Navigating a Japanese Starbucks

The first time I walked into a Japanese Starbucks, I thought I was ready.  It’s pretty easy, really.  “Large” translates to “Grande,” in some bizarro Italian-English-Japanese-word hybrid, and “coffee” is just a bastardized pronunciation of the same:  “ko-hee.”  Even “Hot” is, well, “Hotto.”  So it’s not rocket science.  Coffee’s just about all they sell, so they’ll definitely figure it out.  Anyway, that’s what I thought.

It was a Starbucks in Ginza.  I remember it clearly because it was a sunny day and I was sweating like a Shiba, having just walked back from a sushi lunch in Tsukiji wearing a suit.  The moment I stepped through the door, a young lady in black and green greeted me.  I was ready.  “Hotto co . . .” I started to say.

But instead of saying “Welcome,” she blurted out, “Right now, all the seats are full,” in Japanese.  I understood the words all right, but why was she saying them?  I looked behind me, like maybe she was talking to someone else, but it was like the Sahara back there.  Whatever, once I make a plan, I stick with it.

“One hot Grande coffee,” I said in Japanese.

“Sorry,” she said, “all our seats are full.”

“Hmm.  That’s all well and good for you,” I continued, “but I’d still like a cup of coffee.”

“Is it okay that the seats are full?” she asked.

“Hey, you know, it’s fine with me.”  I said.  “I mean, you gotta make a profit, so keep up the good work.  By the way, do you think I could possibly get a cup of coffee up in here?  You do sell it, right?”  I could feel that familiar perplexed feeling starting to happen.

But she had obviously also made a plan that she was sticking to, so she said, “I’m sorry, but even the second floor is full.”

“Lady,” I said, “maybe you’ve mistaken me for your architect, but I don’t see how your floor plan relates to my getting a cup of coffee.”

“So you would like a coffee in Grande size?” she asked.

“To receive one would be marvelous,” I replied.

“You do understand that our seats are full,” she said.  And around we went.

Okay, let’s zoom out.  First of all, I’m no novice to Starbucks, having invested the monetary equivalent of a college education there, one addictive cup at a time.  And in the U.S., when you walk into Starbucks, you order a cup of coffee and that’s what you get, at least after the employee finishes updating her Facebook page on her iPod.  Where you sit–hey, that’s your problem.  Make friends with someone at a table, take your coffee outside, stand by the garbage cans–it’s entirely up to you.

In Japan, the thinking is different.  Before they serve you a cup of coffee, they want to be sure you aren’t confounded by the lack of chairs.  If it’s packed, they may line you up to wait for a seat, unlike in the U.S. where you’re free to circle the coffee shop and snatch up the first seat that becomes available in an adult version of Musical Chairs.  Packing heat probably increases your chances some.

This type of procedural misunderstanding doesn’t end at Starbucks, of course, and it’s one challenging aspect of coming to Japan.  Your language ability only helps you so far.  Knowing the established pattern of every transaction is equally important.  Which is to say that even if you know zero Japanese, you can easily handle interactions simply by knowing what to expect.

For example, if you buy a single pack of gum at a 7-11, the cashier will almost certainly ask you, “Seal okay?”  It’s a simple question, but even after years of studying Japanese, I didn’t understand it the first time I heard it.  What this means is, “Do you need a plastic bag or can I just affix this tape sticker as proof of purchase?”  So yes, Seal okay.

Similarly, when you go to the supermarket, the cashier is likely to ask if  you’ve brought your own bag.  If you answer “yes” (my default answer to every question I don’t understand), you’ll be stuck having to carry your groceries home in your hands.  As much as that sucks, going back to the cashier and asking for a bag would be to admit not having understood Japanese perfectly, so that’s clearly out of the question.  By the way, did you know you can fit a large can of beer and a bag of potato chips into the pockets of your jeans?  Absolutely possible.  The chips just come out a bit smaller, but it’s definitely doable.

