Japan Life: Culture Burnout

Culture burnout is not something I’d ever thought about before I came to Japan.

Having lived abroad before with no problems whatsoever*, I figured my experience in Japan would be very much the same – a few weeks of frustration as I get to grips with the language, culture and local way of doings things followed by a pervading sense of calm as everything begins to click and make sense.

After my first few weeks of frustration, the click still hadn’t come. Everything was still…well…intensely frustrating. It was something I was handling (or thought I was handling) rather well until recently it all came to a peak when I was scolded told that I should be using more Japanese in the office by now… then five minutes later, checked my email and saw a senior manager in my firm had replied in English to an email I’d spent 20 minutes crafting in perfect Japanese.

It was infuriating! All of a sudden this overwhelming feeling of exhaustion just hit me in the face like a baseball bat and I wanted nothing more than to go home. I wanted to run back to London, I wanted a hug from my mum and I wanted macaroni cheese. Lots of it.

Mature, right?

Seriously though, I spent a good couple of hours googling flights to London and checking my company policy for the potential damage I’d inflict by upping and leaving early. Enough was enough. Thankfully the return flight was not booked, the exhaustion allayed by a much needed early night, I booked my mum a ticket to Japan (for some reason I desperately want to include a Muhammad/mountain reference here even though it wouldn’t really make sense) and the macaroni cheese… well, I didn’t have any luck on that front but I’m doing ok. If anyone knows any good macaroni cheese places in Tokyo, you need to email me NOW. pretty please 🙂

A bubbling, tense ball of angry emotions, I spent a bit of time trying to work out where all of this was coming from. This couldn’t realistically all be caused by a mis-timed talking-to and an email I found insulting simply for the fact it disregarded all the effort I’d made to write in Japanese. “Do I actually hate Japan?” I found myself thinking. Of course not. “Do I actually want to leave?” Again, not at all. So what was going so wrong that was making me so frustrated and leaving me so mentally exhausted? And more importantly, what was I going to do about them?

  1. Those rose coloured glasses are strong
  2. By the time I left China at the end of my year abroad, I can confidently say I felt as close to immersion as I was probably ever going to get; I had a great work-life-study balance, I operated wholly in Chinese, I was well-adjusted, I was friends with my neighbours. I was settled and I didn’t want to leave. To this day, I still happily reminisce about my time in China and rue the day I left, wondering when I will return (and I will return).

    I guess I somewhat naively thought Tokyo would be the same. I would fly in, struggle a bit and then, *ta-da* I’d have my network of friends, I’d be yapping away in Japanese and all would be swell. Put bluntly – it hasn’t quite been like that. A number of factors including a lot of work travel, Japanese work culture in general and living in a part of the city which is frankly so expensive the only other people there are old and rich or expat has meant that the “immersion process” has not been quite so smooth.

    *I also just completely forgot about the hardships I dealt with when I first moved to Beijing – like going without electricity for 36 hours because it ran out and I didn’t know how to top it up or looking like an utter idiot on television because I tried to say fancy words in Chinese that I couldn’t pronounce properly so I ended up talking nonsense and rather than kindly editing it out, the director kept it in for comedic value.

    Up until I had this thought, I realised I’d subconsciously been comparing every little thing with a similar experience in China. Any misunderstanding I encountered would be met with a mental response of “hmph, well this didn’t happen in China”. No wonder I was getting myself down!

  3. Damn that determination

  4. My parents raised me well and cultivated an insanely strong work ethic that sometimes morphs into my own inbuilt slave driver. She’s charming. Whereas most people have a nice little voice in the back of their head that tells them to do things (then one that says “Eat cookies” or “Call in sick”), well my inbuilt slave driver eats that voice for breakfast. The result is that normally I’m very productive and reliable, highly efficient and consequently have packed an impressive amount into my 23 years. The not-so-good side is that sometimes I just don’t know when it’s time to say “actually, you know what, no one is going to die if I take a night off and don’t go to my boxing class/do my 2 hours of Japanese exam prep/write that new blog post”.

