On my former blog, I once mentioned that service in Japan is often over-praised and over-rated. I still believe that is true as I've had my share of bad experiences. One of the most recent ones this past week was with Acer Japan who ripped us off and lied to us albeit they were relatively polite in the process. I guess getting screwed is supposed to be okay as long as, in doing so, one conforms to socially-condoned business forms. I can say that Acer has now joined Dell as another company we will never make a purchase from again and I would discourage anyone from buying computers from either of these companies because of their troublesome after-service. Though they are not perfect, Apple is looking better and better by comparison to the dismal PC service.
One thing that is generally true is that most service in Japan is offered according to set forms and rules. I'd say that 95% of the time, you're dealt with in a reasonable or positive manner. People greet you, thank you, and offer your goods in a ritualized way. Their eyes may be dead and their hearts not in it, but they say what should be said and do what is supposed to be done in order to conform to what constitutes a polite exchange with a customer.
I hadn't intended to revisit this topic, but reading about Emily's experience with service in England got me thinking about why service back home can be indifferent, surly, and flat-out rude at times. Such experiences are not unheard of in Japan (and are certainly not outside of my personal experience), but they are rare. If I had to estimate, I'd say 2% of my experiences here could fall within a range of "rude" or at least inappropriate in some fashion (e.g., being ignored by cashiers, surliness, refusal of service, sloppy work, no greeting or expressions of gratitude, etc.). If this is compared to what my husband experienced back home when he visited a little over a year ago (and Emily's experiences in her post), that's a very low rate.
Part of the reason for this, I'm sure, is that the ethic is different in Western countries. I'm not talking necessarily about the work ethic as I believe the work ethic in many countries is just as strong as that in Japan (sometimes stronger depending on the individual), but tends to manifest itself differently in the West than in Japan. Mainly, I'm talking about malleability and the role adherence to rules, guidelines and form plays in Japan relative to Western culture. The Japanese do not promote or permit autonomy on the job in many cases and tell you how to behave and you just do it. In the West, they may expect you to be polite to customers, but they expect you to know how to be polite and won't be instructing you on precisely how to carry out every little action to ensure that you are doing things properly. Employers generally leave how you choose to interact with customers up to you until you prove your judgment can't be trusted because of customer complaints. Even then, they aren't likely to train you explicitly and are likely to issue a general warning to shape up or they'll just fire you.
Another part is likely that cultures where individuality and equality are stressed do things differently than cultures where group interests, conformity, and status are a strong element. The customer is not "king" (at least not in most establishments) in Western countries because we don't like to view our status as being inferior to that of the customer. Being polite is seen as kowtowing to the customer or being obsequious. We don't want to elevate others above ourselves by treating their interests as superior to ours, even when they're paying for the privilege so this sometimes produces indifferent, sloppy, or overly casual interactions with those who are supposed to be providing service.
Finally, and I think this is by far the most important, in Japan the crappy low-paying service jobs like being a waitress, clerk in shop, etc. are very rarely seen as an inescapable option for survival. Most people in those jobs don't feel "trapped" in them, but rather see them as a temporary job, a means of making extra cash which they have the freedom to abandon at any time, or a retirement job that they do as much to occupy their days as for spare money. Japan has a (currently eroding) social situation where people for the most part can still count on moving on to bigger or better things with income stability. When you work an unfulfilling job where you have to pander to customers, it's a lot easier to do it with a good attitude if you're not looking at a future of nothing but the same because you're stuck. Many people back home know that the only escape from one low-paying, demoralizing job is to move to a similarly unpleasant circumstance.
I'm not trying to justify people who are rude to their customers or the people they are supposed to help, but rather trying to understand their motivation and mindset. One of the things I always value about life in Japan is how the difference allow you to reflect on your own culture and gain insight into what makes each particular culture work the way it does.