Avoiding Meltdown in Japan

Self-improvement is one of my long-standing goals. You know, striving to be a better human being and all, mentally, physically, and spiritually. Basically like Schwarzenegger in The Terminator, only without the scary eyes, and slightly more buffed.

Fortunately, I accomplished that goal in 2004, which was good because it freed up lots of time for other, nobler pursuits, like studying Japanese and drinking beer. Then I moved to Japan and everything got nuked to zero.

Moving to Japan

You’re really a child when you first get here, because you have to re-learn everything. You can’t speak, read, or order food. Even if somebody helps you acquire nourishment, you’re still faced with getting it into your mouth using those darn sticks. Navigating the train system reduces you to tears. Forget about ever riding a bus. Going to the bathroom is on par with solving a quadratic equation.

My crowning achievement was failing to correctly operate a 2-story elevator. This was in a train station in front of a Starbucks, and must have been on my first or second trip, because I remember wearing a huge, blue backpack. Now there’s a real fashion statement. Anyway, I sandwiched myself into this elevator, and turned around to see a couple dozen Japanese folks gaping at me over cups of coffee just before the doors closed. Then I was all by myself, which is actually kind of rare in Tokyo.

You know, you can’t really tell if an elevator’s moving or not. Well, I mean, I guess you could do some physics experiment with a lead ball and balloon or something, but whatever, I didn’t have those. It just seemed like I’d been in there a really long time. So finally I started pushing buttons. I pushed a button labeled  and nothing happened. So I pushed the number 2 button couple of times. Nothing. Then the 1 button, over and over. Again nothing happened. Finally in a panic, I started pushing all the buttons, like Get me the hell out of this terrifying steel prison, until miraculously the doors opened. And there was everybody, still sitting at Starbucks, mouths wide, just staring at me. I jumped out and ran up the stairs.

But as challenging as the physical aspects of Japan are, they’re nothing compared to what you go through emotionally. You have to re-learn how to deal with every situation. You need to grow up all over again, only this time, in Japanese.

Japan and War

Maybe this article is really targeted at long-term ex-pats. Because Japan’s hard to understand if you haven’t lived it. I mean, I grew up thinking war was really cool too. Like, you watch something like Top Gun, Platoon, or even M*A*S*H, and it just looks cool. It would be awesome, doing all that manly stuff like sleeping in your poncho in the rain and eating rations and playing shirtless volleyball with your bros. Sure, I knew it’d be hard. I’d have to do lots of push-ups while drill sergeants yelled at me—I got nowhere else to go!—and then I’d get to the front lines and Charlie would be blaring music while flares exploded overhead. But it’d be awesome too. And I think when people read about Japan, they have roughly the same idea. Challenging, but somehow immensely cool.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that living in Japan is like doing two rotations through Afghanistan. But it can be a demanding experience in its own way, particularly if you aren’t under the protective umbrella of an international company, school, or some Japanese partner who simply takes care of everything and wipes your bum. I’ve seen lots of folks come here by themselves thinking This is gonna be awesome, and then two years later, they’ve melted down like Fukushima. I don’t know if it’s some PTSD or what, but a lot of long-term foreigners seem pretty mental. Like the other day, I saw a six foot-tall white guy striding through Shibuya in heels and a dress. And they say Vietnam vets had it bad. Good luck re-integrating into Oklahoma looking like that.

Japan and Isolation

It’s really the isolation, where “YOU” are constantly an outsider. Before I moved here, I read countless stories of people saying, Oh, you’ll never fit in. Japanese people won’t accept you. And I thought, Yeah eff that, you couldn’t become a part of the society, but I’m going to. And now, after a decade of learning all the customs of the nation and perfecting my Japanese, I think, Eh, okay, maybe they had a point.

So last week I came across an article in The Atlantic that really hit home. It pointed out twelve ways that people go mental—well, they call them “cognitive distortions”—by basically over-thinking stuff. And I recognized that hey, that’s exactly what foreign people do in Japan. Or at least, I do. But I don’t think I’m the only one. So, with apologies to the entire field of Behavioral Psychology, here are

Common Cognitive Distortions, in Japan

1. Mind reading. You assume that you know what people think without having sufficient evidence of their thoughts. “He thinks of me as a gaijin.”

2. Fortune-telling. You predict the future negatively: things will get worse, or there is danger ahead. “Next, they’ll say how good my Japanese is,” or “I’ll be asked where I’m from.”

3. Catastrophizing.You believe that what has happened or will happen will be so awful and unbearable that you won’t be able to stand it. “It would be terrible if somebody handed me the English menu.”

4. Labeling. You assign global negative traits to yourself and others. “I don’t fit in,” or “Japanese people are rotten people.”

5. Discounting positives. You claim that the positive things you or others do are trivial. “That’s what people are supposed to do—so it doesn’t count when they speak to me in Japanese,” or “Making a dentist’s appointment in Japanese was easy, so it doesn’t matter.”

6. Negative filtering. You focus almost exclusively on the negatives and seldom notice the positives. “Look at all of the people who view me as an outsider.”

7. Overgeneralizing. You perceive a global pattern of negatives on the basis of a single incident. “Being talked down to generally happens to me. I seem to be treated differently a lot of the time.”

8. Dichotomous thinking. You view events or people in all-or-nothing terms. “I get the gaijin treatment from everyone,” or “I either fit in or I don’t.”

9. Blaming. You focus on the other person as the source of your negative feelings, and you refuse to take responsibility for changing yourself. “My girlfriend didn’t help me improve my Japanese, so she’s to blame for the way I feel now,” or “My host family caused all my problems.”

10. What if? You keep asking a series of questions about “what if” something happens, and you fail to be satisfied with any of the answers. “Yeah, but what if they greet me in English?,” or “What if I get ignored by taxi drivers?”

11. Emotional reasoning. You let your feelings guide your interpretation of reality. “I feel depressed; therefore, this whole Japan thing’s not working out.”

12. Inability to disconfirm. You reject any evidence or arguments that might contradict your negative thoughts. For example, when you have the thought “I’m a foreigner,” you reject as irrelevant any evidence that people accept you. Consequently, your thought cannot be refuted. “That’s not the real issue. There are deeper cultural problems. There are other factors, in Japan.”