    And recently, it’s been one of those times. I have far too many balls in the air and juggling them is exhausting. This little meltdown made me take stock and reprioritise what is most important right now (improving my Japanese and fundraising for One Steppe Beyond) – and what can wait 6 months (learning to code and running a 10k).

  5. Just wait 10 minutes while I work out how to reply

  6. I like talking and I do it a lot. I see myself as a communicator and I’m very proud of my eloquence. As such, there’s nothing more infuriating that not being able to express myself in the way that I want to and right now, I can’t.
    My vocabulary is lacking, my brain tries to input Chinese pronunciation whenever it sees a Japanese kanji it doesn’t recognise and when I’m under stress in the office, I start speaking Korean by accident because my brain spasms and reaches for what’s safe and comfortable instead of the language I should be speaking. All very helpful, right?!
    It’s not that I’m not trying – I’m putting in at least a couple of hours a day of solid study – but most of my colleagues insist on using English with me, I’ve been put on a global project and I spend a lot of time in Singapore so my exposure to spoken Japanese is further reduced. So it’s hardly surprising that it touched a nerve (and hurt my linguist pride) when I a) got taken to one side and told to up my game and speak more Japanese and b) when even if I really try to make an effort to use more Japanese, that effort isn’t reciprocated despite my requests for support in my learning.

  7. But what if I die alone?

  8. My manager told me a story of a time when he got food poisoning from oysters. The sickness was so severe that he woke up to find himself paralysed and slack-jawed, unable to walk, talk or care for himself. Thankfully, he recalled, there was a doctor in his building so he called for doctor, who then took care of him until he recovered (after kindly telling him “after a week you will be fine. As long as you don’t die first), and all was well.

    It suddenly occurred to me – if I was in that situation, who would I call?

    I have acquaintances here but real “I-will-look-after-you-when-you’re-sick-in-bed-with-food-poisoning-and-take-you-to-a-hospital-if-required” friends?

    Nobody. And that hurt. Of course, it’s expected. I didn’t come here with a support network and honestly speaking, since arriving I’ve struggled to build one. But I’ve also become complacent, adopting an attitude of “well then I guess I’ll just crack on and look after myself then” which is fine for a while but it’s not sustainable. It’s no longer sustainable.

  9. Please just give me work

  10. Oh, Japanese hierarchy is a bugger. Having come from London where responsibility is thrown at you until you literally can’t take anymore, Tokyo is shockingly like being on a beach holiday – which given what we know about Japanese work culture is utter madness. People are so busy looking at my rank (the lowest) that they don’t bother to look at my past project work (pretty impressive) and the result is a lot of powerpoint. I am now the bloody queen of powerpoint. I wouldn’t even complain if I was allowed to put my graphic design skills to work and be creative but no – heaven forbid we use something not in the original template…

    The consequence is boredom. There is so much potential, so much brain power and experience wasted because individuals are not treated like individuals but as a part of the whole.

    My requests for more challenging work and more responsibility have resulted in 24-48 hour “blitz periods” where I get showered with work requests for rfp support and so on – one of which left me working almost without a break from 9am to 4am the next day and it was awesome! – and then nothing. Initially I thought it was because I was messing things up or doing things wrong but no, it seems it’s just that they remembered what I am.

By way of conclusion it is frustrating but I also think I’ve been being a bit hard on myself, which is something anyone who knows me knows I have a tendency to do. Before I’d even worked through all of the above points, I knew that Tokyo is the right place for me to be right now to achieve my current goals and with a good dose of perspective, all would be better in the morning.

Which it was. So I’ve started working to tackle the above.
-I went and spoke to the senior partner who brought me over to Tokyo and reiterated my concerns about work challenges (we’ll see where that leads in a follow up next week)
-I spoke to two of my colleagues and expressed my desire to really work on my Japanese. The result – two lunches a week (one with each of them) where we speak in Japanglish i.e. Japanese until I get stuck.
-I went back to my roots on Conversation Exchange and found myself two new language partners. I’ll be meeting one every Monday lunch and one on Wednesday evenings.
-I’m making the time and effort to build friendships. I’ve also made sure I’ve got their numbers, that they’ve got mine and that I’ve also got the number of the closest hospital. Just in case.
-I’m not allowed to compare things to China anymore. China is China, Japan is Japan and both will be their own experiences.

