Hospitality and customer service

Last time my parents came to visit Japan, they had a bit of an adventure getting here. They were supposed to arrive in my city at about 9am, but several months before the trip, Qantas made a mistake and then didn’t notice it until about a week before the flight. Because of this, Mum and Dad had about an 8-hour wait at Haneda Airport. If Qantas had realised their mistake in a timely fashion, they would have been able to get on one of the many flights to my city that departed Haneda during that time, but as it was, they were all full.

Apparently the customer lounge at Haneda is really brown.

While they were waiting, of course Mum and Dad tried to get themselves onto an earlier flight, and when they arrived, Dad talked a bit about how nice the customer service staff were. They basically said, no, we can’t do anything, but ‘they said it really nicely.’

I think this typifies what you can expect in Japanese hospitality. Here’s a similar thing from a different perspective:

A friend of mine spent a while in both China and Japan, and afterwards said they were opposites. This was because in China, everyone was willing to do anything you might want, very ‘yes, we can do that, we can do that’ but it would eventually turn out they couldn’t. In Japan, meanwhile, if you wanted something everyone would maintain that it wasn’t possible, but eventually it would turn out it actually was, but because it wasn’t the done thing, or the usual way, or because of the paperwork, it was hard to get people to do things.

There are plenty of exceptions to most of the rules you can find about Japan and its hospitality. For instance, there is a family-run place near where I live where there is almost always a mistake in the order. Usually it’s that something gets forgotten, though once some food was cold in the middle. They are always very apologetic and compensate by giving us a freebie or something. It’s kind of a running joke with them and us that something always goes wrong. They’re also very friendly, convenient, and some of the menu is great value, which is why we keep going back.

But here are a few generalisations you could make about Japanese hospitality:

Japanese hospitality is polite and pleasant. In Japan, people working in a service role (hotel staff, wait staff, shop staff) always use what is termed respectful speechsonkeigo 尊敬語 or humble speech, kenjōgo 謙譲語 with customers/guests, even if the customer is a 7-year-old with a Pokemon coupon at a convenience store and the shop assistant is a middle-aged person. It’s not so much that the customer is seen as always right; more like, the customer is sacred. Or royal, or something. It really threw me the first time a waitress attached -sama さま to my name when I made a booking. I didn’t realise at the time that this is standard practice in Japan.

When you stay in a ryokan, at some point while you are at dinner or going somewhere, the staff come, move the table and lay out the futon for you.

When you stay in a ryokan, at some point while you are at dinner or going somewhere, the staff come, move the table and lay out the futon for you.

Meanwhile, in retail shops, the shop assistants are trained to shout out or nasally drawl irasshaimase! いらっしゃいませ〜!(Welcome!) at random intervals or whenever someone comes into the shop, and sometimes a ‘please look around!’ dōzo goran kudasaimase! どうぞご覧くださいませ〜!  Or they shout out stuff like ‘We’re having a sale at the moment! 20% off!’ There was a one-hundred-yen shop I used to frequent a bit in central Japan, and there were two shop assistants. Every time one of them said irasshaimase! the other one copied straight away, so it had the effect of an echo that moved around the shop. This constant calling out can feel a bit intrusive and off-putting to Westerners. The tone can sometimes sound a bit angry, too. It took me a while to get used to it; now it’s kind of a comfort and a reminder, or reassurance, that I’m in a shop and there is a customer service assistant around. I think the closest thing I know of in Australia is the spruikers who stand outside jewellery shops on Swanston St, or outside restaurants on Lygon St in Melbourne, and try to get you to come in. The differences here would be: that the vast majority of shops in Australia don’t have people doing this; that as far as I know, none of them in Japan has a microphone (unlike the Swanston St ones which are more obnoxious but at least not targeted at any one person, while the sleazy restaurant spruikers on Lygon are more like charity workers on street corners, trying for everyone that walks past); and that it is totally expected in a Japanese clothes shop. In bookshops and electrical shops, they usually do it in a more understated kind of way.

