You often hear about the immaculate service and exaggerated politeness of Japanese customer service, but after spending a year and a half trying to master the celestial level of the spirit of service, it dawned upon me that the real Japanese spirt of service lies not in dealing with customers, but interaction on a more personal level. The well-rehearsed lines mouthed by the doll-like girl behind the counter may sound hypocritical or robotic to the customer who is tapping his fingers impatiently, glancing at his watch, and the girl alternatively. I do not deny that a certain level of hypocrite lies in the painfully high pitched robotic voice, set on repeat mode every few seconds, but I can say in conviction, now that I have experienced it myself, that thoughtfulness and altruistic kindness are the basis of what is renowned of the Japanese spirit of service.

Looking to start working official in September, I had to end my 1 and half year of part-time job at a Singapore restaurant in Azabu Jyuban, a classy district in the middle of Tokyo. Looking back, I had had a lot of memorable experiences and incidents with this restaurant, and its staff. One month after I started working, the infamous Japan disaster struck. I was scheduled for the evening shift, but all trains had stopped moving. I walked for 2 and half hours before reaching the restaurant 2 hours late, and was received warmly by a couple of astounded faces, “What?! You walked for 2 and half hours here?!”

I worked for a few days after the disaster and when I decided to abandon my job shift and leave the country for my own sake, I awkwardly mailed my boss about it, mentally prepared for ugly words to be thrown at. Unexpectedly, my boss replied promptly, saying “I got it. I know how you feel as a foreign student in Japan. I would have done the same if I were you. Tell me when you come back to Japan!” It struck a chord in my heart and when I came back, I went back to the restaurant, only to be welcomed again by the group of friendly staff.

It was not all about serving customers, but caring about each other’s welfare and personal life. When I started appearing on Japanese television, one of the kitchen staff was so happy for me he went to the extent of recording the show every week, and telling me his opinions whenever we worked together.

Whenever we had a busy and tough day, leaving all of us hanging our heads in fatigue, the other kitchen staff would take out a can of coke he had bought for himself, and pour it for all of us.

When I fell ill in December last year, and was sent to the hospital, my colleague took over my shift, without a word of complaint.

When I suddenly lost my job in May, the kitchen staff would give me extra packets of rice for fear I had nothing to eat.

Last but not least, my boss had always been interested and supportive of my activities. My circle activities and performances, Project YUME, and my intention of writing a book about my experiences. This created a bridge between us, and countless conversations whenever we met. This was perhaps the basis of which I was taught the real “spirit of service”. It is not really about getting the food to the customer on time and accurately. It is about learning, appreciating and interacting with the customers.

On the last day of my shift, my boss came down to bid me farewell. I had learnt not just how to serve customers, but how to treat people with respect, care for others and congratulate and feel happy for others from the bottom of my heart.