Unless you grew up in Japan, you may be baffled by the emphasis that Japanese employees place on customer service. Customers in Japan are treated as royalty from every possible angle, even if they’re just out buying a few pieces of fried chicken at the local convenience store. If you’re not used to it, you may find the special treatment to be endearing, but after a while you may come to think of all the excess services as unnecessary and annoying.
It turns out that some Japanese people feel the same way about their own country’s customs regarding customer service. Have you ever felt the same about any of the following situations?
MyNavi Woman surveyed 388 Japanese people (129 men and 259 women) to determine what they thought to be the most irritating customer service behaviors in Japan. We’ll introduce the top five responses below, followed by some other reader comments and our own personal experiences in Japan scattered throughout.
1 (Tie). When shop workers insist on carrying your new purchase to the entrance of the store for you (20.1%)
“If there are still things I want to look at in the shop, I don’t want them to walk me out right away and mess up my shopping pace.” (33-year-old woman)
This situation happened to me once after I bought one blouse at a clothing store. After putting my purchase in a bag, the cashier insisted on walking me to the door of the store while carrying the bag for me, which weighed barely anything to begin with. Although I can see how the act was intended to be a special service for paying customers, it made me feel more embarrassed than anything at receiving the extra attention. Maybe I would have felt differently if my purchase had been heavier or I had spent a fortune at the store, but for a single shirt I felt like it was an over-the-top gesture.
1 (Tie). Shop workers who ask if you’d like to make a point card for their store (20.1%)
“If I wanted one, I’d ask them for it myself.” (30-year-old woman)
Japan is all about saving up points to get special discount coupons. Workers at almost any store that sells anything are bound to ask you if you’d like in on all the bonuses that come with joining their special member club. Of course, you can see how things could get annoying if you’re repeatedly asked over and over again, especially if you don’t frequent the store much.
I myself had a ridiculously huge stack of point cards while living in Japan–one for my nearby grocery store, about a dozen for the local cafes, a few for my favorite clothing chains, a couple for the local karaoke joints, one which I totally overused at Tower Records, one for the bookstore in the station, one for the drugstore, and even one for the Tohoku Pokémon Center! Of course, I probably spent way more money than I would have without the cards. I always found myself thinking, “I’m so close to completing this row of stamps; I might as well go buy a crêpe today just to fill it up!” In other words, if you get a point card in Japan, beware of overspending.
- How the entire staff, including the kitchen workers, yell “arigato gozaimasu” whenever you order something at certain izakaya (Japanese-style pubs) (18%)
“That shouldn’t be called a service – it’s just plain noisy.” (44-year-old man)
I’ve personally heard the entire staff yell “thank you” upon leaving an izakaya more often than I have when ordering, but even then the sudden outburst of noise can definitely take you by surprise. The same goes for the incessant chorus of “irasshaimase!” (“welcome!”) whenever you set foot into a restaurant or shop anywhere in Japan. I’ve grown quite immune to the high-pitched shouts by now, but when I first moved to Japan, it was just as disrupting to me as the ceaseless droning of all those cicadas during the summertime.
Apparently many Japanese agree about the whole volume thing, since this item garnered so many votes in the survey. One man even gave a brief anecdote about how his wife was so startled by the deafening shouts of “irasshaimase” when they entered an izakaya once that she screamed “kyaa!” in surprise, which in return scared the staff, who screamed back.
Similarly, I think many foreigners would agree about feeling uncomfortable when calling “sumimasen!” to attract a server’s attention. Whenever I was with my Western friends at a restaurant in Japan, we would play rock, paper, scissors before ordering, and the loser would be the one who had to yell across the room. I’m sure there are many non-Japanese who wouldn’t bat an eye to grab the server’s attention in this way, but as an American who was raised in a country where the servers automatically come to your table, it’s still not second nature to me.
- The custom for the "okami" (hostess/owner) of a ryokan (Japanese-style inn) to greet you at your room (14.7%)
“I want to enjoy the meal in my private space, so I feel uneasy when the hostess comes in to ask me about the food.” (31-year-old woman)
In most ryokan, your elaborate (and expensive) dinner will be served in the privacy of your own room. The hostess will stop by once the food is served to explain each individual menu item and how to eat it (or brag about any local specialties). Sometimes the explanation is very lengthy, and if you’re hungry, it’s all you can do to stop yourself from stuffing your face in front of her. Plus, the food could get cold while you’re listening, some of the explanations go on so long.
- When the cashiers at fast food chains try to get you to order a set menu or new menu items (13.9%)
“Just let me order what I want to!” (28-year-old woman)
When you walk up to the register at a fast food joint, be prepared for the cashier to rattle off all the new menu items before you even get a chance to speak. If you order only a hamburger, they may then prompt you to make your meal into a set with fries and a drink. We can see why some people may find this kind of blatant menu promotion to be annoying, since there are already big signs advertising the latest additions to the menu everywhere around the interior of the store.
In addition to the top five excessive customer service behaviors above, here are some additional ones that Japanese forum users described.
At convenience stores/supermarkets:
“It’s a waste of breath for the cashier to announce the price of each individual item as they scan it, and then go through the whole speech about giving me my change. Just say ‘That’ll be 300 yen, please.'”
“I wish they wouldn’t put each bar of ice cream I buy in a separate bag.”
“Why do the staff members need to constantly welcome customers into the store and yell things back and forth to each other?”
“[In response to the above] “I think it’s protocol to prevent shoplifting. The staff is constantly yelling back and forth so that any potential robbers will get the impression that they’re being watched at all times, making it harder for them to steal something.” (Writer’s note: Yes, robberies do exist in Japan, though it may be hard to believe. Not all the would-be criminals are cut out for the job though–take this chump, for example.)
“I don’t get those ‘I don’t need a bag’ cards near the register. Regardless of whether you put one in your basket, the cashier will still ask you, ‘Would you like a bag?’ Wouldn’t it make more sense to have an ‘I’d like a bag’ card? Also, it’s a waste of time for the cashier to bow to each person at the end of the transaction instead of moving on to the next customer in line.” (Writer’s note: I’ve personally never seen one of those “I don’t need a bag” cards, but I have seen the “I’d like a bag” kind. Japanese markets typically charge about 5 yen for each plastic bag you take, so people usually bring their own bags when grocery shopping.)
At other stores:
“I hate it when staff members bombard you with questions asking if you need any help the instant you walk in, but then never seem to be around later when you do have a question.”
“I don’t like going to department stores first thing in the morning, when all the staff members of each store line up and bow to the first customers of the day individually as they come in.” (Writer’s note: As someone who’s not used to it, you’ll either enjoy the royal sensation of walking past dozens of bowing salespeople or find it extremely unsettling.)
“Sometimes I feel weird when shop workers use extreme keigo (polite language) with me–honestly, it’s harder to understand and all those phrases are really long-winded.”
Let’s wrap up this discussion with a humorous one:
“A takoyaki vendor once told me “May it be eaten deliciously” as he handed me my food. I still don’t get what he was trying to say…”
Sources: 2ch Kopipe Johokyoku, BLOGOS, MyNavi Woman
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