Thursday, August 5, 2010

Spoiled Brats Nation

Japan is a service oriented country. We say, "the customer is God," which is about 10 notches higher than "the customer is always right." For example, in the height of the economy, if you drive into a gas station in Tokyo, approximately 5 uniformed attendants ran to your car as they all shouted "welcome" at you. One would knock on the door (yes, I said knock) and when you opened it, he would kneel down by your side so that his head was not higher than yours. You tell him to fill it up, at which point he'd ask for your ash tray (assuming you smoke) so he could clean it. He would pump the gas while four others would wash your windows and mirrors, and ask if you have any garbage and throw that out. The first attendant would return with your ashtray which now contains these tiny scented balls. You'd pay, then as you leave, one attendant would get into the street and stop traffic for you to get out, as all of them take their hats off and bow as you are driving away.

I have taken numerous foreign guests to Isetan Department Store at 10am sharp when the store opens. This store has a grand entrance, and as the big clock strikes ten, young, beautiful, uniformed ladies with hats and gloves will put their hands on the door ceremoniously, and swing the doors open. As you walk in, for the first five minutes or so, every sales person on every floor stand by their station and bow to you and say "good morning" as you walk by. It's like you are a friggin' royalty. If you shop in a department store while it's raining out, they will cover your paper bag with a clear plastic bag so it won't get wet.

Trains and subways, which are vital part of Tokyo life, come every 2-5 minutes, depending on the time of day. If they are late, they apologize profusely. Oh, and by the way, cab doors open and close automatically so you don't have to do it. I had a friend from the States who tried to close it and got into a wrestling match with the door and panicked the driver.

Interestingly, waiters are more attentive in the states because they make tips. We don't tip in Japan, so while they are very polite, they don't come back to your table and check on you like they do here. You have to flag them if you need something.

If you grew up with this kind of service everywhere you turned, please imagine the horror of arriving to the United States with this unrealistic standard. My brother once described United Airlines as "the airline where bear-like women chuck bread at you" and I couldn't fight him. If you are used this:

You'd think that too. Every time I fly United, I can't stop laughing because this phrase goes through my head. I am now accustomed to US culture and know that if you go to a gas station, you're lucky to find a squeegee that works. It is not appreciated, but just assumed that trains and planes will run late. When you call any customer service, you have to gear up for a big fight. We are alarmed and delighted here when people accommodate you. But coming from Japan, people are appalled. OR, they seem really spoiled.

Please imagine Japanese people standing by a cab waiting for the door to open. I wouldn't blame Americans for thinking those people were crazy.

But here is the flip side to the nation of crappy service. People are self sufficient in the States. Most people will try to fix things themselves to save money. Stores like Home Depot don't really exist in Japan, at least none of that size. When I tell my friends we painted our own walls, they seem impressed. I don't bother to tell them most people do much more. I just happen to have a husband who supports the Japanese philosophy and picks up the phone when something breaks. And I'm fine with that.

Last fall when we went to Tokyo, I left my purse (that contained my passport and wallet) on the plane. Panicked, we ran to a United agent and she ran around on our behalf to track it down. When she successfully retrieved it, she came running and apologized for taking so long. Yes, she apologized to us for helping us. I felt home.


  1. And then there's another tier below U.S. standards. In Germany, do not expect a "thank you for shopping" or for anyone to bag your groceries for you. In fact, do not expect a free bag to carry your groceries, free water with your dinner, or "service with a smile". Their philosophy of customer service runs much more towards minimalism. The employee is there to make sure you can give money in exchange for goods or services, but nothing more. Some might say it's more efficient, but I don't know. They certainly drink less water.

    1. Bag your own groceries. Bring your own shopping bags. What's so hard about that? Then give thanks that you live in Germany or anywhere else in western Europe, with a higher standard of living and more vacation time than in the inferior and declining USA.

  2. Brendina Pederhold ...I agree service in Germany leaves much to be desired.It is though changing...slowly but it is.

  3. I agree with "tips". In USA, tip is expected(or even demanded), with minimal service (or without service too).
    Nice article.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.