The Dark Side of Japanese Customer Service


Back in my Japan university days I eked out a living teaching English conversation part time. Made just enough money to support a weekend gallivanting habit too. It was a hand-to-mouth bachelor existence, and I was having the time of my life.

But no gallivanting for me on Thursday evenings, when I’d rush off campus in Mitaka Tokyo, jump on the bus to Kichijoji Station where I’d take the Inokashira line to Shimokitazawa, then ride the Odakyu Express out to the Japanese boonies on the outskirts of Atsugi City. In all it took me two hours door to door.

My Thursday student was a Japanese doctor. Unlike my other doctor students whom I taught at the local hospital, Dr. Thursday wanted private lessons at his home, where we conspired every week to fake our way through an English lesson, sessions in which I mostly listened to his troubles and regrets, secrets he would never have dared tell his family and friends.

Our therapy sessions would get especially interesting on the rare occasion the doc would crack open a couple cold Sapporo drafts. I normally didn’t drink on the job but he was the customer after all. And as they say in Japan, “the customer is god.” So when doc picked up the beer I held out my glass for him to pour, reciprocated, then toasted our fake English class. No one was more qualified to do this job than me.

Being a foreigner was a big part of my qualifications. Thoroughly insulated from the doctor’s inner group I was one of the safest sounding boards in all of Japan. Indeed I was the only game in town where he could go confess his sins with no social repercussions. I was “Father Timothy” without the penance and Catholic guilt. So our English class was really the doctor’s weekly refuge from the oppressive social pressure cooker he inhabited most of his waking hours. Dr. Thursday paid me fair market price to lend a sympathetic ear. By default I became an unlicensed therapist—at English-teacher prices.

Looking back at these weekly sessions—and all my other private students back then—collectively they provided a precious glimpse into the soul of modern Japan. In this case my subject was an intelligent, successful Japanese doctor who, on paper, should have been the happiest man on earth. In fact he had spent his whole life making others happy: happy parents, happy in-laws, happy family, happy teachers and happy patients. Even his wife looked happy, but you never knew for sure.

And yet the good doctor didn’t strike me at all as being happy himself. So my job as his fake English teacher (as I saw it) was to keep the session as happy and engaging as possible, and hopefully sneak in some English chops along the way. Well, my approach was apparently (and literally) “just what the doctor ordered,” as the gig had legs, lasting through college and well beyond. I eventually handed the doctor off to a capable friend (a real English teacher) when I got a regular job and moved back to the States. Never thought I’d say this, but I miss those Thursday evening sessions with doc.

Kikubari Blues

This particular gig had a tight, predictable routine. From the moment I’d knock on the doctor’s front door the same scenario would unfold, my weekly deja-vu moment: the doctor’s wife would answer the door, greet me with a bow, and escort me to the coffee table in their living room where I’d sit on their comfy Western-style sofa, and wait for the busy doctor to call me to his office upstairs. When he was ready.

In the meantime the wife would bring me a cup of instant coffee with lots of cream and sugar in it. I would thank her, drink just enough to show my appreciation, then leave the rest untouched.

By unilaterally deciding that I, the foreigner from America, wanted to drink sweet, creamy instant coffee, doc’s wife was practicing what Japanese call “kikubari”, the fine art of anticipation.

Likely the wife wasn’t even conscious of her own behavior. She was so culturally programmed to practice kikubari that she could do it in her sleep, and probably did. And because her knowledge of my culture was limited, she was clueless about what I really wanted: choice. I can only guess that she assumed Americans like sugary, creamy, instant coffee—so that’s what I got.

In fairness the doctor’s wife had part of it right. I do love coffee. In the morning. Freshly brewed. With a little cream. No sweetener.

But if she had thought to give me a choice, I’d have done the perfunctory refusal before humbly accepting a cup of green tea, one of my favorite drinks in the world. And while I truly appreciated the intent behind the wife’s thoughtful kikubari gesture, the downside was that I ended up drinking way too many half cups of creamy sugary coffee.

No complaints because it was a great gig. But thought it would be worthwhile in today’s post to ponder the cultural ramifications of overdoing the kikubari thing, particularly when an unsuspecting, choice-loving individualistic Westerner is on the receiving end.

