Category Archives: Japanese customer service

How to Disappoint Your Japanese Customer Without Even Trying


It’s a tall order to please visitors from a country like Japan where customers are routinely treated like God. No surprise that more often than not, disappointment is exactly what Japanese travelers feel when they venture abroad.

Not that Japan’s service is flawless. If I really want to pick nits, their service can be overly scripted, lacking in flexibility, and sometimes downright robotic. Still, the average level of service in Japan is unmatched anywhere in the world; servers are helpful, courteous, and laser-focused on anticipating the customer’s needs, albeit to an annoying fault sometimes.

Over the past 15 years, I have conducted numerous workshops on Japanese expectations of customer service for hundreds of employees working for Hawaii’s finest hotels. My message to them is always the same: Understand the wants and needs of your Japanese guests, but never, ever try to act Japanese. Then I add, just for effect, “If you try to act too Japanese, you’ll creep them out!” That usually drives home my point and gets a laugh in the process.

The delicate balance between making proper adjustments and being authentic is a sweet spot that’s tough to hit. The trick is understanding Japanese guests’ expectations, then making adjustments that come from a place of honesty. It’s a goal well worth pursuing. For just like the rest of us, the Japanese crave authenticity.

Today’s featured interaction analyzes key gaps in expectations that can drive a wedge between a Japanese guest and even the most well-intentioned service provider—without the provider realizing the guest was offended! (Miffed Japanese customers tend to not openly complain—while they quietly stew in their own juice.) The burden is on each service provider to decide how it wants its employees to deal with these gaps, but the disconnects must be understood before the organization can attempt to pursue that elusive sweet spot alluded to above.

This particular scenario happened before my very eyes at a luxury hotel in Hawai’i. I can assure you that the same scenario plays out every day in every context imaginable, certainly where Japanese international travelers are concerned. The chart below shows my analysis of the culture gaps below the surface.

I Need Help.jpg


Cross-Cultural Broken Promises: One Man’s Reason is Another Man’s Excuse

no-excuses.jpgJapanese often complain that when promises are broken, Americans “make excuses.” Many Americans, on the other hand, believe that when one breaks a promise, an explanation is warranted. In an effort to better understand this gap in thinking, I once asked a Japanese client what the difference was between a “reason” and an “excuse.” His answer was both funny and incisive: “If the Japanese person agrees with your explanation, then it’s a ‘reason’; if not, it’s an ‘excuse.'” It is worth noting here that the most formal Japanese apology, “Moshiwake gozaimasen,” literally means “There is no excuse,” which in essence forbids the offending party from even thinking about making an excuse.

Today’s anecdote is based on a true story that illustrates, in concrete terms, how one man’s reason can be another man’s excuse.

About ten years ago, my wife and I flew to Honolulu from our home on the Big Island of Hawaii to meet up with friends from Japan. We rendezvoused for lunch at a restaurant in Waikiki then accompanied them to their hotel to check in. Our plan was to get them settled in their room before venturing out to enjoy the sites and sounds of the island.

When we arrived at the hotel, the lobby was packed wall-to-wall with people. A long line was queued up in front of the check-in counter with just one clerk on duty. We found a place to wait with our friend’s wife while her husband got in line to check in.

It took almost ten minutes for our friend to finally wind his way to the front of the line. After a several-second interaction with the clerk, he abruptly turned and walked toward us with a demeanor teetering between anger and puzzlement. Something was clearly amiss, and we soon found out what it was: He couldn’t check in because the computer was down.

Our friend was clearly miffed. The first words out of his mouth were, “This would never happen in Japan.”

He wasn’t angry about the computer outage. Nor was he implying that in Japan computers never go down or even that mistakes don’t happen. He was frustrated and disappointed by the way he was treated.

He wondered aloud why the clerk hadn’t apologized; why the hotel manager wasn’t on the floor letting guests know in advance about the outage before they wasted their time standing in line; and he couldn’t believe that the hotel wouldn’t provide guests with vouchers so that they could at least enjoy a drink at the bar while waiting until the computer glitch was fixed. But mostly, he was disappointed that the hotel hadn’t trained its staff to check in guests as a back-up plan for when the computer went down.

Anyone who has lived in—or even just visited—Japan for any length of time has felt my friend’s frustration on some level. Indeed, once you get spoiled by Japanese customer service, it can ruin you for life!

