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Saturday, November 20, 2004

A Visitor to Japan

A good friend of mine visited Japan last week and stayed with us for a couple of days. It was his first trip to Japan and some of his comments about what he saw here took me back to my early days in Japan and made me smile.

One example is the level of customer service. Whether at the train station, in a convenience store, at the hotel or simply in the street, one of the things immediately apparent to a visitor here (especially to an Israeli) is the quality of service and the willingness of service providers to go out of their way to be helpful.

Customers are always greeted with an irrashaimase! (welcome!) cry when they enter the store and a similarly loud arigato gozaimasu (thank you) upon leaving it, often from all employees at once. A little disconcerting at first, this is standard practice.

Then there's the work discipline and the running around. Are you familiar with this scene: you walk up to an information desk and the girl there is on the phone chatting away with her friend, too busy to deign you with a glance? You will almost never catch a service provider here speaking on the phone or smoking a cigarette or indeed just staring idly into space. He or she will always be focused on the customer, attentive to his every need. It is not rare to see delivery men running to and from their truck, even if they are not in a rush. It is simply the way they carry out their jobs: in the best possible way. Walking instead of running means less customers served and hence a job badly done.

Politeness and respect for others is imbued in Japanese culture. Regardless of whether the customer got his wish or not, apologies are always offered. A business acquaintance of mine once told me that the first rule about doing business in Japan is: "always apologize". Even if the service you provided is flawless and the customer is more than satisfied, you should apologize. I have had a shop clerk apologize for the weather being so hot and humid in Tokyo, apparently because he found nothing concerning his service to be apologetic for.

Living here, one gets accustomed very quickly to this level of service and it becomes a way of life, something you expect. It is only when travelling abroad for a vacation that the gap between the quality of service in Japan and pretty much elsewhere becomes so painfully evident.


ontheface said...

Oh, I don't know - I was never that impressed by the service in Japan. The inability to say "no" especially drove me crazy. Like the time I asked a hotel receptionist whether there was a bus from the hotel to the airport, and he spent about 10 minutes pretending he was looking for information when in fact there *was* no airport bus from that hotel and he just couldn't say the word "no." Finally I understood and thanked him for trying - the look of relief on his face would've been amusing if I wasn't so annoyed at having to wait around for no reason.

Sharvul said...


I agree that the inability to say "no" is frustrating. However, once you get used to it and understand the multitude of indirect ways Japanese have of saying "no", it becomes less annoying.

The receptionist wasn't pretending; he was probably "telling" you that there was no bus and that he is sorry he cannot help you but you didn't read the signs... It's OK though. After almost four years here I still fail to read the signs occasionally and get annoyed about the lack of "tachless" in interpersonal communication.