The Ten Pillars of Japanese Service


So much of the marketplace experience comes down to the retail experience. And so much of the retail experience comes down to service. I had long heard about the service standards in Japan, which had even been summarized by the saying that “The Customer is God.” My expectations were high.

And they were not disappointed. I’m a fairly demanding customer (and if you haven’t read my blog entries about my disappointment with Costco online, you can catch it here), and I have to say that the service standards in Japan were incredibly high.

For example, I was very impressed by the guy who sold me my shoes at Seibu, one of Tokyo’s major high-end department stores. He knew everything about the shoes I was interested in (yes, he even expressed a type of an otakki wisdom). He told me their original price, when the store first received them. He even knew the name of the Italian designer of my new shoes. He gave me advice on the fit of the shoes, and also told me how to take care of them properly (and no, he wasn’t selling me any add-ons like a leather conditioner or anything, just telling me about the straps and that they were quite delicate). When I bought the shoes, he thanked me with a very low bow. I had this feeling of incredible knowledge, courtesy, and gratitude. And guess which store I can’t wait to visit when I return?

It certainly wasn’t just Seibu, although that sale impressed me enough to really stick in my memory. Almost everywhere I went the service was outstanding. In the USA, you find a good level of service overall, and exceptional service at a few places, such as Nordstrom or at fine hotels. But across Tokyo’s retailworld, I found wonderful attention to detail. Even the person who cleans tables, who makes food and cuts mushroom, seems to take special care.

Everything seemed to be a conscious, deliberate performance, calculated to delight the customer. Everything marketplace-related seemed to be an expression of self. There was this deep pride, this mindfulness, this sense of giving through momentary quality transactions as a social contributions, an expression of the communal that unites people, a sense of wanting to give rather than simply take.

More examples. The sushi maker was far more than just a guy whose served at a fast food counter. His hand moving rapidly, each piece of sushi seemed almost like an act of prestidigitation, each act of protein-starch mingling a creative wonder, a small miracle, a performance meriting deep concentration, deserving and drawing the attention of a grateful audience.

In the paper stores, there was origami precision in the wrapping of items and beautiful gifts, and it was ubiquitous, detectable even in the folding of a sales receipt, in the two-handed returning of a credit card, in the final thank you and bow. There was a complete care taken in every aspect of the service experience.

I pondered this servicescape. Could other countries aspire to have service levels like Japan? What would it take?

I could detect that there is a larger cultural frame at work, an ideology driving this pride in each transaction, this joy that comes from doing our jobs well and relishing the contact they give us with each other. A shared way of seeing how every service experience partakes in the performative power written about by Pine and Gilmore in their excellent book The Experience Economy.

I’m far, far from expert in any of these matters. This is very initial thinking. Speculation and little more. But here is a short list summary of some of the cultural factors that I think contribute to the phenomenon of phenomenal Japanese customer service:

  • 1. A hierarchical society (origins in military society?)
  • 2. Strong ideologies of service (some born of faith/Buddhism?)
  • 3. Deep-rooted rituals and traditions of gift-giving (emphasis on material culture)
  • 4. Admiration for the West, particularly the USA, and a desire to excel, outreach, and out-accomplish
  • 5. Traditions of mindful labor (e.g., Zen mindfulness, Japanese gardening)
  • 6. Aesthetic sense (translates into planograms, store layouts, signage)
  • 7. Visual/artistic culture (colors, logos, packages, wrapping)
  • 8. Notions of kaizen or continuous improvement
  • 9. Theatricality (ability and willingness to entertain the experience economy)
  • 10. Critical mass (with so many people, organization and service becomes much more essential; consider Tokyo’s spotless, high-tech, highly efficient public transportation system)

It’s interesting to contemplate how much in this list draws from drama, the arts, and ritual/religion/the sacred. I considered that this reveals the richly ritualistic qualities of the sales transaction in all their hierarchical and yet beautiful glory, the omnipresent dance of giving and receiving, of doing-for-each-other and having-it-done-for-oneself that is the essence of our consumer society and civilization.

The service occasion becomes, in this way, cast in the moment as timeless, marked, made sacred and larger-than-the-self. An opportunity to think beyond ourselves, and beyond this moment.

And what does this, I think, is pride on both ends. Pride in being the customer and (the missing ingredient in much of the West) pride in being the server.

“I’m not bowing to anyone,” is probably the likely, angry, grudging response of the typical Western service provider asked to do better, or compared to the Japanese.

Yet it is exactly this sort of refusal to do for others that holds us back, that keeps us from seeing the bigger social picture, from being able to act collectively for our future and for the greater good. And I don’t think it is just humility that is missing. Or even, so much, a “collective” orientation. It is, instead, this mindfulness linked to and applied to our work ethic—where work ethic has almost become an oxymoron. It is this devotion to skill and constant improvement that gets built into this other Japanese term “kaizen.” And pride in a job well done. For me, those are qualities of quality that I try to manifest in my own work, my teaching of students and managers, my research writing, my peer reviews. They are qualities I found all around me while shopping in Tokyo.

In the 1980s, the American business press idolized and frequently wrote about the wonders of the Japanese economy. There is still much that we can learn and apply.

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