Graduate thesis work: Okaeri - Designing for Reverse Culture Shock

tags: sketching/illustration, print, web, synthesis, prototype/wireframe

I developed an online platform to aid people going through reverse culture shock after returning from an extended stay abroad.

For the sake of scope, I focused on North American alumni of the Japanese Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme. Participants typically teach English in public schools, but most importantly, they come to live in rural areas to facilitate grass-roots international exchange within their communities.

The concept is titled Okaeri, which is a Japanese word that translates both to "return" (verb) and "welcome" (greeting). It utilizes the preexisting community of JET participants/alumni and the trust inherent within it to help JET alumni help themselves and each other through the ups and downs of reverse culture shock.


My interest in this topic comes from both my own experience and accounts of good friends. I'm a JET Programme alumna: I taught English in rural Japan from July 2005 to August 2007, and subsequently spent a year readjusting when I came back. Other friends, on JET as well as in other situations, also reported experiencing various degrees of reentry shock. JET did a lot to prepare us for our initial culture shock upon arriving in Japan, and provided us with a lot of support while on JET—but they did very little to prepare us for the return transition.

Though JET participants come from nearly 40 countries, I'm focusing this project on North American JET alumni just for the sake of scope, but developing a scalable framework that other groups can use.

Reverse culture shock

This is experienced when people spend a long time in a foreign country (or another environment quite different from their normal one) and then must readjust upon reentering their home society. It's often underestimated, and only recently has began to gain attention as a very real phenomenon worth studying and addressing. It impacts people in many situations: studying abroad, international work assignments, armed forces, and more.

Literature review

I did a lot of reading on the psychology and sociology behind reverse culture shock, including personal accounts. I also researched what the JET Programme offers people as they prepare to depart for Japan (quite a bit) and JET participants who have decided to leave Japan (very little).

I should say that I'd had my own ideas and hypotheses for this project from the start, due to my personal ties to it. In many cases, the research I did confirmed my hypotheses. I returned from Japan nearly 4 years ago, so I'm far enough removed that I can be objective, but I still have ties to the community and the subject matter. I feel like this project affirms the objective-subjective interplay of design very well.

Exploratory Research

Overall themes that arose:

  • Every Situation Is Different (the unofficial motto of JET) applies to the return experience, too.
  • People's return experiences were highly contingent on many personal circumstances, such as their degree of attachment to both Japan and their home cultures, their quality of life while on JET, relationship status, other mitigating personal and psychological issues, and so on.
  • Many people seek a sense of community upon their return, and would love to find a like-minded group with whom they can share their experiences openly.
  • The few available resources are scattered and either overlooked or disregarded, because people don't realize that this is an issue they should be aware of.


My first and largest piece of user research was to conduct a massive survey among JET alumni across the US and Canada. Knowing how hard it would be to get a solid response with several rounds of e-mailed surveys, I opted to put out one large survey. Some basic points:

  • roughly 50 questions
  • over 200 responses, representing JET alumni from 42 of Japan's 47 prefectures/governmental districts
  • quantitative issues: respondents rated the quality of their JET life, and the culture shock they experienced upon arriving in Japan and then returning afterwards
  • qualitative issues: respondents spoke to their experiences and provided advice and things they wished they'd known

Overall, the results were widely varied, depending on a number of circumstances (personal, various facets of people's JET experiences, degree of immersion, even climate), but the vast majority of applicants did report that they experienced RCS, to a stronger degree than they expected, and that they were unprepared for it and felt uninformed and often isolated upon their return home. (Many also expressed encouragement and support for this project, and affirmed that this is an area they wished had been addressed before they left.)


As a follow-up to the survey, I conducted formal and informal interviews with JET alumni, both locally and remotely. My aim was to get in-depth snapshots of people's experiences on JET and upon their return, and to see what helped them with readjusting upon returning from Japan.


I conducted an online journaling activity with JET returnees who came back within the year as well as years ago, to have them describe their own experiences and insights. Beyond my own journaling activity, I've browsed blogs of JET returnees who detailed their return experiences.

Whiteboard photo: where the respondents had lived in Japan

Whiteboard photo: advice on transitioning to life outside of Japan

Whiteboard photo: what respondents wish they'd known ahead of time

Main Findings

Based on my feedback, the three directions/solutions I began to consider were a community-oriented website/platform, a returners' toolkit, and a service model update for JET's returners' process.


Download the full-sized thesis poster (PDF).