The Dark Side of Kikubari

What happens when kikubari is unleashed outside Japan’s cultural borders?

It’s useful to compare two cultural extremes. Start by picturing in your head a “bell curve of anticipation.” On the far right end of the curve is Japan, the land of unbridled kikubari, where hosts are expected to anticipate all their guests whims and desires—to a fault. Other Asian/Confucian cultures have similar kikubari tendencies, so would be in the same general neighborhood on the curve.

It makes perfect sense that Confucian cultures have kikubari built into their hospitality model because the guest is required–by Confucian protocol–to refuse any gift or kindness offered by the host anyway. Kikubari in effect removes the social requirement of the guest to refuse the drink, by not asking the question in the first place. The result is that most guests get a cup of tea–or a beer–whether they want it or not.

In contrast, on the extreme left side of the curve is America, a “do-it-yourself-or-at-least-ask-me-if-you-need help” culture (for lack of a better term). Along with our cultural cousins in Europe, we exalt the individual. One byproduct of this value is that we generally provide “individual choice” to friends and guests.

Kikubari is the antithesis of individual choice.

So this is much bigger than simply a fake English instructor being forced to drink sweet creamy instant coffee. It’s about the same foreigner getting a fork and knife because his Japanese waiter assumes he can’t use chopsticks; it’s about being spoken to in unintelligible broken English because the Japanese taxi driver can’t fathom the notion of a foreigner mastering his language; it’s having everything decided in advance—the restaurant, the meal, the beer—because the needs of the collective trump individual desires. It’s about getting a brand new pair of sneakers from a Japanese neighbor because you were caught red-handed wearing duct-taped shoes in public.

With three and a half decades of Japan experience under my belt I’ve learned to appreciate the intent and thoughtfulness behind kikubari, along with its value-added application in customer service. Even when it misses the mark.

And yet as much as I profess to love the kikubari tradition, it’s kind of like eating ice cream: wonderful in the right doses, but too much can make you sick. Sometimes kikubari can be so overwhelming that I just want to scream, “Let me decide!”

Restaurant Interrogation, American Style

In a previous post I broke down the interrogation Americans endure whenever they order a meal in their neighborhood restaurant. The sheer number of questions asked is a testament to the power of culture: Booth or table? What to drink? Soup or salad? What kind of dressing? How to cook your steak? What choice of vegetable? French fries, baked potato or doubled-baked? Sour cream? Bacon bits? Butter? Cheese? Hot sauce on the side?

And this is just a smattering of the questions, clearly directed at choice-loving individualists who–damn the collective–expect that meal to be customized to their personal liking. 

Now try going to a restaurant in Japan and specifying your meal to this level of detail. At best you’ll get a bewildered look, and that’s if you speak decent Japanese.

Years ago I had the gall to request extra ketchup at a McDonald’s in Sagamihara Station. Well you’d think I asked the lady to lend me the keys to her car! This request caused her so much anguish. No one had taught her in hamburger school what to do when the foreigner asks for ketchup.

Well, the decision was too big for her to make on her own so she called a conference in the back with the hamburger flippers. I can only imagine what they said: “The foreigner wants more ketchup, what do we do? Doesn’t he know that we anticipated his needs and already put the proper amount of ketchup on his patty? And even if we give him extra ketchup we have no approved containers to put it in!”

Whatever they discussed, after several minutes of intense deliberations the lady returned with a tiny plastic tray with just enough ketchup for a single french-fry swipe. So just to be difficult, I said, “One more please.”

Bridging the Kikubari Gap

The best way to build this bridge is to come at it from both sides of the cultural divide.

For non-Japanese on the receiving end of unwanted kikubari, my advice is recognize it for what it is, and appreciate the thoughtfulness behind the gesture. And if by chance the unwanted kikubari is coming from a Japanese friend, then you have some leeway in working around the gap, for example, indirectly educating your friend on how you prefer having choices.

For Japanese hosts dealing with non-Japanese, it’s a good idea to study up on your foreign guests so you truly understand what they want. Also consider the idea that offering choice is itself a useful cross-cultural kikubari technique: you anticipate that your foreign guests want choice and give them options. (They might surprise you and request green tea.)

