakana (the alphabets that support kanji), as you can do this in a single day.

kanji, kanji practice, writing kanji

I often told myself that learning to write kanji isn’t that important these days, and while this is partially true, I still needed to know the basics. To practice writing kanji, I simply wrote them over and over again.

But be sure to not make the mistake of writing the same old kanji a thousand times, as this won’t be very productive. Instead, get a list of 10-20 kanji or words you want to learn, write down the pronunciation or the English counterpart so you can remember which word you’re trying to write, and then write all the words one by one. By the time you get back to the first word, you’ll be working out your memory muscle to trying to remember it. The trick to remembering something is by remembering it!

 

Getting better

I’d been studying Japanese for four years now, and I just wasn’t satisfied with myself. Luckily for me, I was in a position where I could go to Japan and learn Japanese in a Japanese school.

At first, I was looking at 4-week courses, 8-week courses, but as I worked out the costs, I realised it would be best for me to go on an 18-month course!

I arrived at my school. Right off the bat, I was being praised. “Wow, you already know Japanese” – oh yes, did that feel good! I was put in the second highest class, while most others started in the fourth highest. B

JLPT

jlpt, japanese language proficiency test

After six months of school, I passed JLPT N2 and was moved into the highest class in the school. This class was a small class of Chinese students and a few Vietnamese students who were aiming for N1 – or already had it.

I spent another year in this class, but I wasn’t able to pass N1. It was time for graduation, and I wasn’t ready to go back home yet! I still had so much more to learn, so I enrolled in a business Japanese course in Kanagawa.

On this course, we studied business Japanese and subjects similar to what a Japanese middle-schooler would learn such as geography, business, marketing, economics etc. While studying these, we also had a few typical Japanese lessons, too.

After six months, I passed JLPT N1, and also got the BJT J2 (Business Japanese Test), and the Hisho-kentei level 3 (a secretarial exam).

After leaving this school (well, while still at it, technically), I started doing freelance translation, mainly for manga.

 

Eight or so years later, with the foundation of Japanese under my belt, I now need to continue reading, listening, and speaking Japanese for the rest of my life!

CULTURE SHOCK

It’s been almost four years since I first went to Japan, and admittedly, I can’t seem to remember what really surprised me. Thanks to YouTube, you can get to know a country quite well without ever having to go there. There are millions of videos out there that show the quirky and interesting side of Japan, but these types of videos are meant to entertain you, not show you everyday-life. There are YouTubers, such as Victor from Gimmeaflakeman, though, who show and discuss Japan in a way that gives you some real insight into what to expect when you go there.

YOUTUBE LINK

 

There is both positive and negative culture shock. Some people may stop reading if I insult the magic land of Japan that they have dreamt up, while others know all too well how hard it can be to adjust to a society that doesn’t always make things easy for you.

 

BOWING

I remember the exact moment I arrived in Japan. I exited the plane and walked down the narrow path that connects to the airport. While walking, I was greeted by a surprising number of Japanese people, dressed in slick suits who bowed to me and welcomed me to their country. These important people were bowing to me? Although I had heard and seen so much about bowing on TV and online, it still felt very surreal. “I’m just some English chump, why are these professional looking people bowing to me?!”

 

In fact, bowing is everywhere in Japan. I bet the average Japanese person bows a hundred times a day (don’t hold me on that number, though). When you introduce yourself or say sorry, when you accidentally clip shoulders with someone at a busy train station, when you say thank you or bye – it’s everywhere. Even if your Japanese ability is low, you should try to master the bow because it’s a versatile way to convey your manners and feelings.

 

TOILETS

As for negative aspects of culture shock, I think this one comes up a lot. Toilets! I’m sure many of you have heard about the brilliance of the Japanese toilet. However, not all toilets have fancy gadgets and heating – some are quit

 

e rudimentary. Yep, basically, a hole in the ground for you to do your business in. Even now, I’ve never mustered up the courage to use one – I think my legs would start wobbling and I’d collapse.

toilet, japanese toilet

 

GARBAGE

To be honest, though, the toilet thing wasn’t really a shock. I was surprised, however, by the way in which garbage is collected in Japan. Instead of nice, big bins to put in a week’s worth of rubbish, most rubbish is put into supermarket-sized plastic bags and then left out on the street. Sometimes there would be huge mountains of rubbish bags making it almost impossible to walk down the pavement. To make things worse, Japan’s monster-sized crows would rip open the bags to create huge messes. This really isn’t a big deal, it simply surprised me because you often hear compliments about how spotless and litter-free Japan is, and most of the time, it is… just not on the morning the bins are collected!

These kinds of culture shock aren’t really a problem for 99% of foreigners who go to Japan. Humans have an amazing ability to get used to their surroundings very quickly.

WORK CULTURE

I believe the true problems caused by culture are not the ones that come as shock when you first arrive, but the ones that slowly creep up on you after months or even years. Many foreigners get fed up with Japan within a few years and decide to leave. Why? Culture.

In particular, work culture in Japan is difficult for even Japanese people to grasp, so for us foreigners, it’s a nightmare. Once the magic of Japan fades (and it surely will), and the long working hours and the endless list of problems caused by you being a foreigner starts to nag away at you… well, who wouldn’t think about going home? I wouldn’t blame them.

 

To wrap things up, don’t worry about culture shock – consider it an interesting phenomenon. For those of you who dream of working in Japan until retirement, I’d suggest you have a plan B just in case just change your mind someday!

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