At the Bakery

A long time ago, when I first started writing pieces for English-language publications in Tokyo, I promised myself that I would never become one of those foreigners who complains about things in Japan. If you yourself have been overseas, you know how easy it is to sometimes think "Oh, why do these people do such a strange thing!" It's the same for me; of course I generally like Japan - that's why I have chosen to live here - but some aspects of life in this country are exasperating sometimes, and it's difficult to avoid 'complaining' about them!

So may I have your permission to write about one of those things today? I promise that I'm not going to become a 'complainer'!

It happened when I went to our local bakery yesterday. I'm very lucky to have a nice bakery within a two-minute walk of my home. They don't have quite the selection of different breads that would be available in a neighbourhood bakery back in Canada, but they have enough choice that I can always find something for lunch.

As you can imagine, they pretty much have the same selection of goods each day. They occasionally add something new, but for the most part, their 'menu' doesn't vary, so I usually end up eating the same things. Now that isn't my complaint - what happened yesterday at lunchtime is.

This bakery isn't one of those where you pick up a tray and tongs, and walk around making your own selection; it's the type where everything is behind glass, and you have to ask the clerk for each item you wish to purchase. Yesterday when I went in, it was the same clerk I have been dealing with for years, the same selection of goods, the same time of day ... So I thought we would have a little bit of fun. Instead of telling her what I wanted, I simply said, "Give me the usual, please!"

In my home culture of Canada, for a customer to do this would not be strange at all. The clerk would simply grab an assortment of the type of things I usually buy, put them in a bag, and take it to the register. If she were feeling particularly playful, she might even toss in something I never buy, just to make me smile when I opened the bag later at home.

But you can guess what happened here. She froze, not knowing what to do. I smiled, laughed a bit, and prodded her a little ... "C'mon; you know what I like ... just give me a typical selection."

She looked around for help from another clerk. They didn't know what to do either. I wasn't ready to give up quite so easily, so prodded her a bit more ... "Don't worry; I'll happily take whatever you choose!" Still nothing ... she absolutely didn't know what to do. And this was a young girl with whom I have been dealing for nearly five years now, many days a week!

At this point, another customer entered the shop and stood behind me, so it was 'game over', and I of course had to give in and make a selection. And when I go back tomorrow to get something for lunch, I'll 'behave myself' and just play by the rules.

But you know, I do sometimes wish that casual relationships here in this country could be just a bit more open and relaxed ...

There; I promise you that's my last 'complaint' for a while! :-)


Comments on this story ...

Posted by: Akemi

Are you buying the exact same things almost every day? In that case, it's a surprise for me also that she didn't know what to do. Anyway, I don't think she is a typical clerk in Japan. In many cases clerks are friendly and know what customers like. One day my daughter passed by a bakery where she goes to from time to time, and the shop owner came out and gave her a piece of bread, saying "Thank you for buying all the time..." Or one day I visited a shop where my husband was going to often. When I was about to pay, the shop clerk asked me if I was a member of the shop, and I told her that my husband was but not me. She asked me his name and I told her, then she remembered him and said that she was wondering why he didn't come for a while...and of course she knew what he was buying all the time.
So please don't jump to a conclusion that Japanese clerks don't try to make casual relationships with customers. Maybe she was just shy.

Have a good day!

Posted by: Anonymous

I had a similar experience months ago. I bought a box of cake from a big shopping centre, and was asked to choose between two colours of ribbon. I said whichever would do. The young lady stood for awhile without knowing what to do, and I finally had to make the choice myself.To me, Japanese seems to worry about minor matters.

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