Charlotte writes, “I had a strange experience while I was in Japan, and it seemed to define the country and people for me. But I still don’t know exactly why. My friend Heidi and I went to a small hamburger cafe in Kanazawa city. First, I ordered my hamburger. Then, my friend wanted her hamburger with a different type of cheese than the one they put because she is allergic to it. The waitress refused and said that it was impossible. Heidi argued (in Japanese) with her but every time she would just say that it’s impossible to put that cheese on that kind of hamburger. We had a good laugh at this strange behavior and decided that it must simply have been some “Japanese rule,” because there are so many rules for so many things in Japan. I have been reconsidering this lately, and I was wondering if you have any thoughts.”
Regarding your experience – I would warn you that you should not use this experience to “define the country and (Japanese) people.” Like any other country, Japan is an extremely complex society with a very rich past and one or even few instances of this kind are merely opportunities to learn more (I am still learning).
Now going back to your experience, what is important to understand is that while Japan is known for excellent customer service, it is also a country of rigid rules and practices. For instance, I can go to any restaurant here at home and tell the waiter, even for a so-called lunch special, that I don’t want X (I avoid French fries, for example) with my meal but can I have twice of Y (say salad) instead. It is never a problem. In Japan, this can be a major problem – not that they are not customer-oriented but they are more process oriented. A menu is written in a certain way and that is how it is going to be executed, until someone does a complete system redesign as part of a strategy change.
There is another difference in how Japanese society works. There is a strong hierarchy and many low level employees have none to little decision-making authority. In fact, they don’t even know what to do when they have to make a decision. In your case, this poor waitress was probably shocked that you were making a request that she had never heard before and was never told what to do in such a situation. Luckily for us, while we are used to fairly mediocre or even poor customer service in general, we do give some authority even to our minimum-wage workers.
So just take it as an experience that may teach you a lot about Japanese society, culture, and business practices. And next time, when you are in Japan, enjoy what is on the menu – Japanese cuisine is diverse and delicious.