Column: Why in Japan I Feel Like an Individual (Letters from Japan, Part 9)

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Mr. Thompson, Professor of Public Administration, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, is the author of Gambling in America: An Encyclopedia. His most recent book is: Parables from a Not Quite Paradise, Nv 89154: The History News Network Essays . He is a columnist for HNN.

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 Parables from a Not Quite Paradise, Nv 89154: The History News Network Essays

This spring Mr. Thompson is a visiting professor at Osaka University of Commerce. This is the ninth of his"Letters from Japan."

OK, it was not exactly the Abraham Lincoln story, and I had read about it in the tour books. Still it was an event to be noticed.

When my brother came to visit me in Osaka, we did some room switching around, so that when he left I had to check out then check back into the hotel--part of the traveling overseas thing. I had been putting my one and five yen coins in an ashtray envisioning their later use as souvenirs to pass around UNLV when I return--I imagine saying "Don't ever say I never gave you anything," as I hand a friend a yen--a coin worth less than a penny. I was careful to gather the coins together as I moved out of the first room, but I guess I was not careful enough. The next day as I returned to the hotel and entered the front door, two desk clerks frantically motioned me to the counter. They seemed quite unsettled as they thrust a form--with all writing upon it in Japanese--in front of me, handed me a pen and gestured for me to sign the form. They said the word "money" several times. Actually their urgency brought a sense of worry to me. Then one clerk went to the back office and returned. She was holding a well wrapped plastic bag, about the size required to hold a luncheon sandwich. The bag contained four one yen coins and one five yen coins. They were found somewhere in my room, in a drawer, on the floor--somewhere.

Tipping is not expected and actually it is not permitted in most places in Japan. The book said a room attendant (maid) would never accept a tip, nor would a maid ever take anything belonging to a guest. The maids at the U-Community Hotel where I am staying in east Osaka are NOT my servants. They are employees. They are paid a wage for their work. They are not doing their job so that they can grovel to me for compensation. So it is with maids, waiters, waitresses, and even cab drivers.

NO TIPS. So, you might ask, just how can one expect good service in Japan. I am not sure just how, but except for the monumental Lost in Translation situations that arise over and over again, service is very good, in most cases up to western standards, or even better.

Customer Service Books (mine is called "Casino Customer Service: The Win Win Game") invariably mention "Moments of Truth" and the service cycle. (Jan Carlzon coined the phrase "Moments of Truth" in a book of that title). The cycle starts as a customer seeks out a business to patronize, and it ends with a departure from the business activity. The cycle contains many moments of truth--that is moments of human contact and interaction when a customer will make a decision that he or she will return to do business with the same concern again, or vows instead to never set foot in the business again.

The cycle starts with a simple moment--one so very simple it is hard to figure out why it is so bungled over and over again by American businesses. The moment is when the customer comes into a business area. Is the customer greeted and valued at that moment or not.

There is a telling passage in Kurt Vonnegut's book, God Bless You Mr. Rosewater. At the urging of his wife a man is reluctantly embarking upon a plan to deprive the very eccentric Mr. Elliott Rosewater--a moderately distant relative--of his fortune, on grounds that Rosewater is insane. The man explains to his wife what Rosewater's wealth would mean to him. His words are ones that could come from the lips of so many Americans lost in the struggles of daily existence. I am paraphrasing from memory, so please get the very entertaining book for the exact words. The man says, "All my life I have walked into rooms full of people, and I say--Oh excuse me, oh, I'm sorry, I'm in your way, I see I'm in your way, Oh I'm sorry, please, let me get out of your way, Oh I am sorry I was in your way." He goes on, "But if I had Rosewater's money, it would be different when I walked into a room. People would take notice and say to me--Oh excuse me, I am sorry, I am in your way, please I am getting out of your way.--If only I had Rosewater's money."

