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Saturday, Feb. 8, 2003

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Here's a tip: You don't deserve one, pal


The only woman who has ever chased me was a willowy Japanese waitress who trailed me half a block from her restaurant door.

"Sir," she panted, "I'm sorry . . . but you forgot your change!"

Oh . . . So I waltzed off 100 yen richer. Meanwhile all the waitress got -- besides 40 meters of exercise -- was my sincere gratitude.

Speed up the clock and tilt the world, and lo and behold this past summer in San Francisco I found myself chased again . . . this time by a waiter.

"Sir!" the man wheezed. He held my bill in his hand. "I'm sorry . . . but your tip was insufficient!"

Now -- the truth be known -- sometimes I do stretch facts. And when that gets dull, at other times I make things up. But this time I cross my foreigner's heart and swear on a stack of alien registration cards: the man followed me because I had tipped less than 15 percent.

I had left that smaller amount on purpose. Oh, the service had been OK and so had the food. Yet my meal arrived 15 minutes late, during which time I mostly sat and watched my wife suck crab legs.

Yet . . . that was not my reason either. In all the endless vacation tipping of cab drivers, waiters, baggage handlers and so on, I had graded not a single effort as out of the ordinary, and none of it as meriting extra money. I was fed up, and this waiter was the unlucky fellow to learn this.

My wife fidgeted. As a Japanese, she craves one basic thing: harmony. She eyed me to pay the man, especially with passersby nudging their children and saying, "Hey, kids, look at the cheapskate!"

But I declined, and the waiter mumbled his way back to the restaurant. I walked off a few bucks richer, yet not without pangs of guilt.

People say the gap between Japan and the United States grows closer everyday. Japanese gobble cheeseburgers. Americans sleep on futons. Japanese girls mimic the hair style of Britney Spears. American boys imitate the batting style of Ichiro Suzuki. Who knows . . . one day both nations might be nothing but one giant Starbucks-lined shopping mall of video arcades, clothing stores and dollar/100 yen shops.

With the single difference being that on one side of the ocean, consumers will tip and on the other side of the ocean, they won't. Hopefully, that will never change. Or if it does, it will change for the better . . . meaning America will go cold turkey on the gratuity kick.

"You're just a tightwad," says my wife. "A tightwad from Bumpkin City, where people only know two kinds of service: self and buffet."

And for that helpful comment, I decided to give her 15 percent of my mind.

Do not meals, taxi rides and hotel rooms come with published prices? What is the meaning of those prices if they do not include service? Must I pay extra for just a smile? For someone to ride the elevator and bring the fresh towels for which I have already paid? For a cab driver to be polite as he drives me to my destination?

Sure, I have heard that wages are low and people in the service industry depend on tips to make ends meet.

Yet, I would prefer to have that all factored into the price (as in some places it is) than be expected to pay more for efforts that almost always involve not only a minimum of care but in effect what the individual is being paid to do in the first place.

Bottom line: I am uncomfortable with the thought of having to pay people to be nice.

Especially when so many leave so much to be desired. At times, the American service industry might more accurately be called the "serveless" industry.

Yet, cold service can also come with cold stares, not from customers who refuse to tip, but rather from waiters or waitresses who don't receive what they think society says is their right.

What a society. Such people should take a peek at this country -- or in any land where tipping doesn't happen. The service is fine . . . actually good . . . perhaps even equal to that in the States . . .

Aw, hell, it's a million times better in the shade. And most Japanese waitresses, bus boys, etc. would refuse a tip if they got one.

Frankly, I find the whole idea upside-down. For why tip only people in the service industry? Why not the auto worker who attached the safety belts in your car? Or the instructors who make sure firefighters know their stuff? Or the lab assistant who checked your urine sample for bacteria?

Is it because these other people are faceless? That they get paid better to start? Or that their work is somehow less important than some waiter who glides by every 15 minutes and says, "How we doing here?"

The entire gratuity system is screwy.

My wife's response to this:

"Perhaps. But you're still a tightwad from Bumpkin City."

"Look at it this way," I tell her. "What if housewives demanded tips? What if for every dinner served or diaper changed or wiped runny nose, they got a handful of coins?"

Her eyes glisten. "Now that's an idea. We could start tonight."

Uh-oh. I decide on a quick retreat. "On the other hand . . . what do I know?"

"Maybe," she then suggests, "when in Rome, you should just be quiet and act like a Roman.

How very harmonious. And when I ask, "Is that a criticism?" her eyes brim with punch line.

"Not at all," she smiles. "Just a tip."



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