This anecdote illustrates not only the different standards of service in Japan compared to my country—and dare I say, the rest of the world—it speaks to profound differences in how people of different cultures expect service providers to behave when a major hiccup hits the fan. In the case of Japan, four words summarize the difference: There is no excuse!

A similar computer hiccup occurred on a much larger scale in 2006, when a 6.6 earthquake rocked the Big Island of Hawaii. It was so powerful that it caused power interruptions throughout the state, which affected major airports on all the islands. As a result, all our airports’ “indispensable” computers were down prompting flight cancellations around the state. Except in the case of Japan Airlines.

Why was JAL able to avoid canceling their flight out of Honolulu while other airlines weren’t? For starters, JAL leadership did not accept a computer outage as a reason not to deliver on its promise to get customers to their destinations in a timely manner. (Keeping promises is a big deal in Japan, especially when it involves the honorable customer.) The other reason is that JAL employees were trained (and had the will and wherewithal) to manually issue tickets and perform all other functions necessary to get their airplane off the ground. No excuses!

Below is my analysis of the hotel check-in fiasco described above, but it applies to just about any situation in which a Japanese customer is inconvenienced.


Copyright © Tim Sullivan 2019

How Not to Refuse a Drink in Japan

Anyone who has lived in Japan or just deals with the Japanese on a regular basis knows that social attitudes toward alcohol consumption are different here.

That said, it appears attitudes are changing and that younger Japanese are less interested in drinking, a positive development in my opinion. And yet I still hear Japanese friends, acquaintances, and colleagues who like to imbibe jokingly say that they are “alcoholics.” In fact, I just heard it last week at a local drinking establishment. It reminded me of a nomikai (drinking party) a few years back when I had to interpret a conversation between a Japanese host and recovering alcoholic named “John.” Below is my analysis of what was likely going through the Japanese host’s head at the time.

Keep in mind that the scenario below is a great example of how not to refuse a drink in Japan. With the wisdom of hindsight, I should have handled the situation differently. What’s my advice to non-drinkers who want to politely avoid a drink when it’s offered in Japan without getting into the details of alcoholism and what it means? Simply say, “I’m allergic to alcohol,” “I’m on medication,” or “I can’t drink due to health reasons.” One of those polite lies usually gets the desired response.


“You Probably Won’t Like This, But…”

The first time I was invited over for a meal at a Japanese home, I remember being confused (and a tad scared) when the wife, upon serving me food, said that she didn’t think I would like what she prepared. With some trepidation—and out of grudging politeness—I forced myself to take a bite, only to discover to my delight and surprise that the food was delicious. And I remember at the time wondering why she would say such a thing to a guest. It didn’t take long for me to learn that this was a common practice in Japan. But for a long time, I didn’t know why.

This scenario happens often in Japan, whether the guest is a foreigner or not. The expression “Kore wa kuchi ni awanai ka mo shirenai kedo…” (Literally, “This may not suit your palate, but…”) is a standard, scripted expression Japanese hosts typically use prior to presenting food to a guest.

What, you may ask, is going on below the linguistic surface? Here’s my analysis:


Can Japanese Hospitality Go Too Far?

CrossCultMdl JE.jpg

I am a big fan of Japanese hospitality, especially the kikubari tradition (気配り=”the art of anticipation”). I personally appreciate kikubari even when it misses the mark. But Japanese service providers should be aware that some foreigners would rather have a choice than have the host decide for them. I plugged a simple scenario into my communication model. Here’s what it looks like in English:


Here’s the Japanese version:


What do you think? Do the Japanese sometimes go too far by “over-anticipating”?

For more on “kikubari” check out Japanese-style Customer Service: the Art of Kikubari.

One Minute Insight: The Art of Japanese Kikubari Service

What makes Japanese customer service so special? In a word, “kikubari,” the art of anticipation. Learn how you can improve customer service, build relationships and connect cultures–without spending a penny. And it’ll only take a minute!

One-Minute Insight: What Japanese Say About Foreign Customer Service

What do Japanese say about our customer service when we’re not around? And what can we do about it? The answers are a click away.

This is a new on-line training concept I recently developed with the help of a friend. A big mahalo to Roberto De Vido for help on the graphics and visuals!

Feedback is welcome. My first installment, so go ahead and click it, it’ll only take a minute!