I walk up to the register and put my melon bread on the counter. Before doing anything, the clerk puts two hands across her waist. She bows, almost deep enough to hit her head on the already low counter. After she tells me the price, I hand her a crisp 1000 yen, which she takes ever so delicately in both hands.
Following the exchange she returns my change; coins lined up by value in one hand while another is hovering under my own outstretched hand. She bows one final time as I leave.
When I first came to Japan, these moments would make me feel like I was the only customer in a store brimming over with people. I felt like store owners generally valued my business. Before knowing this was the norm, I returned their politeness with ill-pronounced ‘domo-arigatou’s’ and awkward bows as I left the store or restaurant. Nowadays I’m barely phased by this high level of respect found throughout the country.
Roaming through various stores, I’ve come to develop a habit of keeping my eyes low, head bent slightly down. My own posture has changed because of my host culture. At first I didn’t understand why so many Japanese people also did it. Every time a store clerk would greet them, they would totally ignore the gesture. It seemed borderline disrespectful to me at the time. But in the years living here (and I’m surprised at myself for saying this) I noticed that the regimented and excessive politeness can sometimes feel a bit overbearing.
I miss the casual politeness back in the States; being able to strike up a conversation with whoever might be taking my order
I barely look at waiters in the eyes anymore. Because at any moment I could get hit with a barrage of run-on honorific speech, bows, and huge smiles. After the whole ordeal has ended and my brain cuts out all the fluff, I realize that all the waiter said was, “Please enjoy the salad bar while you wait for your food.”
Maybe I miss the casual politeness back in the States; being able to strike up a conversation with whoever might be taking my order. Yet the more I think about it, those light conversations are probably used to the same effect as honorific speech (敬語) is used in Japan. It’s all to make the customer feel at ease and respected.
Japan has spoiled me with its extremely high customer service; so much that gestures of respect can sometimes go unnoticed. Yet even among all this, Japan still finds a way to surprise me every so often:
“Sumimasen!” (Excuse me!)
I turn around to a man with calloused hands, wearing an apron. Absolutely out of breath.
“Wasuremono desu.” (Something you forgot)
Inside of his hand was a sheet of paper I must have left at the restaurant I just ate at, a whole block away. It was nothing too important, but my face lit up at the fact that he came running all that way just to hand it to me. Not to mention leaving his busy post.
I gave the man a deep bow and we parted ways. I guess this politeness isn’t to overbearing after all.