Today, being my day off, I had lunch at Nagai’s local cut-rate sushi shop ( ¥128 a plate!), then wandered lazily across the street to Mister Donuts (infinitely more pleasant since they went smoke-free last June) to drink an au lait (pronounced “OHH-ray“) and generally read a book and digest sushi. At both places there was a little comedy of manners when it came time to pay, one that’s been happening quite a lot lately.
Some background: other than at drinking establishments or roadside food stands, passing money directly from one hand to another was once considered vulgar in Japan. Donald Richie, who arrived here in the 40s, writes of older people going so far as to neatly wrap their individual banknotes in tissue paper, so no one had to actually touch them. That tradition was well before my time, but it’s still quite common to put money in a little envelope when paying for a private transaction (an English lesson, for example), and you can still buy those little envelopes at any convenience store. It was the custom in all shops, when I first arrived here, to put your payment on a little flat dish next to the till . The clerk would call out how much you owed (in respectful Japanese), announce how much you had given, then announce, once the register had been opened and your change taken out and put on the dish, how much you were getting back. I assume this was done to show the honesty of the shop, although Canadians, say, aren’t used to having their transactions broadcast all over the store and don’t really like it (especially if you’ve just placed the equivalent of $120 in the dish, a not uncommon thing to do). Naturally, since it’s the norm here, it doesn’t even click with the other customers, but it took me some getting used to once I figured out what was being said.
Over the last five years, this custom has been dying off. Unfortunately, no one has quite decided on what to replace it with (this often happens in Japan). Upscale restaurants seem to be sticking with the little dish, but fast food shops and convenience stores can’t decide what the new protocol is (and this is Japan – there must be a “right” way to do it). So shopkeepers are living lives, I guess, of quiet desperation.
Last Tuesday, when I got up to pay for my lunch at the sushi shop, the dish was there but was placed in such a way in front of the till (which was on a sort of lectern instead of a counter) that I’d have had to put my money on the dish, then pass the dish to the server, which would’ve been stupid. So I just handed the server the money, and she took it, awkwardly. She talked the transaction through, as usual, then walked from behind the counter and, nearly clasping my hand with both of hers, placed the change into it, like Good Queen Bess giving alms to a beggar. Very awkward. Now the exact thing happened at MisuDo, but that was because there was no dish at all. I paid the kid at the counter (who also took it hesitantly, as though I’d handed him a subpoena instead of ¥1000), didn’t talk it through, but also gave me my change with two hands (but so clumsily that I still ended up dropping half of it).
It’s not their fault, really. To any Japanese kid born after 1988, all this is just ancient history and I’m just Rip van Gaijin. In their daily life, they have no taboos about money and are only behaving the way their manager (born c. 1970) has trained them to, a compromise way to keep young and old customers happy, or at least uninsulted.
The managers all seem to read the same trendy management books. There are always such trends – about eight years ago, all the convenience store kids began shouting ohaiyo gozaimasu! – good morning! – instead of the traditional irrashaimase! – welcome. I couldn’t see a reason for it, but there seems to be a feeling that the former is more modern – read better. Then the little dishes started disappearing. It’s probably a matter of time before they all start to say “have a nice day.” Maybe that’s when I’ll finally get on the plane.
Until something is eventually agreed upon by consensus, though (and becomes, retroactively, Japanese Tradition), we’ll be having little scenes like the ones I saw today. It doesn’t exactly make me Darwin on Galapagos, but as a little bit of social evolution it’s interesting to observe. Or it would be, if I didn’t have to keep picking my change off the floor.