Japan and Coping

I think the idea is you’re supposed to recognize these distortions and then find some coping strategies, rather than just going nuclear, flipping over a table, storming out of your eikaiwa job and flying back to New Zealand. You gotta be like, Okay, so one person called me a foreigner, so what? I’ll just drink a beer and forget about it. Or, so they handed me the English menu that only contains six items, no big deal. Guess I’ll have another beer. Or, the guy at the convenience store didn’t offer me a bag for my beer because he thought I wouldn’t understand him. Oh, that’s another beer for sure. And then after a few rounds of coping, I generally feel a whole lot happier. Honestly, I’ve been loving life in Japan even more since discovering behavioral psychology. So fill up the cooler, give it a try, and let me know how that works out.

80 Replies to “Avoiding Meltdown in Japan”

  1. Rations, Afghanistan, going nuclear, mental issues… You might as well not even know what it is, but are you secretly telling us you are going to play Metal Gear Solid V?

    1. Yeah, you’re right, I didn’t know what that was. But now having watched the trailer, it looks pretty awesome. Man, war really is cool. And there goes all my free time.

      1. Now you are confusing me even more. This implies as if you won’t have time because you will be wasting it playing MGS V. But I would guess you are not much a of a gamer, if at all, so you probably don’t have a gaming console or a strong enough PC, so does that mean you would actually sacrifice tons of alcohol money for a single game? I am very confused. Or I guess you actually a laptop that just might be powerful enough to run the game.

        In case you are indeed thinking of playing it, I recommend you not doing it on a PS3/XBOX360. It is just not going to run very well on them. Frankly it is basically rape for those systems.

        1. Ah nah, I was just kidding. I mean, it looks really cool, but you’re right, I’m not much of a gamer. As it is, I barely have enough time to work, study Japanese, write this crazy site, and still make it to 7-Eleven for a couple of cans. Good thing they never close.

          But I’m sure somebody’s gonna appreciate your recommendations, so thanks for posting them.

          1. Hi Ken,
            Just found you by accident, I am looking for a foreigner friend living in Japan, I HOPE you are it ! I am Living in Cebu Philippines, I am a Disabled American vet, I hold a 2nd Degree Nidon in Kenjutsu/Samurai Street Combat, I used to train 7000 High School Girls a Year in all the high schools in Reno Nevada For Free on behalf of the Dojo. I was trained in a Traditional Japanese Dojo, in Sparks Nevada, and My friend was the Ambassador from Japan Mrs OKano, she would visit us 1ce a year. I have attended and our Dojo helped every year the Cherry Blossom festival and the Makoshi, In Japan Town San Francisco California, I worked in the Sake Booth, and was given my Japanese Name “Sake Sama”. I am a confirmed “Japanophile”. My Apartment had all Japanese everything, and to go in there you would think an Asian person lived there, past this point I was hoping to contact you on a more personal basis and NOT in a public venue ! Can you please contact me.
            PS currently there are 200,000 Japanese living in the Philippines ? WOW !

            1. Hi Rob,

              Thanks for the nice comment. Unfortunately, I don’t really do personal contact with my readers. Between working, writing articles, and performing cultural research in izakayas, I manage to stay pretty busy. I do try to reply to comments here when possible, so I hope that’s okay.



          2. you could always play the japanese version of the game. It is made by a japanese company afterall. Work on your japanese while being a one man wrecking crew. What could be better than that.

      2. Japan just commissioned its largest warship since WWII and named it the KAGA after the Aircraft carrier that was the flagship of the task force that bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, which led the US into the conflict. Why would they do that if they are such sensitive and polite people that want to accept us foreigners…. hmmmmm!!!

        1. If your neighbor (China – nuclear armed state) just started building a second aircraft carrier to complement its first, then I’d be building warships as well.

          1. Moet,

            The naming of the ship: “Kaga” was the question, not the building of the ship. I’d love for Japan to build more warships and increase its Army and for all American military personnel to leave Japan permanently, so the Japanese could defend their own country. The re-naming the ship to the “Kaga” on the anniversary of the end of WWII – after one of the ships that attacked the United States at the beginning of WWII is certainly in bad taste as it was done by “Abe” whose own grandfather was part of the Tojo administration responsible for making the decision to attack the United States to begin with. During that anniversary, he also failed to apologize for the Japanese involvement in WWII, igniting a string of protests in the region. Of special note: his own family has also been heavily involved in rewriting the history of WWII in Japanese textbooks to mitigate Japanese responsibility for atrocities they committed during the war. I believe that this renamed ship was a purposed insult at America and at those that still blame Japan for its atrocities committed during the war. Still, it gives America another reason for letting Japan fend for itself against China altogether.

  2. Ken, this is a very somber read. After spending so much time and effort on adapting to Japan, it must be difficult dealing with the constant reminders that you are “YOU”.

    I’ll resist the urge to spew random self help advice and just say I hope you can defuse the bomb.

    1. I wasn’t sure if you meant to type “sober” and just hit the M key by mistake. Because that would be kind of funny. Anyway, I appreciate the concern, but not to worry.

      I don’t really use “the blog” as a place to vent my emotions. Not that it doesn’t happen, but it’s not the main driver. I mean, really, that’s what bars are for. Instead, what I write stems from some thought that I find interesting and that I feel perhaps someone else would too.

      So when I saw that article in The Atlantic describing people flipping out over microagressions, I thought Holy smokes, that’s just what all us “foreigners” do here in Japan. Which means that it’s not just a Japan thing. Which is interesting. So that’s really why I wrote it. Me, I’m pretty un-melty, but really thanks for the kind comment.

  3. Ken!

    Don’t watch too many videos! Those Black Peppercorn Chips, Calbee must be making a fortune off of ya. That and just a quick question. What is your favorite Japanese beer? Sapporo or Asahi?(isolation can make a man watch excessive Youtube, eat Calbee Black Pepper Chips chips (in my case Meiji “Gummy Choco”), and drink beer (which sadly I can’t join you in that because it’s not legal on my behalf… for now)). Anyways, Check out my site sometime, I mentioned you in my “Other Scrumptious Reads” along with ZoomingJapan, and Gakuran. I already have 642 email Subscribers after 4 posts! (Most of them from Facebook) I would be overwhelmed if you Subscribed also! You don’t even have to read the posts, which are about every two weeks as you have inspired me on many things. *Laughs kind of sadly because this is getting way to long* Anyways, I’m lovin’ all of your work!

