One of the most famous elements of Japanese culture is the ridiculously attentive customer service you receive wherever you go. The word most often associated with this practice is omotenashi (おもてなし), which means a full-on, honestly expressed devotion to one’s customer. I touched upon this concept a few weeks back when I highlighted the viral video of a Japanese airport employee pampering passenger’s bags as they came through the conveyer. In the United States, our airlines don’t even treat their passengers that well.
However, Japan has another expression which is often used to summarize customer service: お客様は神様です (okyakusama wa kamisama desu), or “the customer is God”. This phrase is often used by disgruntled customers who feel they’ve been slighted or poorly served in order to compel businesses and workers to go to some ridiculous extremes to satisfy them. Indeed, many Japanese business experts have expressed concern that the mentality expressed by this expression is having a deleterious effect on Japanese business and workers alike.
The Rise of the God-Like Consumer and the “Claimer” (クレーマー)
The phrase “the customer is God” can be traced back to Minami Haruo, a singer of enka (traditional Japanese ballads), who was asked by Miyao Takashi, a comic storyteller, what he thought of his audience (a.k.a. his “customers”). On Minami’s official site, there’s a page written by his daughter, “About ‘The Customer is God'”, explaining that many people have been using the phrase in a way he never intended:
The “customer”, for Minami, is the listener, the audience. It’s a phrase borne from the structure between the customer sitting in the audience and the performer standing on the stage. Minami’s “customer” is not the customer of retail shops or restaurants, and moreover, isn’t the client of a business.
But it seems this phrase has been used apart from its true meaning – for example, when someone buying something says, “Since I’m a paying customer, you ought to be more respectful. Didn’t you know ‘the customer is God?'” And employees take the posture of, “Oh, ‘the customer is God’ – so that means that whatever the customer does is good?” To put it basely, it’s become an excuse for “claimers”.
“For me [says Minani], when I sing, if I don’t sing like I’m praying to the gods, with a clear heart cleared of worldly thoughts, I can’t demonstrate the pinnacle of my craft. Therefore, I see the customer as God, and I sing.”
The blame for popularizing the expression is laid at the feet of the comedy trio Retsugou Sanpiki (レツゴー三匹). Since then, the expression has become a staple of what we in the United States might call “monster customers”, and what the Japanese call “claimers” (クレーマー) – people who file an official complaint over even the slightest provocation.
The phrase has had a powerful effect on Japanese businesses, creating an atmosphere where the American idiom “the customer is always right” is taken to the hilt. One blogger who worked in retail lays out a number of instances in which he had to go above and beyond the call of duty, including this doozy:
I got a claim call from a woman at a large cosmetics firm. She wouldn’t specify what her claim was. She just said, come to the something-th floor of our company. I hurried and, after five minutes walking, arrived, but since I didn’t have an appointment I was stopped at the entrance. I explained my case at reception, but without even hearing my name the woman hung up on me, and I had no recourse but to describe my predicament. I was forced to wait at reception for 30 minutes. Of course my store was open for business, and letting 30 minutes pass meant great harm to my work.
When I finally entered her office, she hurled the high heel she had taken off at me and said, “I stepped in gum in front of your store!”
The writer said he swept the front of his store five times daily. But with tens of thousands of people walking on the street every day, keeping it spotless is obviously a Sisyphean task. But, even though the claim was devoid of logic, the poster said he felt he couldn’t do anything except apologize. Such is the power of the incantation, “The customer is God.”
“The Customer is God” vs. “Omotenashi”
Writing for Touyou Keizai, free writer Amamiya Shion recalls a tweet from 2016 that ended up being re-tweeted over 16,000 times:
If you want to get rid of “Black Businesses”, pay your employees adequately, and don’t give in to inconveniences so that your employees can work reasonable hours. People who complain when a store says, “We’re closed on Saturday and Sunday so it might take some time,” or, “It’s well past regular hours so we’re closed already” – I call them “Black Citizens.”
Amamiya agrees, and says that the mentality of “the customer is God” plays a direct role in this:
A “god”, originally, is an entity that surpasses human understanding, and is the object of religion. Humans, from long ago, have feared, honored, resigned themselves to, and accepting things that are beyond human power as “the work of the Gods”. You never blamed the Gods even if there was a poor crop. “We screwed up, and were punished”, people thought, and so offered sacrifices and prayed.
