Only in Japan…


There are many things I love about Japanese culture. There are three lighthearted aspects of it that consistently entertain me, and I experience them every time I pass through Japan, even if it’s just for an hour long connection:

  • Excessive use of “I’m sorry.” For example, I don’t think it’s necessary to apologize when you upgrade me to first class.
  • Gratuitous use of the phrase “thank you for waiting.” I’ve been waiting for five seconds, that seems a bit unnecessary.
  • And probably my favorite of all is the “galloping.” To express a sense of urgency people tend to fake jog whereby they take 10 steps when they could take just two, even if they’re wearing high heels.

Anyway, I stayed at the Hilton Narita Airport last night as I’m enroute back to the US, and had one of those experiences that’s so uniquely Japanese I have to share it. There was a huge typhoon that hit the area overnight — apparently the worst typhoon to hit Japan in 10 years — so the weather was horrible. There’s a small pond with a tiny waterfall in the interior courtyard of the hotel, and the water in it was literally flying upwards.


Anyway, as a result the airport shuttle was running “a few minutes” late. Of course this was communicated to me with a horrible sense of shame as if they had personally offended me, but sure enough they had a solution. “Please go outside and our staff drive you to the airport in their car.”

I figured I misunderstood him. I mean, surely they weren’t going to have their employees drive us to the airport in their personal cars. Nope, that’s exactly what they were going to do. We headed outside and one of the employees was waiting in his car. It even had a Hello Kitty umbrella in the trunk and a McDonald’s “holder” in the center of the console.

During that short drive he apologized no fewer than eight times and said “thank you for waiting” no fewer than five.

Gosh, I love Japan…

Filed Under: Hotels, Humor
  1. The funniest is when the store / restaurant employees yell Irrashaimase! at entering customers without even looking at them, or sometimes before they even open the door 🙂

  2. I have been living in Japan for a number of years now. I love/hate customer service here.

    As the trains resumed service late this morning (in our area, just north of tokyo, about 10am) JR train announcements apologized for the trains being stopped because of the typhoon and expressed how sorry the entire company was for any delay or inconvience that anyone may have endured as a result of this event.

  3. You’re getting the 1st class treatment at the top hotels. I dislike that behavior. They run after you wanting to carry your luggage etc. I have two function hands, thank you. Use your apologies where it matters-> address WWII atrocities in China.

  4. “I‘m sorry” doesn’t really mean they are apologizing in an American sense. It simply means they acknowledge the in-punctuality of their service or whatnot. You’ll know when they really mean they are “sorry.” It’s a culture thing. You really think they’re sorry for being five seconds late or for upgrading you to first class? It’s just a courtesy.

  5. Kindness can be overwhelming, especially if you are used to big western cities. In their case, it’s also professionalism, I got lots of respect for that.

  6. it’s over the top and not anywhere near as sincere as it plays- especially given that in the most xenophobic society on earth, you, as a non Japanese, are a lesser form of human.

    as with many things in life, vintage south park is your best reference. they addressed this in an episode several years back. they also have a good primer on scientology…

  7. It may also be a language barrier. I wonder if you were speaking Japanese if they’d tell you “I’m sorry” again and again in Japanese. If “I’m sorry” is one of 100 English words they know, they’ll keep saying it.

  8. The comment above is correct: it is courtesy but it is also Japanese professionalism. You’ll note that when you answer a phone call in a Japanese business setting, you usually say:
    Thank you for your phone call. This is lucky [polite].

    BUT if the phone rang more than twice before picking it up, you respond with

    Thank you for waiting [lit. I’ve made you wait.] This is lucky [polite].

    (1) The number of times the phone rang is something you must notice before answering it in Japan, and in a proper business setting, it is never supposed to ring more than twice. (2) If it does, you excuse yourself/acknowledge the impropriety of the delay.

    You can see fro this example how much emphasis society places on ‘keigo’ [polite speech], but also how such courtesy wouldn’t even register since it has become rote. Thus, the politeness doesn’t really translate, since it is woven into daily language so deeply…

  9. The apologies that flow freely – and incessantly – are part and parcel of the Japanese language and, by extension, the culture. I lived there for four years and, believe me, you get used to the incessant apologies and thanks. In fact, you start to expect it!