    ~Noah (^~^)v

      1. Ah, ya got me. I did this thing with a girlfriend for a while, where we’d always order two brands of beers and four glasses, then do a blind taste test. I don’t really remember the results—that’s the great thing about beer—other than the fact that after half a glass it all tastes exactly the same. Still, I think I like Asahi best, for some reason. Probably just the can though.

        However, I do have a clear preference for malt liquor. If you’ve ever been in a convenience store in Japan, then you should know that half of the beer section isn’t actually beer, but rather what’s called happpoushu 発泡酒. Some of it’s beer-worthy, and some is absolute swill. My recommendation is for Suntory Kinmugi 金麦 Rich Malt. Comes in a nice blue can. Now that’s a proper brew.

        1. Haha, thanks for the advice man. I was kind of worried because I wanted you to check out my website without advertising on yours. That’s why I didn’t post a link, the comments ask for a website so I assumed you would get it. If anyone searches for “WanderingAlphaBear” they won’t find me, so I only want you to check it out. Sorry if it came off in a bad way. (。ŏ﹏ŏ)

        2. this is what draws me to this site, advice on beer and reality checks on living in japan.

          whilst the above is a little down on the entertainment factor as compared to this past classic, i will definitely be book-marking both as essential resources for when i relocate to japan next month.

        3. Thanks for the advice, I’ll have to check out the blue can! I applaud the creativity the industry has used to get around the beer tax code. It helps compensate for the lack of creativity in other areas.

        4. Have you tried Sapporo’s White Belg? It’s probably the best cheap beer on the market in Japan right now, personally. Don’t want to hype it up though, if you haven’t had it.

          1. I have. Not a bad little brew for something that comes in a can. Although technically, it’s not beer, but malt liquor. Well, details, details.

    1. Thanks for the mention. I’ll check it out.

      I’d have to go with Asahi. Pairs wonderfully with Calbee’s. And you’re absolutely right—watching videos for a long time is not good for the old emotional health. Better to get outside and see some nature, or a skyscraper or something.

  4. Man, I understand the feeling of isolation that comes with not being able to express yourself in a foreign country. Longer international trips it really creeps up on you, till you don’t really feel like talking at all, or feel alone out in public. Just recognizing it can help your mood in a big way, though. I have to imagine it’d be a bit more so in a place like Japan. You’d have to be fine being a bit of a loner to last long enough to get comfortable and learn how to communicate, how to order a round, successfully flush, then order a second.
    They say even in your own environment your brain is constantly overloaded by your senses and selectively focuses on things, while tuning out others, making it pretty easy to focus on the good or the bad. Think you’re having a bad day? You’ll start seeing the negative in everything if you aren’t careful. The flip side of that coin is you can actively focus on the good things as well, even if you’re buried in the avalanche of sensory overload that is Tokyo. Happiness can be practiced 🙂 Of course beer really helps. Highly recommend it. Easiest way to make friends in a new town.
    Exercise can get it out of your system, too. Jogging can really help break that lost/stranded feeling pretty quickly, beyond just the adrenaline. I think the psychological aspect of rapidly succeeding at that easy task in the cone of silence can break the stress of stumbling helplessly at remedial casual tasks, like understanding the tv/speaking/reading signs/etc in that same feeling of isolation. It can be a relief to just do something right for a change, when every other little thing has suddenly become difficult or impossible.

    1. Yeah, you’re right. I really ought to drink more beer. Wait, I mean, go jogging. There’s pretty much nothing that jogging doesn’t improve. Except perhaps your knees. But still, it’s a great idea.

  5. >>You know, you can’t really tell if an elevator’s moving or not. Well, I mean, I guess you could do some physics experiment with a lead ball and balloon or something, but whatever, I didn’t have those.
    Actually, assuming I remember my physics correctly, the punchline is that you literally have no way of telling if you are in a static elevator or in a moving one with some (perfectly constant) velocity. For the pure physics argument to hold we kinda have to ignore the acceleration/deceleration phase, which seems fine though. Physicists always cut corners and make simplifying assumptions that are way more preposterous all the time!

    So now that you understand Japanese, you can literally defy the laws of physics and tell if the darn elevator IS actually moving or not (assuming that it tells you so). Powerful stuff, eh?!

  6. I guess all the WWII vets are gone now, so they won’t have many people getting angry here in the US about Japan naming an aircraft carrier after that “INFAMOUS” Kaga, the flagship of Yamamoto. NO that’s cant be a my micro-aggression reaction: can it… that they named a ship after THE ONE ship that America was determined to sink in WWII to avenge the sneak attack (THAT WILL LIVE IN INFAMY FOREVER). Nah, its just a small mistake by their Navy… not an insult to all Americans… right. No matter that we gave them all the technology to build it in the first place and have spent the last 70 years defending their people from communism and China/Russia while we spent billions rebuilding Japan into an economic powerhouse (that they rightfully deserved). They couldn’t still have any resentment against the American people for our victory in WWII… right. Hell, we Americans love Honda, Sony, Anime and manga now, so aren’t we still friends… right. Hmmmmmmm, maybe I’ll work on number 12 for a while…

    1. I think it’s pure coincidence they’re naming their new warship “KAGA.” Just as it will be coincidence when the USAF names it’s new fleet of heavy bombers “Hiroshima Extra Crispy” No offense intended, honest.

  7. Cognitive psychology has a short but storied history of feuding with behaviorists over how to interpret internal processes. See George Miller’s “The Magical Number Seven, Plus or Minus Two,” (1956). It served as a tipping point for the revolution of Cognitive Psychology.

    I also read the Atlantic’s “The Coddling of the American Mind,” (Sep 2015) and was once again disappointed at the depths to which American education has plunged. It’s shameful.

    Another good blog, Ken.

    Did you know that seeroi means “400” in Thai?
    see = 4, roi = 100

    1. I think somebody mentioned that once, but I promptly forgot it. Memory like a steel trap, I tell you. Anyway, I thought that Atlantic article was pretty spot on. Glad I finished school in the U.S. before that trend caught on.

  8. Great article Ken! Although for a second I thought you were going to give pointers against the summer heat. That would have been GOLD man! Crazy to see how in the Atlantic article you linked they mention “microaggressions” in American society – until now I only heard it in a Japanese context. Maybe it’s a sensitivity issue on the receiver’s part more than anything else?

