Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Piss Me Off: Abbreviated Service Japanese

Traditional Japanese courtesy and western capitalism: Two great tastes that don't go together. If you don't believe me, just visit any of Tokyo's thousands of bustling commercial establishments, where a new incarnation of the Japanese language has emerged. It's faster, louder, cheaper, better, MORE. I call it "abbreviated service Japanese" (ASJ). And it sucks.

I first noticed one of the most common examples of ASJ nearly three years ago at a second-hand books and music store in Matsudo, Chiba Prefecture. It is common for Japanese store clerks to say, irasshaimase konnichiwa, meaning "welcome and hello," each time a customer enters the premises. The final syallable -wa is often lengthened and uttered with a slight gradual rise in pitch. In Japanese, it looks like this (provided you have a Japanese font installed on your computer):


In the Japanese "alphabet" this phrase is eleven or twelve syllables long, depending on whether you count the "stop" in irasshaimase, which is often not pronounced. Either way, it's a mouthful...especially when you consider that the corporate office has mandated that it must be said every time a customer crosses the shop's threshhold. It should be no surprise, then, that customer service employees, faced with pressure to operate with speed and efficiency uncharacteristic of a once slow and graceful Japan, have started to cut corners. What I heard at the Matsudo bookstore (at almost robotic five-second intervals) was not the above irasshaimase konnichiwa, but this:


No irasshaimase. No konnichi. Just that elongated, rising wa! The store clerk doing the greeting, recognizing that the final wa was the most audible component of the phrase, decided to omit all the mumbo-jumbo preceding it.

More recently, at a convenience store in Tokyo's Minato Ward, I saw a cashier who looked like an invisible man was pointing an invisible gun at him and telling him to work faster. What you usually hear from a cashier after making a purchase is arigatou gozaimashita, which is like a past-tense "thank you." In Japanese, that looks like this:


Eleven syllables, or ten if you shorten the o at the end of arigatou, which most people do. But once again, whether it was impatience, the threat of losing his job or just the irresistable allure of netting the Employee of the Month award, this cashier was out of control. What he was saying sounded more like this:


That spells ariyarosshita. Much shorter, yes...but sadly, gibberish. I heard the cashier say it three or four times before I left the store.

This kind of thing is going on in stores all over Japan all the time. It's not something that gets to me all the time, but when I do notice it, whoa baby. Recipe for exasperation.

Lest I sound insensitive to the plight of the lowly customer service employee, let me assure you that I know how hard it is to say the same thing over and over again for an entire work shift. When I was in college I worked at the campus textbook store, which experienced a two-week rush period at the start of every semester. Endless streams of confused freshmen and their equally inept parents would come through my checkout line and, to every single one of them, I had to ask the question:

Are you familiar with our return policy?

For the most part I managed to get that question out in an intelligible form 99% of the time. I do remember one time, however, when I finished scanning the barcodes of a student's textbooks, printed out his receipt and then had a terrifying moment of complete mental nothingness. I stood there holding the receipt, my mouth open, for a few seconds...and then, inexplicably, all I managed to say was the word, "UNIVERSE." The funniest part of the story is that the customer, without even noticing my little moment of zen, grabbed his receipt and said, "Yeah, I know the return policy."

Would it kill us all to slow down a bit? At least enough so that we have the time to utter the words we need to say? Efficiency is cool and everything but if Tokyo doesn't put the brakes on there will be a day of reckoning when thousands of employees of Lotteria, AM/PM, Lawson, McDonald's and Book-Off all over the city suddenly overload, freeze up and say "UNIVERSE." And then their heads will explode. And with my luck, I'll be standing right in front of one of them in my nicest shirt and tie when they do.


Chidori Ashi Kun said...

I had the same experience just yesterday, but it was the price he was saying. 3*** deeeeeeeeesu.

Ironika Beaverhausen said...

on the flip side, do people hear what's being said to them. my best friend works at starbucks, schlepping coffee and got so exasperated with people never taking notice of what she was saying that she started telling people 'i love you' but in the same, 'thanks have a great morning' voice. no one noticed. happened across your blog on bent corner... interesting read.