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.