    1. Yeah, it’s kind of crazy to see the whole microaggression thing happening in the U.S. And I thought it was just Debito Arudou. But apparently there are people there who are also unhappy with discrimination. Who knew?

      1. Just yesterday, a disgruntled former employee of a news station (that happened to be gay and black… his own words in his written confession he gave to ABC news) shot dead two white people/reporters LIVE on the air in Virginia (and he filmed his attack using google glasses and then posted it online). He wrote (before taking his own life) that he was being bullied with gay slurs and racist comments and decided (after a white racist killed 9 blacks in a church in South Carolina last month) to kill people that had slighted him.

        Would this be a micro-aggression or macro-aggression, hmmmm. I guess we do have a lot of aggression here in the US. I do remember some Japanese teenager exchange student going to the wrong address for a Halloween party and some Cajun redneck shot him dead, so maybe the Japanese do have a legitimate concern after all.

  9. I remember going to a restaurant in Kusatsu Onsen, all the walls filled with the menu in Japanese and than they brought out the dread English menu with like 6 items in it plus i had to wait like 20 minutes because all the attendants were afraid to say something to me until one cracked and took my order.

    1. Not to state the obvious, but you do know that in Japan, unlike the U.S., you call the wait-staff when you want to order, rather than waiting for them to come to you. That way, you don’t have somebody dropping by ten times during your meal to ask “How’s everything?”

  10. Hi Ken,

    Great post as always,

    Quick question, have you tried living together with Japanese, in a sharehouse for example?

    1. Yup, I lived in a sharehouse with a group of Japanese in Tokyo for over a year, as the only “foreigner.” We had barbecues together, a wedding, birthdays, karaoke sessions, many dinners, some fights and reconciliations. It was eye-opening, to say the least, and I learned a lot about a few Japanese people.

        1. I’d already lived with Japanese people for several years, so I was pretty used to most of the day-to-day stuff. You know, like that Japanese folks shop and cook every day. It might surprise you to see how much daily time is devoted to food preparation. And I guess it might surprise some folks to watch eight or ten people silently using a small kitchen all at once without bumping into each other or somebody knocking the pasta sauce off the stove. And I guess it was no surprise that there was a lot of clutter, or that the women (and guys) looked dumpy in their pajamas and with no make-up.

          But two things really did surprise me. One was how little anybody talked. I thought I’d improve my Japanese simply by listening to people sitting around discussing issues. But that’s not what Japanese people do. Mostly, we just sat silently, or watched English-language TV. There was very, very little communication.

          The other thing that surprised me—and I saw this on several occasions—was when they’d offer to share food with three people, but not the fourth. There’d be a small group of people sitting around the common table, and somebody would have something to share, like a cake. They say, Here, have some, and give it to three of the four people. The fourth person? They’d act like he or she wasn’t even there. Then everybody’d sit there and say, Wow, this cake is so good! Where’d you get it? Oh, it’s delicious.

          I saw that happen a number times, with different numbers and combinations of people. Sometimes two out of seven people would be left out. Sometimes just one person. But it wasn’t like the same person consistently. There was no discernible pattern. They just sort of overlooked folks randomly, and pretended they didn’t exist. Everybody got their turn at being left out. And of course, the ignored person would just sit there wordlessly, watching English TV, without saying, Hey, how ’bout me?

  11. How frightening, considering I want to move to Japan in the future…

    Though the fact that you’ve offered me some sort of preparation is good, right?

    I know it’s a bad idea or something but I still want to do it :3

    1. Yeah, I think preparation is key. Ideally, you want to be ready mentally, physically, and financially. And have a clear exit strategy. In general, most people spend way too much time learning Japanese, and not enough time planning and saving money.

  12. Another great post, please keep on writing frequently! Btw you take awesome photos, you should start an Instagram account so you can share more of your pictures to your followers. Also, since your such a big foodie (it being one of the reasons you moved), it would be interesting to read more about your favorite foods, best areas to eat etc. I’m currently studying Japanese at NYU and your blog has been helpful in telling me the realities of the language. I started Kanji and bought the books you recommended and also started Barefoot Gen. Thanks for your book recommendations and keep on writing!

    1. Wow, that’s really good to hear. I’m really glad you’re reading Barefoot Gen. It’s a powerful, important book. And studying kanji. If I could go back in time to when I started learning Japanese, to the time I insisted “I don’t want to learn how to read, just to speak,” I’d slap my former self in the head.

      I might get around to making an Instagram account one of these days. And you’re certainly right about Japanese food—I should write more about it. Yeah, maybe I will. Thanks.

      1. In my experience, knowing how to read helps immeasurably in correct pronunciation; important in learning Japanese, but imperative in learning Thai.

  13. Hi, Ken!
    Another great post, 100% agreed with everything you have written. Based on my 6 year experience in Japan, I noticed I became rather emotional, pessimistic and quite easily get negative. Don’t know whether Japan made me this way but it definitely influenced me in a way…

    1. Yeah wow, you’re spot on, Kate. I think that’s one reason some companies prefer to hire fresh-off-the-boat foreigners with no Japanese experience.

      I’ve seen it time and time again. People move here and they’re funny and cracking jokes and have a really light attitude towards everything. Then they start to notice the society around them and adjust their behavior accordingly. They become quieter, more serious, and more reserved. Japan’s a pretty strict and conservative society, and integrating into it means adopting the beliefs and behavior patterns of those around you. There should be a name for this syndrome. It really changes the meaning of the phrase “turning Japanese.”

      1. On the one hand, we live in a post-Totalitarian combination dude Disneyland and cabaret club, but behind that facade lies growingly divergent and expansive subculture. Although there’ll probably never be another nationwide armed conflict in Japan, the tension between some of the world’s stiffest conservative elites and their disenfranchised counterparts isn’t going to resolve itself without some kind of change. Right now, that change mostly seems to amount to infesting my local train station with anti-nuclear activists, but I suspect that eventually a chosen one will emerge and light will shine upon Japan once more. Or that Abe et al will disappear down a slippery slope of stupid and destroy Japan. One of those two.

  14. When I was feeling some major anxiety in my life, I went to see a psychologist once a week.

    He shared these exact same points with me, except they were called “thinking traps”.