I went against my own default answer the first time I bought a bottle of sake in the basement of a Japanese department store.  The clerk asked me, “Is this for your home consumption?” and I was like, Well if I say “yes,” he’ll know I’m a drunk, so how about I just say “no.”  At which point he proceeded to wrap it like a Christmas present.  Foiled again.

At restaurants, the dry cleaner, the gas station, there are dozens of these types of patterns in Japan, as there are in every country.  The bottom line is that, no matter how good your Japanese is, it won’t help you a bit until you’ve figured out the flow of things.  There’s no substitute for experience.

28 Replies to “Navigating a Japanese Starbucks”

  1. hahaha that is to funny, so if you would have just said you were fine with the seats being full could you have gotten your coffee and left

    1. Yeah, as long as you tell them it’s to-go, you’re fine. You know, the real trouble is I can only think straight after I have a cup of coffee, but to get one requires me to think straight. It’s like some crazy unsolvable problem.

  2. Similar thing happened to us as well few years back in Kyoto :DD
    ah and I still find Engrish amusing, remember the good times when I needed a few hours to understand what レッド ホット チリ ペッパーズ was 🙂

    Btw loving your stories, now I can’t wait to be back in July 🙂

    1. I know, sometimes I look at a sign and I’m like, say what? Like, how about this hotel name: シェモア . Let me know when you give up on that one.

      Enjoy your time away. Japan’s waiting for you.

  3. Wow, this sounds like a great skit for SNL (saturday night live) where the barrista keeps chanting there are no seats! I dunno if the robotic group mentality is a good thing but it beats the individually sarcastic dolts that work at American Starbucks who insist that a Peppermint Mocha needs to be stirred for one to taste peppermint when I clearly could not detect even a nano particle of it and the fact that they would not admit fault and apologize for forgetting to add the one ingredient that defined that drink says a lot about how easy it is to get a job there.

  4. “Grande” is exactly what S’Bucks calls that size all over world. So your referring to this as a “bizarro Italian-English-Japanese-word hybrid” from your first paragraph reveals a bias of yours that undermines your credibility from the start of your rant. Also, in California and many countries in Europe, bringing your own bag is now a very common environmentally-friendly practice. You’ve clearly spent a lot of time in Japan (I’ve spent 20 years myself) and since you’ve bothered to learn Japanese, I assume you like it. It can be a frustrating place to live sometimes with all of the procedural compulsions, but why not have a little more humor and love in your tone? You like living there, right? You choose to live there because you love those little quirks, right? If so, I’d suggest you inject a little more love in your rants–it will make them funnier and more fun to read. If you can’t do that, as I say to many gaijin who spend all of their time in Japan complaining, it’s probably time to “just go home.” Peace.

    1. I dunno, I felt pretty humorous and lovey when I wrote it, but maybe that didn’t come across. So yeah, I love Japan, especially now that there’s a Starbucks on every corner. It’s my home, so I don’t really know where else I’d go. Japan, I mean, not Starbucks. Okay, Starbucks too. No way I’m walking across the street to Seattle’s Best. But anyway, it’s interesting to compare different countries, and to point out the good, bad, and just plain bizarre. Japan’s a good country, but it’s not like some fantasy land where all the trees have cotton candy flowers. Okay, well this week it is. But anyway, what was my point? Oh yeah, that it’s okay to notice when things aren’t perfect, because it’d be weirder if we didn’t. But complaining about complaining—isn’t that a little ironic?

  5. I relate to this post so much it’s not even funny. I think like you said, experience is the best teacher so you’ve just gotta make the mistake once (or a few times, in my case) before you know what they’re asking.

    My default answer is “だいじょうぶ”. You’d think that you’d be able to anticipate what staff are asking – I mean, like you wrote, you’re buying gum – what else could you be asking except for money or a point card? But my default phrase isn’t that great when they’re not asking a yes/no question such as the time they asked if I wanted something gift-wrapped and I had no clue what they were saying. The fact that they offer free gift-wrapping is still an amazing concept to me, as is the fact that pizza delivery doesn’t charge for delivery!?

    Still, I survived my first hair cut yesterday and it’s not a complete disaster, so だいじょうぶ must be OK.

