Nipoda, Y. (2002). Japanese students' experiences of adaptation and acculturation of the United Kingdom. In W. J. Lonner, D. L. Dinnel, S. A. Hayes, & D. N. Sattler (Eds.), Online Readings in Psychology and Culture (Unit 8, Chapter 5), Center for Cross-Cultural Research, Western Washington University, Bellingham, Washington USA.

This material is copyrighted by the author(s), who have kindly extended to the Center the right to use the material as described in the Introduction to this collection and the form entitled "Agreement to Extend License to Use Work."



Yuko Nippoda


Many Japanese students come to the U.K. to study. In general, they come with the aims of studying and changing their lives and themselves in another culture. Due to the vast differences between Japanese and British cultures, many of them have difficulties in adapting to British society. Quite simply, Japan is largely unicultural and Japanese people are not used to other cultures. This chapter presents some culturally specific factors that would affect students' adaptation based on completed research. It focuses on four main points involved in clinical work: the language barrier, differences in communication style and educational system, the individual's motivation and pressure, and the effects of students' insecure status in the host country. Each point is illustrated with examples.


Nowadays, many Japanese people go overseas to study English, other languages, and other subjects to learn skills, which could make a contribution to international relations. Many Japanese people also come to the U.K. to study. According to the statistics from the Japanese Embassy as of 1999, there are about 50,000 Japanese people residing in the U.K., and students make up about 40% of the whole Japanese population. On the one hand, their life can be quite exciting as they face and learn something new, but on the other hand, many people encounter difficulties arising from the vast cultural differences between the U.K. and Japan. Having conducted case studies on Japanese students' adaptation to British society, and having also offered counseling and psychotherapy for Japanese students, I have found that many Japanese students suffer from burn out and stress, and some of them even drop out. Some university staff sometimes ask me why Japanese students adapt less well than students from other countries. Therefore, I am hoping to give some insights into Japanese students' adaptation to the U.K. in this chapter. I would first like to explain the background and the current situation of Japanese students in the U.K. After that, I will present some culturally specific factors that would affect students' adaptation based on research and clinical work. The term "students" in this chapter refers to people who belong to an institute in the U.K. for their studies for full-time or more than fifteen hours as the British government categorises students.

Backgrounds and Purpose of Japanese Students in the United Kingdom

The British government encourages overseas students to come to the U.K. for their studies. One of the reasons is economic. In the U.K., overseas students at university pay several times as much for their degree courses as home/EU students pay. Therefore, overseas students contribute to the British economy. From students' point of view, English is an international language and it would be beneficial to study English. It is also beneficial for overseas students to meet many people from different cultural backgrounds in this multi-cultural society.

When Japanese people come to the U.K. as students, their purpose seems to be based on two goals: studying English or other subjects, and life experience or hope of changing their lives. In terms of the first purpose, it is advantageous to speak English and have specific international skills in order to obtain a good job and a high status when they go back to Japan. Some people study those things the U.K. is famous for or specialises in, for example, British literature, music or art. If they have a profession in Japan, they would want to have training in the U.K. They might study the subject, or they might study English while they are taking a part-time job in their chosen field. Japan is largely unicultural and Japanese students coming to the U.K. would later make a contribution to Japanese society. These people, in general, have some vision for their future and they would go back to Japan after a certain period. Some people, however, come to the U.K. to study according to other people's wishes. They do not particularly want to come to the U.K., but they feel obliged to fulfil the wishes of a third party, such as parents, colleagues or workplace. The second reason for Japanese people coming to the UK when their purpose is focused on life experience or change of themselves rather than study, is that some people might have felt stuck in Japan, and might want some change. They have lost direction in Japan and want to come to the U.K. to re-orient themselves. They wish to change the environment in order to change themselves.

Factors that Would Affect Japanese Students' Adaptation

Bochner (1982) introduces Japanese homogeneity in his book and addresses the fact that there is no country which is completely homogenous, but that the closest country would be Japan. Historically, Japan was closed from the rest of the world for about 300 years until the 19th century. Geographically, it is separated from the continent of Asia. In Japan there is not a great deal of influence from other countries. Japanese people grow up in an environment where people around are all Japanese. Japan has developed an indigenous culture. It means that Japanese people are not very used to foreign cultures. At school, most of the time, Japanese people do not have any non-Japanese in the class. This kind of environment would make Japanese students' adaptation to other cultures fundamentally difficult. Besides this homogeneity, while working with Japanese students, I have come across a few cultural specific factors which would affect their adaptation.

