By Ian D. Robinson
Greetings of "Irasshaimase!"
“Irasshaimase!” How many times a day does one hear this shouted welcome in Japan? In shops, cafes, restaurants, even in the most humble establishment it is called out by service staff with a cheery sincerity.
The level of friendly, polite service in Japan can almost be shocking for a new arrival as in many western countries these days it is something we are no longer used to expecting; namely people doing menial, boring, apparently unrewarding and probably lowly paid jobs but carrying them out as if they were being paid top salaries.
Bowing Customer Service in Japan
Wandering through a department store in Osaka I pass a shop selling shoes for tens of thousands of yen, I buy a tin of polish for 700 yen. The girl at the till bags my polish, walks around the counter to me, hands me my purchase with two hands and bows with a courtesy far outdoing the value of my polish.
One afternoon I see a woman leaving a back street boutique in Kobe, she must have done some serious spending as the entire staff of five young ladies escorted her to the street and then stood and watched her walk away like a departing lover, all the while bowing, until she was out of sight.
At a supermarket a middle aged man has the unenviable mid-winter job of car park attendant. With his red light-sabre baton he strides onto the road, bowing to the cars which stop so that a customer can drive away, shouting farewells and thanks. I wonder if his job even that necessary and yet he performs his duties as if the future of his company depends on it.
All this made me perplexed and unable to help wondering “Why do you bother? Why are you so nice?” Coming from the west where the attitude so often seems to be “this job sucks and the pay is crap so why should I do more than I have to?” often leading to shoddy, insincere and sometimes downright rude service.
Most Japanese I spoke to who work or had worked in these fields were at a loss to explain why their greetings were so buoyant and their service so respectful. Many said that in these tough economic times people are happy to have any job and feel they had better keep them by doing their jobs properly. But I felt there must be more to the Japanese model of customer service than that, after all the same could be said of any country these days but nowhere else I have been are students working in convenience stores so nice, the elderly security guards in department stores so vigilant, ramen shop waitresses so attentive.
The Reason Behind the Japanese Customer Service
It was only when I raised the topic with a Japanese friend, Junko, who had the double credentials of working in convenience stores while she majored in sociology at university in Osaka that I started to get some insights into what turned out to be an introduction into the enigmatic and complex Japanese psyche.
“I think part of the reason why there is generally such good service in Japan is our desire to conform and not stand out from the crowd,” Junko explained, “if the majority are behaving in a certain way then everyone wants to do the same, there is also the idea that these types of behaviour are not really a choice, in Japan we are often taught that there is only one way of doing things, there’s no alternative and so that’s just what people do, no one wants to be ‘the nail that sticks out’ as the Japanese saying goes.”
Being taught how to behave like this is actually a tradition of business etiquette, something that was strictly passed on to apprentices as part of how to build good customer/merchant relationships, and incidentally it is something Japan’s past business masters cite as having helped them build long term trusting relationships with their customers.
What is "Giri?"
But it seems that not everyone does this out of thinking of building a long term relationship with customers. Perhaps the key concept in understanding just why customers are seemingly treated like gods even at a convenience store is the notion of giri according to Junko’s reasoning.
“Giri doesn’t have a good translation in English,” Junko explained, “but it could be described as a feeling of moral obligation or duty to society. Japanese have always lived together in close communities and today with the size of Japan’s cities and the proximity to others in which people live we sub-consciously feel the need to maintain a level of harmony with those around us, including those we are close to; family, friends and colleagues.”
It seems this sense of duty also extends to those the Japanese may come into contact with only briefly during the day and perhaps never to be met again, such as a customer dropping into a convenience store on their way to somewhere else.
“Bad service, unfriendliness, unkindness, rudeness and being uncaring or unhelpful are the opposite of giri and obviously not the best way to create a happy functioning community.”
While not being a conscious action giri might be said to be the basis of Japanese social and professional interactions.
“If you asked Japanese I think most would say that the tradition of giri is an absolute necessity for preserving peace in today’s hectic world,” said Junko.
Other Japanese I talked to spoke in terms of karma or cause and effect, something rooted in the Buddhist teachings that once pervaded all levels of Japanese society, as one friend told me; “We want good service too, so we feel that if we give it to others we will get it back later.”
The fame of Japanese service has spread far it seems as a documentary shown in Saudi Arabia caused a wave of praise for Japanese manners when the film showed train carriage attendants bowing to passengers each time they wheeled their carts loaded with drinks and snacks to the next carriage, and when a ‘lost’ wallet full of money was found in a park and handed in to police. Some in the Muslim world even went as far to say that Japanese were upholding the principles of Islam.
Whatever the deeper reasons may be as to why shop staff are so nice, station attendants so helpful and café waiters so courteous, from my time in Japan I have noticed a strong sense of community spirit, people really seem to care about their neighbors, there also seems to be an acknowledgement that even seemingly unimportant jobs are essential to the smooth running of civilisation, after all can one imagine a Japan without rubbish collection? And without the bus driver how would the salarymen get to work?
Ian D. Robinson is a New Zealand born travel writer now living in Kobe, Japan. He has travelled extensively and published award winning books on exotic places including Afghanistan, Tibet, Mongolia and Japan.