    The steps to dealing with these thoughts are to think about these –

    *Am i falling into a thinking trap?
    *Whats i the evidence that this thought is true?
    *Is my judgement based on a thought/feeling or fact?
    *Am I 100% sure that this will happen?
    *How many times has this happened before?
    *Is this so important that my future depends on it?
    *What would I tell a friend if they had the same thought?
    *What is the worst that could happen?
    *If it did happen, what could I do to cope or handle it?
    *What is the most realistic outcome?
    *What is the effect of my believing the automatic thought?
    *What could be the effect of changing my thinking?
    *What else can I say instead of my initial thought?

    Above all else, don’t sit around and mull about with you’re bad feelings – get out and do something

  15. oh my gosh-i laughed so hard at your elevator comment that i almost choked. i’ve lived in j apan for 4 years and have had many such incidents. the worst was using a cargo elevator after being told to do so by a subway staff member. it went nowhere so my friend ended up carrying both our suitcases.

    i will continue to read your posts. although i love living here, t here are definitely some frustrating times for me.


    1. Yeah, it’s never just the language that trips you up, but all the minor procedural things. Like pressing an elevator floor button twice will sometimes cancel it. I’ve never seen that in the West. It makes a lot of sense, but I lived here about 5 years before I figured it out. Maybe that’s what people mean when they talk about how cool Japan is.

  16. Hey Ken,

    I ended up staying awake till some odd 5am last night browsing your articles and I have to say it’s upsetting you weren’t one of the first people I found when I started doing research on living abroad.

    I’m currently applying to both an Eikawa Position and an Alt Position and there are a lot of things that unfortunately no one seems to want to address. I understand for the most part how treatment will go for me in Japan as I am a 6’1″ bald and bearded guy, but more importantly I am constantly told that the Board of Education and the Japanese English Teacher I work with will decide if my work life is great or terrible.

    I apologize for asking this as informally as I am. But with over a decade of experience living in Japan I can tell that you’ve seemingly more credibility than some others online. Your realistic and humorous ways of writing also tell me you’ll be honest in what you have to say.

    I’m going to keep browsing your articles for now as they are both entertaining as they are informative. Got an interview with a Eikawa company in 2 hours, should PROBABLY study something. Thanks a lot and stay golden.

    1. Hope that interview went well.

      So what was the question? If it’s whether you should pursue the path of ALT or eikaiwa, choose ALT. It’s a much better job, and you’ll get to see a bit more of behind-the-scenes Japan.

      1. Sorry about that, and thanks for the response. My question wasn’t very clear, but it was exactly that. The five month waiting period was daunting at first but I did manage to find your article on Eikawa and despite the higher pay it DOES seem to be a lot more time consuming.

        The one thing I truly wanted to ask was if you had any suggestions regarding where it is I should be aiming for location wise. Most articles and comments say that the school you are placed into determine whether it is a fun and laid back experience or one filled with overtime and no beer.

        I’d value your thoughts on it, and appreciate the help.

        1. Well to start with, the ALT thing…you’ll only make less until you get hired directly by a school board, so after a few months of working for temp companies (派遣会社) such as Interac, you should get your resume into the hands of every school district you can. If you get hired directly, you’ll make more in actual dollars, and your per-hour wage will more than double, if you factor in the amount of time you’re actually teaching. Of course, you can pursue that even if you take an eikaiwa job. The key is not to get here and just sit on your ass—i.e., don’t do what I did. I make these mistakes so you don’t have to.

          As for where to live, ah jeez, that’s a tough one. The killer for Tokyo is the commute, so if you can find an apartment near your school(s), it can be a pretty excellent place. Most people can’t, however. And of course, the cost of living is higher and the burn-out rate astronomical.

          With that in mind, I’d personally look at Japan’s second and third-tier cities, which is basically anywhere that’s not Tokyo and not out in the sticks. Strive for balance. You’ll have plenty else to keep you off-kilter as it is.

          1. This is fantastic advice and certainly not something any of the Eikawa or ALT programs would have mentioned. The advice on applying to different schools once you’re there and working for a few months that is.

            Double the hourly wage, bloody hell. It sounds like I should definitely pursue looking into what areas interest me and are not centered around Tokyo as you said for I’ve heard it is ridiculous in living expenses. I was thinking Nara and Osaka, but most ALT programs seem to prefer sending you to “the sticks”.

            I truly appreciate the advice as this was one of those things you can’t REALLY ask the company as they would want nothing more to have you stay with them for years to come. Guess I’ll be studying Japanese and waiting for my ship-out in April then. I’ll send some beer your way when I get the chance.

            Cheers mate, and thanks a lot.

            1. No worries, glad to help.

              Just to be clear, here’s what I mean regarding the hourly wage:

              At an eikaiwa, a typical contract would be 270,000 yen/month for teaching 25 hours a week. Of course, your remaining time will be filled with other work (including more teaching), bringing your work hours up to 40.

              As a direct-hire ALT, a typical contract would be 300,000 for teaching 18 hours a week. The rest of the time is for “class prep,” which involves sleeping, dodgeball, soccer, staring a blog, and more sleeping. It’s important to be properly rested. I can’t overstate this.

              One more tip: It’s okay to work in the sticks; just don’t live there. You may find yourself able to get a rather mellow train ride out to the inaka everyday, which is lovely. But don’t try living there. “Oh, but I can meet real people and improve my Japanese.” Yeah, the hell. You’ll spend your evenings by the river slamming cans in the dark. You don’t want to be stuck in the Japanese countryside once the sun goes down.

  17. Now Ken, we both know i love your posts, but are you ok? A lot of your posts recently seem to have been focussed on the bad in Japan. Now don’t get me wrong, i find your stories fascinating but some of the undertones lately seem a tad…depressing. Then again, i guess you tell it like it is. I guess all i’m asking is…are you ok? Oh and maybe if you could squeeze in a post about why you love Japan i’d be ok with that too.
    You keep typing and i’ll keep reading, no matter the topic <3

    1. Ah, thanks, Tilly. Problem? What, yeah, no, me? Of course not.

      But okay, let me get a little philosophical on you. Don’t worry, it’s just a passing phase.

      From what I’ve seen, the big challenge in life is to find meaning. That thing that answers the question, uh, Why keep going at this? New things help. New relationships, new shoes, new jobs—you feel like you’re making progress. I love shoes, seriously. My apartment is stacked full of shoe boxes. New country? Hello. That’ll keep you busy for a while.

