What it’s like to experience reverse culture shock after leaving Japan

By Brooke Larson

I recently returned to my home country of America after living in Osaka for six years. I wasn't prepared for what to expect.

Recently, I was catching up with a friend at a Thai restaurant near Hollywood. When we finished eating, the waiter promptly put down the check. I handed over my debit card happy that lunch managed to remain just under 30 bucks. My card returned with a receipt, which I noticed included a small, blank line begging to be filled in just above where I had to sign. I squinted at it, confused, then gasped.

“I forgot about tipping!”

Though born and raised in the United States (and even having worked in restaurants there), I’d totally blocked the existence of tips from my brain. I’d recently returned to start a new life in Los Angeles after a six-year stint in Osaka, where, as in the rest of Japan, servers get paid an hourly wage, which means they aren’t constantly hovering over your table waiting to refill your water after a single sip in the hopes you’ll remember to spot them an extra yen.

Reverse culture shock had me in its grasp.

Contrary to its name, however, reverse culture shock isn’t the opposite of culture shock—the reversal is the return home after residing abroad. What was previously familiar has now, for one reason or another, become perplexingly foreign. I spent 23 years in America before moving to Japan, so moving to the land of raw fish and talking toilets was obviously an adjustment. What I didn’t imagine was how weird it would be to return home after a relatively short six years away.

Yet, reverse culture shock is a blast. Everything feels so fresh and exciting. Even when I make myself look silly in my ignorance (we don’t swipe cards anymore at checkout, apparently), I find the experience delightful. Every day is both a struggle and a treasure as I relearn how to function in my home country and I’m enjoying being amazed by a number of “new” discoveries. Here are a few that I’ve been most shocked by, which highlight some of the key differences between the US and Japan — based on my personal experience.

Japanese people are typically more polite, but Americans are friendlier

When I leave home now, no matter the situation, I interact with strangers. People on the street smile and say hi, cashiers strike up conversations, and people I’m waiting in line with become my friends. Strangers compliment my hair color and joke around with me totally unprompted. It makes my day every time.

Japanese people, by contrast, don’t often speak to those they don’t know (unless alcohol is involved). There’s a strict level of formality and politeness that gets in the way of strangers interacting on a real, human level. Once you get to know Japanese people, their personalities come out and it’s a delight, but I’m enjoying the absence of any barriers in the first place. It’s refreshing.

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© Savvy Tokyo

©2022 GPlusMedia Inc.

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What's this all about???????????

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I had that shock after 2 years only when I returned to France. Litterally stayed indoors for most of my stay. Now I just see it differently and get into the "going back" mood every time I travel and i do enjoy it more. And it's true that you see things very differently and in a more positive way. I appreciate things I didn't appreciate before !

1 ( +1 / -0 )

I've been spending large blocks of time (2-4 months) out of Japan for the past three years now. So I'm kind of at a half-way point with this. I'm definitely much better adjusted to dealing with the west than when I'd only get out of Japan a few times a year for a few days to a week for business. So I found this article interesting, to see someone's perspective on making the full leap.

One thing I find quite different from her however was this:

Not a single person cares that I speak Japanese

My experiences have been quite the opposite. Being able to speak Japanese is not something I really talk about, but people ask whether I can speak it quite regularly. When I do tell them, I basically just say 'yes, I've been there quite a while', and leave it at that. But a number of times, people will still comment to me at some point later in time how impressed they are with it.

I don't really say it out loud unless I'm with someone I'm particularly close with, but for the amount of time I've been here, I'd think it was pretty sad if I didn't speak Japanese, not impressive that I do. Which is why I mostly don't talk about it.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

I have been back in Australia now for about 6 months after spending over 6 years in Japan. While I do miss Japan on occasion, I am happier back here and feel I made the right decision. To me it is all about familiarity.....I found myself catching up on the news back home on a daily basis, keeping regular communication with family and friends, visiting Australia for a few weeks every other year. It made the transition easy by still being partly attached to my home country while living in Japan.

4 ( +4 / -0 )

I had a Canadian student (a woman) wrote me after she returned to Canada saying that she found it difficult to cope with Canadians who had never been to Japan but who were sure they knew all about it. They had their fantasies and did not want to hear about daily life in Japan which is generally very mundane.

I encountered the same pattern when I was answering questions on Quora about Japan. Some people who have never been here thought they knew more amount the country than I did even though I've been here more than twenty-six years off and on from 1971 and from 1997 permanently.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

This isn't newsworthy just because you forgot about tipping, an old and outdated system anyway.

And if you saw anything during the 6 years, you'd know that a lot of the Japanese politeness is actually an act to not have to deal with something, or ableness to speak the truth. Ofc, not all of it, but a lot, especially in the work place.

3 ( +3 / -0 )

"I recently returned to my home country of America...."

America isn't a country.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

I could write a ten part series on the Shock I get upon returning to Canada to visit friends and family, after living here for 30 years. Quite honestly I do not know if I could acclimatize to the vast differences...

0 ( +0 / -0 )

It will be real tough when I go back to the States. My hardships include: people greeting me with a smile (dammit!), cheap gas, a huge apartment with air conditioning in every room, going to work and not getting soaked in the rain, driving my car to work and not smashed into a train like a fleeing refugee, clean sinks not full of phlegm and snot at work, a good sized lunch for 5 bucks, hope for the future, etc.

0 ( +2 / -2 )

First reverse culture shock for me was visiting Canada after my first two years in Japan.

The woman at the coffee shop in the airport was talking on her mobile while I waited for her to serve me, giving me the “talk to the hand” gesture the whole time.

When she finally got around to doing her job and pointed at the tip cup, still on her phone, she was shocked (shocked) that I gave her the “talk to the hand” gesture in return.

7 ( +7 / -0 )

The first time I went back to the UK and went to the pub I though a fight was gonna kick off but it was just people talking loudly. The only thing I really notice now when I go back is the layer of perma-grime on anything in public places and there seems to be a hell of a lot of people walking around absolutely high as a kite.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Loved the article, thanks.

What the author said about mass transit in Japan, I think also applies to most of Europe. They don't have Big Oil messing with their governments, preventing sane policy making. BTW, the high speed rail line from San Fran to LA finally got killed. So sad. I traveled all over Europe by rail, very easily.

I do wish the toilets were cleaner over here, although I would suggest avoiding Eastern Europe, if that is your hangup.

I agree with the author about feta cheese! It should be available everywhere!

What the author said about it being easy to talk with people over here is spot on, although I found it easy to talk with people in Europe, as well. Not sure why. Europeans tend to be more reserved, when not drunk, but it is still easy enough to read them. I never had a problem interacting. I actually met people on the street who ended up giving me their address, and then wanted to stay in touch after I went home. Very touching, very friendly, no ulterior motives. I met people from all walks of life, high and low, and enjoyed the company of all.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Actually, i'd forgotten that after being here 10 years I went home and made a complete tool of myself when using a taxi. I was trying to get in the wrong side and expected the door to open and close itself. I think the driver thought I was a bit simple.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I don't think that this describes reverse culture shock that well.

Reverse culture shock tends to last longer and be worse than the initial culture shock. Friends, colleagues and a lifestyle disappear overnight as though it had all been a dream.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

please read her entire article. Portion about her friend was interesting

0 ( +0 / -0 )

You can get feta cheese easily in Japan. Ain't the internet wonderful in some respects.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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