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Japan’s ‘Customer is God’ culture in the spotlight in Keigo Higashino’s latest mystery on screen, ‘Masquerade Hotel’

Okyakusama wa kamisama. Or maybe not.

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The button on her jacket fell off, so she called the front-desk clerk to her room to search for it. His computer accidentally deleted the last entered data, so he forced the hotelman to re-input it. Serial bathrobe thieves are furious when the hotel staff apologetically requests to check their luggage — just in case the robes “accidentally” got mixed up in there.

While most of us viewers rage as we watch the above scenes, the characters in mystery master Keigo Higashino’s latest film adaptation Masquerade Hotel (directed by Masayuki Suzuki) respond with patience, politeness, and dedicated care. “Guests make the rules here,” the protagonist Naomi Yamagishi (Masami Nagasawa) says, reminding us that her mastery of dealing with complicated customers is a microcosm of Japan’s impeccable service sector. As the local saying okyakusama wa kamisama goes, in Japan, “customers are gods,” and no matter how irrational, abrasive, and enerving they are, they must be dealt with care and respect.

As Masquerade Hotel unveils, we’re invited into the luxurious Hotel Cortesia Tokyo, where, according to a police investigation, a homicide — presumably the fourth of its kind — is about to take place. To prevent it, a group of veteran detectives must go undercover as hotel staff. But in order not to look suspicious and maintain the hotel’s prestigious popularity, they are asked to learn the ropes of hotel hospitality and treat guests professionally. While most detectives manage to fit in well in their new shoes, maverick Kosuke Nitta (Takuya Kimura) struggles, mostly because he fails to understand why problematic customers are still treated respectfully. He continues to keep an eagle eye on everyone around him — because, as far as he’s concerned, everyone at the hotel is a suspect. Placed under the supervision of stoic Yamagishi, however, Nitta quickly begins to understand the reasons behind her patience and utmost professional care toward the hotel’s guests. “If a detective’s job is to suspect, a hotelier’s job is to believe our guests,” she insists.

Fair enough. The setting of the film (and the novel) is Japan, the country that gave birth to the now-internationally acclaimed term omotenashi, which represents the country’s deeply-rooted culture of wholeheartedly looking after guests and providing the highest level of hospitality. Omotenashi, which is believed to have derived from the art of Japanese tea ceremony, a detailed-to-perfection procedure done to ensure supreme satisfaction to the service recipient, represents Japan’s mentality toward treating customers: provide quintessential care and expect nothing in return. This kind of hospitality is what the world has come to admire about Japan: from the bowing and pleasant greetings at stores to the perfectly curated dinner and perfect futon making at your ryokan accommodation to all small details that employees manage to notice. Just like the lucky charm young Yamagishi lost and found thanks to a hotel staff.

On the flip side of this exclusive hospitality, however, is the darker reality: the one that abuses the culture. The saying “customers are gods” was promoted in Japan in the early 1960s by singer Haruo Minami, who used it with a significantly different meaning from what it came to be known. But for economically growing post-war Japan and at times of severe competition in the private sector, it matched perfectly a cultural mindset that was already prone to esteemed hospitality. This, however, turned out to be a double-edged sword: the expectation to be treated exclusively regardless of one’s behavior brought the worst in many who wrongfully concluded that just because they were customers, they had the right to misbehave. According to a 2017 research* conducted by UA Zensen (Japan’s largest industrial union) on 50,000 people working in the service sector, over 70 percent responded that they have suffered some form of misbehavior by customers, most commonly in the form of abusive language, repetitive complaints of the same nature, authoritarian lecturing, and threat. In contrast, the majority of the staff who had suffered such behavior said that they “continued apologizing” until it was all over.

Abuse by angered customers (for no significant reason) has only recently started to gather attention in Japan. Vocabulary such as “monster customers,” and more recently, “customer harassment” only surfaced a few years ago, just as simultaneously as Japan’s omotenashi hospitality’s popularity began spreading abroad. At the end of 2018, a man in his 40s was arrested for forcing a female employee at a convenience store to kneel and apologize, the highest form of apology in Japan (we also witness the same request in Masquerade Hotel). His reason was that the staff gave him his change starting from coins, which made him believe that she wouldn’t return his bills.

Unfortunately, the above is not a rare case. However, thanks to such extremes, Japanese people’s mindset is gradually beginning to change. Japan’s social media is still retweeting photos of a restaurant that took the “customer is god” issue to the next level by starting to charge customers differently depending on the language they use to order. “Hey, you, one beer!” costs ¥1,000 per beer, “Bring me one beer!” ¥500, and “One beer, please” is ¥380 — the regular price. Because, as the restaurant says, “Customers aren’t gods, and this restaurant’s staff are not slaves.”

In Masquerade Hotel, we repeatedly see this contrast of hospitality and the abuse of it to the point where it becomes the center of Higashino’s mystery and the key to solving it. While the film adaptation tends to lean on the beauty and importance of omotenashi, Higashino’s real mystery in this bestselling work of his is whether he encourages Japan’s “customer is god” culture — or reminds us that, at times, it may (literally) be dangerous.

(c)2019 Masquerade Hotel Film Partners(c)Keigo Higashino/Shueisha

Cast: Takuya Kimura, Masami Nagasawa, Takako Matsu, Fumio Kohinata, Atsuko Maeda
Director: Masayuki Suzuki

*data from : http://bit.ly/2sXtIy3

Text by Rose Haneda

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