Japanese should also acknowledge the reality that a certain percentage of foreigners seek out authentic Japanese experiences that come with or without kikubari; that the more adventurous foreigners would prefer to fumble their way through dinner using chopsticks; practice their imperfect Japanese with taxi drivers; drink green tea; and eat sushi, natto and rice crackers. But you’ll never know unless you ask.

And finally, Japanese can avoid disappointment by not expecting kikubari from foreign hosts. For better or for worse, kikubari is not how most Westerners roll. Japanese should consider this an opportunity to step out of their kikubari world and embrace individual choice.

The dark side of kikubari notwithstanding, our world clearly needs more kikubari not less. We need more observation, more consideration of others’ needs, more conscious acts of kindness. In my book, the benefits of kikubari far outweigh its dark side. And if that means occasionally drinking sweet creamy instant coffee, then I’m happy to do my part.

Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2012


10 responses to “The Dark Side of Japanese Customer Service

  1. Yup.

  2. Reblogged this on Wordsummit and commented:
    This post contains several wonderful insights about Japanese 気配り(Kikubari), which is sometimes translated as ‘sensitivity’ and made up of two component parts: ‘気(ki), energy’ and ‘配り(kubari), distribute/deliver.

    One interesting thing about this word is that it has an ugly cousin with which it should not be confused: 心配り(kokorokubari) has a similar tail, but starts with the character for ‘spirit/heart’— kokorokubari means ‘jealousy’.

    Getting these two words straight in my head helped me to see the positive side of kikubari. This is a common intercultural tripping point for foreigners in Japan– to understand why, give the article a read. (bonus: the author starts the story with a wonderful anecdote on the occasional role of private English teachers as therapist)

  3. Excellent and well-written article that gives a great window into the culture of Japan!

  4. Great post. Made me laugh. Japan is all about the rules. Whether they be social or otherwise.

    Recently, a friend tried to order a rum and coke at a Japanese bar and the bartender kept declining and pointing to the drink menu (it was not on the list).

    He tried to say – you have rum over there, and coke in the tap. Put them together – make me a rum and coke please.

    In the end he had a draft beer. Breaking the rules is called ‘setting precedent” in western cultures and unfathomable in Japan.

    • Thanks for sharing that story, Michael. Non-Japanese folks who have lived or traveled in Japan are nodding their heads. Sticking to the script is a safe no-brainer for a risk-averse culture. But over the years–and this is only anecdotal–I’ve been noticing more Japanese deviating from the script. On my last two visits, couldn’t help but smile to see Japanese pedestrians J-walking with a purpose, ignoring “don’t walk” signs, and (mostly importantly), breaking the rules in a safe, polite manner. So maybe there is hope?

      • Hi Tim, there is always hope. The younger people will be the ones who push the boundaries – they need to if the country is going to compete.

        As for jaywalking, I find that they often do it … Right after I do (smile)

  5. “As for jaywalking, I find that they often do it … Right after I do (smile)”

    Ha ha, so true!

  6. Excellent as usual, Tim. One of my favorite kikubari stories: A friend and I were headed to the Izu Peninsula for a weekend of small town onsen and traditional culture–to see the “real” Japan. We envisioned tatami mats, comfy and fluffy ofuton, breakfast and dinner in our room… When we arrived, the owner of the place beamed proudly as she humbly greeted us. She practically ran up the stairs to our room. There, on the tatami mats, were two single beds she had borrowed from a friend in town. Gaijin sleep in beds, right? We were so very bummed. Then, we opened the shoji to see the view and there, in the alcove, was a blinking video game! 😉 It was, most definitely and in every sense of the word, the “real” Japan.

    • Ha ha, that’s so Japanese! The tough part for me in dealing with “unwanted kikubari” was balancing my frustration with the knowledge that my Japanese hosts had nothing but the best of intentions. So basically I was conflicted: wanted to scold them and hug them at the same time! 🙂

  7. And, michaelweening, after reading your comment I’ve got “it’s all about the rules” to the tune of “it’s all about the base” stuck in my head!

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