Sep 27, 2016

Expats say service in Japan is ...

Service in Japan is the stuff of legend for many. The first time visitor to the country is often bowled over by the attention to detail, the immaculate systems to facilitate customer spending, and the lack of anyone behind that counter letting us know that they really don’t want to be at work right now (Take your stuff and clear off!). This writer’s early impression of service in Japan was the way in which staff at department stores lined up at the side of walkways to bow and welcome you to the store.  Made me feel like a visiting dignitary, i.e. someone important with money!

In the West that pre-work training mantra, ‘The customer is always right.’, rings hollow, and is usually infused with all the sincerity of a recalcitrant teenager saying ‘Sorry.’. In fact, in the psychotically bored mind of the average Saturday part timer, the customer is always … a massive pain in the rear.  

Here in the Japan though, whether the customer is right on not, seems to be of little relevance; they’re the customer, and they need to be served. Nothing more, nothing less. And it’s not just the unflinchingly polite nature of Japan’s service providers that impresses, it’s the objects in the service-as-a-verb sentence; the glass of water in restaurants for one (served as a given, rather than as a begrudging favor to some tight a**e who doesn’t want to buy a drink).  

Stick around long enough though, and cracks may start to appear in the once immaculate surface. As much as Japan may be at pains for its servants to leave their personality at breakfast, and to introduce as much touch-screen kit as they can, it’s yet to be rid of the human element.  

But let’s stay with the positive for now. When we asked you to summarize the service in Japan it was largely positive.  A selection of the adjectives ... 

1) Complete this sentence with a word or a short phrase. 'The service in Japan is ... .'

superior and every country should follow suit
usually amazing; occasionally awful
great, but extremely particular
thorough and annoying
one of the best in the world
second to none

Perhaps few surprises here, so let’s look at a few of the pleasing details.  

2) What are some of the best things about the service in Japan’s shops, restaurants, banks, and other 'everyday' facilities. 

Expats say service in Japan is ... photo

1No tipping required
2Easy to pay for very small items with large notes
3Polite greetings / bowing
4The way staff count out change (in notes)
5Touch screens / buttons to call staff in restaurants
6Minimal chatting from counter staff to customers
7Elderly workers who guard/guide around work/maintenance sites
8Neutral service (without expression of feelings)
9Uniforms/staff appearance

Being escorted to exits after making a purchase

Certainly the lack of tipping in Japan is much appreciated by many expats.  In fact, this writer can't really think of a situation in Japan when tips might be expected, and if one was to try it would probably lead to more confusion that it's worth.

The ability to pay for small items with large notes is a welcome source of relief.  Back home, those in the know are condemned to a life of finding ways to break into the larger notes lest they incur the wrath of a worker who's about to loose most of the change from their cash register.

When we mention 'the way staff count out change (in notes)' we're referring to the thoroughness and dexterity with which this is done.  Many counter staff in Japan can fan out a few notes like they're professionals on the poker circuit.

3) Are there any negative aspects to the service you receive in Japan?

Expats say service in Japan is ... photo

1Lack of personality / robotic service
2Excessive greeting / bowing
3Extra (unwanted) leaflets / pamphlets being put in your bag at times of purchase
4Excessive warnings/direction given by staff at events/special days/openings
5Being spoken to in English when you can speak Japanese
6Staff wearing surgical masks (outside of medical facilities and other similar locations)
7Being approached by staff in stores (even when you have headphones on)
8Being escorted to exits after making a purchase
9Being asked if you want point cards/covers for books/other 'in-store' perks at times of purchase
10The tape put on plastic bags to keep them 'closed'

'Lack of personality / robotic service' is a conundrum.  In many ways, it's a key factor in Japanese service.  A lack of personality means not being aware of someone's bad mood, or not having to endure casual chats at the counter when all you want to do is get in and get out.  It may also be reflected in the Japanese customer who often times can seem quite brusque in their acceptance of service.  There seems to be an understanding that this is anything but personal.  Rather, it's a matter of cold, hard economics; I'm paying for a product.  You're getting paid to serve it.  Done.

Of course, language is at play here.  'Lack of personality / robotic service' is easily swapped for 'Neutral service (without expression of feelings)'.  According to the results above though, expats in Japan would like something a little more personal.

'Extra (unwanted) leaflets / pamphlets being put in your bag at times of purchase' refers to those situations where all you wanted was, say, a book.  Instead you've come away with that and another book's worth of pamphlets, promos, and deal breakers much of which may be illegible to the expat in Japan.  As well as adding unwanted size to a package, and the hassle of having to put them in the correct garbage box, there's the staggering lack of regard for the poor trees that are sacrificed for these things.  But then this is Japan.  You only have to look at the excessive double, neigh, triple wrapped approach to packaging over here to realize that this is of scant concern.

4) Are there any kinds of store/facilities/restaurants where you feel the standard of service regularly falls below that which you've come to expect across much of Japan?

There were one or two names of establishments that came out here but we were surprised that nobody brought up somewhere like an immigration center.

Interesting observations to come out of the responses included that some felt the quality of service in Japan is reflected in the age of the server.  Younger generations didn't fare so well and were noted by some to mumble their greetings, and be less polite.  This question also gave people the opportunity to remark again about the robotic nature of the service over here.  Too much paperwork was another bugbear that came up, and one that perhaps many of us can relate to (as well as the locals themselves).  

Vegetarians also had cause for concern, although this is probably down to lack of experience on the part of service providers, and perhaps more importantly, the lack of any system in place to accommodate.

An offshoot from the question above was the matter of staff being sent out to the streets to hand out tissues, fans, and flyers.  Certainly these people are an ever present in urban Japan (particularly around train stations), with some feeling that they pose an obstruction.  That they might see you twice a day, everyday, and still try to hand you some tissues/a fan every time is an irritation that this writer can relate to.

How do you feel about the service in Japan?  Get things off your chest in the comments below!


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