I hadn’t landed at Narita airport but 30 minutes when I was presented with an “only in Japan” moment. It was a long moment — five minutes, to be exact — but it was nonetheless a stitch in time that sparkled so brightly, I knew I’d never forget it.
It made me stop and think, what makes something “only in Japan”? At first, it may seem obvious: Someone was generous, precise or quirky. Or someone went beyond the call of duty, or left you puzzled, or did you a favor for no apparent reason except for you just being you.
But like most things, there’s more to it than that. Dissecting my only-in-Japan moment, I realized it isn’t just the lengths that people go to here to do things for others, it’s also the lengths they go to not do certain things, and this I find extraordinary.
Let’s go over my five-minute moment, and try to note what didn’t happen. (Set-up: The plane had landed, I breezed through immigration, collected my luggage and was on my way to find the counter for the takkyūbin, a service in Japan that will send your bags on to your next destination so you don’t have to wrestle them onto public transport yourself).
I joined the line of customers at the busy takkyūbin counter, which had an extra staff member on hand just to give out address forms to people standing in line so they could get the process started while waiting. The same woman tagged luggage and put it aside as she worked through the line. Everything was running smoothly and efficiently, as you would expect in Japan.
When the woman approached me with the forms, she pointed to the large flat box standing between my two suitcases. “What’s inside the box?”
“An inflatable kayak,” I said.
“So, it’s not fragile?” she confirmed.
“No, it’s rubber,” I said.
She then took out a tape measure and started hugging the box as if it were a tree, measuring the girth, length and width, since prices are set according to the amount of space the package takes up in the delivery truck.
When she’d finished measuring, she sucked in through her teeth, eyed the box, cast another tree hug around the kayak and measured it again. She once more sucked through her teeth. Then she squinted her eyes and said, “I’m sorry, but this box is 10 cm too big.”
Oh no, they’re not going to accept it and I’m going to have to lug this kayak home on the bullet train!
“We can send it, but the size bumps it up to the next price level.” I was processing this when she followed up with, “Or, if you can condense the contents, we can cut down the box to the cheaper size.”
I agreed, and she brought out a box cutter, a pair of scissors and tape. I, the uninsured customer, wielded the box cutter while she deftly taped down the newly made flaps, a process that took only about two minutes. She then affixed the address label I had filled out onto the box, and asked me my preferred delivery time for next day: morning, afternoon or late afternoon. I chose late afternoon, knowing I’d be staying overnight in Tokyo and wouldn’t be home in Okayama till late the next day. With that finished, I was happily on my way and, like a well-oiled machine, the next person in line was being helped.
About five minutes later, I got a call on my cell phone. I was still in the airport. The voice on the other end was male, from the takkyūbin counter.
“Did you just send a kayak?” he asked.
Oh no, I thought, they’re not going to be able to send it and I’m going to have to lug this thing home on the shinkansen!
“We just looked at your address and realized you live on an island.”
I bet there’s a surcharge for putting it on the ferry, I thought.
“We wanted to let you know that it will take an extra day for the delivery to an island. Is that OK?”
No problem, I said, dumfounded that they would call to check, on the off-chance that the delay would cause me to miss the World Inflatable Kayak Championships or something. They were also risking the possibility that I might come back and retrieve the kayak and get my money back, instead of sending it. They could have been out of the entire transaction.
But the people at the counter were just doing their job, being as helpful as possible. And they were able to make a customer very happy with their attention to detail.
So, what was it that they didn’t do? What was missing from all this? Judgment on the part of the female staff member, who could have labeled me a difficult customer. The voice on the other end of the phone that skipped the narrative (“She could have told us she was on an island when choosing the delivery date and time!”) and instead took the time to make sure there was no confusion about the delivery date. The attitude that could have prevented the staff member from offering to cut the box down in size (“That’s not in my job description”). Even the tough business attitude was not there that surely could have justified not wanting to miss a sale (“It’s not my problem — she ought to know it takes an extra day to deliver to an island”).
They skipped the negative chatter that any salesperson in countries like mine, the U.S., would have gone through dealing with the same customer, blaming them for making them go out of their way — or worse, for expecting someone else to fix their problem.
But perhaps the most important thing they didn’t do is “nothing.” They didn’t take the easy way out and just do nothing (“I’m sure it’ll be fine”). That’s Japanese customer service.
I arrived home the next day as planned and the kayak was sitting at my doorway. It hadn’t even needed the extra day!
Only in Japan.
Japan Lite appears in print on the fourth Monday Community Page of the month. Comments: firstname.lastname@example.org