Only in Japan! – 3 stories of Japanese “omotenashi”, service and respect in 1 day

Japan is famous for customer service and hospitality, known as “omotenashi” in Japanese, and for being a safe and clean country – and my experiences on recent trip to Japan last month were no exception.

What I want to share with you today are three amazing experiences that left me saying “only in Japan!”, all of which happened in one 8 hour period. Even though I learned to expect the types of experiences when living in Japan, they still astound me in contrast to what you would likely experience in most other places in the world.

If you want to learn more about omotenashi, check out the article I wrote after returning my first trip back to Japan after moving back to the United States: Life in Japan: Omotenashi – the spirit of Japan’s customer service & hospitality.

Exciting opportunity: Join me in Japan!

I was in Japan in January to prepare for a Japan Lean Study Trip – and you can now read about the highlights.

Prepare to be transformed on a KBJ Anderson Japan Study Trip

More trips are in the works – check out the Japan Lean Study Trip page if you want to embark on the learning trip of a lifetime!

The KBJ Anderson Japan Lean Study trip in May 2019 will include unparalleled access to Isao Yoshino, a 40-year Toyota leader and John Shooks’ first manager in Toyota City, over three days of the trip, plus a focus on service, respect, and people engagement.

Contact me for more info, check out the trip website, and register here!

Back to these three “Only In Japan” experiences

These three “only in Japan” experiences from January all happened in an eight hour period on the Saturday following the study trip preparation week, on a day spent with some of our best friends still living in Tokyo.

After you read about these experiences, let me know if you think that any of these things would happen in your country?

Perhaps one, maybe, but it’s highly unlikely that all three would happen in the same day anywhere but in Japan.

Amazing experience #1: Lost wallet returned completely intact

On our way to a bus-train interchange in Shibuya, my friend accidentally left her wallet on the bus. She didn’t realize it until we were about to enter the train station. By then, the bus and wallet were long gone.

Okay, so not a picture of the wallet, but a photo of our delicious okonomiyaki lunch at the restaurant where I first tried okyonomiyaki three years ago! I love Hiroshima style.

A culture of safety and respect for others

I might have been more concerned for my friend had I been a new visitor to Japan. However there is a sense in Japan – even in the dense metropolis of Tokyo – that you are in small community where everyone is looking out for each other because they know each other. In this case, people don’t usually know each other, but there is a sense of community and safety that I’ve not experienced anywhere but small towns.

I also had a prior experience of a lost wallet being returned in 2015 when my cousin visited and left her wallet in the train station. When she realized this 3 hours later, she was in a panic. We tracked down the wallet at the Lost and Found  area at the station, and sure enough, someone had turned in her wallet, all money and belongings included.

No worries

So on this Sunday in January, this being Japan, we headed out for lunch as planned figuring that her wallet would 99.99% likely be turned in promptly with all money and personal items untouched.

As expected, wallet reclaimed!

Several hours later, after enjoying a delicious okonomiyaki lunch sitting at the counter bar, my friend went to the station headquarters, talked to someone who spoke some English, was directed to another lost and found, and was reunited with her wallet – 100% intact, as we expected.

What are the odds where you live?

In the United States, or most anywhere else, we likely would not have had the confidence that the wallet would be returned promptly and intact.

Certainly, people do return things in other countries (like the camera I left on a train in Barcelona in 1991!), but the probability of everything being there (including money) is less likely.

Amazing experience #2: Protection (or direction?) at the train station

What do you think the woman in this picture is doing? 

Imagine, a slightly more crowded platform than when I took the photo, people rushing to line up for the soon-to-arrive train. You rush up and see a uniformed station worker extending her arms to you. What do you do?

You might have assumed, like our group of 5 did, that she was directing us where to line up for the train, and rush to gather in line with her outstretched arms.

If you had, you would have been mistaken! Look below and see what her mission was.

Watch out for the drip!

She was protecting us from the small drips of water coming from the ceiling above!

She looked at us in horror when we tried to stand right under her arms in the midst of the crowd as the train arrived. We were doing the exact opposite of what she had intended.

I was able to get my phone out and snap this picture right before our train pulled out of the station.

I’ve never before seen something like this for drips of water. Only in Japan!

Amazing experience #3: Unexpected customer delight

I grew accustomed to delightful customer experiences when living in Japan, and also some frustrating ones, examples of both I highlighted on my article on Omotenashi. 

I described Japanese service like this:

I once described Japanese hospitality to Mark Graban as constantly high levels service with no customization (don’t ask for the tomatoes on the side if the menu says tomatoes!), where is the U.S. high levels of customization are generally accommodated, but there is great variation in actual service delivery.

But the delightful ones always are a special reminder of what it means to more than satisfy a customer.

A below freezing night’s surprise: handwarmers in our pockets! Photo credit: A. Buford

Delight on a freezing night

I forgot to mention that the week I was in Japan was the coldest weather on record in Tokyo in nearly half a century. It was well below freezing and I was grateful for the two puffy coats that I brought and simultaneously wore out in the evenings.

After an already delightful and delicious meal with our friends, we collected our coats and ventured out into the sub-zero temperatures. We put our hands in our pockets to find them delightfully warm.

The restaurant staff had placed hand warmers in each of our pockets!

My husband and I ran back to the restaurant to thank the staff, and there two of them were standing, in the sub-zero temperatures, waving to us and saying “thank you”.

A truly amazing way to end a special day of “Only in Japan” moments.

This type of service that goes over and beyond what is expected is not uncommon in Japan, and is something that we all can learn from.

Of course, it also is balanced out by the many instances of frustration with the rigidity and lack of flexibility to requests that one also experiences. But I’ll take the delight!

Other examples of omotenashi and customer service on this trip

And here are just a few other examples of service on the trip:

Baggage handling at the airport

Instead of having to drag your own bags off of the carousel at the airport baggage claim, the bags are pulled off and neatly arranged for passengers.

For example, on my arrival to Tokyo’s Narita Airport, I got through Immigration quickly and was one of the first people to baggage claim.

I appreciated my bag being taken off the carousel for me.

One could argue that this is overprocesssing by increasing the number of human touch points in the baggage handling process, but as a customer, I appreciated it!

Personalized water bottle at Oishi Accounting.

A special touch for visitors at Oishi Accounting

I’ll be writing soon about my entire visit to Oishi Accounting in the Tokyo area with Tim Wolput and Christoph Roser (author of the All About Lean Blog) to experience their engaging morning meeting, but one of the impressive nice touches of “omtenashi” that the company provides for all visitors and customers is a personalized water bottle.

Not necessary, but definitely going above and beyond!

Plus, I drink a LOT of water and appreciated the extra hydration.

Until that post, you can also check out the morning meeting I experienced with Tim last year too!

What do you think about these examples of service and hospitality?

What do you think of my experiences of service and hospitality described above?

Please share your comments in the section below.

Highlights of learning in Japan

In future posts, I will share more insights from the week in Japan, including:

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