1. Problems relating to the language differences

The first difficulty Japanese students encounter is the language barrier. According to the research (Nippoda, 2000) conducted in order to investigate the needs for mental health services for the Japanese community, the majority (59%), answered that they have problems which come from the language barrier. They say that this language barrier had a tremendous psychological effect on them. In Japan, they learn English as a subject at school, but it is only for the purpose of entrance examination for high school and university. They do not learn conversational English or speak English very much. When Japanese students come to the U.K., they cannot communicate as they wish. Subsequently, they experience a sense of frustration and it sometimes leads them to withdraw from other people. The situation also creates lack of confidence within themselves. In addition, they feel powerless because they cannot do what the majority does and power dynamics can occur.

Case studies were carried out to determine how Japanese students adapt to Britain (Nippoda, 1993). The author followed three students' adaptation patterns. All of them experienced difficulties with the language differences, and this led to poor adaptation. One example is introduced here. A student in the case studies came to the U.K. to study some general subjects. At first everything was so fresh that she was hopeful about her studies in the U.K. Sometimes, she did not understand what others said and she could not make herself understood, but it did not bother her so much. She was enjoying the start of her new life in the U.K. However, after some time, she started to feel frustrated about the language barrier she was experiencing. She tried to study very hard to improve her English so that she could communicate well with others. However, she felt that she did not progress as much as she wanted. She lost her confidence. She became very aware that people did not understand her and started to feel lonely. She ended up withdrawing from other people. She became very depressed and tended to stay in her room more than before. One day, she was watching TV, but could not understand what they said. She experienced full frustration and even felt like destroying the TV. She came to hate English.

It is not easy to acquire other languages. Particularly for Japanese people, since Japanese is very different from English in grammar, pronunciation and alphabet. Therefore, it is difficult for the Japanese to learn English. However, in Japanese culture, it reflects one's internal self when one fails, but success results from the external forces (DeVos, 1985). Many Japanese people blame themselves thinking that they are incompetent in learning English, when they do not learn quickly enough as they expected. They emphasize their inadequacy and lose confidence.

In fact, when Japanese people come to the U.K. to learn English, they expect to make friends with British people. However, they do not have British people in class, since British people do not need to learn English as a second language. In that case, Japanese people only have opportunities to communicate with people from their own or other cultures but not with British people. When they get to know some British people, they cannot enter the social circle. They feel that British people are reserved and they feel marginalized. A client told me that he was very disappointed about his life in the U.K. He wanted to learn English and British culture. He read many brochures about English schools and he chose one. He came to the U.K. expecting to make many British friends and learn the culture from the environment. However, the reality was different. The only British person he talked to was his English teacher. Outside school, it was difficult to make friends. Then he started to think, "What am I doing here?" He started to get depressed. Many clients enter therapy due to feeling very depressed. They want to change themselves in the new environment, but nothing is going right according to their expectations. Their English does not progress as they wished. They start to experience disillusionment about their study, their life in the U.K. and themselves. Thus the language barrier would affect their adaptation.

2. Difference of communication style and education system

The relationship between teachers and students in Japan is different from that in the U.K. Teachers just talk and students just listen, that is the dynamics of the relationship in Japan. It is often the case that during the class the teacher just talks, and when the teacher does ask questions, students hardly ever answer. Students play a passive role. According to the study of Thompson, Ishii, and Klopf (1990), Japanese students showed less assertiveness and more apprehension and reticence about interacting orally with others than Americans did. When Japanese students come to the West, many of them are very quiet. It is partly due to the language problem, but at the same time, they are not used to participating in the class actively. In the U.K., academic staff experience Japanese students' attitude as lack of confidence. Also, silence is valued in Japanese culture, and people do not show off very much. So they are humble in expressing even their achievements. This can be taken as self-critical. Due to this cultural and communication style, students can be evaluated differently. They feel that the teacher's evaluation of them is that they are incompetent and worry that they might get bad marks. Then they lose even more confidence.

