I’ve touched on the idea that the Japanese are more polite than friendly. But the more I think about it, the more I think that this is part of a deeper problem that faces modern Japan, one that must be addressed sooner rather than later.
You see, one of the great stereotypical traits of the Japanese is that they are gracious hosts to a fault. The skill they display in making guests feel welcome and comfortable is second to none.
This is finally beginning to get the recognition it deserves abroad. Tourism is booming, and the lead-up to the Olympics in terms of foreign visitors to Japan is looking especially rosy.
With this, Japan is appearing to find a new national purpose. After the bubble burst in the early 90s, Japan has an air of listlessness, like it could never quite grasp the here and now for want of reminiscing about the good ol’ days before the economy went to crap. Japan finally seems to be shaking that off, seeing tourism as the new darling to preoccupy itself with.
And it’s incredible to see the fervour with which Japan is engaging with this, both on micro and macro levels. The winning of the Olympics as hosts really just catalysed it. The English Education system is receiving another overhaul, that last time having only been 2012. Road signs are being updated to include more English. Folks up and down the land are taking to their phrase books to practice their English in order to help out the lost hordes of tourists that will enviably float around Tokyo.
Do you see the problem here? Well, two, but let’s put aside the fact that this huge increases in tourists is usually from China for now. No, the real problem is that the guest-host relationship is completely out of whack with what it should be.
There is an unspoken agreement between guest and host. The host will provide a space for their guest and be graceful in the acceptance and assistance of their guests. The guests in turn accept this graciousness, returning it with their own politeness and an understanding that this space is the hosts, not their own, and efforts must be made to follow any house rules and not be a burden to the host. This is true on all levels of guest-host relationships, from visiting a friend’s parent’s house to visiting other countries for extended holidays.
The problem in Japan is that burden is almost exclusively put upon the host. The guest doesn’t hold up their end of the bargain, and they’re not expected to. In Japan, the customer is not King: they are God. The customer is not always right: their word is law. Put it this way: in most other countries, if someone walked into a shop and started verbally abusing a member of staff, that person would be met by a wall of other staff, the manager and security. This ‘customer’ is being a dick, and they are treated as such. In Japan, I feel that if a member of staff were verbally abused by a customer, they would not only stand there and take it, but they would bow throughout the entirety of the barrage of insults, apologising profusely to the customer as tears roll down their cheeks. And no other staff would rush to this poor cashier’s defence. Because the customer is God.
This is the reason why, in my so many professional exchanges big and small, it is impossible to build a relationship beyond guest-host, even if you frequent a convenience store every single day. You are bombarded with niceties and all of the correct use of honorifics, effectively bullet-proofing the staff from any potential criticism or risking making the guest-host relationship anything less than professional. That’s why so many Japanese on the acquaintance level feel…metallic. Solid, polished a sheen, but cold and unbending.
And this is what it’s going to be like for the Olympics. Literally the entire country is gearing up to be gracious hosts to the world – to become Japan Inc. And they will pull it off with panache, sure. But in
an effort to anticipate their incoming customers’ criticisms, and because the host must bend over backwards to meet the customers every whims – you’ll find that the real Japan will be hidden behind the sheen of the metallic Japan Inc. in the Summer of 2020.
Guests hoping to experience the real Japan will be disappointed that all citizens try to speak to them in English. Guests trying to get to know the locals will be met with smiles and niceties and absolutely no extension beyond that. Guests wanting to immerse themselves in the culture of Japan will find themselves being bombarded with what Japan considers creature comforts to their guests. Don’t be surprised if foreign visitors get turned away from hotels that claim to be full when they actually have rooms left but they have a Japanese-style toilet. What kind of guest would want to be inconvenienced by that?
Guests will not experience Japan. They will experience Japan Inc. The country as a brand. And they will have a great time with Japan Inc. They will fly home, and praise the great customer service and first-class politeness of Japan Inc. And that’s great. But I wonder how many will stop and think about how this admiration barely runs any deeper than going to a great restaurant or hotel.
And I wonder how many Japanese will realise that, by holding themselves at arm’s length and keeping the relationship strictly on the guest-host level, they once again hold themselves separate from the rest of the world. At a time when they need to really embrace it the most.