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I have been informed by a friend that La Nación, Costa Rica’s second most important newspaper, has put a link to a Japanese video on how to get a kid ready for school in five minutes. Within that time the child gets up, eats breakfast, washes his face, brushes his teeth, gets dressed and has his lunchbox prepared by his mom. Although the clip comes from a variety show, it reflects something that is common both in serious and not so serious TV programs: how to carry out ordinary, everyday tasks in a more efficient manner.

The first thing that some people might notice and comment on is that the kid had no shower/bath after waking up. That is so because Japanese usually bathe at night before going to bed. The reasons for this custom range from the religious to the (nowadays) practical. From a practical standpoint, one never knows what the knew day will bring, so it is better to be ready for whatever may come. The religious importance of bathing can be found both in shintoism and Japan’s “branches” of Mahayana Buddhism. Cleanliness is of utmost importance and one should bathe so as not keep in the house the impurities one brings from the outside. Bathing at night is also an important family activity; it is common for families with small children to bathe together if the bathtub’s size allows it.

Getting back to this post’s subject, Japanese always seek more efficient ways of doing things. It all starts at home and at early ages. In the 1950s, during a housing construction boom led by the government, there was a moment when the kitchen was designed differently from what had been the traditional until then. The designers presented their idea to a very famous chef at the time, but she hated the new design. What was the solution? Several apartments were built, some with a traditional kitchen and some with the new design. They had some families move in and records were made of how many paces and time it took a mother to prepare meals, especially in the morning. They established that the new design was indeed better since housewives had to move less and spent less time preparing breakfast and packing lunchboxes. The chef was satisfied with the results and whole-heartedly supported a campaign encouraging people to embrace the new way of doing things.

The sense of order is also learned at an early age. Sometimes it is so subtle one does not notice it until some circumstance draws your attention to it. During our las visit to Costa Rica, one day when my daughter and I were visiting a shopping mall (Multiplaza) she noticed the children’s playground and wanted to play. While we were there more and more children showed up. While my daughter always lined up, most of the other kids simply pushed and shoved their way in to use the slide, causing her to lose her turn often. She came to me several times to ask why the other kids were impolite and unwilling to line up. Because I did not have an easy, quick answer, I kept telling her not to worry and to enjoy herself whenever she could use the slide.

As it happens, some boy who was bigger than my kid and the other children turned up. He made it his business to enjoy the playground all to himself, getting on the way of the smaller kids and daring them to get him out of the way. At that point my frustrated daughter came to me, with a teary eye, to ask why the big boy was such a bully even though his dad and why his father did nothing to correct him. I had no choice but to tell her that some parents cannot teach manners to their offspring because it is impossible to teach what you don’t know; I also told her that in such cases one cannot blame a child for misbehaving.

The boy’s father, who got to hear me (that was my intention), approached me to tell me that he belongs to the “new breed of Costa Ricans” who understand that we live in the age of globalization and that kids must be taught that in this world only the strongest survive. I answered that maybe the smartest and most educated might survive, but not bullies and bloodsuckers. The man decided to showcase his linguistic prowess, blurting “shut the hell up motherfu@#$r, don’t be a smart ass or I’ll bust your head open right here, even in front of your snotty kid.” I was about to respond that getting my head busted was not a priority for me during my vacation, but before I could utter a word several mothers intervened. Not only did they chastise the man for his turpitude, but they also pointed out that I had treated him respectfully. The man blurted out “busybody hags” and left.

After thanking them for their support, I noticed the mothers had began to emphasize to their children that they should queue and wait for their turn, sometimes successfully, sometimes not quite so much. Regardless, the end result was that my kid could play in peace for a while and that we had a chance to talk later about the importance of defending oneself respectfully and using one’s head.

Last night was one of those nights when one cannot sleep well for reasons beyond one’s control. I was still working on a document at around 2 a.m. when my daughter woke up and asked me to sleep next to her. She must have had a nightmare because she cuddled very tightly, holding my hand and putting one of her legs on top of me.

