So you have just arrived in Japan, the home of culture shock.  

What are you going to do now?

I’m going to walk you through our experiences where we’re going to take you on a journey weaving our way in and out of the cultural intricacies of Japan.

Hopefully, the lessons we learned will help you unlock many of the secrets to overcoming culture shock.


What Mr. Baseball Can Teach Us About Japanese Culture

Before we kick off, let’s take a look at how culture shock can go horribly wrong in Japan, through the eyes of Tom Selleck.  In the movie Mr Baseball (click here for clip) he plays a baseball player struggling to fit into Japanese life.

Poor Tom has a bit of a nightmare, as initially he sees his Japanese girlfriend’s family slurping their food, so tries to mirror them.  Only he goes completely over the top, in the process falling flat on his face.

Dinners with potential in-laws are challenging enough as it is without adding in cultural fiascos into the mix!

Although it’s only a film, the lessons here are close enough to real life for many people who arrive into Japan.  

You simply have to be aware of the cultural nuances here, otherwise you’re going to fall flat on your face like poor Tom in Mr. Baseball.


3 Crucial Rules To Help Overcome Culture Shock In Japan

Let’s start with 3 absolutely crucial rules we experienced which help unlock Japanese culture:

  1. Japanese have rituals for everything, so turn on your cultural awareness antennas to the absolute max!
  2. Especially if you’re from a high energy culture, it’s time to take a back-seat and listen, watch and learn.  
  3. Compare your culture to Japanese culture, so at least you’re armed before going into battle.


Rule #1: Cultural Awareness Antennas – Turn Them To The Max!

There are so many rituals here in Japan, you almost feel like you’ve had a drink or two too many in a poorly lit 1980’s discotheque.  You really can get dizzy trying to make sense of them when you first arrive.

Chopstick etiquette alone practically requires PHD levels of study.  Think of your 80 year old grandmother trying to configure your new flat-screen TV and you’re getting close.

You simply have to take every assumption you have about your way of life (i.e. how we do things back home) and pretty much throw them away.  You need to be prepared for even the most basic assumptions to be challenged.

No place is safe from culture shock, not even the toilets.

Yes, that’s right, even the toilets are different here in Japan!  

I experienced it first hand when a Japanese toilet seat lifted itself automatically with bright blue lights just as I opened the toilet door.  Talk about a welcome!

Another example of how life is different here is when it comes to doing business with Japanese.  Especially in business, you need to be acutely aware of how indirect people here are. Japanese simply do not say “no” to people, at least in front of groups, as this leads to a severe “loss of face”.  

The bottom line is you have got to be clued into these quirky rituals or cultural nuances.

Therefore, ladies and gentlemen, we kindly ask you to please turn your cultural awareness switches to the “on” position please and await further instruction.


Rule #2: Time to listen, watch and learn.  

Now that you’ve got your cultural antennas to the “on” position, time to get ready for action.

Anyone who has studied or heard about Emotional Intelligence (see Daniel Goleman for more) might have come across the term Active Listening This basically means tuning into what someone is saying, and not just passively listening, but actively listening.  

If you cut someone off from what they’re saying, then you’re not actively listening.  

If you’re already thinking about what response you’re going to give, just as someone is talking, then you’re not actively listening*.  

So in other words, to actively listen, you need to “switch off” the focus on yourself and instead “switch on” your antennas to what other people are trying to say.  

To do that, you need to pay really good attention to how someone is saying something, look at facial gestures, tone of voice, etc.

The same skills are exactly what is needed when dealing with Japanese culture.  

So going back to interrupting people, in some cultures, for example Italy, conversations are seen as flowing rivers moving back and forth, where interruptions are even welcomed.  

Not so in Japan.

So if you are from these high-energy, emotionally expressive cultures, then it’s time to take a back-seat and focus on those Active Listening skills!

*Active Listening was something I had to work on earlier in my career which is why I found Daniel Goleman’s work so insightful.


Rule #3: Compare your culture tools for Japan

If you are curious to learn more about Japanese culture, there are a whole host of tools available, but one that we find very useful is cultural comparison models.  There are a number of them out there, but our favourite is the Hofstede 6-D model which we use in our CultureMee app.

In the graph above, it compares my culture (Ireland) to Japanese culture, and immediately we see some pretty big differences.  

Compared to Ireland, Japan is more masculine than Ireland (= life is “survival of the fittest”), has extremely high uncertainty avoidance (i.e. lots of rules to help structure life) and is very long-term oriented.  

Already knowing this will be a big help.**

To give one example of this, just look at the Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo.  It’s probably the busiest intersection crossing of any country in the world, and yet somehow people are walking in structured lines in a very orderly manner, almost like an intricately designed spiderweb when viewed from above.  Japanese just don’t do disorder, even when it comes to ridiculously busy intersections!


What Surprised Us About Japanese Culture

So what gave us the biggest surprise around Japanese culture?

For us, we knew to expect lots of rituals and customs, and we knew the people here are extremely indirect.

But our biggest surprise was how masculine the culture is here.

It is almost the opposite of the Dutch in many ways.  The Dutch are very direct people, but at the same time have this very strong feminine influence where there’s a big focus on consensus and life is not all about work, but more about family.

Here in Japan, they’re extremely indirect, but on the other hand extremely masculine.

You can see how masculine the culture is in how razor focused people are walking the streets of Tokyo.  People here are on a mission, with an almost laser like determination.

Just look into the eyes of people passing you in the street.  No time for small talk I’m afraid, there’s too much work to be done!  

You also see this in how people are literally shoved into subway trains, where it is every man, woman and child for themselves!

Linked to this, in most of the Asian countries, we found there was a big focus on babies, with a lot of people coming over to say hi to our baby Rosa and people offering to give up seats in trains.  This didn’t happen in Japan. Again this might well be due to how masculine the culture here is.


What We Loved About Japanese Culture


Overall we were blown away by Japanese culture.

Tokyo has a unique energy flowing through the city that marks it out as different from any other city in the world.

What we loved the most was how Japanese, as individuals, are deeply respectful.  From the moment you’re greeted coming off the plane, you will be almost bombarded with bows, such is the respect shown here to other people.

This serves to underline how when coming to Japan, reciprocating this deep level of respect shown to you is extremely important.

Interested in learning more about Japanese culture?

Then take a look at our CultureMee Japan video where Dee unlocks a few secrets to Japanese culture:


**Note: For more info on Comparing Your Culture, see the About section of our CultureMee app which explains these cultural dimensions and what they mean.  We also have lots of fun facts and culture tips on Japanese culture, see here for more info:


Here are some other resources and tools on culture which you might find useful:


Hofstede insights: Compare Your Culture Graphs


Sietar Europa Cultural Tools