Experiencing Culture Shock in Japan

Here are a few things to know about the culture before you go to Japan, to avoid the shock factor.


A group of travelers are enjoying food and drinks in a an Izakaya Photo © Getty Images/recep-bg

You are surrounded by a different culture - the traditions, cuisine, mannerisms, beliefs may all be foreign to you. However, this "culture shock" is in essence one of the reasons people travel - to experience, indulge in and be challenged by a new place. In the classic east-meets-west experience, we explore some of the top moments in Japan where you can't help but think, "Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore." 


When traveling to the land of the rising sun, you may have certain preconceived notions of what the food will be like, some of which are true. When I arrived, I quickly found that the majority of the food items were not what I had envisioned.

Top on my list of culture shock food items was a charming little entrée known as natto. Natto, or fermented beans, is universally loved by the Japanese, and feared by most foreigners - clearly a taste that must be cultivated from a young age. Check out this firsthand natto experience


Like so many things Japanese, the drinking culture has evolved with an interesting mix of ritual and respect. For example, you don’t fill your own glass when drinking, to do so is considered rude. Other people constantly fill it for you – every time you finish your drink, despite the polite "no thank you, I’m done" – you will eventually succumb to inebriation.

Time after time, your glass is refilled by your friends who enthusiastically shout "doozo doozo!" ("Here! Come on! Drink this!") under the assumption that westerners have ridiculous tolerances which, by comparison, may or may not be true.


I’ve been to many large international cities and enjoyed the pains and pleasures associated with slightly-less-than-personal space, but in Tokyo they have vastly different notions of this particular concept. The sheer volume of people that can be crowded into offices, classrooms, and particularly on the trains more closely resembles my friends attempting to fit as many people as possible into a phone booth – than the every day reality that exists for nearly every Tokyo citizen.

It is so crowded in fact, that there are rows of people who stand outside the trains doors during rush hour, not because they are waiting to get in, but rather because it is their job to physically shove you into the train. However, this is unnecessary due to the fact that everyone, including little 80 pound 120-year-old grandmothers pretty much shoulder tackle you into the doors if you’re one of the last ones inside.


The Japanese, particularly the younger crowd, love to sing - and they really like to sing in English. Regardless of the fact that many Japanese don’t really speak English you can walk into a karaoke bar, and hear those very same people perform a perfect rendition of Britney Spears “Hit Me Baby One More Time”.

Also note that many of the karaoke bars are not the standard stage and common area setup that many westerners are used to. Rather, they are small private rooms for 2-6 people where your party can enjoy drinks and appetizers while only having to worry about embarrassing yourself in front of those you know best.

The Ancestor Room

In some Japanese houses, there is an ancestor room where people pay respects to their ancestors. This room is often very discreet and non-descript. In my host family however, it also served as the guest room – my room – which, I must admit, was a little weird. No problem, nothing like a little cultural immersion, I was fine - that is, until "ancestor week".

On this occasion, the Japanese put out food for their dead family members to come and enjoy during the night. This meant that the deceased would be partaking in their meal while I was sleeping...in the room. Not that I minded making new friends in Japan – far be it from me to turn down the chance to make a new acquaintance in another country.

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