The 4 Phases of the Expat Lifecycle + Common Pitfalls for Foreigners in Japan

May 31, 2021

When a person moves to a new country, they'll experience a series of emotional ups and downs over the course of their transition. These experiences are different from what people tend to feel when they're simply visiting as a tourist.

In transition coaching, we call this the expat lifecycle and you can see the model of it in this diagram, below:

What you're looking at is a person's rate of happiness over the course of time. As you can see, there are 4 defined phases (some people argue there are more, but the 4 I'll define cover the core phases) and the curve starts on an upward trajectory and then slopes downwards. 

What do you suppose the person is experiencing at each phase of this cycle?

Here are the phases in a nutshell:

1. Honeymoon

The honeymoon phase is when a person is generally excited about their new adventure of living in a new country. This is similar to how a person feels when they're on vacation and notice all of the different and unique elements of a culture. 

The person is probably spending most of their weekends exploring different parts of their neighborhood or the city. Maybe they're dining out almost every meal to enjoy and experience the local cuisine. Maybe they embark on what most tourists would do and go sightseeing. 

2. Culture Shock

After the honeymoon phase starts to wear off, this is when an individual realizes that they're not on vacation and they don't have a return ticket back home. They're actually living in this new location. 

What that means is they're starting to think more about what they need to do to build a routine. Maybe that means cooking every day instead of dining out. Or getting a gym membership instead of going on neighborhood walks. Or making friends instead of having casual chats with travelers. 

The problem is they run into challenges that they didn't foresee happening. Maybe they don't understand how to pick out milk in their local grocery store. Maybe they don't know how to use their kitchen appliances to make a standard meal. Maybe they tried to get a gym membership but were unexpectedly turned away for having a small tattoo. 

Whatever it is, the fact is that their lack of understanding about the local culture affects how they think they can live, and they start to feel a sense of their independence being out of their control

3. Depression & Homesickness

These obstacles during culture shock might seem small - and they are - but what's tough is that they accumulate. And that accumulation can leave a person feeling like they need to depend on others to do simple things like their laundry or paying bills. 

Eventually, they might cross into the next 3rd phase where they experience homesickness or even depression. It's a feeling of being lost, displaced, or maybe even feeling a lack of purpose in the new land. 

4. Acceptance

Acceptance is neither a positive nor a negative word. It just means that as time moves on, a person has started to get used to their new routine and realized that they will be living in this country for a while. In a positive way, they might start to have developed friendships or celebrate small wins (like mailing a letter at the post office). But on the downside, they are living within their limitations and don't know what they don't know - there could be resources that will improve their quality of life, but they aren't aware of how or where to access them. 

How long does a person experience each phase (and will they?)

Here's the thing: people WILL experience each phase of the lifecycle. What that means is that cultureshock and depression are predictable and preventable. The intensity of each phase will be unique to each person, as is the length of time that it takes for someone to go from one phase to the next. 

I find that people who have a purpose for coming to Japan and are interested in the culture will go from phase 1 to phase 3 in anywhere from 6 months to 2 years. But a person who does not have a specific purpose (like a trailing spouse) might experience phase 3 by their second month in the country.

The fact that a couple can be experiencing the lifecycle at different rates will also add a dynamic to their relationship as they adjust to living in Japan. 

Common pitfalls for foreigners in Japan 

Now, this lifecycle applies to people no matter what country they move to. So, what are the unique challenges or pitfalls that people experience when living in Japan?

I'd say that there are three in particular: 

  • Not studying Japanese before moving

    It takes time to learn survival Japanese; people need this as soon as they arrive, but they typically wait a few months until they are settled before they start taking lessons which could push their language capabilities back by months.

  • Not making an effort to make friends early on

    Making friends is also something that takes time, just like learning a language does. When people wait until they're already feeling homesick to reach out to communities to make friends, they might already feel in a state of mind of not wanting to socialize and it can feel disheartening to go to an even and not make a lifelong friend on the first try. 

  • Being unaware of a change in diet 

    Diet isn't necessarily a game-changing factor for most new residents but it's one of the most common challenges I hear about. Some people only wind up experiencing Japanese noodles, rice dishes, and fried foods and find themselves feeling really unhealthy. But there are others who embrace traditional cuisine and have a lot of health improvements. In any case, most people coming to Japan will either have to accept a different diet or accept a higher grocery bill for products that suit a non-local diet. 

So there you have it: the 4 phases of the expat lifecycle along with the common pitfalls people experience in Japan. And I'll say it again: these things are predictable and preventable.

To ensure that employees (or you!) are not falling into any pitfalls, feel free to contact me here to discuss how I can be of support. 

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