Maybe you can't have it all...


Back in January, I wrote an article for the Japan Times about the many kinds of citrus fruit in Japan. (See Japanese citrus and yuzu tea.) To give you a bit of a background, I supply 99% of the photos that accompany my Japan Times articles. I have tons and tons of photos in my personal archives, since I am never without a camera, but when I need a specific photo and I can't get the subject matter here in southern France, I ask my mother to take the photo. I bought her a good camera a few years ago and trained her to use it, and nowadays she's really pretty good.

So for this citrus article I needed a catchy one since none of the ones in my archives were good enough. I asked my mother to take the photo, but she didn't have any good fruit on hand. So, she asked a citrus farm in Wakayama prefecture that she orders from occasionally to send her some as soon as possible. Not only did they send her a big box brimming with beautiful fruit the same day, they refused to take payment for it, since she had said it was for a newspaper article. They just asked for a copy of the article, if a photo of their fruit should make it in. (It did; you can see the photo here.)

Since this exchange, my mother has become a good customer of this farm. When she was in the hospital recently for surgery, they sent her another box of fruit, again no charge. And they let her know about things that they don't mention to the public because they don't grow enough to sell outright, such as the beautiful ume plums to make umeboshi, umeshu (plum wine) and ume in honey with. This time she did pay something for them, but it was only about 1/4th to 1/5th of what other vendors charge, and of excellent quality too. (Wakayama prefecture used to be called Kishuu, and Kishuu or Kishu ume are regarded as the best quality ume in Japan.)

While the level of generosity and thoughtfulness shown by this citrus farm is quite exemplary, good to great customer service is actually not that unusual in Japan, especially when dealing with small, family run businesses, but also seen from large corporations too. Truly bad customer service is so unusual that when one encounters it it's quite jarring. There is a phrase that "the customer is god (お客様は神様)", and it is still taken very seriously. (Some customers take this a bit too literally and act like arrogant jackasses to store attendants and the like, which makes me cringe when I see it.)

This is one thing I truly miss about Japan. The high baseline level of customer service is like a cushion of warm air buoying you up in everyday life; something that you just take for granted. And while I hate to be "that" kind of expatriate resident of a country that I generally love, that cushion just does not exist where I live now. As a consumer in France, you need to be on your toes a lot more. Small businesses are not so bad (and some offer lovely warm service) but quite a few large corporations and the like seem to have forgotten what it means.

On the other hand, it's rainy season now in most of Japan, and the weather is humid and nasty. It's the time of year when the laundry doesn't ever seem to dry properly and mold starts growing in your closets. In contrast weather here in southern France is gorgeous, sunny and warm but not too humid, with deliciously cool mornings to start the day.

Good customer service, or good weather? Which would you prefer? Maybe it's not a good comparison...maybe we aren't supposed to have it all. ^_^;

Filed under:  essays france japan personal

If you enjoyed this article, please consider becoming my patron via Patreon. ^_^

Become a Patron!


The level of customer service in Japan, and the high standard of politeness and helpfulness in general, are among the things I love about the country and its people. I once bought something from a local vendor (meaning not in Japan), but there were some parts missing. I emailed the manufacturer and the next day (!) I received a reply, saying that replacement parts were on the way to me. No questions asked. Also, I have yet to encounter a Japanese shop attendant that's not impeccably polite and cheerful, even when they realize I don't speak Japanese at all ^^

Oh, that's a hard question! I think I'd probably take the warmer service, though...personally, I've found unpleasant encounters have a stronger ability to make a beautiful day prickly. Meanwhile, another human's warmth and show of respect is more than enough to make even really lousy weather seem not quite so bad. And help me feel more human myself! (^_^)

Hi Maki-san, I agree with you. Even in Japanese grocer/bookstore, I feel the service is superlative compared to anywhere I go here in the U.S. And yet many of moms/pops stores here already have a good service. Just the other day, I bought a book and a pen in a Japanese book store, they took so much care wrapping them, it makes me feel good watching it and receiving it. It is like an added gift/bonus. Thanks for sharing this observation.

