Japanese Service and the Intersection of Culture and Gospel

Last year, the Wall Street Journal published an article entitled “How Japan Has Perfected Hospitality Culture”. The author describes in the article how he personally experienced the incredible hospitality of Japanese department stores, hotels, and restaurants, and from his descriptions, one might come to the same conclusion as he did. But is the hospitality culture of Japan as wonderful as it is made out to be?

One thing that should be noted about the author’s perspective: he experienced Japan as a western tourist soliciting the most high end hotels, restaurants and department stores in Tokyo. One might expect good, even great service from the same level of business in any major international city. Does that experience trickle down to the masses who actually live here?

I frequent our local “Mister Donut”, a popular donut chain in Japan. My friend and I basically use it as our office-away-from-home once a week. I order a donut (or two if I’m feeling spendy) and a bottomless cup of coffee and settle in for a 2 or 3 hour study or work session.

At the register, I am given the same good, if slightly generic level of service you can expect at any regular restaurant, store or service in Japan. I am greeted when I walk in the door, and am treated politely and professionally during the transaction and I am thanked or apologized to at least a half dozen times.

But when it comes to refilling my coffee, the employees are on that task with eagle eyes. Rarely does my cup fall below the half-full line (unless the shop gets incredibly busy, which it does at times) before someone is around to offer me a refill. And when the refill comes, the employee knows I take my coffee with cream and sugar and often knows how many sugars to give me. And the refills keep coming until I’m over-caffeinated and have to ask them to stop.

You bag your own groceries at every supermarket in Japan (which is one service exception oddity I have not figured out) but most clerks will sort your cold items from your hot items and give you plastic bags for your meats that are already scrunched up and ready for you to slide the meat package into. They actually work on the task of scrunching up the bags when nobody is at their register. They have hashi (chopsticks) if you buy a bento (box lunch) and spoons for your yogurt and ice cream.

And of course there is the ubiquitous combini (convenience store), which in Japan, unlike America, is actually convenient. I can walk into a store and pay my utility bills, ship my luggage to the airport, or buy tickets to a baseball game. If I don’t know how to do something, the clerk patiently walks me through it, free of eye-rolling or sarcastic remarks.

So yes, I have generally concluded that living in Japan and at least somewhat disguised as a Japanese person, and using shops and services of the average person, I still receive a level of service far above Western standards. And no catch, right? Not exactly.

One must understand that Japan is a very structured, role-based society. Interactions and levels of politeness are afforded to people based on the relationship between two people in a specific interaction. In the case of service provider to customer, there is an expectation of a level of service and politeness that the provider is to give to the customer. In fact, my wife and I often struggle understanding people at shops because there is a special vocabulary that is used for those provider-to-customer interactions!

On the other hand, there is no similar expectation for the customer. The customer may use the rudest forms of language, as if speaking to a child, or not even acknowledge the service provider at all. Aside from not causing a scene in public (which no Japanese person would do because it would bring shame on them), the customer is basically free to act however he likes. In other words, the service provider must lie like a doormat for the customer and thank him for being walked on.

While this all sounds like a good deal for customers, one should expect that at some point, they will need to play the role of the service provider. Helping out at the school thrift shop. Doing part time consulting work. Greeting people at church. And, oh how the tables turn.

When you are put in the position of service provider, you must learn all the nuances of serving others. The attention to detail, the extra greetings and vocabulary, and the humility it takes to not expect anything in return. As one who was raised in Western culture, I don’t know if I have the capacity to do this on a daily basis.

There are lessons to be learned from this part of Japanese culture. Because the ability to give hospitality and serve others is so ingrained in most Japanese, this is a trait they can recognize and admire in Jesus. For it was Jesus:

 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Philippians 2:6-8

The humility of Christ is something Japanese people can recognize and appreciate. Many have probably gone through times when they struggled with having to humble themselves. Yet Christ Jesus never struggled, though he was God and had infinite power at his disposal at any time, even to the point of allowing himself to be killed on the cross for the wrongs we have committed against him!

Sometimes, we tend to focus on all that is wrong with Japanese culture, but there are many things it gets right. Humility and having a servant spirit is one of those things and we should encourage our Japanese friends that this spirit in them is something they already have in common with Jesus, Son of God! Making these connections help break down the fallacy that Jesus is a “western god” and Christianity a western religion.

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