A university lecturer told me that one of the differences between the Japanese students and British students is in note-taking in class. Japanese students try to copy down what is written very neatly on flipcharts or on the blackboard, whereas British students take a note consisting of their own words using their creativity. British university lecturers would expect primary school pupils to copy but not higher education students. This would come across as being rather childlike. Japanese people feel that they cannot form an equal relationship with British people due to the language barrier. They are worried that they might not be taken serious or they might not be heard. They can sometimes be treated like a child. However, it is not just the language barrier, but their passive attitude which might result in creating the childlike image, and it could lead Japanese students to be treated like a child.

Many Japanese students I have seen express their dissatisfaction towards their tutors, academic staff or schools. They seem to feel that tutors do not show enough commitment that they often postpone the appointments for their tutorials, that they do not give enough suggestions or feedback. They do not feel supported when they ask questions in their studies, and they feel that their teachers are not sensitive enough to overseas students' needs, etc. Many students feel that they are not getting what they pay for. However, when I talk to academic staff, they say that they are willing to help Japanese students and tell them to come to talk to them when they have problems. However, Japanese students do not come asking for help. They just answer "I am all right.", when academic staff ask after them. There seems to be a big gap between communication and cultural differences. For example, a school brought together only Asian students for a meeting. The purpose was to encourage them to speak in class since Asians are normally thought to be quiet. However, Asian students were very upset about this meeting. They felt singled out and marginalized as a weak force. These kinds of misunderstandings can happen often.

Japanese have shared values and many things are taken for granted due to the nature of homogeneity. In Japan, organisations which individuals belong to generally look after the individuals in a sense that organisations know what people need. People do not have to voice their needs. Japanese schools look after students very well in the same way. Therefore, Japanese students expect school staff or the system to be very organised in order to meet students' needs. It is not valued much to ask for your needs to be met in Japan. So Japanese students do not present their needs to their tutors. Even when the Japanese students would like to receive the tutors' support, they feel awkward to ask for that. They expect staff to give support to students. On the contrary, students have to ask for what they want in the U.K. It is not the case that everything is ready for students. For Japanese eyes, British schools can be disorganised and academic staff can be experienced as lacking in enthusiasm, when they do not get services as they expect. Japanese students would feel that staff are not doing their job properly. From the tutors' points of view, Japanese students are too passive, and lack confidence. They seem to struggle in knowing how to approach the students. Academic staff think that Japanese students would not want their help. Misunderstandings are created. The Japanese would wait for the offer and the Western teachers would wait for the request. The gap tends to increase over time. The cultural differences affect their adaptation.

3. Motivation and pressure to perform well

Motivation could be one of the key issues to influence adaptation to another society (Furnham and Bochner, 1986). The sponsor's needs are sometimes different from the students' purpose in the case of exchange programs. Usually the students' aim is to get a degree or diploma but the sponsor expects them to be a facilitator for both countries and to bring back new concepts and technology. This could put undue pressure on a student.

Japan is a collectivistic society and people generally live up to other's needs and expectations. Many students come to the U.K. to study not only for their own sake, but also to meet other people's expectations, such as parents, benefactors, schools or communities. In Japan, a sense of self is reflected as a social role, and individuals are representative of groups. Therefore, individuals' failure leads to community failure. Norbeck and DeVos (1972) explain that when one fails to meet social expectations, he/she hurts family members. As a result, he/she suffers unhappiness and feelings of guilt. Students are also under tremendous pressure not to fail since if they do, they would become the shame of the group they belong to. Pedersen (1981, p.13) explains, " Guilt is internalised conscience which prevents deviation from cultural norms and enforces conformity. Shame is less dependent on internalised norms and depends on real or projected power by others in the community to punish deviation from cultural norms." When Japanese students experience burn out and drop out of their courses, they feel that they cannot go back to Japan because they cannot face the shame. They always carry the burden of the pressure not to be a source of shame. In my previous research, a participant was selected from the region to come to the U.K. to study. She was under enormous pressure to perform well since she had a sense that her stay in the UK was being paid for in Japan by citizens' taxes. She also felt that she was not worthy of this role. She suffered from tremendous pressure and this affected her adaptation enormously.