Mold's easily dealt with, corporatist cruelty seems unstoppable.

A bit of discomfort is gladly borne when buoyed by kind community and cordiality.

So true about amazing customer service in Japan! That is a beautiful photo of plums. My plum tree currently has plums that look like the ones in the photo. How would I know if my plums are ume plums? Will search your site for who to make umeboshi. TIA, Maki!

The superlative level of Japanese customer service is one of the many precious aspects of Japan that I miss. And, yes, I'll take politeness and civility over good weather, any day.

Maki, your mother also takes lovely photos. It really makes brings the beauty of the fruit to life so that you can almost taste it.

I have to agree that the customer service is so important--and you don't really realize how much until you come home to the US and experience a kind of culture shock based on the lack of care and kindness by many in the retail industry. I've had this happen to me both times I have gone to Japan for about two months and then returned to the US.

Education, I think is in the similar situation with Japan versus the US, where students seem to really want to learn in Japan and have to work hard to get into a good high school, whereas in the US many students now seem unwilling to participate and just don't want to be in school. My husband is a high school English teacher, and he has decided he wants to move to Japan and teach where "kids want to learn and respect their teachers." While I know and have met some Japanese who have bad attitudes, I really feel that generally the Japanese population is polite and kind, and I miss that feeling of having friends where ever you go. It is always like a home away from home.

Well if you do decide to move to Japan, I'm pretty sure your husband will be welcomed with open arms...the English "teachers" there are mostly not teachers by training. Good luck whatever you decide!

I really likes Japan's culture since I was little. It's actually awesome that human can actually be so punctual, polite and organized like most of the Japanese. I really envy them though. By the way, thanks for sharing. The photo is nicely captured thus made the fruits looks really appealing.

You are right, I sign with you. Japanese culture is really nice, eg. they have really much nice things, that isn't in Europe. Eliza

The northeastern US unfortunately has both, bad summer weather and rude people. Mold is happily growing on my bathroom ceiling yet I hate leaving the house each morning to face the crowds. I do most of my shopping online because service in stores is pretty bad and they never seem to have what I need. The people I see on the train, elevators, etc. are oblivious to everything. Each person thinks they are the only one existing in the whole universe and can do whatever they want whenever they want. It's depressing seeing this on a daily basis.

Can't speak highly enough of Japanese service (oh, and did you mention the no-tipping thing?). It's sublime! Although I have to say, sometimes I think I could sacrifice a little of the obsequiousness in stores in exchange for some better manners on the part of men in general here. I sure do miss the ladies-first thing. The other day a man held open a door for me, and I felt "buoyed up" for the rest of the day, so incredibly unusual was his act of kindness. Ah well, as you say, we can't have it all.

I live in west Japan, the rainy season has been strangely dry this year. Yes, somewhat humid, but sunny and breezy, with almost no bad laundry days at all! It's making us a bit nervous. What's going on?

I have been to Japan twice and never, ever have never experienced anything but friendly, polite service. On my own for a day in Ueno, bought a single cookie. The sales lady wrapped it like a precious Jewell and presented it to me with a smile. Nice memory!
In contrast, my local supermarket has been trying to divert it's customers to a self service line where you have to enter your purchases into a computer, bag your own groceries and pay with a credit card. I have shopped at that store for 27 years and the clerks know me by name, I feel sad that the store is obviously trying to cut out the human clerks to everyone's detriment except the stores.

I hate to sound like an old fogy, but "the customer is always right" used to be followed in the US. Recently (maybe in the last 10 -- 15 years) this has changed a lot. Now one regularly has to deal with people who are rude to customers here. I often ask myself why these people are in customer service, or why they are not reprimanded or fired. Strangely enough, it is difficult to predict where you will find poor customer service. I have had great service at some chain/corporate places (Petsmart, TJMaxx come to mind) and horrible service at some places that are regional/local. But especially with the small businesses I wonder if they realize that they are losing customers. . .