Japanese customers behave however they want. I think the way they see it, they are paying for the privilege to relax and act as they want to. Most of the time they’re pretty well-behaved and polite anyway, but when people aren’t, I think most hospitality staff would be expected to grin and bear it. Though I think sushi chefs might be an exception – apparently they train for 20 years and the first 5 are just learning how to make rice, so they probably think they deserve some respect. Customers may or may not use polite speech (teineigo 丁寧語 e.g. desu です and masu ます, as opposed to full-on sonkeigo 尊敬語) with shop assistants, wait staff etc. As far as I can see, it’s up to them and how they want to talk. This has put me in something of a quandary at times, because my basic instinct in navigating the minefield of How to Behave in Japan is that with people I don’t know, I should be polite. As far as I can make out, that’s what most people do – except for maybe old people. But if the people I’m with are just like ‘give us this’ I sometimes feel like it’s a bit direct and not very nice towards the waiter and then I don’t know how to talk. Kudasai ください or onegaishimasu お願いします? Or just no please at all? ‘One Margherita.’ Whatever I end up going with, the wait staff never seem to notice my plight. They just take the order and bring the food, doing their job as usual.

Japanese restaurants and shops are known for not having a lot of flexibility. For instance, to stick with the pizza examples, if you want a mushroom, ham and olive pizza without the mushrooms, they might just say, No, that’s not on the menu, we can’t do it. This is mainly true for chain shops, I think, where the workers are students and their work training has only been how to do what’s on the menu, and they wouldn’t know what would happen if they changed the honey for jam or something. Recently, I’ve actually found most places to be very accommodating, including chains. Though to be fair, the only chain shops I’ve been to are Starbucks and Mister Donut, and Mosburger once or twice maybe, and the only alteration I’ve ever tried to make is to get a ‘chai tea latte’ with soy milk instead of cow milk. There’s never been a problem.

Australia in general is used to people with all sorts of dietary requests, with allergies and intolerances to basically everything. Gluten free got really trendy a while ago, which led to coconut and ‘paleo’ everything. Who knows what it is now. On this note, please enjoy this list of things Melburnians are ‘sick of being asked,’ including ‘Will they do gluten free?’ Some coffee snob places don’t have decaf coffee or soy milk, but most places are fine making alterations to their dishes, even if they complain in the kitchen about picky customers.

Australian hospitality on the whole is, I think, fairly informal and in my experience, friendly. Politeness doesn’t generally come into it. By this I don’t mean that waiters or customer service staff are rude, although some are – my mum recently had an experience with Officeworks that was way subpar, the workers totally incompetent and unapologetic for their incompetence. Qantas was also hopeless about the business of the unnecessary 8-hour wait in Haneda, seeming to care very little about the inconvenience to and dissatisfaction of the customers. But generally, I think most people working in customer service or hospitality would be friendly and helpful. On some occasions, polite would be the right word – but I think of that more for formal occasions or more posh restaurants than your standard cafe. Most retail workers will say, hello, how are you going, and maybe can I help you with something? But they always speak directly to people, never just to the room/shop/area in general. Sometimes they are quite chatty, probably more than you’d find in Japan.

One time last year, I went to a Korean restaurant that was evidently run by a Korean lady. How did we know? Well, to be honest, I can’t vouch that she was definitely Korean, but she definitely wasn’t Japanese. She spoke not a single word, the entire time we were ordering, waiting for and eating our meal. Not a ‘here you go’ or ‘what would you like?’ or anything. She just waited for us to order, went and made the food, came and plonked it down on our table, and then went away again. Maybe when we paid, she said how much it was or something. But none of the usual phrases. This experience stands out like a sore thumb in my memory of restaurants in Japan. I don’t remember much about the food other than that it was nice. But after we left the restaurant, she came running after us because I’d forgotten my sunglasses. She was actually really nice when she spoke to us – just, the whole usual Japanese hospitality style wasn’t part of what she did in her restaurant. So it was kind of a shock to miss and realise all the little things that Japanese hospitality workers usually provide.

I’m not out to say that one kind of hospitality is better than another. I like the informality you get in Australia – but general hospitality and customer service is one of the things about Japan that is easiest to appreciate.


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