    1. Yeah, I’ve probably made every mistake in the book. I once failed to successfully operate an elevator that only went to two floors. It was in front of a Starbucks in a subway station. Everybody watched me as I got in with my giant backpack, pressed what I thought was the right button, and the doors closed. Then I waited. You know, it’s pretty hard to tell if an elevator is actually moving or not. Okay, so maybe it’s just me. Anyway, after about a minute I tried pressing another button, at which point the doors opened and everybody was still there at Starbucks, looking at me. After that, I avoided elevators for a while and took the stairs.

      Oh, and you do know that だいじょうぶ generally means “no,” and not “yes,” right? It’s the opposite of English.

      I was at someone’s house once, and the mother was serving dinner. She asked me, “Do you want more rice?”

      To which I replied, “okay” (“だいじょうぶ”). And the rice never came, which was disappointing.

      But maybe that’s why Japanese people are so thin, I don’t know.

      1. おねがいします seemed to work to get what I wanted early on. Even if I didn’t actually want the service they ended up providing, I now knew what was being asked.

  6. I wish Id read this earlier. I was so confused the first time walking into a packed starbucks and waited 20mins in line of actually knowing nothing abt wut I wad doing….and with a wrong order ….

    1. Glad I could help. Actually, Starbucks is one of the more complicated interactions you can have in Japan, especially considering all you’re trying to do is order a cup of coffee.

  7. This story and (almost) all of the comments made me laugh so hard. We’ve been living in Okinawa for just over 2 months now, and I always get tripped up at the stores. I’m always nodding and either saying hai, sumimasen, or arrigato gaizo masu. I need to get into a Japanese class and learn some conversational language to help while I bumble through the situations I don’t understand yet.

    1. Or just go to more stores. I don’t think I learned any of that language from class. Probably the best thing to do is ask a Japanese person, What are they saying? There’s probably only a dozen things that a person working a register could ever possibly say to you, and once you figure those out . . . well, then it won’t be as much fun anymore. So as Steve Jobs said, Stay hungry, and stay ignorant. I think that’s what he said anyway.

      1. Don’t forget the “atatamemasu ka” (“do you want it heated up?”) that you hear every time you buy some heatable food from a convenience store. I’m amazed that the “conversation survival – Japan” textbook writers overlook that one.

        My direst moment was when I first arrived and ventured out to buy a toaster oven. I could have paid cash, but handed over my credit card. The response was a question somehow involving “ikkai” and “nikai” – “one time” and “two times”. I was totally at a loss, and the cashier simply repeated the question. I pointed the card at her dumbly muttering “haraitai”, at which she leaned over to a microphone and said something that echoed around the store. Was she calling a supervisor? the police?

        I looked behind me, and saw that a line of about five people was now waiting. An old man, who was possibly using English for real communication for the first time in his life, said “Do you want to pay one time or two times?” Of course I didn’t want to pay double, so I said “ikkai”. Problem solved. Later, I learned that it’s often possible to have a credit card purchase broken into two or three separate charges.

        1. It never ceases to amaze me how truly awful people are at explaining things. They’ll gesture, grunt, or repeat the same phrase over and over, whereas if they simply used, uh, words and sentences, you’d get it. It’s not just Japanese folks, of course, although they do have a tendency to switch off all communicative ability when they encounter someone different from themselves.

  8. I found this post so funny.
    “You do understand our seats are full” was a best part.
    Since I’m in US now for 6 months and feel a lot like you when I’m in Starbucks to buy a cup of coffee.
    Ordering “Ko-hee grande” doesn’t make sense here.

    1. Thanks much. I wonder what the world was like before McDonald’s and KFC? You mean every country was different? Whew, glad those days are behind us. I always say you can learn a lot about the culture of a country from its Starbucks.

  9. I’m in kanmecho visiting with my family from US and i went into Starbucks yesterday in Shinjuku an i so tried to figure out what was being asked of me. However they’ll always allow you to point to what your looking for or want.

    1. Yup, pointing (and grunting) works. 🙂

      When I was in Japan, they wrote nice things on my cups, too.


