Yo! Can I Get Some Service Over Here?


What is service and where can I find some? In Japan, the katakana version of service or “saabisu” often means getting something extra, as in a baker’s dozen, and therein lies the problem. With inbound tourism skyrocketing, the Rugby World Cup coming in 2019 and the 2020 Olympics bearing down on Tokyo, let’s explore the idea of service. And I don’t mean “omotenashi” or that unique style of Japanese hospitality (snicker).

Perhaps it’s best to start with a definition, if I may. Service is getting what you want, how you want it, when you want it. A dash of warmth and kindness and maybe a smile is nice, but definitely not necessary. During my summer holiday in Italy, I had the opportunity to experience Italian service for the first time. Italy is a country that thrives on tourism, so you might think they know a thing or two about service. This is what I found.

In Italy, almost without fail, you get what you want, how you want it and when you want it, but the style of delivery various wildly. Sometimes it was warm and gracious. Sometimes it was brusque. Sometimes it was downright rude, but I always got what I wanted. That’s satisfaction. 

I should note that my Italian language skills are basically nil, but the people serving me didn’t mind. They would communicate in Italian or, more often, in varying levels of English, with full eye contact, until they figured out what I needed and delivered it. I always walked away a satisfied customer, with a story to tell about the kind of interaction I experienced. Most importantly, I never got that “deer in the headlines” stare that so many foreigners in Japan have experienced.


You want it when?

Coming back to Japan, I started wondering “is English ability really that important?” Was that the key to my pleasant experiences in Italy? I note this, because Japan Inc. and Japan Academia seem to think that English is the key to better everything with the rest of the world. First of all, it’s true that way more Italians speak passable English than Japanese folks. Before I left for Italy, my friends who’d been told me I wouldn’t need to worry about speaking any Italian. But what was reinforced during my travels is the truth that good service is about more than language and communication skills, it requires acceptance  

Going back to our definition of service. What, when, how. No frills necessary. Acceptance. How does Japan rate?

Without question, service at top level establishments in Japan is tops in the world. It’s almost embarrassing how well you are treated by waiters, clerks and concierge in those places. However, it drops off sharply, very sharply when you get to mid-level establishments, enough so, that it’s hit or miss. Usually, the miss is a misunderstanding and the result is not getting something how or when you want it. Sometimes you will reach a painful impasse. Throughout, there will be a lot of bowing and fake smiles. I believe that’s what “omotenashi” generally is. All style, no substance and very often frustration.

In Japan’s lower level establishments, service isn’t really an issue because you are seeking an authentic experience. How you are treated depends on the personality of the proprietor. Sometimes you get great service. Sometimes it’s funky. Sometimes it’s bad, but you’re not expecting much anyway. And most often, navigating service relationships at low-level establishments is the fun part of being a tourist or a foreigner in Japan. No expectations. No worries.


I’ll have whatever she’s having

It’s the mid-level establishments that worry me. Any foreign resident of Japan has had this experience numerous times. You are dining with your Japanese friend or spouse and the waiter refuses to make eye-contact with you. No matter how flawless your Japanese is, all questions get referred to your Japanese acquaintance. It’s beyond exasperating.

For this reason, I have found phone services to be much easier and more fluid. Here we are connected by devices. You can’t see me. I can’t see you. We’re going to make this work. What’s the point? It’s often the mere sight of a foreign face that unnerves most Japanese service providers.

They see you and think, “Uh-oh, here comes trouble.” Perhaps they think your Japanese won’t be good enough and fear their English won’t be good enough. From the get-go, all communication breaks down, and you haven’t even said a word yet. 

Most foreigners who live here have also had the experience of ordering in a restaurant by voice, striving to make eye contact, and having the waiter cast their gaze down and point to a picture on the menu. Maybe this is an effort to satisfy our definition of service without fail. However, it is annoying, because you feel like you are being dismissed while any chance for human interaction is eliminated.


Not all foreigners are created equal

The point they are missing is that all foreigners are not the same. Some of us speak Japanese. Some of us don’t. In fact, some who look Japanese, do not speak Japanese. What I enjoyed in Italy was undivided attention and eye contact, not a presumption of who I was or what I needed. No one took me for Italian, but no one took me for an idiot either.

If Japan wants to step up its mid-level service, it needs to teach service providers to treat each customer—white, black, Asian, whatever—as a unique individual. Look them in the eye. Speak in whatever language you are most comfortable with. Communication is about more than words, more than language. Good service begins with an attempt to understand. Understanding leads to acceptance which leads to better communication and better service.

Japan Tries Smoking Clean...Sort Of


The vapid folly of vaping

It was bound to happen. Someone in Osaka rigged a vape device for nicotine delivery, which is the main purpose for most vape devices around the world but puzzlingly illegal in Japan.  

