Believe it or not, many Japanese people go to the beach just once a year, go skiing for one day a year and have a BBQ . . . once a year! It’s no wonder Western holidays such as Valentine’s Day and Christmas have become so popular in Japan — they happen just one time a year! And it’s no wonder that there is no room for Japanese events to happen year-round.
In the U.S., we often say, “That was so much fun, we should do it again next year!” But we seldom do. The Japanese adhere much more stringently to a once-a-year schedule.
Two motorcyclists, one from Shizuoka and one from Fukuoka, meet on Shiraishi Island and stay here for three days every year. They’ve been doing this for 25 years! During the rest of the year they have no contact with each other, one of them told me. “But around August, we email each other and set the date.”
Many people come to my Moooo! Bar and Calfe on Shiraishi just once a year. The first thing they say when they see me is not “Hello Amy!” but, “Do you remember me?” If they don’t see an instant spark of recognition in my eyes, they’ll add, “I came last year!”
So here is this person who has not come for 364 days of the year but on the 365th day he does come. I should remember him? Obviously I should be looking at it differently — I only have to remember him one day a year!
For me, who grew up on Dale Carnegie books as a child, I was taught that it is not polite to put someone else on the spot to remember you or your name. Dale says to always give the other person your name first so they don’t have to spend the next 30 minutes digging through their memories to come up with why and where they know you from.
So if I see Taro-san in town, but have only met him once or twice before, I should not make him have to guess who I am. A typical English language exchange might be:
Me: Hi Taro, it’s Amy from Shiraishi Island.
Taro: Oh yes, of course! How are you?
Or . . .
Me: Hi Taro, you probably don’t remember me, but I’m Amy.
Taro: Oh, hello Amy!
Taro saves face by being spared the embarrassment of not being able to recall my name or face. The premise here is that you don’t expect the other person to remember you.
But in Japan, judging from the frequency that people say “Do you remember me?” remembering someone’s face is expected.
You could just answer with an emphatic “Yes!” every time someone asks if you remember them, but then you live in fear of the person referring to things you should remember but don’t, leading you to possibly commit more serious gaffes.
I admit that the all-important customer recognition is something I fail miserably at. Some people I always remember, even if I’ve only met them once. But other people’s faces just don’t stick in my mind.
“We’ve come here so many times,” brooded one customer who came with his wife and two children this summer, “and you still don’t remember us!” He was visibly disappointed, most certainly peeved. “So many times, so many times!” he repeated while shaking his head. “Oh she does remember us,” said his wife, trying to console him (and hopefully me, who was now beet-red with embarrassment. And she was right, I did remember them in a kinda, sorta, now that you mention it kind of way.
Many loyal customers come into my accessory shop next to the bar wearing things they purchased the year before, or even several years before. They may have never worn the product otherwise, but because they are coming to see me, they put it on just for this occasion. I feel like hugging these customers! It’s a ploy and a tip-off that they are my loyal customers. They know I do at least recognize my own products and thus those who have the good taste to wear them.
Loyalty to a place or a person is paramount in Japan. And many customers pride themselves on going back to the same places every year. I watch their kids grow, get married, and have their own kids. Japan is full of these once-a-year life cycles.
There are some minshuku Japanese-style inns on our island that are so old, they are almost falling apart. The shoji doors are torn, the carpet is ’70s lime green, and the furniture hasn’t been updated since the ’60s. Over the years junk has piled up around the minshuku, the electric wiring is so old it is rotting, and even at the best of times these places are fire hazards. But people still stay overnight in them! Why? Because these customers have been staying at that same minshuku for years, maybe even centuries. Their ancestors probably stayed there during the Heian Period. Furthermore, it would insult the owner if they went to a nicer minshuku down the road for the same price.
For the first year I had my Moooo! Bar and Calfe, none of San-chan’s Restaurant customers could come with a clear conscience. “It’s a profit-sharing business,” I assured them. No need to worry about loyalty. But still, his customers didn’t feel right sitting at my beach bar that was in full view of San-chan’s.
Every day San-chan would shoo his loyal customers out of his restaurant and tell them, “Go out to the Moooo! Bar for a drink!” Only then would they come next door. Nowadays people move between the two places with ease. But it wasn’t always a “the more the merrier” attitude. It took direct approval from San-chan before it could happen. Such is the loyalty of the Japanese.
The other day I decided to try my hand at using that Japanese phrase I so deplore. I saw a boy, now 14, whom I had met only briefly when he was 10. There is no way he could have remembered me. “Do you remember me?” I said nervously in that bold on the spot Japanese way. “Yes,” he said.
And that’s all he said. He didn’t give me any details to prove he remembered me. He didn’t feel he had any other commitment to talk to me. He just said “Yes” because it was polite.
That’s when I realized that all you have to say is “Yes.” No one will ask you for proof. The important thing is that, and only that, you remember someone’s face. Recognition is where loyalty begins.