And sleep. A good nights’ sleep does a world of wonders.

7 thoughts on “Japan Life: Culture Burnout

  1. Gail says:

    Hi darling Anna!

    I know you love cheese and, coincidentally, we’ve just had macaroni cheese for supper tonight (sorry, didn’t mean to make you jealous!) so I’ve done a little research and found the following website which I hope will be of use. FYI, it’s written by an American (with kids) so it won’t all be relevant however the ‘how to’ guides look useful; especially the ‘how to buy cheese in Japan’ guide! The address is:


    And, yes, I know it looks like a typo but there really is a random ‘n’ in the address.

    As to finding somewhere to eat macaroni cheese, rather than making it, if you search for ‘mac and cheese in Tokyo’ you should find a number of American style restaurants offering this much-loved comfort food.

    I spent some time looking into the possibility of sending you a cheese and (dried) macaroni food parcel for your birthday but Japanese import rules make that almost impossible so I will mention my final bit of research info…

    Amazon.jp allegedly offer cheese online for delivery all over Japan – I have not checked this out but, hey, anything’s possible!

    Btw, those ‘how to’ guides also deal with obtaining medical help, etc. should the need arise (fingers crossed, you’ll never need it).

    Much love to you, keep smiling and follow your Mum’s excellent advice!

    Gail & Alex xx

    P.S. If Amazon really do deliver decent cheese in Japan…do you want a gift voucher for your birthday?! ;p)

    • Anna says:

      Auntie Gail~ how are you? Thank you ever so much for your wonderful comment! 😀 I checked out the Surviving in Japan site – it’s a great resource (and I actually learnt some awesome things aside from how to buy cheese so thank you). There’s a lot of restaurants that offer it here but it’s just not the same. The reviews I’ve seen online note that it’s either Philadelphia/Plastic cheese/Parmesan based which is not what my cheddar-loving heart wants! >.< It's ok though, I will be flying back to London for a weekend later this month so will be sure to fulfil my macaroni desires then.... I will be eating all the macaroni cheese!! As for a gift voucher, to be honest, I will only have 1 more month after my birthday so I should be ok but a contribution to my travel fund to help prepare for our upcoming adventure would be most kind!! <3 I will drop you a line separately to check in properly ~~ Speak soon! xx

      • Gail says:

        Hello again! I’m so glad to read the web site link was useful to you – would love to know how it helped (ie the ‘awesome’ things you learned).

        I’ve been checking my email daily but nothing from you yet…I know you’re a very busy girl but really hope you’ll be in touch soon as I’m not sure of the best email address to contact you so am depending on you, my tech-savvy niece, to keep me up to speed.

        Whatever you’re up to, take care, enjoy and always continue to share your adventures and experiences with us armchair travellers… and, please,
        caption your excellent photos – this would enhance the ‘viewer experience’!

        Much love from us both, Gail and Alex xx

  2. Mum says:

    Always too hard on yourself! It’s important to relax and chill and as you have just started, take time out to find and make friends… So you might have to travel out of the district… So do it and just remember that next time you relocate to a new job/project in a new city one more factor to take into account is location! Stay cool, keep smiling and stay in touch xxxxx

  3. thetakoyakichapter says:

    I feel your frustration. From what i can gather about your character from your blog, I’m certain you’ll overcome these tribulations /or you’ll find a way around them. So chin up and stand strong! Wishing you the best!

    • Anna says:

      Thanks ever so much! It’s always a case of perspective isn’t it – sometimes we just need a little nap, a snack and a good dose of fresh air and everything seems a bit better! I’m already feeling better than I did when I wrote the post – even more so for such supportive comments 🙂

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