      But eventually…well, you know how that story goes. Nothing stays new forever. Damn kittens.

      When I think of the times in my life that were filled with the most meaning, they all have one thing in common: people. If you’re surrounded by good, positive people and you’re all working together for a shared goal, you feel a part of something, and that’s very satisfying. That’s enough. In fact, I’d bet you could explain much of human history just through this one idea. People will do almost anything in order to belong.

      So, Japan. Okay, we can probably see how this plays out. Not exactly the sunniest country, despite one very cool flag. And the racism—but okay, that’s not the real problem. It’s the exclusion, the constant reminder that You, you’re not one of us. How do you manage in a place where you’re forever singled out? Open a chain of Chinese restaurants, I guess.

      And that, in a nutshell, is the problem with Japan. But yeah, I can probably sweep it under the rug and write something about why I love Japan. I mean, the food is really good. That’s something, anyway. I just wish they had shoes in my size.

      1. Ken,

        I’m sure you’ve experienced that moment of paranoia while in Japan. I remember reading about that moment and thinking how ridiculous it sounded. Until, one day, while strolling towards Hiroshima castle, I started to feel like everyone was watching me and giving me dirty looks. After about 20 minutes, I freaked out and returned to my “mansion”. Never made it to the castle. WTF.
        I’ve returned several times and never felt that again, but dang, I knew what they were talking about.
        That’s when I learned that secret to survival in Japan is really……don’t try so hard to fit in and you’ll be fine.
        Have you ever had that kind of episode?

        1. Actually, no. The Seeroi family is famous for composure under pressure. In fact, legend has it that my great-grandfather was feared for his fighting style in The Great War. Bare-handed, he lobbed sticks of dynamite at the Germans.

          Of course, most of that fear was on the part of the Allies, since the Germans would then light them and throw them back.

          But yeah, I can understand why you’d feel that way.

      2. Why don’t you befriend foreigners especially Chinese in Japan? They are more flexible and you can about being excluded with them.

        1. Over the years, I’ve been friends with a variety of folks from different countries, including China, most of whom were fun, funny, and interesting. It’s led me to the unfortunate conclusion that Japanese people are frequently outliers in those aspects.

    1. Ah thanks, I wasn’t sure that post really resonated with anyone. Glad to hear it. And no, it’s not just you.

  18. Back in the day in deep, deep green innaka Japan I became aware that some long term Gaijin seemed to develop a bad case of Robinson Crusoe Syndrome, in that they would often act as if they were “the only gaijin on the island” and just blank out other gaijin when walking past as if they didn’t see you, like how could they possibly notice you? Like one gaijin could possibly be more important that another! Understandable nowadays in big cities with zillions of tourists but not back in the day in the middle of nowhere. Try as hard as he might, Robinson might marry Woman Friday, but he’ll only wake up one morning with his Lifehack Sensei, …I think you know how the rest turns out.

    1. “just blank out other gaijin when walking past as if they didn’t see you”

      I’m certainly guilty of this. I spent a few years greeting and attempting to interact with “gaijin,” usually with results like,

      “Hey, where you from?”


      “Oh, okay…Portugal, yeah great. You guys have, like, a lot of, uh…wine?”

      “We do.”

      “Great. Well. Wine. So…anyway, good luck with that. Bye.”


      “Hey, where you from?”

      “Pensacola, Florida.”

      “Oh, I’ve heard of that. Is that near Miami?”

      “Uh, not really.”

      “Okay. Florida, huh. That’s great. Sunshine. Orange juice. Well, think I’ll go stand over there now.”

      Because the truth is, just because somebody happens to look like me doesn’t mean we have anything in common. In fact, most of the friends I have don’t look like me. They’re black, Hispanic, Asian, other, and yeah, some are white. But I can’t see why I’d make it a point to acknowledge only the ones who physically resemble me. That’d just be weird.

  19. Where and when I lived in Japan white people were scarcer then hen’s teeth. At first I’d make eye contact, and acknowledge the other gaijin with the old primate eye flash and/or “hello”. But of course not everybody wants to play ball and I admit that I eventually gave up due to the lack of reciprocation. Even gaijin stare at other gaijin, but there is then an arkward moment and nobody wants to make the first move. Where I now live outside Japan, in deep green innaka, I regularly make eye contact with strangers and we greet each other. I guess it’s just innaka culture. Perhaps Robinson Crusoe Syndrome is useful as a coping strategy in Japan?

  20. Hello, Ken. I am one of those foreigners who has lived in Japan for ages and, like most foreigners, also struggle with these issues (there is not a day that goes by that I am not othered for being a caucasian in Japan).

    I am glad that behavioral therapy has benefited you, but I wonder if there is not something to your observation that almost all foreigners eventually cool to or end up hating Japan. I know some people are able to better handle life in Japan by “reframing,” but these exercises always involve a denial of your natural, gut-level understandings of your surrounding – something I am deeply suspicious of. My belief is that essentially all foreigners are cooling to Japan at an essentially equal rate, there is really something there worth examining critically. Reframing shifts the focus to you and makes you jump through various mental hoops to recast and/or deny reality (usually by blaming your own good judgment) to make it all more palatable.

    For example, if I take your “cognitive distortions” (I would call these “honest, objective reactions”) one by one.

    1. Mind reading. You assume that you know what people think without having sufficient evidence of their thoughts. “He thinks of me as a gaijin.”

    Foreigners FOB in Japan do not do this because most of them believe, at least initially, that the Japanese are treating them as equals and in good faith. The tendency to “mind read” develops over time as the person has more and more contact situations with Japan that cause them to believe that the other person really does think of him or her as a gaijin. There are unlimited examples of this available to even the most casual observer. In other words, the reaction is evidence-based – based on all of the evidence the person has experienced or observed over there time in Japan.

    2. Fortune-telling. You predict the future negatively: things will get worse, or there is danger ahead. “Next, they’ll say how good my Japanese is,” or “I’ll be asked where I’m from.”

    Again , this is evidence-based. The same questions crop up constantly in almost every interaction with a foreigner, almost as if the Japanese had been taught (even implicitly) the range of acceptable discourse with foreigners. People who have lived in Japan for a long time fortune-tell because we can and because, with only statistically-insignificant exceptions, the predictions are almost always spot on.

    3. Catastrophizing.You believe that what has happened or will happen will be so awful and unbearable that you won’t be able to stand it. “It would be terrible if somebody handed me the English menu.”

