Friday, March 12, 2010

Things I've Noticed About Japan -- Streets and Customer Service

I've been keeping track of all of the little things that I've noticed in Japan for the past two months. Living in another country is quite an experience. What I find very interesting about the experience is noticing all of the little things that are different from back at home. This post will cover streets and customer service; I have many other thoughts that I want to share, but I do not want everything in one large blog post; I will split them up into multiple posts. I won't bore you with basics like "People drive on the left side of the road," "Everything is in the metric system," "All of the signs are in Japanese," and other facts that you either learned many years ago or are obvious. I want to express some things that are not obvious.

  • Where I live (the Nakahara district of Kawasaki), there are very few streets that are wider than two lanes (one lane in each direction). Even the Nakahara Highway, an important street that I pass or walk on every day with plenty of shops and is a link to other towns about 30 miles away, is only two lanes wide. (I have not been on a freeway in Japan yet, so I can't comment about the difference between Japanese freeways and American freeways other than the fact that in Japan, freeways are not free; they are tolled. [The word freeway actually has nothing to do with price at all; the "free" in freeway has to do with the fact that freeways are "free" from impediments to the free-flowing of cars on a road such as driveways and intersections]). However, in Tokyo proper, there are many wide streets with four or even six total lanes, such as the main streets of Akihabara, Shinjuku, and Shibuya.
  • There are lots of cyclists in the Nakahara area, ranging from little kids to elderly citizens. It's not uncommon to find a man in a suit or a woman wearing a skirt, stockings, and heels on a bike; that is very rare in America, where most cyclists either wear informal clothing or clothes specifically made for cycling. And, just like back at home, very few of them actually follow the traffic laws. I've seen cyclists frequently run red lights and ride on the wrong side of the road.
  • There are stoplights in quiet residential neighborhoods that don't get much traffic. Back in America, these stoplights would just simply be stop signs.
  • Speaking of stoplights, stoplights are timed in Japan. I don't believe that stoplights in Japan are controlled by sensors in the road, unlike many places in California. The stoplights appear to be preprogrammed. I don't know if the stoplights are synchronized (i.e., when if you get a green light, the next few successive lights will also be green as long as you stay within the speed limit); it's hard to tell when you don't have a set of wheels.
  • Oh, and I have not seen a red-light camera in Japan at all so far.
  • Even though there are lots of cyclists, there are no bike lanes at all. Most of the streets are too narrow to add room for bike lanes; they are literally wide enough for one car in each direction, with no shoulder. (The Nakahara Highway does have a shoulder). All of the cyclists ride on the streets unless there is a lot of high-speed traffic on them; then the cyclists move to the sidewalks, which is acceptable (if not exactly perfectly legal) here.
  • There are plenty of pedestrians, especially near the shopping areas and the train stations.
  • There are lots of cars in Japan that are not available in America. More details to follow.
  • In Japan, Toyota also makes cargo vans and small commercial trucks. Thank goodness Toyota vehicles in Japan havent't had the same gas pedal issues as their American and European counterparts have had; runaway vehicles combined with a much higher amount of pedestrians on the road would have been disastrous.
  • Speaking of disastrous, the Nakahara Highway has signs that say "Closed during a major earthquake." The signs have a picture of a namazu on it, which is a creature in Japanese mythology that causes earthquakes. (A namazu looks like the 3rd-generation Pokémon Whiscash. Interestingly enough, a Pokémon episode centered around earthquakes and Whiscash was actually unaired in Japan [and subsequently not dubbed at all] due to the fact that a large earthquake happened in the Niigata prefecture days before the episode was set to air. Whiscash did make appearances in later episodes, however).
  • Japanese customer service is excellent! Workers always greet you with a smile and a "Irrashaimase!" (Welcome!) when you enter their business. They listen to your requests, try to understand them if your Japanese isn't that great, and follow up on them. They also speak in honorific Japanese (for those of you who don't know, the Japanese language has politeness levels, where different verb conjugations and sometimes different words are used depending on the situation). When you leave, the workers bow and say thanks ("arigatou gozaimasu!") for your business.
  • Whenever you have a request (for example, you're trying to find an iron skillet at a department store), the customer service workers will sometimes go through great lengths to serve you. It hasn't always happened (I'm still trying to find a USB infrared reader here for my cell phone), but I have encountered worker who dropped whatever they were doing in order to help me and go through great lengths, such as travel a few floors in a large department store, to find what I needed. I couldn't imagine getting such treatment in America; at best I might get a suggestion for where the item is; in most cases I'll get a "sorry, we don't have it here" and that's the end of it, although some nicer companies would offer to special order the item such that it would be available for purchase within a few days. When I was buying a towel during my second or third day in Japan, one customer service worker at a Marui depaato (department store that's kind of like a mall) even went as far as showing me a cheaper place to buy a towel, and even walked with me for five minutes outside of the store to show me where it was!
  • Whenever I enter a store in America, I cannot go 30 seconds without an employee walking up to me and saying, "Do you need any help looking for something?" Sometimes I'm followed in the stores. In Japan, this never happens to me. I am never followed in the stores; I am left to do my shopping in peace, and nobody seemed to care during my first few weeks in Japan that sometimes I could spend nearly half an hour in a store looking around because I'm unfamiliar with the store layout and certain items.
  • Japanese customer service is also highly professional. Employees are always dressed in uniform. Plus, you will never see a cashier, for example, make personal calls while "helping" you, express bad attitudes or sentiments, treat you badly for no reason, or do anything else that is bad or unprofessional like you, unfortunately, sometimes see in America (and don't get me started on "customer service" in the ghetto). However, one consequence of this professionalism is that the service may seem a little impersonal compared to service in America. Unlike America, were really nice cashiers ask you about your day, make comments and suggestions about some of your purchases, and even sometimes crack jokes, Japanese cashiers stick purely to business. And if you ask, "How are you doing?", he or she may just giggle, say "I'm doing fine" ("genki desu"), and just continue his or her without continuing the conversation. (Note that this isn't universal; I had a few conversations with the ANA cabin attendants, who complimented me on my Japanese. But, now that I think about it further, all of those conversations were germane to the flight and are service-related; we did not discuss anything that was unrelated). Even when I visit the same places multiple times per week (and it's been two months) and see the same cashiers or other workers, I've never heard, "Would you like the usual?", "So how's it going today," or any of the other questions that I would normally be asked back at home if I frequented a business that much on a near-daily basis. It's a cultural difference; service workers in Japan are not supposed to fraternize with their customers. So, for future visitors to Japan, when a service worker is treating you very well, he or she is treating you well because it's the requirement of his or her job; the employee is not trying to ingratiate himself or herself to you. And, if he or she does not ask you any questions about your day or anything like that, it's not because he or she is not friendly; it is because of cultural differences in customer service; it's nothing personal.

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