You’re home! You can traipse through the house in your shoes, talk on your phone on the train, and enjoy the comfort of central heating. So why doesn’t it feel so great?
For some of us, returning home was accompanied by a sense of elation; for others, leaving Japan was bittersweet. For all of us, though, coming back to the US-of-A came with its own set of challenges and difficulties. We knew that moving to Japan would be a cultural adjustment, but we didn’t expect to feel lost in our own country!
The following articles from DC JET alums hit on some crucial post-JET culture shock moments that many of us have gone through. We hope that you’ll gain a better understanding of reverse culture shock in what follows, and more importantly, rest assured that it’s not something you’re going through alone.
- Where’s My Toothpick?
- Every Situation is Different
- Resources About Culture Shock
- Survey Summary – Reverse Culture Shock
It won’t happen on your first day back, but it will happen at some point. You will have just finished a lovely meal of something you haven’t had since before you left for Japan, and suddenly the thought will strike you: Why can’t I get a good toothpick in my own country? Then you’ll realize that all of those neat little things that the Japanese make to take the harsh edge off of life, not to mention the brilliant friendships you formed and the unique experiences you enjoyed, are all now far, far away. And the loss of your old way of life will hit you like it never hurt before.
Meanwhile, what’s uncomfortably nearer is the direct rudeness. The lack of public transportation. The thoughtlessness. The quizzical looks when you speak to someone and you belatedly realize that you were speaking Japanese. You could accept being a fish out of water in Japan, but why should you be feeling the same way in your home country?
Reverse culture shock is the same as culture shock; it’s still the feeling that things aren’t supposed to be this way. What’s changed, however, is the reaction of the people around you. When you were in Japan, you could talk with a friend on the phone, or at a coffee shop, and you could either unload about your day or just marvel about Japan. And you knew that your friend was right there with you through every turn in the conversation.
Now, however, you’ve returned to where everyone speaks your language – yet there is no one with whom you can share your experience. The problem is that you’ve changed and your old world has changed, and both of you are slow to pick up on that fact. The person who returned bearing your passport is not the same one as the one who departed with it. (Notify Homeland Security!) Even the people who look at you with secret envy still cannot really understand what you’ve done, simply because they’ve never experienced that kind of life for themselves. What can you do?
Whatever advice you might receive upon your return, there are only two bits that I think have universal applicability:
1) Carefully sort through your options for your next step. Remember that the process that led you to Japan took many months before you actually arrived. Particularly in tough economic times, your next step may be unclear; your dream for now may frustratingly become a dream deferred. Just remember that patience was one of the skills you refined while in Japan.
2) You lit a flame inside you upon your arrival in Japan. Keep it burning. Whether it be through continued language or martial arts study, or appreciating Japanese culture, or whatever it was that moved you about Japan while you were there – preserve it, grow it, and develop it. You will regret it if it goes out; if you keep it going, it will warm you for many more days to come.
“Every situation is different” isn’t quite behind you yet.
I didn’t know if I should begin with that bombshell, or with a more traditional reverse culture shock rundown. But the above is important to realize: there’s no singular, defined experience you’ll have when you return. It’s not over yet!
Also, brace yourself: there’s a bit of a roller coaster ahead. What makes this more intense than the culture shock you may have experienced when starting JET is that in many cases, you’re going home, to a place you know pretty well. Sometimes these moments of reverse culture shock will hit you when you least expect it, when you think you’ll feel settled and at home instead.
Think of reverse culture shock as a disconnect between the actual and the perceived: what home is and how you had viewed it, and—most importantly— who you were when you started JET and who you have become. Stepping out of your home culture while in Japan taught you about yourself and your cultural identity. Now it’s time to reflect on all this again, and to think about your emotions, thoughts, actions, and values that have shifted unexpectedly but indelibly. You can pinpoint and anticipate some of them, but others will make themselves known to you only after your return.
The process of readjustment is basically the same as with initial culture shock:
disengaging from the place you’re leaving,
euphoria once you arrive in the new place,
hostility once the perceived-actual disconnect hits you,
and reconciliation as you begin to settle in.
