When I first started dating my wife, she lived in Tokyo, and I resided in Seattle. One day, I wanted to send her a gift, so I placed an order with Amazon Japan.
I was shocked when I realized the package was delivered that same day! In America, that kind of rapid delivery is only available to Amazon Prime members, and even then it often costs a little extra. My Japanese colleagues later confirmed that this is normal and expected from 宅配便 (takuhaibin; rapid service delivery) companies in Tokyo metro, and that Amazon was just trying to keep pace.
Japan is famous for such ultra-convenience and hospitality, which is captured in the Japanese word おもてなし (omotenashi). Tourists marvel at the actual convenience of convenience stores, the versatility of vending machines, and the fawning and care they receive from restaurant and hotel staff.
But such “consumer-friendliness” may have its dark side.
In recent years, Japan has been roiled with stories about “black labor” (ブラック企業; burakku kigyou), particularly “black part” (ブラックバイト; burakku baito)、or “black part-time work” – jobs which are supposed to be part-time, but in which students and housewives alike find themselves pressured to work overtime without pay, often while also being subjected to bullying and harassment. The phenomenon isn’t limited to part-time work, however. The death of Takahashi Matsuri (高橋まつり) [Japanese link], a young Dentsuu employee who worked over 100 hours of overtime a month, has sparked national outrage, and even moved the administration of Prime Minister Abe to pass a new law capping maximum monthly overtime.
Is omotenashi creating a culture in which Japanese are compelled to work themselves to death? Author Kawahito Hiroshi briefly touched on this subject recently on his nippon.com article “‘Death by Overwork’ in Japan and its Remedies” [Japanese; no English translation appears to be available as of this writing]:
For example, there are many pubs and small stores open 24 hours, but they’re supported by employees working horrendous late night hours. You can get packages delivered from the morning until late in the evening, but that’s supported by the long working hours of drivers. In truth, employees of pubs, small stores and deliveries companies are dying because of these long hours. It’s become necessary to think about restraining the desire for “convenience” in order to protect the health and the lives of these workers….
[It’s important] for citizens to consider whether their demand for extreme convenience is leading to such extreme work conditions, and to exercise restraint.
Blogger denkiiruka makes the point more forcefully in their blog “What Brings About Black Business? The Service Culture of a Struggling Japan” [Japanese], depicting a vicious competitive circle with consumer demand as its root cause:
No matter who does it, if a business provides a form of service that isn’t provided, it’s hard for businesses that aren’t doing that to be picked [by consumers]. “We have to do that”, they start thinking, and in a spirit exactly opposite from ‘service’, they feel compelled to understand a service just to survive. I don’t mean to blame the consumer, but seen this way, consumer’s actions are strong-arming businesses into ‘omotenashi’.
denkiiruka points out the custom of all employees saying “Irrashaimase!” (Welcome!) and “Arigatou gozaimashita!” (Thank you very much!) to customers entering and leaving the store. Despite being unnecessary to the basic operation of the store, it’s now a country-wide phenomenon:
This is a pattern with the Japanese, isn’t it? It’s an attitude of “Other people are doing it, everyone is doing it, so why won’t you?”, which eventually creates a situation in which you are compelled to do something unnecessary. And if a new store starts up with a certain kind of service, and the service is making money by providing a service exclusive to that store, other businesses have to start doing it in order not to have their customers stolen. And the people who are made to perform this service are the full time and part time staff.
I haven’t seen a lot of the same line of thinking in the mainstream press, which leads me to think this is more of the beginnings of an idea rather than a groundswell against the idea of omotenashi. Given that Japan is still struggling through the bursting of the bubble in the 80s and a series of natural disasters, I can’t see there being much will among business owners and politicians to damage a brand they’ve spent decades creating, and thus hurt the thriving Japanese tourism industry. At the same time, with stories of overtime-induced suicide and overworked part-time students continuing to make headlines, it’s clear that something will eventually have to give.