Since coming to Japan, I’ve noticed that my pretense in any business or government office causes an uproar of panic. Most Japanese have no idea what to do when a foreigner customer comes in the door. Generally, the entire office stops operating and falls into utter confusion consisting of four main activities: 1) Running around aimlessly. 2) Making phone calls to who-knows-where. 3) Staring at the foreigner. 4) Trying to help the foreigner.
I have recently discovered that these activities are neither random nor unplanned, especially numbers 1 and 2. In actuality, every major or corporate business has a sheet of paper about protocol for when a foreigner enters, henceforth referred to as the Sheet. This is a page or two that briefly describes what employees of a shop should do when encountered with a foreign customer. In places like Tokyo, employees are well-accustomed to using the Sheet. They do fine when a foreigner comes in, because they’re familiar with the process and the Sheet is usually hung conveniently in a break room. However, when you live in the inaka (Japanese for “boonies”), like I do, the Sheet is usually in the bottom of a drawer or hidden in the plumbing. Because of this, when foreigners walk into a store, usually one employee gets stuck dealing with them while everyone tries to find the Sheet. Some run in circles looking for it, some make phone calls to contact someone who may know where it is, and some just stare at the foreigners, fixing this historic event in their minds.
Of course, local mom-and-pop stores don’t have the Sheet. They just stare at foreigners and use hand motions to indicate payment and price, and they keep staring long after the foreigners have left their store: the shock value is too much. However, when a foreigner encounters a more sophisticated business, say a car dealership or a cell phone company, the corporate office has provided the Sheet for the good of their employees. In city offices, the Sheet is provided by the prefectural government.
Some things are written on the Sheet, and some are common practice to all Japanese. A common practice is an inherent knowledge of who deals with foreigners. All Japanese have this sense: it’s taught in the second year of middle school. The hierarchy goes something like this: The person with the best English gets foreigners passed to them. Sometimes, this person doesn’t actually have the best English, they’re just more excited than everyone else to practice their English. If no one speaks English in the store, then the most senior employee comes out to deal with the foreigners. Whoever comes, they usually have two or three other employees standing behind them and whispering “ganbarre” (hang in there), or maybe just staring at the foreigners.
As for the content of the Sheet itself, less sophisticated Sheets just have simple advice like, “Speak loudly and slowly. If they don’t understand you, keep speaking louder and slower till they do understand you.” Another common piece of advice on a less-sophisticated sheet is, “Panic utterly.” More sophisticated sheets (for companies like DoCoMo and other large, corporate giants) have information about calling the corporate hot-line where someone on the phone can speak in fluent English to the foreign customers.*
One of the most key pieces of advice universal to all Sheets is this: never communicate with the foreign customer in Japanese. No matter how good a customer’s Japanese seems to be, always try to communicate in English. If you know any English, use it: even a simple word like “five” will make the visit less painful. Don’t let the foreigner fool you: they can’t speak Japanese, so don’t let them, and whatever you do, don’t speak Japanese to them. A corollary to this is that if an employee does not speak English and must communicate in Japanese, they must use the most polite forms of Japanese, something that even most Japanese have a hard time understanding. For example, in normal Japanese, the phrase “this is a pen” is said, “kore wa pen desu.” In tera-polite Japanese, this is said, “kotchirawamawa open-sama desu-gozaimasu-itadakimasu-kudaonegaishimau-gozaimasu.” No matter how much the foreigner asks Japanese to speak in casual Japanese, they will be instantly fired if they waver for a moment from tera-polite Japanese.
It’s not uncommon for stores and government offices to make mistakes. Under-trained employees often lead to this. When I first opened my Japanese bank account, the bank illegally allowed me to open the account without seeing my “foreign devil card,” or “gaijin kaado.” They called after a few days and asked to see it. When I finally came in after getting the card two weeks later, the girl who opened the account ran to me, sped me to the front of the line, and made the necessary copies of my card. I received a small towel as consolation for the mistake.* Illegal extensions on tourist visas have been issued in the past, as well.* One would think immigration would know how to deal with foreigners.
Personally, I am glad for the Sheet. Without it, Japanese employees would be incredibly uncomfortable and nervous when foreigners entered their shops and offices. That, in turn, would make the process more difficult for the foreigner, too. However, because of the sheet, foreigners can be assured that the entire office will pour 100% of their resources into helping them, whatever that takes, be that finding someone who speaks English, calling a friend who speaks English, or just gesturing till the point gets across, the Japanese employees will do everything they can to help. In America, most offices would give up at the language barrier and send you away disappointed. In Japan, not only will they do everything they can to help you and make sure that you walk away happy (and there is no escape once the foreigner-protocol has been engaged, so don’t even try), but you get some good entertainment out of it, on top of great service. There ARE perks to being a foreigner in Japan.**
*True story that happened to me or someone I know.
**This last paragraph isn’t sarcastic. Well, maybe just the first three sentences are sarcastic.