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.