One day I was making one of my regular visits to the convenient store in Tokyo. They are just so darn convenient that I find myself mindlessly walking in sometimes just to see if they have anything new in stock.
However, this time I was just trying to get a snack.
I made my way to the refrigerated section. Boiled quail eggs, katsu and rice, salmon onigiri, egg sandwiches, and spaghetti bolognese that I never buy because it stains the sides of my mouth too red.
I grab a “cold potato and tomato mix salad” that’s sprinkled with some green herbs. It looks healthy and filling.
But it’s not just a salad. It’s a new salad that I hadn’t tired before, so there is a hint of novelty that pulls me to reach for it.
After some more wandering around the shop to make sure I didn’t miss out on any awesome goodies, I finally make my way to the cash register.
The cashier has quick hands, scanning barcodes and exchanging money. He looks tired but his stance is unusually straight and somehow firm. He stands straight at attention like I was the lieutenant and he was an overly-enthusiastic cadet.
I don’t want a cold salad, so I ask him to warm it up for me.
They have microwaves behind the register at all of the convenient stores. My request is a pretty common one.
He picks up the salad, looks at it for a second, and with an unsettling matter-of-factness shoots my request down.
Sorry, I can’t warm it up for you.
It’s a cold salad.
Yes. That’s why I would like to warm it up.
No, it’s a cold salad, so, it’s supposed to be cold. I’m not allowed to warm it up for you.
Experience told me to stop the conversation right there.
I’ve apparently requested something that is going against protocol — breaking some cardinal rule of the salad’s temperature.
My option here would be to A) viciously battle this out with him, possibly involving the manager or B) walk away and thank him nicely. People were backing up behind me so I didn’t want to keep them waiting.
Perhaps the convenient store didn’t want to be liable for “altering” the food in any way and thus leaving them open to lawsuits in case I got sick. Oh, what terrible illness could befall me were I to eat a heated salad…
But I didn’t have a microwave at my apartment at the time, so it made this whole experience at the convenient store rather inconvenient. In most places like the US they’d throw it in with no problem.
Customer service in Japan is great, as long as you define ‘service’ within a narrow box.
What I learned
There have been real estate agents who wouldn’t let me rent apartments, restaurants that wouldn’t let me in because I wasn’t Japanese, and conversations that never happened because of the language barrier. There were cold salads that were never warmed up.
There are all of these inflexible rules and communication hurdles that you will certainly experience in Japan.
Those issues don’t bother me so much.
It’s all about trade-offs. Yes, you have all these rules and yes things might be a little bit more expensive and so on and so forth. It might be hard to find friends especially if you don’t speak the language.
But all things considered, the benefits far outweigh the costs. To date I have not found a country that has been able to provide the standard of living and level of personal connection like Japan does.