In December 2010, we presented posters detailing our work thus far and our next steps. I got some solid feedback, as well as encouragement on the directions I'm taking (and had really insightful conversations with students, faculty, and guests). The main themes that arose were ensuring that this project empowers people, and lets people know that this was bad at the time, but now it's just become a part of our life story and identity. People also asked about categories of reverse culture shock (such as social, professional, etc.), and what other international exchange programs are (or aren't) doing to address this.

Poster for our winter poster presentation

Generative and Evaluative Research


Once I knew that I would be developing an online resource/platform, I began considering alternate audiences beyond just JET participants. I reached out to a number of friends, in formal interviews and informal conversations, to see what they knew and wanted to know about their friends' experiences, and whether an online resource would be of interest or use to them. They affirmed that they would be interested in learning about their friends' particular experiences abroad, but that they probably wouldn't be interested if they didn't know someone on the program.


I conducted a 45-minute guided storytelling session with four fellow JET alumni. Their experiences affirmed the main ideas that Every Situation Is Different, but that there were some underlying tenets of their returns home that were in line with each other and with other participants. Hearing about the lasting impacts of their experiences abroad was still very valuable, though, as was understanding what brought them to Japan and what made them decide to leave (or, in one person's case, why he was forced to leave, when his town canceled their ties to the JET Programme after his 2nd year).


I did two sets of online card sorting, to have people evaluate the usefulness of different ideas/bits of functionality/etc. I was considering for the final prototype. One set was with JET alumni and the other was with returnees in general (mostly international students or study abroad returnees), to reaffirm the idea that the underlying principles of this solution are relevant to people beyond JETs. The results helped me cull some ideas and reorganize others.


For my own brainstorming purposes, I created 4 personas that are representative of a large number of JET participants, and based partly on people I actually knew through JET. The personas encapsulate various age groups, relationship status, types of placements and work situations, and motivations for being on JET.


Just as valuable as the formal research methods was observing and chatting with people in informal settings. I've had informal conversations with many of my JET alum friends, and I've watched and listened in on topics of conversations at JET Alumni Association events I've attended here in Pittsburgh and elsewhere. There has been something to learn from pretty much every encounter I've had with other JET alumni.

Wireframes and Spring Poster Session


I went through several iterations before settling on this particular information architecture. Besides just the wireframes, I had notes to myself about overlapping areas of functionality, but further iterations helped me to refine and streamline them.

(I also did mood boards, which until recently were featured on my portfolio, but I've opted to remove them because, while they were helpful to me, they weren't really portfolio-quality, to put it nicely. Oh, the clarity that time and experience bring!)

High-level wireframe: About High-level wireframe: Connect High-level wireframe: Resources

Spring Poster

This was part of a feedback-soliciting poster session in April 2011. We presented our concepts to faculty, students, and visitors, and then had short review/critique sessions with 3-member faculty panels to receive direct feedback on our concept and work thus far. This poster details the main premise of Okaeri (the concept) as it currently stands, without really delving into research or any content covered on the December poster.

Download the full-sized thesis poster (PDF).

Poster for our spring poster session

Final Concept

Following is a small selection of mock-ups of the website visuals. Note that these focus more heavily on the visuals than they do on the specifics of the content/layout. I unfortunately ran out of time and could not actually finish designing and testing by the end of the academic year.

ABOUT REVERSE CULTURE SHOCK More "familiar" and relatable information on reverse culture shock, as well as testimonials from other users/JET alumni.

RETURNEE RESOURCES A personalized timeline, that lists nationwide JET dates, events and dates of a user's local JET community, and "helpful hints" generated by the system to help smooth over his/her departure prep and return. The user can also input personal dates and milestones.


  • Discuss: An expansive forum, modeled after a mix of Quora/MetaFilter and Tumblr/Posterous. This contains a mix of forum threads/conversations, posted photos and images, and public blog posts.
  • Display: A place for alumni to share their own personal art, photography, writing, and other creative outlets.
  • Self: The user's profile and control panel (with robust privacy settings). The profile collates all of the user's postings and activity on one page.
  • Connect Robust browsing and searching features to find other users. Additionally, there's a listing of events coordinated by Okaeri (online chats, offline meetups) and various JET Alumni Association chapters, as well as information on joining a mentorship network and a CouchSurfing-type group.

Final visual concept: About

Final visual concept: Resources

Final visual concept: Community
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