Saturday, 29 August 2009

Inefficiently hard-working Japanese

You'll see a lot of inefficient (but very thoroughly done) things when you visit Japan. Sometimes I find it funny, more often than not I find it frustrating but I'm pretty-much always intrigued by it. I honestly hate inefficiency in the work place and particularly in the public sector but even so, its sometimes difficult to separate inefficient practices and the famously high level of customer service you find here. Once in a while though something absurd happens and makes me remember all the little things that have frustrated you before. Flicking back through my things, here's a few things to look out for if you're in Japan or planning a visit.

Plastic bags and wrapping paper

I will confess that this is a personal pet hate of mine. The convenience stores will put single items in plastic bags. Every time. Without asking you. You buy a bottle of water and it goes in a plastic bag. I've even had a tiny little box of breath mints put in a plastic bags while I wasn't paying attention.

If you go to a bakery, chances are that they will individually wrap your bread in plastic bags before putting them all in a bigger plastic bag.

Everywhere you go receipts get printed without asking and dutifully handed to you. McDonald's is one of the few places fighting this trend wish an initiative to use only paper bags and try to educate its customers on the need for this change.

Ticket Window Attendants

I wish I had a video of this. Its amazing. The commuter pass and shinkansen ticket window staff in Osaka seem to have been trained to press imaginary buttons next to their touch screen when booking you tickets. It doesn't happen all the time but it happens more often than it doesn't in my experience. I guess this is to both make them look more efficient (they are press both real and imaginary buttons an insane pace) and to keep their attention and pace up to customer standards.

Train Drivers

Train drivers will wave their hands around in an extremely serious fashion when  going past crossings and safety signs. They are trained to do this apparently to keep their attention on the job to try to help avoid accidents. All the train drivers I've noticed doing this have been so diligent about it. With no-one watching over them, I can't imagine a train driver ever doing this back home.

The Motor Vehicle Office

Be scared of this one. In Osaka there are two of them. One is located in Kadoma but no-where near a train station so you'll ironically need to drive there or catch a bus for about 10-15 minutes from the station. The other is located an equally inconvenient distance south of Osaka. When you get there, you'll witness a multi-story fortress of inefficiency.

You need to take a passport-sized photo with you when you apply for a license here or they won't accept your application. They won't use the photo though, they will take another one for your license later on. Your photo is stapled to your application though so as you complete the laborious task of obtaining your license, the plethora of people you deal with will be able to identify you on the way.

Like with most government services, you need to pay for things with stamps here. If you happen to be applying for a license from Australia or New Zealand, you're in luck - you don't have to sit an exam. If you're from the US or Canada, sorry but you're in for an interesting ride (or should I say drive?). Regardless of where you're from though, you'll have to dedicate a full day to this task - maybe more. You'll first need to apply, then purchase some stamps, do an eye exam, listen to a short talk, get your photo taken, listen to another small talk and then if you're lucky you'll get your license issued to you!

The Office of Legal Affairs

The "Houmukyoku" Legal Office in Japan is the place you go to register a company. Its a magical place full of lots of very busy people working very very inefficiently. You know those complicated machines at science centers where balls fall down through a maze of wire and tracks, spinning things and going over ramps and what-not before eventually end up back at the top? The Homukyoku is a human version of one of those machines.

With around 100 employees at the Temmabashi office in Osaka, just knowing who to talk to can be quite daunting. Imagine one very large room akin to an old-school newspaper office. There are 100 photocopiers but only one touhon (official proof of company registration) printer. Before you can request your printout you have to line up and buy a stamp (in the same room). You take the stamp and a form to another line where someone checks that you have filled it out correctly. Because of the printer bottleneck, a ticket machine then dispenses numbers and you sit around on chairs in the corner. A massive plasma screen has been erected to let you know that your print out is ready. When your number is eventually called, 2 or 3 of the youngest staff members are given the full-time job of confirming that you are the person who requested and paid for this tohhon and cheerfuly and politely hand it over. I'm sure there's a reason as to why they thought buying a giant plasma screen was better than buying a few more printers but I'm not sure what it is...