I moved away each time I thought she was asleep, but she would move immediately to be next to me again. I ended up being squashed between her, her stuffed animals and the wall. I had a hard time falling asleep, but I managed to fall into a slumber that would soon be interrupted.

I awoke to the sound of some neighboring apartment’s doorbell, then I heard another. Later, the next door neighbor’s doorbell rang and finally, ours. I did not get up for I did not want to wake up my child and because I assumed that, if it were an emergency, the person outside would ring again and speak aloud. For a brief moment I did think that it might be the police, but I quickly discarded that idea; in an emergency the cops would have come with their siren blaring and then they would have given some advice through a loudspeaker. Then I thought that probably some non compos mentis christian had unwisely decided to propagandize his or her product by cornering victims at a time when they could not politely allege that they were on their way out.

As I speculated as to whom might be ringing all doorbells in the middle of the night, I could hear radio-like sounds and a whispering voice. At that point I decided to try to break free from my daughter’s locking grip without waking her up. Before I could unfetter myself, however, my wife got up at lightning speed and went to open the door. I barely managed hear that she was talking to another woman. Both of them spoke in too low a voice for me to get the drift of what they were talking about; I only got to listen the doorbell ringer politely apologize for disturbing us at an unearthly hour and my wife’s reply that it was no big deal (though I was certain my partner probably wanted to bite the untimely visitor’s head). At that point I guessed that it must have been indeed a member of the estranged brethren; after all, on account of their bumptious proselytism they have a certain reputation for ignoring Japanese norms of courtesy.

My daughter, woken up by the noise, requested that I take her to the bathroom. When I picked her up she asked about her mother’s location. As I took my child to the toilet I saw my wife –standing in a Ninja assassin pose– looking through window that faces the parking lot and the other buildings in the apartment complex where we live. Once my daughter was finished with her business, I went to find out why the Ninja in the house was standing guard and to ask what all the commotion had been about. My wife, who was quietly huffing and puffing, told me she had also considered not getting up, but did so anyway in case it were the police who rang the door to give us some kind of urgent notice. When she opened the door she found herself face to face with a sex worker from what in Japan is called “deribariiherusu” (デリバリーヘルス: “health delivery”), an euphemism that is usually abbreviated as “deriheru” (デリヘル). The young worker was supposed to visit apartment 201, but she did not know that every one of the four buildings has apartments 201A and 201B, i.e., eight apartments where her customer potentially lived.

My wife was furious for being woken up at odd hours and angry that the young worker was too dim to think of calling her office to verify where her customer lived. Because the delivery company appeared to have failed to make sure its employee was not a nuisance to others, my wife thought the it must not be a serious firm.

I asked the head of the house why she was still standing guard, with fire in her eyes she answered that she wanted to know who was the irresponsible fool that hired a service without providing enough information (about his delivery address) to prevent inconveniencing other people. I told her that the customer would not be stupid enough to do anything that would reveal his identity. Three minutes later, however, the next door neighbor left in a rush, got on his car and disappeared for about ten minutes.

When he came back, he climbed the stairs talking himself, complaining about his bad luck. I can only reckon that he had no choice but to pay for a service he could neither consume nor consummate.

My previous post’s story about my friend’s customer service experience made me remember an interesting experience I had last year.

Due to a very severe thunderstorm, trains were stopped for a couple of hours. The inclemency of the weather was so wretched that lightning hit the very station where I was waiting out the storm. When at last there was an announcement through the loudspeaker about the resumption of service, some instructions were given to those passengers who were traveling the last stations along the line. I failed to understand them, partly because I was tired; partly on account of my language deficiencies, but also because either the announcer did not know how to use a microphone or the loudspeaker was nothing more than a broken buzzer.