      PS: Ken, this is my final comment. Thanks.

  10. A bit late to the party I know, but I’ve actually just been to that exact same Starbucks and found this article while trying to find out where I went wrong.

    1. Sounds like every morning for me. Wake up and try to figure out where things went wrong. Pretty sure it was at the point I got on that plane for Narita.

  11. Like you and most people reading this, I love Japan, but sometimes we need the occasional ranting space, and the fact that you do so in full awareness of the irony of the situations you creatively describe to us doesn’t come across as mere expat-whining to me, Clay Clay Gary’s angry “only I respect Japan” rant against “ranting” aside. Maybe you can do a post on holier than thou expats who feel the need to showoff their level of cultural acceptance and immersion, typically by contrasting themselves to “those other, less invested” expats.

    To add my own bit of a rant, the thing that bothers me most about Japan are the million hidden micro-fees that creep in at many restaurants, hotels, and other service-sector establishments (table fees, napkin fees, breathing the air fees, looking at the waitresses who it turns out are only wearing bikinis fees), and the apologetic but firm “your ass is paying this fee” tone staff adopt in anticipation of an angry gaijin-reaction when the bill is brought, whether or not one is ever forthcoming.

    But, to be honest, I prefer that tone to the unapologetic but even firmer Chinese variant, which is basically a shrill and highly visible argument in your broken attempts to communicate as onlookers gather to enjoy the spectacle about as quickly as flies gather on a carcass. Those are good times.

  12. Dear Ken,

    Since I found your blog a few months ago, your articles keep on blowing my mind. Let’s say it was love-at-first-read.

    This is one of the articles I can relate soooo much…
    I laughed bad when I read that “yes” was your default answer to every question you don’t understand, I think we all went through the automatic “はい” phase. Laptop bags are supposed to be flat, but I still have the image of mine shaped like a dirigible on my way home from the supermarket. It’s a no-no if you have to walk for 10 minutes on tiny (or inexistent) sidewalks.

    You also made me remember that day when I bought a box of those delicious soda flavored ice-cream bars. The cashier was asking me if I wanted the coin to take ice cubes from the ice machine and, of course, I didn’t understand what she was talking about. It was also my first time buying some frozen food and that procedure was totally new to me. I got this coin with “ICE” written on it and I realized I was supposed to use the majestic machine near the exit.

    I soon found myself stuck in a limbo where I had three options:
    1) Return the coin to the cashier and admit my Japanese was poor (inadmissible)
    2) Interface with a completely unknown, scary, giant, cold steel machine with god-only-knows what buttons and hellish kanji on it (I am not so crazy yet)
    3) Use some creative expedient

    In Japan I often stick with option number 3, and so I did that time. I guess I am flexible like that. Playing a little dumb, after I bagged my groceries, I went towards the exit and with a sneaky movement I dropped the coin in one of those shopping baskets stacks near the entrance door. In my imagination, I was sure some zealous worker with a super-tidy apron would have solved the issue during his/her overtime and put the coin back to the place it belonged. System hacked!

    However, no more ice-cream boxes since that day. Better for my shape.

    Hats off on you Mr. Seeroi, you are on my “I’d sell my soul to meet this person and have a conversation” list. Keep up the good work!

  13. I like this post very much. I think it describes reality as a foreigner in Japan very well.

    I also had to go through this kind of learning. How do you do things correctly? How do you navigate daily life.
    All the while I was learning Japanese of course.

    So after a few years I had pretty much everything figured out customs-wise and language-wise.

    But I also remember an event at some point when I very much was a “Japan veteran” – maybe in my seventh or eighth year. I don’t remember the particulars, but I didn’t know about a particular custom. My Japanese communication partner interpreted this as me being a clueless foreigner (as is custom in Japan). I, being rather smug about my Japanese ability, was very pissed at his insolence and admonished him in no uncertain terms, that yes, sir, I do speak Japanese quite well, I just don’t know how to do this thing, so please stop treating me like a fucking pre-schooler and explain it to me, like you would any sane adult!

    Ah, Japan 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *