May 4, 2014

Customer Service at Nagasaki’s Ground Zero: the Challenge of Selling Sorrow

The three JTB (Japan Tourist Bureau) professional tour guides and the security guard I spoke with at the Nagasaki Genshi Bakudan Chushin Chi—Nagasaki’s atomic bombing hypocenter monument, i.e., ground zero—had the same perspective about doing their jobs.

They said that, although there is inevitable sadness for visitors, guides and other support staff alike at the site of the world’s second and hopefully last nuclear bombing, they added that two other considerations prevail over, yet incorporate it: First, the mission to serve the cause of world peace and education; second to provide visitors the same high standard of customer service to which the Japanese are dedicated.

Conflicts in the Marketing of Tragedy

Although this mix of personal feelings and professional mission is not unsurprising—and which, indeed, seems inevitable, it does represent a distinctive way of resolving a potential conflict or paradox when working in any industry in which the sacred and sorrowful appear to be commodified.

This is an ostensibly classic clash between the sacred and the profane—namely through the unsettling incongruity inherent in the mass marketing of massive or other memorable tragedy, from which, despite however sacred the place and moment, a profit can and must be made.

The challenge of doing that—of providing customer and client service that is at the same time respectful of the sacred and sorrowful in what is being presented—is not always successfully met, either in terms of the professional presentation or how it is perceived.


To tastefully and thoughtfully integrate sorrow and sales requires good judgment, careful reflection, professional guidelines and well-executed planning to ensure that the experience of the customer/client and service employee is enlightened and respectful, and not crass or ghoulish.

How Not to Do It

One instance of such professional failure I observed was the staging of a formal group photo by some professional photographers, whose affiliation I could not determine.

Rather than soberly arraying the multiple rows of mostly retiree Japanese visitors, the chief photographer, also Japanese—with apparently good intentions—momentarily took on the roles of a cheerleader, circus ringmaster and picnic organizer, as he cheerily delivered a pep-talk before chirping the equivalent of “cheese!”, thereby, in my estimation, compromising the moment, the memory and his task.

On the service demand side, I overheard an analogous visitor misfire, as one said to another, “I really enjoyed that.” (In reference to visiting the monument commemorating the 74,000 who died and the comparable number injured, in many cases horribly).

However, my impression was that, by and large, the allied Peace Park and museum services were tastefully, thoughtfully and, in many respects, reverently presented and provided.

That stark contrast prompts the question of how any service employee, whether photographer, tour guide or even souvenir salesperson, could get it wrong, and end up packing the experience as entertainment, sensationalism, spectacle or ghoulish engagement—and not only in Nagasaki, but also anywhere or in any situation in which, if viewed in coarse marketing terms, the commodity is tragedy, e.g., the tragedies of Auschwitz, the New York City WTC Twin Towers, or the “killing fields” of Cambodia.

For the JTB guides, steering clear of such blunders is perhaps easier than most, since the moral and educational message to be conveyed is as important as it is obvious.

However, such public edification is harder to cite and achieve as legitimization in connection with tragedies with no transparent, as opposed to contrived, “lessons”, e.g., carnival freak shows or the grave of someone killed by a meteorite.

How to Integrate the Sacred and the Profane

It seems that a key variable in determining whether the customer service and overall presentation will be dignified or not is the degree to which it retains elements of “Gemeinschaft”—a sense of community engagement—to offset the cold, crass calculations of “Gesellschaft”—formal, impersonal, commerce-oriented relationships, situations and interactions.

From the perspective suggested by this well-known sociological distinction, it seems likely that the group-minded Japanese would find it easier to incorporate elements of Gemeinschaft into their customer service in ways that would never occur to a purely money-focused out-for-himself carnie touting an “elephant man” or Siamese twins.

Another control factor is the degree to which disrespectfulness regarding the tragic will be sanctioned.

A wise or merely smart tour guide, well aware of the supreme importance of saving face, will appreciate how politically incorrect and risky levity or sensationalism is at the Peace Park or ground zero—especially since visitors from the U.S. are almost certain to shelve their characteristic tendency to joke while visiting most other places, given the historical sensitivities involved at Nagasaki sites.

However, in other venues, especially at home—and especially in the case of self-inflicted calamities, e.g., among shamed and incensed adulterous guests on the U.S. Jerry Springer show, notorious for its on-camera brawls and tirades, customer and audience service means fomenting as well as accommodating less decorous, if not utterly disgraceful inclinations and associated behavior.

To their credit, the tour guides and security guard I spoke with achieved a typically Japanese harmonious balance of conflicting requirements and priorities by fusing the moral, global, public service and community priorities of their tasks with their own personal and commercial opportunities and necessities.

Keeping Tragedy Apart From vs. Making It a Part of the Job

It is not easy to judge whether, for these Japanese service employees, this is achieved through the kind of cognitive and emotional compartmentalization a retired U.S. Marine officer I met in Vietnam in 2010 described as absolutely necessary for him to deal with his memories of combat in Hue, when juxtaposed with his recent NGO reforestation, reconstruction and educational volunteering activities there.

That is, of course, one way to deal with working with tragedy: Keep awareness of the job to be done at the forefront, while relegating the reason for it to the mental background or unconscious mental and emotional underground.

Alternatively, as the tour guides in Nagasaki seem to have done, the job can be done—and done well—by making the tragedy, sorrow, respect and effective performance of the job a part of each other, rather than keeping them apart.

Either way, in the end, that Marine and the Japanese tour guides can accomplish the same thing.

Bring us all together.


Note: This is another in a series of articles to be published about Japan and Taiwan while Michael is “on the road” there.

Read more in Jobs

Michael Moffa, writer for, is a former editor and writer with China Daily News, Hong Kong edition and Editor-in-chief, Business Insight Japan Magazine, Tokyo; he has also been a columnist with one of Japan’s national newspapers, The Daily Yomiuri, and a university lecturer (critical thinking and philosophy).