I recall boarding the train and setting my phone’s alarm to vibrate ten minutes before the last stop on that train line since I had to catch another train from there. I fell happily asleep was woken up later by another passenger who told me we had arrived. Still somewhat dazed I managed to tell him that I was going to the last station, but he clarified for me that where we stopped would be the final stop of that train, which would not continue because of the possibility that felled trees could be on the tracks. My fellow passenger told me there had been an announcement indicating that outside the station there were buses awaiting to take us to the remaining stations of that particular rail line. On our way to the parking lot he asked what my destination was and, upon hearing my answer, indicated that we had get on bus No. 5, which was bound for the last three stations on that line.

The bus ride seemed to go on forever, finally arriving at my intended station right before midnight and hours after my other train left. The remaining three passengers got off and were greeted by two staff members of the railway company. I asked them what they suggested I do since there were no more trains to my final destination. They answered they knew where I was going and that they were going to call a taxicab for me. Despite my experience in Japan, as a Costa Rican I could not help but think that I would not pay the fortune the cab fare might cost; I played dumb and asked if there was an affordable hotel nearby. The station attendant told me not to worry, that my taxi ride should not be too long because it was so late in the night.

When the cab arrived three minutes later, the station master went to talk to the driver. While I was not close enough to listen, I could tell the driver was getting scolded for something or other. The taxi then turned around and left. The station master ran back to where I was standing to ask me to forgive the additional delay, informing me that it had been necessary for the taxicab to return to its base since there was a problem (it went unexplained).

Once taxi showed up again, the station master and attendant apologized profusely for making me wait and because the railway company had not managed well the contingencies of the day. I got in the taxi and was politely greeted by the driver, who made sure he got confirmation of my destination. Even I became a bit concerned when I saw him turn on the cab meter, I said nothing; I was too tired to have a discussion in Japanese.

The taxi driver was an older man that turned out to be very friendly and talkative. When he asked where I was from I replied that I came from a small Central American country called Costa Rica. He immediately picked up on it and said that he knew a few things about my country. He went over obvious stuff, that we have no army, that we are a neutral country with many national parks. Then he asked me if congress was still made up of 57 members and whether their election still carried out by closed party list. That level of detailed knowledge greatly surprised me, so I asked why he knew so much minutiae about such a small and far-away country. The driver answered that he had been a high school teacher and principal. I allowed myself to be ingenuous and commented that it must be tough to work the night shift as a taxi driver. He surprised once again. He said that he had retired early and that he was a cabby for fun!

As I listened on dumbstruck, the driver explained that as a child he always dreamed of being a cabby. But his parents, who had also been teachers, pushed him to study and to have an intellectual profession. Nevertheless, he never lost his true yearning and that is why he retired as soon as his youngest daughter graduated from college. According to his story, he told his wife that he was leaving Tokyo to go drive a taxi somewhere in the mountains, that he would be truly grateful if she supported and accompanied him, and that he would fulfill his dreams regardless of what she thought.

Among the many things he talked about, the cabby told me why he preferred to work at night. There is less traffic, it is not so hot and night customers tend to be better conversation partners. He said that even Japanese are very chatty customers when they travel at night accompanied by a taxi driver and the stars.

As we rode on, I could not stop myself from looking at the taxi meter and worrying that perhaps there had been something I misunderstood to the point that perhaps I might have unwittingly bought myself an expensive trip. To take my mind away from this, at some point I asked the cabby what the problem had been when he first arrived at the station. He answered that the station master chastised him for his poor presentation –he had forgotten his cap. I thought it was funny, but the driver said, with great seriousness, that the station master was right, a good presentation is a sacred thing at work.

When at long last we arrived home, the cabby pushed a button on the meter to print a receipt. He had to have seen the look of horror on my face because, as soon as he gave me the paper, with a joyful and contagious laughter he told me that I only had to sign as confirmation that I had been taken to my destination and the train company would pay his slightly over ¥30,000 fare.

