Former department store employee Takanori Namigishi wasn’t long out of university when he was asked by his boss to respond to a tricky complaint.
A customer had contacted the company about a premium-grade melon he had purchased to serve to a “special client,” but which, he claimed, had turned out to be rotten.
Namigishi was sent to apologize, armed with little more than a kowtow and a replacement cantaloupe.
When he arrived, he was perturbed to discover that his destination was in fact the offices of a notorious yakuza outfit.
“I went in, my knees knocking,” he recalls of his brush with Japan’s mob. “The customer looked me up and down, commented on how young I was and said: ‘You’re lucky it’s us. Anywhere else, you’d be looking at losing a finger or two.’”
He was subsequently forced to stand as his host embarked on a two-hour tirade, “educating” him on a variety of topics, from “societal rules” to how even the best fruit can go bad.
“Some ‘claimers’ see themselves as educators, and he was in his element educating this youngster,” Namigishi says.
Eventually, Namigishi was forgiven for his firm’s fruity foible, even though he wasn’t able to verify the claim: The customer had eaten the offending melon, he says.
“In Japan, the customer is God — that’s the business culture,” says Namigishi, who is now an official with UA Zensen (the Japanese Federation of Textile, Chemical, Food, Commerce, Services and General Workers’ Unions). “How you respond is a serious game in which the slightest mistake could be costly.”
Two decades on, and Namigishi has been leading efforts to eradicate what has become a social phenomenon known as “kasuhara,” (a portmanteau of the English words “customer harassment”), where malicious claims and unreasonable demands by customers are leveled at sales representatives and employees.
A UA Zensen survey in 2017 found that 70.1% of the roughly 50,000 respondents had been exposed to malicious complaints. A followup study in late 2020 revealed an improved outcome (56.7%), though it was complicated somewhat by the coronavirus pandemic.
While the majority of such complaints (66.5%) were characterized by abusive language, 35.2% of respondents said they had experienced intimidation and a further 4.8% said they had been subjected to physical abuse.
In one instance, an employee who had called on a customer to apologize was greeted by a man wielding a sword. In another, an irate man turned up at a delivery company with a chainsaw, hurling abuse at a worker for not delivering a package despite nobody being home at the time of delivery.
This latter incident, which the perpetrator video-taped and posted online, resulting in his arrest, was a trigger for the survey, Namigishi says.
“This kind of thing has long been there, but it’s only recently we’ve become aware of the extent and severity of the problem,” he says. “It’s happening in microenvironments across Japan. … There’s a real need for workplace reform.”
The government would seem to agree. In February, the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare rolled out its “Corporate Manual on Measures against Customer Harassment” on the back of its own study, which found 19.5% of the 6,426 companies surveyed had “received consultation” on customer harassment from employees.
This followed on from a similar manual published by the Consumer Affairs Agency a year earlier.
In 2020, meanwhile, the government also issued a set of guidelines to help employers deal with abusive language and behavior in the workplace. Among the recommended measures, employers were urged “to establish a system to respond appropriately to customer harassment, and take steps to deal with the welfare of the victims.”
However, experts have criticized such provisions for being too broad a brush for Japan’s diverse business palette, expressing doubts that companies will implement countermeasures voluntarily.
Indeed, a 2021 survey by corporate crisis management support outfit, S.P. Network Corp., found that despite an increasing number of harassment cases, only 11% of respondent businesses had actioned any countermeasures.
Experts also lament the government’s decision not to include customer harassment clauses in revisions of the nation’s anti-harassment laws in April, despite pressure from some lawmakers and experts.
In Japan, employers are currently required by law to take steps against four types of harassment — power harassment, sexual harassment, care harassment and maternity harassment.
Toyo University social psychology professor Masayuki Kiriu is among those pushing for customer harassment to be added to that list, largely because of the undue toll it can take on victims, he says.
Some 91.2% of respondents in the 2020 UA Zensen survey reported feeling elevated levels of stress after enduring complaints. Around 1% suffered mental health problems.
Meanwhile 68% of respondents in the health ministry’s survey reported feelings of frustration and anxiety, while 13.8% said they had suffered from insomnia and more than 5% said that they had received medical treatment.
Aggravating the situation in recent years is the posting online of victims’ personal information, photos and video footage.
There are also significant material losses incurred. One estimate by corporate counseling outfit Peacemind Inc. places the annual economic loss due to stress caused by harassment in Japan at approximately ¥1.4 trillion, and that’s just for permanent employees at firms with 1,000 staff or more.
