(This is part one of a series of posts about my impressions of Japan. Please forgive any generalisations, inaccuracies and the taint of a mindset unaccustomed to the East)
I am currently in Tokyo and perhaps one of the strangest experiences I’ve had is being thanked and greeted, in unison, by all the waiters when I left a restaurant. It was as if the king and his retinue had just visited. This is not uncommon, apparently. The last customers to leave a store are often bowed to, I’m told, and it’s a distinctly unpleasant experience for a Western mindset.
The culture of service here in Japan is extreme. Tipping is considered an insult. You are never served unenthusiastically and the smallest mistake or delay results in profuse apologies (so much so that my Western hosts were reluctant to point out mistakes as it would cause embarrassment for the waitrons). This isn’t just at high-end places. It’s everywhere. The only sullen customer service I’ve seen is from the poor (from my cultural viewpoint) people holding signs in stores – they act like billboards, drawing attention to whatever is advertised on the sign they are carrying (and even many of them were very enthusiastic).
I get the impression that everyone here takes great pride in their work and they feel honoured to do their part for the greater good of the nation. I am tempted, from my Western mindset, to say that they’re like Boxer in Animal Farm who works himself more or less to death for the good of the farm. But I know that would be an unjust over-simplification. Japan looks after its citizens.
This culture of deference in Japan stretches further. It shows in the way people always line up on the left side of an escalator (without exception) and how everyone avoids eye contact and remains in complete silence on the metros. Every time I look lost I am approached by someone willing to help, even if their English is terrible.
I understand that, because I am foreign, I may be treated somewhat differently. But I imagine that most of the deference I see carries over into ordinary life. It’s something the rest of the world can learn from.