I asked him if it would not have been cheaper for the train company to put me in a room in some hotel near the station from which I rode the taxi. He said that because it was low season (and a weekday) one could find rooms for ¥7,000, even in a Ryokan (a traditional Japanese hotel). According to him, however, the railway company would not suggest the hotel option because that would be tantamount to presuming it can trespass on a customer who is, in all likelihood, in a hurry to get to his destination since he was traveling with a preset schedule.

We bid farewell and the cabby left. I climbed the stairs toward my apartment, only to find out that I was not carrying my home keys.

Yesterday I got in touch with a friend who told me a brief and interesting story that illustrates how helpful Japanese people can be.

On Saturday my friend was going home.  The train she was supposed to ride on was delayed because a man had taken his own life by jumping in front of an oncoming train (nowadays this seems to be one of the most popular ways of committing suicide in this country).

Because it was already in the evening and the next day she had things to do, my friend decided not to wait until some uncertain time for the train service to resume.  She asked for directions on how to get to her destination on foot and got on her way.  She was very much surprised a while later when someone called her name.  It turned out to be the station attendant, who had ran to find her and tell her that the train would be back in service within the next ten minutes.

The station attendant went to find my friend because he felt responsible for having told her there would not be trains anytime soon and thus having caused her to choose a long walk.

My friend, who has lived in Japan for several years, told me that she never ceases to be amazed by Japanese dedication to customer service.  According to her, in her country in Africa customers are made almost to beg for things for which they are paying.  Just like in Costa Rica.

Japan’s customer service culture may well be the most advanced in the world. It certainly is drastically different from that which prevails –if it is assumed to exist at all– in Costa Rica.

Last weekend my wife and daughter took a trip with my little one’s best friend and her mother. As is customary in this society, they bought small presents for relatives and close friends. On Monday my wife was about to mail a small bag of kinako (黄な粉) –soy flower– to a relative, but she realized that the flavor expiration had already passed three days earlier (in Japan edible products have both flavor and product safety expiry dates).

My wife called the mom and pop shop where she bought the kinako to ask where she should send the flower for a replacement. The person that answered the phone apologized for the inconvenience it caused and told my wife that she only needed to give him the date and time of purchase, both of which could be found and the cash register’s receipt. The store called back five minutes later to thank my wife for informing them about the product expiration date problem, apologizing yet again for the trouble the store had caused her. Mailing the expired product would be unnecessary (i.e., an additional burden on the customer), they would simply send a new kinako package immediately.

The flower arrived yesterday. As is usual in Japan, it came with a small “apology” present. The original kinako package had cost ¥210 (about US$2.27). The new packet’s shipping cost was ¥500 (US$5.40) plus whatever monetary value the apology present may have had.

This brief example of customer service culture may seem trivial, but it illustrates the gulf that separates Costa Rica and Japan. In Costa Rica, both the private and public sector act as if they understand customer service to entail nothing more than denying customers’ complaints and petitions, or even attributing responsibility for product or service defects to the customer, so long as a calm tone and phony politeness are used when addressing the customer.

Two days ago we went to have dinner at a restaurant we visit occasionally when we want to eat something relatively tasty at reasonable price. Because it is a place with a lot of customers that is full almost all of the time, I was surprised when the maître d’ recognized us and told us our favorite table would available shortly.

My wife also thought it was strange. While for a moment we entertained the idea they might have remembered us on account of being a mixed family, we discarded such notion because the staff at that restaurant is used to seeing foreigners and their Japanese families. Later, when we were back home, we realized the hostess remembered us because our daughter once caused the maître d’ to drop the machine used to process credit card payments.

It is an universal rule that small children are very talented at making inopportune comments at the worst of times. My own child is no exception. No long ago, she managed to create one of those situations that would, in any culture, make everyone uncomfortable, and certainly more so in Japan, where discretion is very important.

