Two Japanese gas-stand attendants bowing to an exiting car and its driver“Anshinkan”–customer reassurance, in the form of courteous, comprehensive and caring service—is the conspicuous solid trunk of the Japanese tree of widely acclaimed customer service that nonetheless has its critics.

But hidden from the understanding of the average Japan tourist, shopper and casual foreign observer are its entangled roots that anchor and nourish the entire framework of a customer service model and practices that is in some, but not all ways, second to none.

Like Japan’s iconic cherry blossoms, in some respects equally iconic Japanese customer service (hereafter, “JCS”) can be described as “lovely” because customer service here is not only pleasing, but also graceful and delicate—in ways that, although revealing, are utterly alien to our norms of professional courtesy, helpfulness and responsibility.

Graceful bows, mellifluous tones, fluid gestures and fleet feet typify in 2014 the same service I experienced decades ago, conveying the permanence of JCS that has made it as iconic as the evanescence of the blossoms.

I say “here” because, at the time of this writing, I have just arrived in Nagasaki, my springboard into another one of my writer’s forays abroad, and am stunned to have, in my first encounters, experienced customer and visitor service that is, if at all changed, even more customer-centric—i.e., courteous, comprehensive and caring—than the service that was already hard to top decades ago, when I first came to Japan, where I remained for years.

Consistently, Nagasaki service employees have greeted me and my queries with treatment that has, so far, easily rivaled the enveloping warm tarmac reception and lavish escort befitting any ballyhooed presidential visit.

Special JCS for Foreigners?

In case you are inclined to think that this is all special treatment for foreigners, my own experience and the testimony of locals suggest otherwise.

Tokyo-born Silicon Valley and Japan-based interpreter Mike Hessling, who has lived in Nagasaki for more than eight years and in Tokyo for much of his youth attests that JCS is uniform, without distinction between Japanese and non-Japanese—despite the pervasive importance of the “uchi” (inside) and “soto” (outside) classification of peoples, cultures, etc., or any temptation to impress or pity foreigners.

Likewise, Norio Araki, the genial internationalized owner of the Nagasaki Town Hotel, where I am staying, emphatically agrees: Even Japanese customers will get exactly the same kind of red-carpet treatment I have gotten in banks, department stores and anywhere customer service is required.

Obvious Leaves, Deep Roots

The roots of the salient features of Japanese customer service (hereafter, “JCS”) are not as obvious as the features themselves.

Unfamiliar history, philosophy, social and economic organization constraints and principles conceal or render incomprehensible to the casual observer the dynamics and forms that underlie a customer service model that might require major cultural transformations in another host country or society if it were to take root—including some changes, examined below, that would benefit our societies, even setting aside benefits for customers and companies.

Before identifying those changes we would have to make in both our customer service models and in the underlying factors required to support them, an examination of the “leaves” and roots of the JCS model is in order.

Fleet of Foot Amid Fleeting Cherry Blossoms

Consider these common Japanese customer service practices and commonplace experiences and try to imagine them not only taking root in North America, but also becoming the rule (in both senses of “rule”–viz., the norm and the command), rather than an experimental, quirky, exotic, charming, etc., exception:

  • A female customer service rep in an electronics megamart fields my query, then trots—not walks—to find someone better qualified to address my needs.
  • Rank-and-file staff, not necessarily frontline customer-service employees, discuss which among them is best informed and available to walk me to where I can find the international card services they cannot provide, before one cheerfully accepts the responsibility, and offers to wait while I complete my ATM transaction, for the sake of “anshinkan”.
  • Fielding my useless request to find an apartment through their office, a real estate office rep—on her own initiative–prints off a map and other details of alternative accommodation for me before cheerily bidding this non-client goodbye.
  • Another clerk, volunteering after I chose to find another store, walks me out of her electronics superstore to a rival superstore—even though it’s clear I can easily navigate in Japanese and understood her initial directions.
  • Although communication in Japanese is proceeding smoothly, just to be on the safe side, an English-speaking first-stringer is summoned by a bank colleague to ensure perfect service (despite my decade+ experience in Japan that has included teaching philosophy in Japanese in a Japanese college).

At the risk of stripping the bloom off the blossom, so to speak, such enchanting benchmark JCS practices need to be contrasted with the flip-side, less endearing ones, such as the kind of robotic rigidity in following the playbook that exasperates agile foreigners vainly looking for even more attentiveness to their needs and wants, in the form of customized service on top of customer service.

For example, when I asked for ketchup instead of mayonnaise on my Nagasaki McDonald’s chicken burger, I was told by the counter clerk that it would not be possible.

I could have the burger without mayonnaise, but would have to use a sealed packet of ketchup as its source, rather than the direct dollop I’d get a home if I asked for it.

Rules Rule

That reminded me of my encounter many years ago with a public pool attendant in Kobe who, despite my obviously totally shaved head insisted I would have to wear a bathing cap, because the rules say they are required.

When I told him that wearing latex gloves would make more sense given that there is more hair on my knuckles, he relented, but only so long as no guest “complained” about the exception.

That was a short-lived victory, since, quite conveniently and suspiciously, it took all of about three minutes before he claimed that complain is precisely what someone had done.

So I left (because that Japanese swimming cap on my head felt like a compression stocking five sizes too small).