    I can remember buying a Danish one day on my way to work and, for whatever reason, I did not receive the full-on “thank-you” treatment. And I remember leaving that shop puzzled as to what I may have done to not deserve the “thank you ” treatment. My point is that, while others have pointed out that incessant thanks and apologies may cause the words or sentiments to inevitably be diminished, it’s still a pretty darn good way of handling human interaction between strangers. Nobody feels bad for having been thanked or apologized to – it’s just not human nature to be offended for that. And it makes for an extremely peaceful society, internally.

  10. Lucky you’re quite pathetic by saying you like Japan because they apologize a lot. It is a common courtesy to “apologize” in services industry there – it’s not an apology, simply an acknowledgement of your presence. There are hundreds of books (in Japanese, of course) addressing speech etiquette at work, especially dealing with white foreigners like you (Yes, they do differ depends on the race of customers, not a joke). The etiquette doesn’t stop at work, it goes to your family members, new friends, old friends, new colleagues, old colleagues, strangers on the street and more.

    Lucky you do whatever you like with whatever status you are after. Staying at an American chain hotel doesn’t reflect what Japan has to offer entirely. It’s sad that you don’t see it that way.

  11. Not to get off topic with the comments, but have you ever stayed at the ANA Crowne Plaza Narita Airport Hotel before? I have stayed at that one and the Hilton and prefer the ANA Crowne Plaza Narita Airport Hotel much more, especially their breakfast!

  12. As a Swede having lived in both Japan and America I agree that Japanese are extremely polite, perhaps without actually meaning it. In the same way as Americans always put up a friendly front, asks how you are doing etc, without not really caring how the person is actually doing. It’s also more important to project a good image and thus Americans tend to exaggerate a lot using words like Great or Awesome when good or average would suffice.

    I love both countries 🙂 This is just an observation from a Swede where people tend to be more to the point (seen as “unfriendly” by Americans) and use less superlatives.

    Which society do you prefer?
    -As a customer?
    -As the employee actually having to go the extra 100 miles for the customer?

  13. I love how they take/give back my credit card with two hands, like if it was made out of crystal and they don’t want to drop it.

  14. @Lively – mine too!

    Do you have a photo my any chance? I stopped and watched this at the Narita terminal. All 6 or 7 of them would do this to every bus. There is at least 1 bus every 2 mins. It was hilarious and touching at the same time. My camera had run out of battery but that image is vivid in my memory.

  15. @abby I am going to assume you’ve never been to Japan…and you might want a better life reference than South Park.

  16. Try venturing into small town rural Japan and see if you still get the fawning treatment you’re used to with large business hotels and premium cabins. You might be in for a bit of a surprise as they mumble a terse apology for refusing to accept gaijin into their shop/restaurant/hotel. There’s a reason Japan is largely unknown as a target for casual tourists and it’s not the just the distance or the cost.

  17. Lucky, I left NRT airport on tuesday night and we encountered some heavy turbulence on the way out. considering the storm got worse the next day, did you encounter a choppy flight on the way out as well?

  18. @ Paul Griffin — This is actually the first Narita-area hotel I’ve stayed at. Will check out the ANA Crowne Plaza next time!

  19. @ JFK — Respectfully I love Japan, and if you read the second sentence of my post you’ll specifically see these are the “lighthearted” aspects of the culture I like. Those are by no means the main things that are great about Japan, and I’ve left the airport in Japan many times.

  20. @ Scott — Was actually surprised it wasn’t that bad. Had warnings on both flights that it would be very turbulent, but in neither case did we experience more than a little bit of chop.

  21. “You’re getting the 1st class treatment at the top hotels. I dislike that behavior. They run after you wanting to carry your luggage etc. I have two function hands, thank you. Use your apologies where it matters-> address WWII atrocities in China.”

    What, so the gate agents should be chasing him around apologizing for WWII atrocities?

  22. Lizzie said,

    “What, so the gate agents should be chasing him around apologizing for WWII atrocities?”

    OK, that did have me laughing. 🙂

    Unfortunately the true history of Japan is full of unfunny and downright disgusting and depraved things they’ve done to other cultures. Until fairly recently top Japanese politicians made little effort to marginalize the fringe nationalism of the far right and even went so far as to publicly praise those who committed atrocities in the name of overt aggression. More recently some Japanese politicians have made a some concessions here and there but overall they still have a lot of work to do to catch up to the likes of Germany et. al. I have no qualms with visiting Germany today, and indeed Japan, but that doesn’t mean that all aggressors are equally redeemed or repentant. I can imagine this sounds odd coming from someone who lives in the today’s ever more lawless and brutal empire, but perhaps that’s a story for another time.

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