December 14, 2003

Japan 12: Some final thoughts

I think without a doubt, one of the strangest aspects of my Japan experience has been being so visibly a foreigner (as a white guy in an Asian country) and being given special treatment because of that. From all the traveling I've done so far (Europe and North America) how I look has never been in any way of note or interest to anyone. But here in Japan (and probably moreso in provincial Japan than would have been the case in, for instance, Tokyo), being white is definitely something of note, and sometimes interest. A few "for instance"s. On Friday, Jon and I went to the bank in Kagoshima so that I could change my travellers cheques, as the cash I'd brought was running out. We took a ticket from the dispensing machine and sat in the waiting area with its airport lounge seating layout in front of the tellers. The numbers flashed up on a screen in front of us corresponding to whose ticket number was next up. Within a few minutes of our sitting there, there were inpromptu gatherings of tellers behind the main area, lots of to-ing and fro-ing, and the occasional furtive glance in our direction. Jon spotted it sooner than I, and sure enough, within two minutes one of the more senior looking came forward and asked us, "How can I help you?" with a polite bow. Clearly identified as foreigners, we'd been marked out as probably requiring special treatment and in no time were bumped up the queue so we could be tended to sooner.

The next day we were in a department store trying to pick up some presents for folks back home and in the UK, and yes, I suppose we were looking a little aimless in trying to find the right section of the store, but with thousands of other shoppers around, who would have noticed? "Can I help you, sir?" says a shop assistant out of nowhere. He then personally led us up two levels and across half the store to the right spot for what we were looking for.

And then, just now, in Nagoya Airport. An army of pretty young ladies ready to help out the poor foreigner who can't even speak the language. Would you like a window or an aisle seat? Shall I check your bags through to San Francisco? Please go to desk 5 - where, ok, follow me. And always happy smiles and cute bows.

Although, to be fair, I don't think the excellent service we received is in any way at the expense of the locals. It seems every Japanese person receives the same immaculate treatment. Which must make it very difficult when they travel abroad. Even in the short time that I was here, I became used to radiant smiles, cute bows, superior service. And I was also beginning to notice the few times that such exceptional service wasn't delivered - if someone didn't have as pleasant a demeanour, or seem to be there expressly to anticipate my every need. Imagine going from a lifetime of that to the typical American or British "service" experience, with its almost practiced art of apathy. And then throw on top of that being significantly smaller (on average) as well as a completely foreign script and language which few Japanese, I am told, are able to grasp on a conversational level. No wonder when they do travel abroad it tends to be in guided tours en masse. It's the only way they can isolate themselves from all those big, smelly, hairy, apathetic Westerners. The only way they can guarantee a consistently high service experience.

Posted by mthaddon at December 14, 2003 07:20 PM