Grocery shopping can be a tedious day-to-day duty, but it is also a great opportunity to learn about the way of life and the mentality of a country. In Japan, this already starts before you have even fully crossed the doorstep of a store, as you will immediately be greeted with a sonorous “Irasshaimase!”. And this is only the first of many instances in which you will hear this word. While in German supermarkets you can explore the aisles and work through your shopping list quietly and without anyone taking notice, Japanese shop assistants act as a kind of motion sensor. Even when they are stocking up shelves with their back turned to you, you can always count on them yelling “Irasshaimase” as soon as you’re approaching them from a distance. When pronouncing this and also the other polite phrases in their repertoire, they often extend the vowels at the end so that you feel like walking amidst the market criers on an oriental farmer’s market: „Irasshaimaseeeeee“, „Arigatou gozaimaaaaaaasu“. Come in, welcome to Japan!
The omnipresent „Irasshaimase!“ exemplifies two Japanese characteristics: the standardization of processes and the service orientation. Similarly to how for many shop assistants the exclamation “Irasshaimase!” is hardly more than a mere reflex devoid of meaning (admittedly, those poor souls have to say it several hundred times a day) they also tend to follow the ever-same routine in other respects. Don’t you dare for example giving the money directly to the shop assistant instead of placing it in the little tray standing on the till, or placing your items on the till instead of leaving them in the shopping basket, as is usual here. When we did this, the shop assistant seriously made the effort to put all our items back into the basket, just to take them out again in order to scan them. Well, rules are rules in Japan. (Or was this procedure meant to teach us a lesson?) In Germany, you usually proceed as follows at the supermarket till: first you put your items on the conveyor belt, then the cashier scans them in and finally you have to stuff them into your bags as quickly as you can because the next customer’s items are already rolling in. If you’re not quick enough, you’ll cause traffic congestion. This cannot happen, however, in most Japanese supermarkets. Here, you place your entire shopping basket on the till and the cashier takes out the items one by one, scans them in and puts them into a second shopping basket. With that second shopping basket you then proceed to the packing area where you can pack the items into your bags calmly, taking all the time you need. For the cashiers though, this means they cannot sit down while working at the checkout. In Japan, the employee’s comfort is simply less important than the goal of handling a large number of customers as effectively as possible. In fact, as a customer you spend considerably less time waiting at the till here. As is typical for Japan, this system is thought-through to the last detail. In many supermarkets the baskets which you use for shopping have a different colour than the baskets used for the items you have already paid for. And the shopping trolleys are constructed in such a way that you have to use them together with a basket, to assure that no customer arrives at the till without a basket. To get yourself something to eat can hardly be more convenient than in Tokyo – the shocking fruit prices apart. If your hunger is burning, you’ll find in almost every supermarket a big section with fresh snacks like fried fish which you can heat with a microwave directly in the shop. An even quicker and more comfortable way to get food is to just step into the next konbini. Even in the most remote area you can find those convenience stores on every street corner and in many cases they are open 24 hours per day. I you just need a bottle of water, lemonade or some tea or coffee, you can be sure that the next vending machine is never more than a few steps away. In my first article I described Tokyo as a perfectly oiled machine and this applies also to grocery shopping. Everything here is designed so as to feed most effectively and at any time a densely concentrated population of millions.
Also in the konbinis the shop assistants welcome every customer with that automated „Irasshaimaseeeee“ to which they rarely receive any response. To me it feels very strange not to greet back when someone greets you. However, this helps to underline the shop assistant’s role as service personnel. Although in Berlin too shop assistants should ideally be helpful and friendly, they don’t need to adopt a second personality for that. If you ask them a question they’ll help you because it is their job, but they’ll do so in a casual manner as if they were helping out a friend. If, on the contrary, you ask a Japanese shop assistant a question, they might rush to move heaven and earth while anxiously affirming their willingness or their sorrow. Certainly, this has also to do with the fact that on the one hand they want to be especially welcoming to foreigners like us, while on the other hand they start panicking just at the thought that we might talk to them in English. But even without the gaijin factor, service people act much more deferential here than in Germany. When an employee of the energy company wanted to check our fuse box, he apologized so often and so wholeheartedly for the inconvenience, that I almost wanted to console him. What a contrast to Berlin where it may happen that they walk on your carpet with their street shoes while shouting into their mobile phone. The effort of the Japanese employees can often be noticed in the details. Once, Mr. Calabria and I were talking to one another in a guitar shop while waiting for the shop assistant to finish the paperwork for Mr. Calabria’s purchase. For this purpose, the shop assistant apparently needed the price tag of the guitar, which was leaning against the wall next to us. So he came back, bent his knees, sneaked carefully like a cat and then almost like in slow-motion grabbed the price tag by extending his arm as much as possible. All these acrobatics just in order not to interrupt our conversation! On the other hand, last time I went to the bank in Berlin the bank employee suddenly started railing loudly at himself while typing my data into his computer: “Mistyped again! Man, this can’t be true! Am I dumb like a brick today?” Such a scene could hardly occur in Japan, where a service employee is not allowed to leave his role under any circumstances. In Germany, it is also pretty common that customers and shop assistants exchange a joke or an ironic remark at the till. In Japan, I have never observed such a thing so far. Here, I am usually able to predict what the shop assistant is going to say next, because it is always the same song. Presumably, the Japanese language adds to this pronounced service culture. The fact that there is a special politeness language with its own verb forms, prefixes and suffixes amplifies the contrast between the private Self and the official Self. This politeness language is like the costume that an actor puts on in order to get into his role – the role of service personnel. I can only assume how liberating it must feel to wipe off this role after a long day’s work. These things that you can observe while grocery shopping apply to some extent also to the Japanese society as a whole. Generally, people in Japan tend to cling to routines and rules more than in Europe. Doing things the same way everyone else does them and the same way they have always been done makes Japanese people feel safe. And even if they are not working in customer service, most of them are a perfect model of politeness and helpfulness in public encounters – while always taking care not to let their personality or their true opinion show. Friction is to be avoided at any cost. That is why Japan runs so smoothly – in the positive as in the negative sense.
How do you experience grocery shopping in Japan? What do you find better than in your home country, what do you find difficult or weird? Let me know in a comment!