Such deficits can include reduced productivity and staff resignations due to stressful experiences. Some experts believe suicides have also resulted.
“Clearly customer harassment can cause stress to the point of mental illness in respondents,” Kiriu says. “However, there is no law against customer harassment itself. Sometimes it can be dealt with under existing laws, such as when assault or injury results, but more often than not, it isn’t.”
A sense of professional pride among employees tends to preclude this, meaning even the most unreasonable claims can go unreported, Namigishi says. Responders worry that a perceived inability to handle a claim may be viewed unfavorably by superiors, potentially hindering their careers.
“Traditionally the corporate culture dictates that employees should be able to deal with such issues in-house and out of the public eye,” he says.
Intensifying concerns is a recent shift in Japan’s culture of complaining.
According to Satoru Enkawa, an Osaka police detective-turned claim consultant, the problem dates back to the late 1990s and Japan’s adoption of the concept of consumer satisfaction from the West.
This developed rapidly into something uniquely Japanese, in line with other elements of the so-called Galapagos Syndrome (adapting universally available products and ideas into something uniquely Japanese), where employees were encouraged to turn a blind eye to customer indiscretions, he says.
The “customer is God” mentality epitomized this, adds Enkawa, who after quitting the police worked as a complaints negotiator for Mycal Corp., setting up his own specialist company, the Hiroshima-based Engo Systems, after the retail giant went bust in 2001.
Throughout the 2000s this developed into the idea that a company could only grow by listening to customer demands, he says.
“This resulted in a self-styled Galapagos consumer satisfaction, where even elements from the darker side of society must be treated like any other customer,” he adds.
Until quite recently, many claims in Japan were not dissimilar to that experienced by Namigishi, characterized by intimidatory tactics at the hands of chinpira (small-time yakuza) and other members of Japan’s “dark side,” who’d show off their tattoos and missing fingers while venting their displeasure to a kowtowing, powerless staffer, Enkawa says.
But lately, amid that ever-spreading Galapagos consumer satisfaction way of thinking, that has changed, he says.
“Recently, I’ve noticed a sharp increase in the number of cases in which regular, upstanding people — housewives, salaried workers (and) even sophisticated retirees — have become self-centered claimers, making unreasonable complaints that were previously unthinkable,” Enkawa says.
“It’s tough dealing with them as their objectives and demands are often masked by secondary emotions that are difficult to determine at face value. These kinds of complainers are proliferating daily like zombies.”
An aggravating factor is the COVID-19 pandemic, which for many has compounded feelings of anxiety and isolation, Enkawa says.
“Regular people are having to put up with a lot more, in their work and daily lives. They are like a hot-air balloon, where the slightest thing will make them explode and turn into unreasonable claimers,” he says. “We have entered the age of the claimer.”
A characteristic of the neo-claimer is impatience, reflected in claimants’ seemingly limitless obstinacy. According to UA Zensen’s 2020 study, some complaints continue for hours, others for days, weeks, even months.
Enkawa recounts a recent episode at a restaurant, where he encountered an “elegantly dressed gentleman” and his wife — both retirees and decadeslong regulars at the reputable establishment — giving staff at the cash register an ear-bashing about the “huge deterioration” in quality of the fare on offer.
Blinkered and implacable, the customer brought the restaurant to a standstill, flagrantly ignoring the coronavirus protocols in place, not to mention the feelings of other customers, Enkawa says.
“The current state of affairs in Japan is that such voices are clogging up society,” Enkawa says, adding this situation is likely linked to a decline in Japan’s business prowess, and confidence, since the giddy heights of the bubble years.
Analyses of the UA Zensen surveys have revealed those voices are predominantly coming from Japan’s most rapidly growing demographic.
The most common claimer, the 2020 survey showed, was of retirement age (39.5%) and typically male (75% of the aforementioned retirement age). Analysts point out these are typically people who achieved a certain standing during their professional careers, giving them a sense of self worth and self-respect.
Upon retirement, however, that status vanishes, and they find little solace at home, says Kyoko Shimada, representative director of Customer Harassment Association, Prevention and Support.
They are disliked by their children — whose formative years they missed due to workplace devotion — and their wives want them out from beneath their feet, she adds.
“It’s pitiful, but in Japan such men are often referred to as nure-ochiba (wet fallen leaves),” says Shimada, a qualified mental health social worker who has been involved in academic research in a number of fields related to customer harassment. “They have nowhere to go.”
Businesses, with their polite, reverential staff, offer a retreat — and a place to vent their frustrations, she adds.
