written by Collin Zeigler
The JET program is an awesome opportunity to see Japan and get paid while doing it. While this is a great opportunity, many people think they can escape their problems by getting on a plane and moving to Japan. This is a terrible mentality for many reasons. Your depression, anxiety, and other issues you had back home are still going to come with you to Japan; they are just taking the next flight and they`ll meet you after a couple of months of sight seeing. All your problems are just taking their time to get to you and you'll feel them creep back up when the first of your many trials and tribulations in Japan arises.
One of the first topics CLAIR covers in your introduction to JET is the culture shock curve. The culture shock curve is a theory that everyone goes through four stages when they move to a new country. Especially when moving to a country like the land of the rising sun it is not uncommon to go through the cycle a few times. First is the honeymoon phase. This is when you first get to Japan and you think everything about Japan is amazing, everything feels foreign, and you keep telling all your friends back home how amazing Japanese food is! Once the high of being abroad starts to wear off and you start to experience problems and culture shocks, like not understanding cultural norms, you'll begin to resent your host country. You might get depressed or angry and this is usually when all those problems you left back home begin to arrive. This period is often when a lot of JETs leave because they can't handle the stress of it, so if you want to stay here and survive through this period it's important to monitor yourself and establish some routines. We`ll cover this in more detail later. After the initial culture shock, you'll start to adjust and begin to adapt to life and things begin to level off and you begin to feel normal again.
This culture shock cycle happens to everyone at some point, the only difference is when you start to experience those low moments you won't have access to the same support networks like you did back home, and most of the comfort foods you had back home you won't find in Japan. I hate to be the one to break it to you but you won't find mama’s cooking or nacho cheese Doritos here, sorry. Below are a few tips and recommendations that have helped most foreigners stay mentally healthy while living here.
Number one: Write down your thoughts this may seem cliché but when you put your thoughts to paper you get them out of your head and in front of you. Keeping a journal or just writing down your thoughts when you start to feel depressed or anxious, and this is an easy tip everyone can utilize. It's great because you can get your thoughts out of your head and you see how silly or intense they seem. A lot of times we can get trapped in our heads, and not feel like we have a way out as we spiral into depression. But doing something as simple writing down what your thinking and processing those thoughts instead of letting them fester can do wonders for you. I recommend this to everyone, and doing this has helped many ALTs immensely since they've arrived in Japan.
Number two: Establish a routine and make sure to follow it. Having a routine you keep to every day can do wonders for your mental health. A study by Lancet Psychiatry found keeping a consistent routine led to healthier sleep cycles. These, consequently, led to better resilience in dealing with emotional issues and minimized the chance of developing mental health problems. You may have had a routine back home but when you've been uprooted and moved to another country you need to find a new routine. Your routine could be anything from exercising every day to joining a tea ceremony club that meets weekly. Having a set routine will be important especially when you start to miss home or get into low points in your life, and during these low points, it's important to be even more consistent with your schedule. Routines are important and in the first few months while you are still adjusting it is a good idea to figure your new routine out.
Number three: The next recommendation is don't stay cooped up in your home. Humans are social beings and we need to have contact with people. The study by the Royal Society perceived social isolation was linked to greater risks in all mental illness and increased your risk of premature death. The effects of social Isolation were compared to the effects of cigarette smoking and both had similar death rates. So getting out and seeing others is important, if you need help JET and CLAIR have links to groups and clubs to help you meet people. If you're alone with only your thoughts all day your mind can go to some dark places and they can be hard to get out of. So it is important to get out and see people even if it's just meeting your fellow JETs to go get McDonald's. Most likely your fellow JETs are feeling the same things you are. So reach out and talk with your fellow foreigners!
Number four: Be willing to take rest days and mental health days occasionally. You might be discouraged from doing this because you'll see how hard your coworkers are working, and trust me we all get it. You’ll feel like a lazy bum wanting to stay home occasionally while everyone is at the school till late, but you have to think about your own health too. Some days you're going to want to lay in bed and eat Cheetos all day or just go for a hike, it's perfectly normal. Sometimes you need a day trip or a few hours of Netflix to reset your system, do it! You're only in Japan for a limited time so why not try to enjoy yourself while you're here. Take days off; you get a couple hundred hours on nenkyu for a reason.
I hope these tips help you during your time in Japan, and just a reminder It's not our intention to scare anyone reading this into thinking Japan is going to damage their sanity. Japan has been a great experience for many of us and has led to a lot of positive growth in our lives. You can make great friends, develop your career, and have many wonderful experiences here. But being conscious of your thoughts and mental health can make your time in Japan easier and can help you avoid some of the pitfalls JETs can fall into. So try out these tips and hopefully they can help you out, if you are still having issues don't be afraid to reach out to the CLAIR and the MAJET websites for resources you can use.
The Official Miyagi JETs page provides links to mental health resources all over Japan and has English speaking therapists you can contact. Stay safe and enjoy your time in Japan!