    For a lot of us, it is terrible when someone hands us an English menu. It is a reminder of how the Japanese view and other us. It is not natural to enjoy being othered, so it is not an unnatural or “negative” reaction to become upset at that kind of treatment. The word “catastophizing” implies that the foreign is blowing the experience out of proportion, but I wonder why the blame cannot be placed where it should be – on the people constantly othering a whole class of people based on race?

    4. Labeling. You assign global negative traits to yourself and others. “I don’t fit in,” or “Japanese people are rotten people.”

    Again, foreigners FOB in Japan don’t do this. This comes with time and experience. People feel like they don’t fit in because, well, they don’t fit in, and they may feel that Japanese people are rotten because, in many cases, they are, especially when interacting with foreigners. Where you say “Labeling,” I see truth-telling.

    5. Discounting positives. You claim that the positive things you or others do are trivial. “That’s what people are supposed to do—so it doesn’t count when they speak to me in Japanese,” or “Making a dentist’s appointment in Japanese was easy, so it doesn’t matter.”

    I think this is a natural reaction when the overwhelming majority of your experiences are negative. I also don’t think it is special when Japanese speak to me in Japanese. That IS what they are supposed to do. It is funny. I find myself (like a lot of foreigners I know) happy over the odd enjoyable, actual “human” interaction with Japanese, but when you think about it, these shouldn’t be odd at all. We shouldn’t have to glow with joy over the fact that someone treated us with a normal level of respect, but I see this response in a lot of foreigners.

    6. Negative filtering. You focus almost exclusively on the negatives and seldom notice the positives. “Look at all of the people who view me as an outsider.”

    It is hard not to focus on negatives when there are so many. Almost all Japanese do view you as an outsider. That is a fact. And the positives are so few, that it is really impossible for them to make up for the negatives. Imagine being in a marriage where you are constantly verbally abused by your spouse but trying to focus, instead, on the occasional kind comment, and convince yourself that your natural reaction to take umbrage at the constant barrage of verbal mistreatment by your spouse was actually your “cognitive distortion.” Sounds like a serious case of SELF-GASLIGHTING to me.

    7. Overgeneralizing. You perceive a global pattern of negatives on the basis of a single incident. “Being talked down to generally happens to me. I seem to be treated differently a lot of the time.”

    Your example is based on a pattern of conduct, not a single incident. You are not “overgeneralizing” when you make a general observation based on a pattern of observable conduct. And when many other foreigners share that view, it is usually strong evidence that there really is something there. You are not imagining things and are not blowing things out of proportion.

    8. Dichotomous thinking. You view events or people in all-or-nothing terms. “I get the gaijin treatment from everyone,” or “I either fit in or I don’t.”

    This is a thing, but again, it is grounded in experience. There are some Japanese who will treat you as an equal and with respect, but they are very few and far between. So I guess we should qualify these statements by saying something like “I get the gaijin treatment from ALMOST everyone” or “I ALMOST NEVER fit in.” Okay, I am okay with that, but I think we all have to face facts.

    9. Blaming. You focus on the other person as the source of your negative feelings, and you refuse to take responsibility for changing yourself. “My girlfriend didn’t help me improve my Japanese, so she’s to blame for the way I feel now,” or “My host family caused all my problems.”

    I think a lot of blame can be placed on how Japanese and Japan society views foreigners. I think that does do serious psychological harm to foreigners in Japan. I don’t think we can direct all of the blame at one person or one family (unless they really deserve it), but the whole shtich about refusing “to take responsibility for changing yourself” is garbage new-age propaganda meant to shift the blame away from the actual instigator. “Reframing” is dishonest, in my view, because it refuses to acknowledge the elephant in the room. I understand why some foreigners use it – because they need SOME device, some survival technique in Japan to avoid hating the people around them – but the whole concept is really just a bald attempt to avoid seeing (and confronting) reality for what it is.

    10. What if? You keep asking a series of questions about “what if” something happens, and you fail to be satisfied with any of the answers. “Yeah, but what if they greet me in English?,” or “What if I get ignored by taxi drivers?”

    If they greet me in English, I will be justifiably angry. Just another example of Japanese who cannot see beyond race. Same goes for being ignored by taxi drivers. Both happen all the time and are unacceptable. This type of behavior should all be proactively called out by foreigners and Japanese alike (although, unfortunately, even open-minded Japanese are usually unwilling to call out things like this; you know you are in trouble when your allies don’t even become miffed enough by the situation to say anything).

    11. Emotional reasoning. You let your feelings guide your interpretation of reality. “I feel depressed; therefore, this whole Japan thing’s not working out.”

    Maybe it’s not worth it. Your reaction to feeling depressed may be your body telling you that this experience is not good for it. Maybe the level of cortisol released from the constant stress in Japan is damaging your body. All possibilities, but to call it “emotional reasoning” is to denigrate those natural and health feelings.

    12. Inability to disconfirm. You reject any evidence or arguments that might contradict your negative thoughts. For example, when you have the thought “I’m a foreigner,” you reject as irrelevant any evidence that people accept you. Consequently, your thought cannot be refuted. “That’s not the real issue. There are deeper cultural problems. There are other factors, in Japan.”

    This may happen from time to time, but again, this reaction is rooted in experience. When someone is rejected for the thousandth (or ten thousandth or millionth) time, it is only natural that they will be suspicious of evidence to the contrary. It doesn’t mean you dismiss it out of hand, but you will naturally be more cautious. It’s like a dog who was always beaten as a pup being afraid of people. Sure, a nice person may come along, but the dog is going to be naturally wary of that person in a way to protect itself from hurt or pain. Same thing happens with foreigners here in Japan.

    Sorry. This post went on a lot longer than I expected. Also sorry for any typos. Don’t have time to proofread this, but hopefully everything will make sense.

  21. I have been in Japan 26 years and the secret…. Don’t focus on the bad..
    Japanese tv is shit? Don’t watch it….watch Netflix….
    Music is crap? Don’t listen to it…
    Nobody sits next to me on the train….great…more space
    I can’t assimilate… great…I don’t have to live like everyone else

    Wherever you are the world, things can be bad…. What you have to do is filter ….focus on the good…… Just two example that apply to me… I can ride motorcycles safely…alot more safely than back home…and I own six, yes, 6, that I probably couldn’t back home..and no one is going to steal my bike. Snowboarding?? Did you mention snowboarding??? Yep, I go twice a week, before work, on a weekday.

