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Is being nice to customers really so disgusting?

by Hiroaki Sato

Does Japanese women’s vocal pitch deserve the front-page status of the New York Times, again?

This question arose when I saw Hiroko Tabuchi’s report from Sendai, “Japan’s Top Voice: High, Polite and on the Phone” (N.Y. Times, Dec. 15, 2013).

The subject instantly reminded me of one of the dispatches from Japan in the mid-1990s by Nicholas Kristof, then N.Y. Times’ Tokyo bureau chief.

Kristof, having recently won a Pulitzer Prize for his reports on the Tiananmen Incident and other exciting developments in China, must have found Japan to be too tame for words. He went out of his way to choose quirky, kinky or otherwise mindless subjects for his filings from Japan, only to express inscrutable derision.

The dispatch that Tabuchi’s article brought to mind came with the heading: “Tokyo Journal: Japan’s Feminine Falsetto Falls Right Out of Favor” (N.Y. Times, Dec. 13, 1995), and it began:

“Smiling beatifically at the restless shoppers, more like a saint than an elevator operator, Hiromi Saito opened her mouth to do her duty. ‘I thank you from the bottom of my heart for favoring us by paying an honorable visit to our store,’ she said in The Voice. ‘I will stop at the floor your honorable self is kind enough to use, and then I will go to the top floor.’

“The Voice is as fawning as her demeanor, as sweet as syrup, and as high as a dog whistle. Any higher, and it would shatter the crystal on the seventh floor.”

Then this: “European women no longer rearrange their bodies with corsets, and Chinese no longer cripple their daughters by binding their feet. But many Japanese women speak well above their natural pitch, especially in formal settings, on the phone or when dealing with customers.”

Invoking corsets and bound feet to make fun of an attempt to be nice and pleasant in public? C’mon.

Kristof carried on like this in Japan. In his puerile cultural tantrums, he reminded me of … who? Well, some of the Americans who went to Japan as Occupation personnel, to start.

David Conde, for example. While heading the Motion Picture and Theater Division of the Occupation’s Civil Information and Education Section, Conde demanded that Japanese filmmakers incorporate on-screen kissing “for democracy.” He obviously was unnerved to discover, upon arrival in Japan, that the Japanese do not kiss in public.

Or, Lucy Herndon Crockett. A Red Cross worker assigned to the defeated nation willy-nilly, she did not hesitate to put forward an employee in a GHQ office she named Lulu Love as an embodiment of the nation now “playing God.”

When Miss Love, “just a Main Street girl in a $19.95 dress,” sashayed down the Ginza, eating popcorn from a PX bag, she represented “American Democracy” and “Emancipated Womanhood” to the gawking Japanese whom she despised as “gooks” and “those dumb Japs.”

Ah, I must hasten to add: Yukio Mishima, then 20, despised those gawking Japanese, his compatriots, as well. But he had already developed a superb sense of irony. Lucy Crockett did not evince any irony. Crockett’s book, “Popcorn on the Ginza,” was published in 1949. The last time I checked, it was still available on the Internet.

To go back to Kristof, the problem was that this attitude wasn’t limited to him, but extended to the Times as a whole.

I wasn’t the only one who noticed. In 1998, seven Japanese women working in New York City protested. They put together a book focusing on the 10 most egregious articles that had appeared in the Times in the preceding four years. (Seven were by Kristof.) The book was called Warawareru Nihonjin (“Derided Japanese)” with the English subtitle “Japan Made in U.S.A.”

I remember one article in the Times’ Metropolitan Section. Its writer talked to a couple of young Japanese women working in New York, one of them in a piano bar, only to conclude that they left Japan, because society was oppressive to women.

The idea that women in Japan are oppressed, neglected or otherwise mistreated was aggressively pursued by Kristof, who would later become a crusader against prostitution worldwide. His passion for liberating those in the sex trade raised some eyebrows, as it became manifest after he espoused President George W. Bush’s war against Afghanistan and Iraq from a “philosophical” standpoint. Around that time the Times anointed Kristof a columnist.

How puerile was the stance of Kristof and the Times?

In its Week in Review, the Times once headlined how Japanese manga treated women as objects of rape and murder.

The Wall Street Journal took up the same subject, but from a different angle. Its reporter interviewed an artist in Tokyo known just for such manga, asking him how he might respond if his preschool daughter grew up, discovered her papa’s obscene work, and inquired about it. It was a story tinged with humor and pathos.

The Wall Street Journal also carried a piece about piano bars in New York, but, again, differently. Now that the Japanese economy back home was suffering, Japanese companies cut back on expense accounts in their New York outposts, creating financial hardships among the bar owners that mainly catered to Japanese executives stationed in this city.

However, this turn of events also freed up Japanese businessmen to spend more time with their families, the article pointed out.

What about Hiroko Tabuchi’s article?

In describing the annual All Japan Phone-Answering Competition, Tabuchi may not be as derisive of the Japanese as Kristof was in describing Japanese “elevator operators” two decades ago. But her basic stance is the same as that of Kristof and the N.Y. Times: Japan is “different,” a judgment bandied about when U.S.-Japanese trade tensions were at their peak.

It’s a cheap ploy to “feel triumphant,” a young Japanese woman friend who read Tabuchi’s article said, “in tripping up the Japanese on what they consider nice” by “twisting things to please American readers.”

If the Japanese want to promote what they think they can be “culturally proud of,” such as being considerate to customers and such, “even if superficially,” why not? she asked. A graduate of New York University, she worked in New York for several years.

Is it preferable to be rude, surly or blunt as New York “customer service” people often are?

Hiroaki Sato is an essayist and translator in New York.

  • 151E

    No, it’s not preferable to be rude or surly – but it is disingenuous to present such a false choice. Surely there is a middle road. Personally, I find the nasal tones of the highly affected ‘customer service voice’ rather off-putting and would rather retail staff just speak with their natural voice.

    • leftlite

      Well put. I agree entirely. I appreciate and value Japan’s strong service culture, over the top though it can get on occasion. I would greatly prefer, however, if these women spoke in their natural voice rather than sounding like Minnie Mouse on laughing gas.

  • http://russianbooks.blogspot.fr/ Alexander Anichkin

    I wish Ms Sato mentioned what answer the manga artist-father had given the interviewing journalist.
    I studied Japanese and worked in Japan for many years, and I rather enjoyed the exaggerated politeness of the Japanese in formal situations. The high pitch and the formality comes with it.
    I am now in France. The French, too, put a great emphasis on formal politeness, but here ‘monsieur, madame’ or ‘accept my assurances of high consideration’ often hides extreme rudeness and inefficiency. While in Japan it doesn’t, or hasn’t.
    Just and observation.