Maybe you can't have it all...


Back in January, I wrote an article for the Japan Times about the many kinds of citrus fruit in Japan. (See Japanese citrus and yuzu tea.) To give you a bit of a background, I supply 99% of the photos that accompany my Japan Times articles. I have tons and tons of photos in my personal archives, since I am never without a camera, but when I need a specific photo and I can't get the subject matter here in southern France, I ask my mother to take the photo. I bought her a good camera a few years ago and trained her to use it, and nowadays she's really pretty good.

So for this citrus article I needed a catchy one since none of the ones in my archives were good enough. I asked my mother to take the photo, but she didn't have any good fruit on hand. So, she asked a citrus farm in Wakayama prefecture that she orders from occasionally to send her some as soon as possible. Not only did they send her a big box brimming with beautiful fruit the same day, they refused to take payment for it, since she had said it was for a newspaper article. They just asked for a copy of the article, if a photo of their fruit should make it in. (It did; you can see the photo here.)

Since this exchange, my mother has become a good customer of this farm. When she was in the hospital recently for surgery, they sent her another box of fruit, again no charge. And they let her know about things that they don't mention to the public because they don't grow enough to sell outright, such as the beautiful ume plums to make umeboshi, umeshu (plum wine) and ume in honey with. This time she did pay something for them, but it was only about 1/4th to 1/5th of what other vendors charge, and of excellent quality too. (Wakayama prefecture used to be called Kishuu, and Kishuu or Kishu ume are regarded as the best quality ume in Japan.)

While the level of generosity and thoughtfulness shown by this citrus farm is quite exemplary, good to great customer service is actually not that unusual in Japan, especially when dealing with small, family run businesses, but also seen from large corporations too. Truly bad customer service is so unusual that when one encounters it it's quite jarring. There is a phrase that "the customer is god (お客様は神様)", and it is still taken very seriously. (Some customers take this a bit too literally and act like arrogant jackasses to store attendants and the like, which makes me cringe when I see it.)

This is one thing I truly miss about Japan. The high baseline level of customer service is like a cushion of warm air buoying you up in everyday life; something that you just take for granted. And while I hate to be "that" kind of expatriate resident of a country that I generally love, that cushion just does not exist where I live now. As a consumer in France, you need to be on your toes a lot more. Small businesses are not so bad (and some offer lovely warm service) but quite a few large corporations and the like seem to have forgotten what it means.

On the other hand, it's rainy season now in most of Japan, and the weather is humid and nasty. It's the time of year when the laundry doesn't ever seem to dry properly and mold starts growing in your closets. In contrast weather here in southern France is gorgeous, sunny and warm but not too humid, with deliciously cool mornings to start the day.

Good customer service, or good weather? Which would you prefer? Maybe it's not a good comparison...maybe we aren't supposed to have it all. ^_^;

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