Customer service in Japan? It’s the best in the world right? I call bullshit. While for the most part and predominately in certain industries (sit down food service is some of the best I’ve ever experienced) customer service in Japan is decent. However there are some things endemic to Japanese culture that crap the bed when it comes to customer service. To be fair, these things are based on my own experiences as a long time foreigner living in Tokyo with middling Japanese ability. I can handle normal conversations but complicated matters like banks and cell phone contracts escape me. But that will come later in the list.
Keigo is a form of hyper-polite Japanese that most people in customer service of any kind seem required under pain of death to use. The problem is keigo is almost an entire different language, with different verbs for the same actions and peculiar tricks of grammar as well. English does have its polite form and casual/rude form.
“What ya want?” vs. “What would you like to order?”
However in Japanese the difference is closer to:
“What would you like to order?” vs. “What consumptionary would you deign to partake in this anon.”
My Japanese friends have expressed to me just how frustrating this form of conversation can be even for them. To a person with my level of language ability it’s like moon-bat gibberish.
2. Most Japanese people, who don’t actively seek to, are deathly afraid of speaking English.
Lots of Japanese people love to speak English. Those people are great. They pay for my food, shelter and booze. However, a great many of them act like having to speak English is equal to having fire ants poured into their underwear. Given that, it is surprising how many of these people take jobs at essential and complicated services (i.e. cell phone stores) that guarantee interaction with non-native Japanese speakers at some point. And most non-native speakers default to English because languages like French or Chinese are far less common in these types of customer service jobs.
I’ve been harping about Softbank for days now because they seem to be full of this. I was kicked out (read: politely suggested to go to another store that is known for having English speakers) because the staff gave up trying to communicate with me. I know in America we have the stereotype of “Learn English or Get Out” but I’ve never heard a story of someone straight up being refused service because of a language problem. That didn’t have an undercurrent of actual racism that is. In America we’ll at least try to talk to you like a baby first. I’d take that over getting brushed aside any day.
3. No one can break the rules ever.
In the U.S typically you can’t outright haggle over price. Unless it’s a used car dealer. But even there, extra value is to be gained through extras. The “I’ll throw in a free air freshener” bit. Or perhaps the contract on something can be made a little more forgiving for long time customers.
In Japan, fuck that idea right in it’s ear. I once had my wallet and bankbook stolen from my place of work. So I have no money and no way to get more. I went to the bank with a student of mine and we tried to get things sorted out. We started at a desk clerk and eventually worked our way up to the branch manager. Why? Because even though I could prove my identity beyond a shadow of a doubt, (passport and inkan, gaijin card was in stolen wallet) even though I had a police report about my stolen items, even though I made clear I had zero money and they even checked my account to prove the thief hadn’t gotten any of my cash, the bank wouldn’t let me withdraw anything without my bank book. Which they graciously said they could rush me, in a week.
A week. With no money. In the most expensive city in the world. All because it was against the rules.
Luckily it worked out in the end, my student loaned me money. Borrowing cash is one of my absolute least favorite things to do ever though.
To sum up I’ll leave on a positive story. I recently opened an account with Shinsei Bank. Ranked behind the three largest Japanese banks, Shinsei has decided to be the English friendly bank. Very few of the staff actually speak English but when I went in there none of the problems I mentioned manifested itself. The best thing was the staff spoke simple Japanese, had all of the difficult information ready to go in English, and walked me through the process without getting scared or frustrated. It took all of 30 minutes and I had my new account. No questions about my visa status, no difficult Japanese, no bullshit.
It was a wonderful customer service experience. If the rest of Tokyo could follow their lead, then this article wouldn’t be necessary.
If you have your own stories, good or bad, leave them in the comments! (^_^)