4. Insecure status of students

The difference between students and expatriates is that students are in general self-supported. Sometimes parents support them financially, but other times they live on their savings or a low income from their part-time job. They have to think about their financial situation, and their life is not secure as Suzuki (1998) explains. Whereas expatriates come to the U.K. with their family and the sponsor, their company, supports them, students are by themselves and without their family. Some people might feel more comfortable to be in the U.K. and do not wish to go back to Japan. They find individual freedom. In Japan, due to its collectivistic nature, they have to think about group needs first. In the U.K., there is more freedom to fulfill individual needs. Women particularly are oppressed in Japan and they find this country to be free from the oppression. In fact, many Japanese people have difficulties in re-adjusting themselves to Japanese life. Some people try to live on a minimum wage and their lives are quite unstable. This affects their adaptation as well.

Implications for Better Adaptation

There are many factors involved in poor adaptation of Japanese students to British schools. Training in intercultural skills would aid adaptation (Furnham, 1989). Unfortunately, there is almost no training offered in Japan for students before they come to Britain. Universities offer little of this kind of training for cultural adaptation to Britain either. As Adams (1976) suggested, people can make the experience of transition meaningful for their positive future. I feel that people who are involved in education for overseas students have to be more aware of cultural differences and understand where the difficulties lie, so they can help students towards better adaptation.

About the Author

Yuko Nippoda is a UKCP registered psychotherapist with extensive experience in the field of counseling and psychotherapy in Japan and England. As a bilingual psychotherapist and counselor, she has worked with clients on a wide range of issues from many different cultures. Her special interest is in cross-cultural issues, particularly issues between East and West. She conducts research and has published on this subject. She is currently engaging in research and practice for the Japanese community in U.K.


Adams, J. (1976) The ppotential for personal growth arising from intercultural experiences. In J. Adams, J. Hayes and B. Hopson (Eds.) Transition: Understanding and managing personal change. London: Martin Robertson.

Bochner, S. (1982) Cultures in contact: Studies in cross-cultural interaction. Oxford: Pergamon Press.

DeVos, G. (1985) Dimensions of the self in Japanese Culture. In E. J. Marsella, G. DeVos and F. K. Hsu (Eds.) Culture and self: Asian and Western Perspectives. New York and London: Tavistock Publications.

Furnham, A, and Bochner, S. (1986) Culture Shock: Psychological reactions to unfamiliar environments. London and New York: Methuen.

Nippoda, Y. (1993) Cross-cultural counselling and personal development in another culture: How the Japanese adapt to Britain. Unpublished M.A. dissertation, Keele University.

Nippoda, Y. (2000) Mental Health Issues of the Japanese Community in the U.K. Report of Research Support, Vol. 9. Osaka: The Mental Health Okamoto Memorial Foundation.

Norbeck, E. and DeVos, G. (1972) Culture and Personality: The Japanese. In Hsu, F.L.K. (Ed.), Psychological Anthropology. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Schenkman Publishing.

Pedersen, P. B. (1981) The Cultural Inclusiveness of Counseling, pp.22-58. In P. B. Pedersen, J.G. Draguns, W. J. Lonner, and J.E. Trimble (Eds.) Counseling Across Cultures: Second Edition, Honolulu, HI: University of Hawaii Press

Suzuki, M. (1998) Igirisu, London chikuni okeru kaigaitokosha no mentaruherusu taisaku. Encyclopaedia of Clinical Psychiatry - Rinsho Seishin Igaku Koza, Vol. 23, 66-77

Thompson, C.A., Ishii, S., and Klopf, D. (1990) Japanese and Americans compared on assertiveness/responsiveness. Psychological reports, 1990, 66, 829-830.

Questions for Discussion

1. What are the reasons Japanese students go to the U.K. for their studies?
2. How do you think these reasons are connected to their adaptation here?
3. Discuss how homogeneity within Japanese society would make their adaptation to life in the U.K. difficult?
4. What is your view about the psychological effect of the language barrier?
5. Some students experience depression due to the fact that they lose meaning of their life in the U.K. Extract the examples in the chapter and discuss them.
6. How do you think Japanese students are perceived in class in the U.K?
7. Compare the Japanese educational system presented in this chapter with that of your own culture.
8. What is your opinion about misunderstandings between British academic staff and Japanese students?
9. Discuss shame and guilt that Japanese students could experience studying in the U.K.
10. What kind of training would be beneficial to the adaptation of Japanese students in the U.K.?

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