Maybe the feeling is universal, but I cannot imagine expression of those sentiments in Japan. Not the Japan I am visiting today. Every time I enter a room with people, others face me, and they greet me with a good morning--something about Ohio--and they bow their head. This happens when I enter the hotel lobby, when I enter a store, a restaurant, a university office, a panchinko parlor. This happens if I am in a business suit, this happens if I am in blue jeans. The bows come from persons with mundane jobs, the bows come from presidents of large companies. I don't wear a sign saying "important." The bows are also given to attendants in washrooms, to waiters, to train car conductors. I think I have become a quick study, I initiate bows also. Actually in most situations the bows come simultaneously.

The bow is a very simple thing, but it helps fulfill an extremely important human need. The bow given and received shows that we recognize that the other person EXISTS, that the other person is not just an object in the way like a misplaced suitcase, but that the other person is a human being. The entrance into a Japanese business is in the vast majority of cases a time when a moment of truth is successfully executed by a business concern. I will never turn down a chance to come to Japan. It is fun to travel in Japan, for while I am in Japan with Japanese people I have a wonderful sense that my simple existence as a person is important. Most often the bow comes with a smile, and that is icing on the cake.


All Japan society represents a learning ground for politeness manifested in the bowing ceremony of everyday life. Let me describe how this activity was played out recently (March 25) at the graduation ceremonies for Osaka University of Commerce. Outside the arena building where the commence was soon to begin, the 1200 students about to become graduates of the university passed into the central door way. As they approached the doorway, they walked by three non-graduating students who were in uniforms. One in the center held the university flag. The other two stood at attention and applauded as all the graduating students walked by and toward the doorway.

I had been invited by university President Ichiro Tanioka (who is also Japan's leading scholar of gambling studies--my "thing") to attend and to sit on the stage with the other university officials. The faculty sat just below the stage on two sides of the arena. The 1200 students sat in four large groups--in blocs representing their major fields of study. They did not wear robes, caps and gowns. The young men wore dark business suits, the young women wore very nice kimonos. The students did not all come to the stage. Rather a few individuals came forward, including those receiving doctorate degrees, and a representative of each group of majors.

As the names of those coming forth were called, they rose up--not from a front row, but rather from the middle of the pack, as it were. They moved in the semiawkward way we move across theater seats when we just must. Then they came to a main aisle. When the graduate reached the area just below the stage, he or she turned to the right and bowed to one group of faculty members. They returned the bow. Then the student bowed to the left side group of faculty members, again the bow was returned. The student moved to the small stair case, walked up to the stage, and bowed to the university officials to the right, who returned the bows, then to the left, then each bowed to President Tanioka, and he returned the bow. He made a short presentation speech, handed a diploma award to the student and then he bowed to the student. The student returned the bow, went back down the stairs. Stopped, facing his or her fellow students, he/she bowed again. The bow was returned and the student returned to the pack from whence the student came.

The formal ceremony ended with what seemed to be a modern folk dance interpretation of a samurai ritual--but then it might have been an authentic ancient dance. Then a man dressed in traditional Japanese garb did a vigorous dance and series of shouts to the sky. I was told later that he was a typical "cheer leader" for university sports teams. The rituals were very dramatic, and I was pleased that the rituals were received by the students in a very respectful manner. They appreciated the honor represented in the rituals.

Those of us on the stage followed President Tanioka to the back of the hall, then the faculty also filed out to the rear. There we were handed shopping bags full of live roses. Each group of students then exited toward the back and we approached each individual graduate and handed the graduate a rose. The students departed the hall and outside members of the Karate club--a championship university team--dressed in athletic outfits together threw any willing student into the air in celebration. The students proceeded to another university hall where a party with ample food, wine and sake commenced for the next three hours.

Japan is not unique in celebrating college graduation day, but the way the ceremony was conducted at Osaka University of Commerce had an appeal, a decency, a humanity that certainly left a wonderful impression on this visiting professor. Japan is noted as a "group" society, and I would say that label is accurate. However, the rituals of the groups I have noticed certainly make an individual feel important as a person.

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