In this country it is not unusual to find restaurants and shops whose restrooms are unisex. The restaurant in this story is one such place. The last time we visited, months ago, my daughter needed to go to the restroom. After taken care of her business, we went to the lavatory outside the bathroom to wash her hands. While we were cleaning up, we heard the bathroom’s sliding door close. My kid asked if I knew who had gone in. I answered that knowing such a trivial thing was unimportant. Even though she insisted she wanted to find out, I said I did not know as I was finishing up drying her hands.

As we headed back to our table, as soon as she was next to the restroom’s door she opened it completely and at the top of her lungs made an announcement: “look! That man is urinating!” I shut the door immediately, noticing that while the person inside had turned the door lock to its “on” position, he had failed to make sure it latched-on correctly. I was beginning to tell her that she should not have opened the door while somebody else was using the restroom but, before I knew it, she turned around and went back to open the door once more. Speaking yet again at the top of her lungs, she made a new observation: “he has tiny pee-pee!” (おちんちんが小っちゃい!) I grabbed her hand firmly and quickly went back to the room where our table was.

I am a slow eater by nature, but that day I chewed on my food far more thoroughly than usual and even ordered coffee and desert, all with the intent of not running in the the poor man again. But Murphy’s Law never fails. When we finished eating we went to pay our bill at the cashier, where there was a short line ahead of us. And who else could have come right behind me? As soon as I saw him, I discreetly apologized to man from the restroom, who smilingly said that it was no big deal. His wife asked him if my daughter was the girl who saw him at the toilet and offered some compliment to my kid. I thought I had worried for nothing, but I was completely wrong.

While we waited for our turn to pay, my daughter told me that the man behind me was the same person she saw in the restroom. I chose to ignore her. But she insisted in pointing out that he was the man with the small pee-pee. At that point I became upset and told my daughter, right after handing my credit card to the cashier, that she should not be saying such things. She seemed truly puzzled and reproached me, “you have always told me one should not tell lies; I am not lying, he has got a small one, like my friends at kindergarden.”

At that point I had no idea of what to say, so I decided to focus on paying. However, the cashier dropped my credit card; then she became all thumbs and ended up dropping the credit card reader on the floor. As she apologized for her clumsiness it was obvious that she did not know where to direct her gaze. When I was finally able to pay, I decided not to turn to look at the poor victim of my daughter’s remarks because there were no good apology to offer anymore.

After that incident we kept away from the restaurant for a while, but it seems we have not been forgotten.

Sometimes it seems that my life is somehow inextricably intertwined with Japanese grannies/elderly ladies. In Japan, one’s grandmother and other old ladies are called “obaasan” (お婆さん) or “obaachan” (お婆ちゃん); while both terms denote respect and affection, the latter conveys greater warmth.

Lately a granny always seems to be somehow involved in whatever happens to me. A couple of weeks ago I was on my way to a very important meeting in downtown Tokyo. On the opposite direction was walking an obaachan who asked something to which I paid no attention since I assumed she was talking to somebody else behind me. It did not cross my mind that she might have been talking to me because Japanese tend to be reserved, especially around foreigners they don’t know. And senior citizens are even far more reserved; they generally prefer to avoid embarrassing a foreign national who might not have a good grasp of the local language; they may also wish to avoid the potential embarrassment of speaking to a foreigner whose Japanese may be unintelligible to them.

Be that as it may, as our paths crossed the lady grabbed my arm and with a gentle “sumimasen” (“excuse me”) she asked me about the location of some store. Since I do not live in the area where we ran into each other, I excused myself for not knowing and inquired as to whether she had any other point of reference in mind. She pulled out a scrap of paper that had a hand-drawn map and some very vague directions on how to reach someone else’s home from Nishi-Ogikubo Station (西荻窪). I explained to her that we were in plain Ogikubo (荻窪) and the she should have continued riding the train on to the next station. The Obaachan then thanked me and started walking in the wrong direction (opposite to her destination!). I caught up with her and told her that it was best to ride on the train once again and get off at the correct station. She asked if I was going to Ogikubo Station; I replied that I was indeed going there, but that walk was rather long (15 minutes at a brisk pace) and recommended that she take the bus. At that point she mentioned that she had been walking around for nearly two hours, which I thought was possibly true given the crappy map she was holding and because she was one of those super senior ladies who are in good health but who walk, on account of their age, at 10 meters per hour.