On March 26, Osaka prefectural police reported that the owner of a vape store in Hirakata City, made nicotine liquid for a vape device. He was charged on suspicion of violating Pharmaceuticals and Medical Devices law. If he was gonna get busted, he might as well have tried cannabis.

Legal vaping in Japan, for now, is the inhalation of a flavored and scented glycerin vapor. While vape store owners are happy to boast of the wide range of flavors on offer they are distressingly vague on what chemicals compose the vapor source. The best answer we got on the composition of the vape juice, from a local proprietor, was either vegetable glycerin or propylene glycol and some flavoring agents.



Among the 300 flavors at the Vape Studio near my office in Ginza are Red Bull, Coca-Cola, Aloe Vera, Grilled Beef, Kimchee and Collagen. Collagen? Don’t ask. Flavor cartridges start at 1,000 yen each while vape devices range from 3,000 to 10,000 yen and up.

Give me an order of kimchee with a side of formaldehyde

Before you start dreaming of a post-lunch kimchee vape, let’s go back to what else is in that glycerin and propylene glycol in the vapor. According to an April 5 article in the New York Times, formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, is generated when propylene glycol or glycerin is heated for vaping. And it’s not a small amount. A study published in the journal “Environmental Science and Technology” reported that the formaldehyde coming out of a vape device or e-cigarette exceeds “ceiling limits,” or a level that is not even allowed in the atmosphere for one second. Suddenly nicotine is sounding very healthy.

Hold on, that’s not all. Did you ever wonder why microwave and movie theater popcorn has that strange smell? Sure it tastes good and kinda buttery, but you know something’s a little off. The flavor comes from a chemical called diacetyl, which is safe to eat but not to inhale. That’s why people working in factories where that fake butter flavor is created started coming down with lung problems or a condition lovingly nicknamed “popcorn lung.” They were inhaling too much diacetyl. Guess what? Diacetyl is also used to create all sorts of flavors, such as strawberry, piña colada, and butter scotch. It should come as no surprise then that U.S. researchers found diacetyl in fumes from 75% of the vape devices they tested.

With diacetyl getting a bad rap, some U.S. vape makers are shifting to something called 2,3-pentanedione to produce some of the 7,000 flavors marketed for vape devices. According to the same NY Times article, about 50% of vape devices tested positive for 2,3-pentanedione. That’s OK right? Well, according research based on animal testing that chemical can cause something similar to…wait for it…popcorn lung.


Would you like butter flavor with your popcorn lung?

We can only assume that Japanese health officials believe that getting popcorn lung or inhaling formaldehyde is not as bad as inhaling nicotine, (not to mention all the chemicals that go with conventional smoking). But it's not like Japan is officially against smoking or nicotine. While the tide is slowly turning toward smoke-free public spaces, many bars and restaurants still allow smoking and legislation to ban smoking in such places before the 2020 Olympics has been derailed and watered down on the twisted logic that it would hurt the sales of smaller establishments.  

At the same time, Japanese consumers are eagerly shifting to non-cigarette nicotine delivery systems. In fact, the e-cigarette market is exploding, and some tobacco industry estimates suggest that sales may soon surpass regular cigarettes.  Just take a gander into any alleyway or park in Tokyo, and you’ll see someone puffing away on an e-cig. Several e-cigarette devices are being heavily marketed, including IQOS, a Philip Morris product, and Glo produced by British American Tobacco (BAT). In fact, IQOS has a well-appointed shop in Ginza that resembles a fine jewelry store, complete with comfortable seating and attractive sales people.

The difference between these e-cig devices and vapes, however, is as foggy as a hookah bar. Both products purport to “heat” rather than burn tobacco. Perhaps the best distinction, is that e-cigs heat a tobacco unit, composed of tobacco leaves while vapes fire up a liquid cartridge. Most importantly, in Japan, e-cigs are for nicotine while vaping is not. However, another product that recently entered the market is straddling the fence between vaping and e-cigarettes.



Make room for the Ploom

Enter Ploom Tech. Japan Tobacco (JT) developed Ploom Tech products after acquiring the technology patents from a San Francisco start-up. It’s billed as a hybrid between a heated tobacco product and a vaporizer. Thin and shaped like a pen, the device looks like any other vape device. However, according to JT, it heats a non-nicotine liquid, which passes through a capsule containing granulated tobacco to deliver good old nicotine to the smoker. JT is promoting Ploom as a near odorless smoking device, thus less offensive the IQOS and Glo and much less offensive than conventional cigarettes. And that's the key. No combustion. No ash. No offense.

With the smoking public clamoring for offense-free smoking options, I suppose it’s only a matter of time before JT figures out a way to monetize nicotine liquid for vape devices. Remember,  in Japan it’s not really important whether you hurt yourself or not, as long as you don’t raise a stink and offend others.  But don’t hold your breath on smoke-free bars and restaurants, that cloud has yet to be cleared.