Originally published on metropolis.co.jp on February 2014
As an agnostic, I have never really felt comfortable with the whole “customer is God” philosophy. I know I’m supposed to feel charmed, but I can’t help experiencing mild embarrassment as I am showered with “welcomes” and “thank yous” and “I’ll be waiting for your next visits” by shop staff in Japan, often when I have only dropped into their store to get out of the rain. Basically, I don’t think I’ve really earned it.
Almost every day I cut through the food hall of the Keio department store in Shinjuku station. I only occasionally buy anything, but receive the kind of cacophonous, collective welcome that was once reserved for triumphant Roman generals returning from battle. You feel that if the positivity and enthusiasm of the staff could only be harnessed, it could surely take care of Japan’s energy needs for decades. And all this love could quite easily go to your head—I almost feel the need for someone at my side to whisper in my ear: “Remember, you are only a customer.”
Many find all of this wonderful, especially visitors from countries with a more hit and miss service ethic—which, let’s face it, is basically the rest of the world—but it has never quite worked for me. There is something rather unsettling about this scripted Stepford Wives style of service, where shopworn phrases straight out of the training manual are delivered in a squeaky falsetto with a predictably precise singsong cadence, over and over again.
For one thing it is a little insulting to assume I will be seduced by staff who put on the vocal mannerisms of giddy schoolgirls. It’s also incredibly boring, not to mention noisy, It gets almost painful to hear those sterile chunks of keigo, wrung utterly dry by endless repetition, barked at you again and again. I once met a young Scot newly arrived in Japan, who after three hours of shopping with his girlfriend, had his head in his hands—“If I hear that irasshaimase one more time…”
Reducing the idea of “service” to a cluster of soundbites, however polite in origin, has surely contributed to the terrible inflexibility on the part of staff whose drills prepare them to deal with only a very narrow range of requests. I once caused chaos in a karaoke bar by asking for a coke without ice. The poor girl looked traumatized, disappeared for twenty minutes, consulted with the manager and then returned to tell me this was not possible. Another one of those “Only in Japan” moments.
Service in Japan has become so robotic that it’s hard to imagine having a real conversation with a shop assistant—and believe me I’ve tried. Having done more than my fair share of menial service jobs, and knowing how dull they can be, I assumed that staff here would appreciate the occasional little chit chat or joke, but most of my attempts have fallen very flat indeed, usually prompting just a blank stare or even a look of panic. Gaijin panic, perhaps, but also a sad indicator that there isn’t much room for maneuver in the straightjacket such a tightly scripted intercourse imposes.
In a country with one of the highest suicide rates in the world, a chilling phenomenon usually attributed to the feelings of isolation experienced by many, you would hope that a greater value would be placed on real human contact. I wonder how many lonely people in other countries are sustained by that five-minute chat with the landlord of their local pub or brief gossip with the man in the post office or local librarian. Tiny moments of real face-to-face engagement with a fellow human being, even with people whose names we may never know, can mean a lot. With workplace banter often prescribed or restricted by the seniority system and, in the cities at least, an absence of neighborliness the norm, it seems a pity to wall off yet another potential platform for genuine human contact, however fleeting.
So while one can only applaud the energy, the attention to detail, the fairness, the honesty and the sheer lack of attitude displayed by shop assistants in Japan, is it wrong of me to hope that they might loosen the straps on that straightjacket a little, drop their guard and the pitch of their voice, and—sometimes at least—just pass the time of day with me? After all, even the Almighty must enjoy a good chinwag now and again.