This lady who keeps bowing, as if suffering from pathological automatism, when nobody is around is a far
cry from the way it was at a department store as recently as five years ago. When you stepped
into a department store at 10 a.m., the time for the day's opening, on
a 1999 morning, you were welcomed by a huge reception line just inside
of the entrance doors. It is only of late that they started to realize
they couldn't afford too much of this in part because there wasn't a huge crowd
of shoppers waiting outside for the day's opening anymore. Sometimes the people
forming the reception line would outnumber their customers today.
Up until recently, and even now, to a lesser degree, foreign visitors often talked about politeness, hospitality and niceness of the Japanese people. But I would call these traits a mass-stupidity. Even worse, these bows are sometimes the way they express their apology, not appreciation. Many foreigners have noticed that the Japanese always look and sound apologetic without any particular reason to do so. But of course, there is a good reason.
Japan is one of those countries that you never really understand until you live there for a certain period of time. It is only when you have settled down for months, or even years, that you start feeling the mass-stupidity disguised as hospitality or politeness does cost you a lot, money-wise and otherwise.
In Japan, saabisu (Japanese transliteration of service) means a completely different thing than in other countries, in that it is basically free of charge and something you can live without. Although we are gradually getting used to the idea of service that carries a price tag and offers something we cannot live without, Japanese customers were taken aback when foreign-capital companies such as IBM said they were charging a handsome amount of money for their service some 30 years ago. Ever since the situation has changed, to a certain degree, but still it holds true here that more often than not, saabisu is something superfluous or redundant.
My observation is that one of the things that underlie this trait is the traditional Japanese culture that somehow values uselessness, purposelessness or emptiness. But more importantly, perhaps, this high tolerance toward redundancies stems from the fact that these supposedly homogeneous people, at workplace or anywhere else, are united in perfect harmony, as if the entire nation has been "unionized", to protect themselves against the axe that the increasingly merciless management would otherwise resort to using.
In the good old days of the 1970s through 1980s, businessmen in other industrialized nation thought the kaizen (ongoing, incremental improvements) movement coupled with the TQC (Total Quality Control) mindset had been the secret of the Japan's success. In fact the kaizen and TQC worked most of the time. But there was a fundamental flaw involved there. This question never crossed their kaizen-obsessed minds: "Isn't there any business process which is redundant or unnecessary?". Without asking whether the existing process had to be there in the first place, they diligently brought forth smart ideas one after
another about adding or eliminating individual steps involved there until they came up with a fully-streamlined business process. It was a different issue whether or not the state-of-the-art business process still had its raison d'etre.
When the bubble economy burst in the early-1990s, the magic quickly ceased to work. People, both in academic and business worlds, climbed onto the bandwagon of the new success formula prescribed by the likes of Michael Hammer, trailing a little behind their American counterparts. However, it would take a sea change in corporate cultures to make the workplace revolution, advocated by Hammer, et al., take hold here. But these people have now started getting out of the Hammer's reengineering bandwagon, faster than when getting onto it, because they are not really down-to-earth people with a certain amount of perseverance.
Basically, that's how we are at a loss, today, still being surrounded by a lot of redundancies and suffering from an exorbitant cost of living, tangible or intangible. Some keep saying that if corporate Japan dumped its redundant manpower altogether, Japan's jobless rate would double to top the 10% mark. But people just recoil at the gloomy outlook so much that they keep saying, "What's wrong with having some leeway?".
And yet, even foreign visitors, who are prone to mistake redundancy for hospitality, are sometimes surprised to see the following scenes:
1) When you take a trip by air you will be surprised at the domestic departure gate to see there are at least 4 people attending to the passengers, on top of the lady fielding passengers' questions and requests about seating assignment, etc. One girl stops you from inserting your boarding ticket into the machine. She does it for you because if you insert your boarding ticket all by yourself,