If you translate that attitude to the service industry, it means that no matter what ridiculous thing the customer does, you can never argue or refute it. It’s like you have to sacrifice your feelings and time completely. And since customers have become accustomed to this, they come to the mistaken conclusion that, “I can do anything I want”. In this way the Japanese customer becomes like a God, far removed from a relationship of equals.
Amamiya compares this to what scholars say is the true meaning of Japanese omotenashi, which has its roots in Japanese tea ceremony. Originally, omotenashi was meant to signify a sort of devotion: preparing the tea with full devotion and dedication to one’s craft, and offering it to the customer with a heart filled with gratitude. The goal was to create a feeling of mutual good will between server and served.
This became warped, Amamiya argues, due to competitive pressure between businesses, who weaponized extreme customer service to gain an edge in the marketplace. Since Japanese are acculturated from a young age to be sensitive to their environment and the people within it, it was an easy weapon to brandish. Amamiya argues that you can see the competitive effect of this in the evolution of convenience store hours. 30 years ago, very few were open around the clock. Now, it’s customary for combini to operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week, in response to customer demands for full service and convenience at all hours.
Another by-product of this deification of the customer is that, ironically, it can lead to rote, by-the-manual behavior that is actually poor customer service. Writing for Mag2News, Takahashi Yoshiaki, the CEO/Publisher of NewYorkBiz, writes about a time he went to a CD shop in America to find a specific CD. The clerk, he says, had a terrible attitude…but also spent over a half-hour attempting to help Takahashi find the music he was looking for. Takahashi contrasts that with what happened when he touched down back in Japan:
成田に到着して、CDショップで同じ質問をすると、女性店員は完璧な日本語で「申し訳ございません、こちらでは把握しかねまして」と、完璧なお辞儀で済まされました。 その間20秒。 態度は100点満点中120点です。果たして、本当の接客とは、どういう意味なんだろう、、ちょっとだけそう考えてしまいました。
When I asked the same question at a CD shop after touching down in Narita, the female employee said in perfect Japanese, “I’m so sorry, it’s not likely we can find it,” and she finished the transaction with a perfect bow. It took 20 seconds. Out of 100 points, her attitude earned 120. It left me thinking a little: what is the true meaning of caring for one’s customers?
A Blended Approach?
The only way to get rid of this mentality, argues Amamiya Shion – and to get rid of “black businesses” in Japan – is to get rid of “black customers”. This requires a revolution in the customer’s mindset. But how do you accomplish that in an environment where businesses are afraid of losing customers to their competitors if they back off the gas?
Takahashi Yoshiaki, despite his criticism of “the customer is God” mentality, admits that he has a fondness for the Japanese way of customer service. He recalls an experience with an American airline where he was put on hold for 10 minutes – with no muzak even to soothe his nerves – only to have his phone call cut off abruptly by God knows who. When he called again, the same thing happened again. Such an experience would be rare to the point of unthinkable in Japan.
There’s a reason Japanese hospitality has become so loved throughout the world. It’s a sign of respect towards the customer – a commitment that, right from the moment a customer walks into the store, the staff will strive to be attentive to his or her needs. And, as Amamiya points out, there’s a heart to true Japanese customer service – to omotenashi – that is wholesome, and is deeply rooted in traditional aspects of Japanese culture. Perhaps what’s required, in part, is a return to those roots in omotenashi and the tea ceremony – a re-discovery of the true heart of Japanese customer service.
Also writing for Touyou Keizai, author Sakaki Yuki argues it’s not just all on the customers to change – businesses should draw the line as well. He describes a time at a drinking parlor when a waiter accidentally spilled beer on a customer. As recompense, the owner gave the entire group unlimited free drinks for the entire evening. Sakaki notes that that kind of overwrought response only fuels the “black customer” mentality and that businesses should only recompense customers what they find reasonable. In this case, that might have meant offering to cover the customer’s dry cleaning costs, as opposed to declaring an open bar.
Some companies, thankfully, have already taken steps in this direction. Yamato, Japan’s premier delivery company, changed its re-delivery rules last year over concerns that its drivers were overtaxed, and shortened the time period during which customers who weren’t home could request re-delivery. Many other companies have been forced to change their policies as it’s become clear to the public that the demand for extraordinary service has caused workers to be pushed past the point of breakdown.
Whether Japanese customers will fully abandon “the customer is God” mentality remains to be seen. But, as addiction experts say, the first step to getting better is admitting you have a problem. At least both Japanese business experts and customers alike are beginning to have a conservation about the true heart of omotenashi.