“When things boil over, many responders are ill-equipped to manage, and often find themselves out on a limb, with no support from their superiors,” she says.
Shimada says one key reason is that, in Japan, employees in the retail sector are seen as fair game, an idea that has its roots in a longstanding mistrust of those working in commerce.
During the Edo Period (1603-1868) a caste system known as shi-nō-kō-shō, which ranked citizens by their societal role, placed samurai (shi) at the top of the ladder and merchants (shō) at the bottom, she explains.
“This image is an innate part of Japanese culture,” Shimada says. “People in commerce were seen as grubby, sly money grabbers, and this continues today with store and office clerks, who are perceived as people of low status serving the paying customer, who is God.”
That’s not to say that those in the retail sector are the only professionals targeted. According to Shimada, those working in education, the health care and elderly care sector and municipal offices are among the biggest victims, especially during the coronavirus pandemic, when many such organizations have been overwhelmed.
“In retail, the claims are about products … but at schools and hospitals and so on … the anger stems from the perceived disregard of people who are part of the claimer’s own identity — parents, children, people they love.”
Overall, it is male responders who are subjected to verbal and physical aggression, while their female counterparts endure the worst kind of unwanted attention — sexual harassment.
According to UA Zensen’s 2017 survey, sexual harassment accounted for 13.4% of those who had encountered harassment from customers.
Gender difference is especially high at Japanese-style pubs and other places where alcohol is consumed, Shimada says.
“Women bear the full brunt of claims by drunken men, enduring particularly high stress levels,” Shimada says.
Hiromi Ikeuchi, a professor of social psychology at Kansai University, points out that the retail sectors where customer harassment is most common — namely supermarkets, pharmacies and department stores, also have relatively high rates of sexual harassment, as many salespeople in these sectors are women, who are “victimized in terms of sexual comments and behavior,” she says.
The scale of the customer harassment problem in Japan is most clearly reflected in TV “wide shows,” which often feature the subject, Ikeuchi says.
“They broadcast these shows because many working in the service sector — from supermarkets and convenience stores to department stores, taxi drivers and teachers — can empathize with this problem, because they have experienced it firsthand,” she says.
Ikeuchi’s research into customer harassment dates back two decades, to a time when TV coverage of claimers was restricted to comic variety shows due to the ridiculousness of the claims.
“It’s only during this past few years that it has become far from a laughing matter,” she says. “The climate has changed significantly.”
Many demands in Japan are characterized by a wish to see someone swallow some humble pie, reflected in a 2021 joint study undertaken by Nikkei Research in Japan and Customer Care Measurement and Consulting in the United States.
While in both countries the most common problem expressed by complainers related to the quality or functionality of a product or service, the solutions they sought differed greatly. The top demands in Japan were “an explanation” and a “suitable response,” while “refund” was the most common demand in the United States.
However, research suggests monetary compensation and refunds are becoming increasingly common in Japan, too, and the nature of the complaints shows a new side to the Japanese character.
Often claimers just want to see respondents kneel on the ground and beg forgiveness, but sometimes they use that opportunity, and that opportunity alone, to spew out abusive words, says UA Zensen’s Namigishi. “Japanese are known for having a refined sort of humility, which often means we’re not plain talkers. But somehow, in these situations, we are.”
While Enkawa has been spreading the word during consultations and lectures that it’s OK for employees to reject ultra-unreasonable claims, Namigishi believes businesses may eventually be forced to act because word spreads quickly among today’s SNS-loving young job seekers, many of whom have experienced customer harassment as part-time workers.
Shimada sees a legal framework to mitigate the issue as inevitable, but says it will take some time to materialize.
In the meantime, she says more needs to be done to encourage businesses to be proactive and Shimada has come up with a framework she believes could engender significant change.
Her self-styled program incorporates a variety of materials developed through her own research as well as other concepts picked up from overseas, such as the Civility, Respect and Engagement in the Workplace initiative, which was developed in the United States in response to employee feedback that low levels of civility adversely affected job satisfaction.
The objective of Shimada’s initiative is to increase the number of employees who have a sense of “work engagement” and pride in their jobs, she says, adding research has shown these are the very people who are the least likely to be harassed.
Furthermore, she believes that rather than forcing people not to engage in harassment, creating “good vibe” environments where customers are dissuaded from doing it in the first place provides a more organic solution.
“The stage we are at now is that people are becoming aware of customer harassment,” says Shimada, who gives talks at businesses and organizations nationwide on the issue. “The next step is to implement new initiatives to create a harassment-free society.”
Got a complaint? Japan’s business owners want you to say it, not spray it.