So much for the leaves; now for the roots, about which I am going to speculate freely:

  • Roots in duties, not rights: The extraordinary forms and lengths of JCS seem to map nicely into two key aspects of Japanese culture: 1. a long history of feudalism, and services to be obediently rendered to superiors, be they a samurai warrior, yakuza boss, CEO or department store customer; 2. a cultural matrix that, in yet another way in which Japanese culture is diametrically opposite ours, has traditionally obligations (“gimu” and “giri”) rather than rights. Hence, a Japanese service employee is following a cultural as well as corporate blueprint in following the maxim “O-kaykusama kamisama desu”–”Customers are gods”.

Transplant challenge: Feudalism never got much traction on the ground, much less got off it in North America. That’s one reason why Thomas Paine’s American revolution-era big-hit disquisition was The Rights of Man, rather than The Duties of Man.

Americans, and to a seemingly lesser although great extent, Canadians are fiercely protective of and insistent in declaring their rights—which is a “good thing”.  That focus on rights, however, is not as vigorously balanced by clamoring to fulfill or recognize (their own) obligations, IRS tax notices and debt collector reminders aside.

Even if an American employee handbook hammers a strong customer service message into staff mindsets, the historically and culturally entrenched priority given to one’s own rights is likely to result in a more transparently opportunistic means-to-an-end compliance with those norms and obligations than in Japan, and therefore to less robust, certainly less extreme and more perfunctory customer service.

Perhaps that’s why altogether too many North American (and Australian) service workers cannot control or even reflect on how condescending it sounds to respond to a customer “thank you” with “no problem”- or “no worries”-as though it is they, the employees who are kings and gods, deigning to grant absolution for customer impositions.

  • A history of form over content: The Japanese preoccupation with form–’kata”, quite often at the expense of or with subordination of content, is a persistent cultural theme that seems to manifest itself in JCS as well as in meticulously structured and executed tea ceremonies, in the formalities of greetings and recognition of rank, and in the prescribed forms for formally required pro forma gift-giving, e.g., “giri choko”–”obligation chocolates” that must be presented to individuals of some rank by those subordinate or beholden to them, e.g., OL (Office Lady) Valentine’s chocolates that must be given to the boss, or in-laws, etc., with implications as romantic as a mandatory tax filing.

The priority of form over content is why Japanese will be content to appear to be working after normal working hours or with the form of a holiday—however brief, superficial and frenetic the visit captured in meticulously mounted photos in albums.

It is also why rent-a-family for the weekend businesses do well in Japan, as solace-for-hire for lonely grandparents, provided by professional actors playing the roles—providing the form—of a family without the real content, for $1,500 or more.

Transplant challenge: Being a pragmatic “whatever works” people, Americans and Canadians are highly adaptive, innovative, experimental, creative, unorthodox and agile when circumstances warrant it. Hence, if a hotel room doesn’t have cutlery, we may, in desperation, consider using two pens as chopsticks for our take-out sushi—and enjoy one more triumph of function over form.

Likewise, being suspicious and averse to the autocratic overtones of rigid formality, we’ve historically and culturally elevated informality to the position of a keystone in the arch and architecture of democracy.

In our individualistic cultural matrix, it comes as no surprise to discover that the IT software whiz who has made you millions did it with his sockless sandals sticking out from under his desk, and would have felt creatively, if not literally suffocated, if forced to dress—even in sweltering heat and on stifling packed subways—like a Japanese suit-entombed “salary man”.

It is this preoccupation with form that may partially account for both the great strengths and evident weaknesses of JCS: Prescriptions and proscriptions governing form explain why the smallest purchase may be meticulously wrapped in multiple layers; why forms of greetings and farewells are equally meticulously specified, e.g., mandatory honorific language, scooting rather than merely walking to seek further assistance; and why customization of service can encounter such stiff resistance—namely, because it requires deviating from prescribed forms and norms.

  • The “group mind”: Perhaps the most important prop—in both sense of “prop”—for JCS is Japanese “groupiness”—the tendency to behave, decide, think and aspire in group terms.

As a norm, group mindedness in Japan, as everywhere else, is instilled through identification with one’s group, its values, standards and rules.

To an extent, a JCS employee may be seen as having a vestigial feudal attitude—namely, that of a serf bound and protected by loyalties to a clan, manor or chief.

Just as a feudal niche that tended to be for life, traditional lifetime employment in Japan, now less frequent, reinforced such identification and loyalty.

Hessling remarked that although the use of “keigo”–honorific language—is disappearing among Japanese youths, large corporations and other organizations still hammer in the high standards of JCS into their customer service recruits and in-place staff.

Transplant challenge: Although there are rah-rah Western employees who also closely identify with their company, e.g., Amway distributors who make a cult of it all, such intense groupiness and strong identification seems to be much less likely in ruggedly individualistic, often narcissistic Western societies—especially in ideologically individualistic America.

  • Perks of Price: In a culture in which consumer demand and price often vary directly rather than inversely, i.e., where a low price connotes inferior quality, I can imagine that as an offset to the high prices ambivalently accepted by prestige-oriented shoppers, e.g., those buying gift melons for $100 or more, fawning and superior customer service can serve as both a legitimization and mark of the product’s prestige and as compensation for the cash costs of the purchases.

Transplant challenge: Getting anybody to pay $100 for a melon.


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

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