Tag Archives: stories about Japan

The Dark Side of Japanese Customer Service

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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. It was a hand-to-mouth bachelor existence, and I was having the time of my life.

But no gallivanting for me every Thursday, when I’d rush off campus in Mitaka Tokyo to get to my gig in the Japanese boonies on the outskirts of Atsugi City. In all it took two hours door to door.

My Thursday student was a Japanese doctor. Dr. Thursday wanted 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 were especially interesting on the rare occasion the doc would crack open a couple cold Sapporo drafts. Drinking beer was not part of my curriculum, but doc was the customer after all. So when he picked up the beer I’d hold out my glass for him to pour, reciprocate, then we’d toast 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 confess his sins with no social repercussions. (Think “Father Timothy” without the penance and Catholic guilt.) So our English class was, in essencethe 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—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 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 mission as his fake English teacher was to keep the session as happy and engaging as possible, while sneaking in some English chops along the way. Turns out my approach was 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 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. But because her knowledge of my culture was limited, she was clueless about what I really wanted: choice. I can only guess that she assumed foreigners 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 obligatory 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 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 with the Japan Olympics right around the corner, it’s worthwhile pondering the cultural ramifications of overdoing the kikubari thing, especially when an unsuspecting, choice-loving foreigner 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. Picture 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, sometimes to a fault.

On the other end of the curve is American culture, where personal choice is highly valued, and guests are encouraged to “feel at home” by “helping themselves to the fridge,” etc.

It makes perfect sense that a Confucian culture would have kikubari built into its hospitality model since the guest is required—by Confucian protocol—to refuse any gift or kindness offered by the host. 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 this sense, kikubari is the antithesis of choice.

So this is much bigger than 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.

With four 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 practice of kikubari, 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 annoying that I just want to scream, “Let me decide!”

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 to recognize it for what it is and appreciate the intention behind the gesture.

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 understand that offering choice is itself a useful cross-cultural kikubari technique; anticipate that your foreign guests want choice and give them options. They might surprise you and ask for green tea.

Japanese should also be aware that some foreigners are seeking authentic Japanese experiences. 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 foreigners roll. Japanese should consider this an opportunity to step out of their kikubari world and embrace the freedom of having choices.

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

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