The obaachan asked about which bus she should take. I answered that any bus driving along the road that passes in front of the bus stop that was a few meters away from us. She insisted on knowing which one bus she should ride to the station. Because she appeared to be quite confused, I decided to accompany her. Once we got on the bus I explained that once we got to the last stop the train station would be right in front.

When we arrived I bolted out of the bus since I did not want any further delays. However, I made the mistake of looking back… Only to notice the old lady was staring into all directions with a perplexed look on her face. Instead of doing the logical thing (focusing on my meeting), I went back to see what was happening to the obaachan. She told me she could not climb the very steep stairs she was looking at to go to catch her train. I told her that she had to go to the station’s South entrance, where she would be able to use an elevator. At that point there was little choice but to escort her on her way to the elevator. That proved to be another mistake.

As we were walking, the old lady told me something roughly like this: “Mr. foreigner (外人様), please don’t think that I am senile, I am just very old and that is why I get tired easily; I have been acting confused because I am very thirsty after the long walk I took earlier”. And lo and behold, before my brain exercised its due control over my tongue, I offered to buy the obaachan some tea or juice. So we crossed the street and entered a small coffee shop, where I ended up buying some orange juice and sandwich for my unexpected companion. I thought that would be the end of my unforeseen duty, but granny had other plans. She said the least she could do was to take advantage of her snack time to learn something about me and the place I come from. Oddly enough, I sat with her and answered the inevitable standard questions: where are you from? How is your country? Do you like Japan? Do you like Japanese people? Do you like Japanese food? Are you married? Since when? Do you have children? Etc.

When the lady finished her snack, we made for the station. I was planning to bid farewell at the entrance, but then I realized there would be no way of arriving on time to my appointment. So I decided to see through the end my unexpected role as a tour guide. I escorted the obaachan all the way to the platform from which she should board the train that would take her to her destination. I explained that she should ride the yellow train and get off at the first stop. Laughing lightly, maybe in annoyance, she reiterated that she was not senile, that she had just been very tired and that she was very grateful for my assistance and that the karma of the universe would reward me for it.

While we waited for the train, I took advantage of the fact that I was super well-dressed and groomed that day to ask a woman who was next to us if she would mind making sure obaachan got off the train at the right station. The woman replied that she was getting off at the same place and kindly volunteered to wait, once they reached their destination, for someone to come and meet the old lady.

When it was finally announced through the loudspeakers that the train was coming, I bid my farewell to the obaachan. Suddenly, her voice had great projection and she began to express her gratitude and to apologize for all the trouble she caused, calling me “ogaijinsama” (roughly equivalent to “Mr. honorable foreigner”). I felt as though every pair of eyes in Tokyo were staring at me, so I insisted that it was nothing and that obaachan had no reason to thank me. The train finally arrived and my unexpected adventure came to an end.

As soon as the old lady’s train left I called the office where my meeting was supposed to take place. Even though there were 15 minutes left before the appointment time, I was going to be 30 minutes behind schedule. When asked about why I was running late, I began to explain what happened; I decided not to get too detailed because I quickly realized that the person at the other end of the line was thoroughly incredulous of my story, a stance I would probably take if somebody else told me this story. The person I was speaking to on the phone expressed his congratulatory satisfaction with what I did and thanked me for the call; then he proceeded to remind me that there would no other date or time available for us to meet and expressed his deepest regret about this, wishing me good luck and happiness. (In other words: go f*$# yourself if you are going to concoct such bulls**t, you son of a…!). I suppose that is the karma of the universe in action.

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