It’s that 3rd step that’s the hardest to deal with, especially if you dropped roots in Japan. Why is this happening? Why do these things not feel right anymore? Sometimes, these feelings even become strong enough within some people that they resemble symptoms of depression. If you’re prone to that, or even if you aren’t, be aware of yourself, and don’t hesitate to reach out to get help getting through any rough points.
The biggest thing that many returnees benefit from or wish for is surprisingly simple: somebody to talk to. If you feel lonely or frustrated, reach out to the JET community, via a JETAA chapter or online. There’s such comfort and power in the phrase, “I know how you feel.” Even if you’re isolated geographically, you are not alone.
It’s not all bad, obviously—it’s just important to be realistic about what’s coming. But throughout, do stay positive, keep an open mind, and go with the flow. You’re wrapping up an incredible, life-changing adventure, and are moving on to a new one! Just know that there may be moments of irritation and frustration, but no matter where you are, keep moving forward. It’s easier said than done, but think warmly on the past without dwelling on it.
I would strongly urge you to document your experiences. If you’re still in Japan as you read this, take photos of everything you can, even the mundane things like items at the grocery stores, signs, and so on. Once you get back, consider keeping up a diary or personal chronicle for yourself, to help process your readjustment.
The greatest thing about returning is that the second phase of your identity as a JET participant begins. You can embrace all the good things about your time in Japan, and share them with everyone you encounter (you’ll be bubbling over with “when I was in Japan…” stories for months, if not years). Just as we were agents of grassroots internationalization in Japan, we’re now grassroots Japanese ambassadors, and can share the real Japan with our friends, family, and acquaintances. More importantly, ideally we all have a more nuanced and open-minded view of the world, and can move forward with heightened awareness of our greater human family. Embrace that—it’s an amazing gift.
And above all, I hope you have a wonderful time. Otsukaresama!
Burn Up or Splash Down: Surviving the Culture Shock of Re‐entry by Marion Knell. Authentic (2007)
The Art of Coming Home by Craig Storti. Intercultural Press (2001).
A comprehensive guide to re‐entry shock.
Cross Cultural Re‐entry: A Book of Readings by Clyde Austin. Abilene Christian University Press (1986).
Homeward Bound: A Spouse’s Guide to Repatriation by Robin Pascoe. Expatriate Press Limited (2000).
Re‐entry: Making the Transition from Missions to Life at Home by Peter Jordan. YWAM Publishing (1992).
Missionary literature can be a good place to look for re‐entry shock information.
Strangers at Home: Essays on the Effects of Living Overseas and Coming “Home” to a Strange Land by Carolyn D. Smith. Aletheia (1996).
So you’re coming home by Black and Gregersen. Global Business Pub (1999)
The adventure of working abroad by Joyce Osland. Jossey‐Bass (1995)
The After JET Guide published by CLAIR is a great place to start. It includes several professors’ articles as well as reflections of former Jets.
The study abroad office of your alma matter may be another good place to start. Materials geared toward students returning from study abroad may be applicable to returning JETs as well.
Robin Pascoe features many books, a number of them her own, for expatriates and repatriates on her website.
JET and Beyond, a National AJET publication, is available on their website at
The University of the Pacific’s “Online Cultural Training Resource.” This guide features modules and extensive advice on how to prepare for and handle your return home.
Middlebury College has an extensive list of websites, books, articles, and dvds.
Check the Center for Global Education’s Study Abroad Student Handbook.
Reverse culture shock hit you when you…
- Got strange looks when biking everywhere
- Dressed like you were going out on the town in Tokyo
- Didn’t fit in like before
- Were able to understand almost every conversation around you
How JETs have dealt with reverse culture shock…
- Through reflection
- Remember the feelings that come with reverse culture shock are natural but there may be some people who don’t realize this – understand these facts and accept them
- Understand some things can’t be changed about your home culture and maybe shouldn’t be – don’t focus on the bad
- With the help of friends
- Talk about things with other JETs and/or friends in the US who know about Japanese culture, etc. and reminisce
- Stay in touch with the friends made while on JET (fellow JET members and Japanese friends)
- Spend time with family and rekindle old friendships
- Make new friends who have also been abroad
- By getting involved
- Share Japanese culture with others
- Utilize the Japanese culture, food, activities, etc. in the area
- Keep up your daily routine as much as possible, e.g. running, conversation classes, etc.
- Set and move forward to new goals