    I have a lot more but my point is, focus on the good, not the bad. If you can’t, no one is forcing you to be here, so go home and stop moaning about how bad it is here. It’s not!!!

  22. As I read your post, I couldn’t help but think that it was your first time living outside of the place where you were raised. I don’t mean that as an insult, just an observation based on your description of your headspace, because I have been there. I can assure you that the cognitive distortions you describe are not unique to moving to Japan.

    When I was 18, I picked up and moved 1000 miles across the country to a bilingual city I had never been to before, just because I liked the climate. Even while only having to speak my native language, I still had some of those same feelings you describe, because the only “person” I had as a companion and confidante was the voice in my head. That voice is never a good friend, and never gives any positive advice. Being exposed to a large population of people speaking a language foreign to me didn’t help the situation. I finally got comfortable, but that was because I made the effort to conform to the city, because the city certainly wasn’t going to conform to me. It never does.

    A year later, I was really out of my element when I was stationed in South Korea. I had not spent any time preparing myself: didn’t know the language, didn’t know the customs, didn’t know the food, didn’t even know the currency. All I had for a companion was that voice again. I was initially terrified of getting lost in a city where I didn’t speak the language, and wasn’t sure where I was coming from or going to. So if I went anywhere, it was point A directly to point B directly back to point A. There was no window shopping or letting myself get lost in the city. Keep in mind, this was long before smartphones existed; hell, it was before google maps existed. But it wasn’t until I made the effort to step out of my own comfort bubble that the country really opened up to me. I was comfortable walking across Seoul without having the foggiest notion of where I was or where I was heading. Nothing had changed about the country, I just had to change my thinking.

    Since leaving home at 18, I have lived in 10 different regions by the age of 35. The year I spent in South Korea was far and away the most influential on my mentality and confidence. Moving to a new area hasn’t phased me since. Partly because I have been in the worst position I have found myself in and came out unscathed, and partly because I learned that we’re all the same. We all eat. We all use the restroom. We all need a coat when it is cold. We all use money. Knowing that the people around you have the same basic needs you do, you can go anywhere you want, with only a few words, a pen, and some paper. Any shop owner in South Korea will prove that to you as you haggle over the price of an item via calculator, because they love anyone spending money in their shop.

    My wife and I have only traveled to Japan twice, but we are dead set on moving there in the next five years. We’ve been doing our research on everything required for our plan, which builds confidence in our ability to execute that plan. That goes back to my lack of preparation before arriving in South Korea. Had I done that before, I would have saved myself a lot of time and trouble and enjoyed my stay there even more. It’s fun to travel on a whim, but preparation makes visiting an unfamiliar area infinitely times more fun.

    By the way, regarding your description of the trains, I have to ask if you have been exposed to a subway system before that? I personally found the train systems straightforward and easy enough to use, but that was with a decade of experience using three different systems. As a gaijin with minimal vocabulary, a basic grasp of hiragana/katakana, and a handful of kanji , we purchased individual tickets as we needed them, rather than the JR or Metro passes. It just takes a bit of patience and planning before you step up to the ticket machines, otherwise you end up blocking the flow of traffic, and that’s an inexcusable offense. 😉

    I agree with your view on buses though. A train doesn’t make an unplanned turn, and if it does, the change to your planned route is the least of your issues. Buses on the other hand require a more thorough knowledge of the vicinity and the route. It’s easy assume understanding of a bus route that is represented by a straight line on a map, only to find it changing direction on the way to where you think you needed to be going. The only caveat I will say is that buses in South Korea were amazingly simple, fast, and convenient. Never had to wait more than a couple minutes to catch a bus, and never had an issue with them venturing into no-man’s land. I can’t say the same for my home country, and have only used them when I have had to cover distances that couldn’t be done on foot.

    Terrifying moments like your elevator experience happen, but when you are faced with those blank stares, wherever you are, just shrug your shoulders or wave to the audience and carry on. They’re probably not judging you, so much as they’re confused by your actions. There was something there that you weren’t getting, but that they felt was completely obvious. You’re just a victim of circumstance in that moment.

    To anyone taking on a new location or endeavor: breathe, be patient, and be polite. Those three things are your ticket to anywhere you want to go. Any extra effort put in ahead of time makes the experience more comfortable. But if you want to be part of any community, you as the outsider have to put in the effort. The community was just fine before they knew who you were. They will be fine if you bail. You’re the only one that loses out if you don’t make the effort.

    1. Thanks for the long comment. Kind of like you, I left home when I was 17, and lived in seven different cities, all around the U.S., before moving to Japan. I’d also visited over 20 countries and ridden the rail and subway systems of London, France, DC, NYC, and California, to name a few. So yeah, I’d had a bit of experience before I got here.

  23. Hey Mr,
    first of all thanks for the article, it is a very good read to be honest.

    I have to say that I’ve been following your blog since a year now… and I’ve commented on other posts but i found really interesting when you mentioned the Japan’s syndromes in this post. And, as you say, it makes a lot of sense. What does Japan has on his land? it is the air? the pretty chicks? the fake things?

    I had a Jap girlfriend and I started doing a research (without stepping a foot in Japan) and I found that many stories repeat. As you say I idientified the foreigner going mental, the foreigner that feels trapped in jap, the foreigner that goes out in 5 years, or the weeb defends Japan like if I was talking about his mother…

    Any explanations to this haha? I find it really funny. And for sure I dont think anymore that jap is perfect (another syndrome)

    Any guessings mr? greetings.

    1. Thanks for the comment. I think what all of those stories have in common are people still viewing Japan through the lens of an outsider. Or us viewing those individuals as having a “foreigner’s” experience, as opposed to how Japanese people live here.

      The reality is that Japan’s a super normal place, to the point of being a bit vanilla. There’s nothing exotic about it. But as long as you live here as a “foreigner,” you’re going to have one of those off-the-rack foreigner experiences.

      1. So that’s why many still live as a foreigner or prefer the Gaijin card, i suppose.

        But Idk is still strange for me how so many, many people experience the same things, is almost like if you had a book… but as you explained in other article is the expectations and how Japan tries to sell themselves a lot.

        Like “you cant find anything like this in anywere, just here”

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