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  • Writer's pictureTim Odagiri

The Burger Kingification of Japan

A talking hamburger

Japan is great at standardizing things. Whether it is Just-In-Time manufacturing processes in an automobile factory or the shuffling of paperwork at city hall, organizations in Japan are adept at creating and adhering to procedures that, in normal situations, work every single time. It’s that “in normal situations” part that is the gotcha. Those famous procedures succeed in large part because they define a clear, well-orchestrated, socially understood path that relies on all parties conforming to expectations at every step in the process. When someone comes in who won’t—or can’t—conform, those processes can go haywire.

This tendency for things to break down in nonstandard situations is a big reason I altered my name to something more Japan-friendly using a legal alias. There are just too many web sites and paper forms in Japan that expect everyone to have two-part names with at most ten characters, a standard I couldn’t meet without legal action.

In the grand scheme of things, having a long name is a minor nuisance. But there are people for whom a strict adherence to a standard could lead to serious problems. Occasionally, you hear about a Japanese public school that has a strict black-hair policy. The goal is to keep wild kids from dying their hair purple, I guess. But children of foreign nationals who have naturally blond locks have been forced to change their hair color, all to conform with the no-changing-hair-color rule.

There are also medical situations for which the Japanese healthcare establishment is sometimes unwilling to adapt. I have an acquaintance who has a sleeping disorder and uses a CPAP device each night. While the device itself is available in Japan, he only has access to mask parts that are sized for the Japanese market. Without the right-sized components, there could be serious health consequences. The parts are available from overseas, and my friend has begged to pay out-of-pocket for them, but no Japanese medical device supplier will import them because they fall outside of official medical formularies and lists. Despite the risks, no one has been willing to challenge the standards.

I myself experienced this kind of medical quandary. I have very fair skin, and the sun’s ultraviolet rays love wreaking havoc on my dermal cells. Back in America, my family doctor told me to have my arms and face examined each year for signs of skin cancer. But when I asked my Japanese physician to perform this general check, I was met with a blank stare. “Don’t you have some specific issue you want me to look at?” the doctor queried. From what I can tell, there is no place to record a general skin review on insurance forms, and therefore the procedure does not exist in Japan. How insistent should I be to avoid the perils of cancer? The doctor eventually did a thirty-second once-over of my face and arms after I pointed out some random freckle of concern.

Why is such inflexibility to be found in Japan? Why is some student’s natural hair color a problem? How is it better to risk someone’s health rather than adjust the standards to keep even more people healthy?

Those of you who are old like me will remember the 1970s, when Burger King had an advertising campaign with the motto, “Have it your way.” You could ask for topping adjustments on your burger—“Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce” was the demand from the masses—and the friendly, entry-level staff would do it. But here in Japan, a coffee shop that offers both lattés and decaf will not make me a decaf latté.

I am sure there are wonderful justifications for this refusal to be flexible, including concerns over costs. Importing a slightly different size of an approved medical device could invoke a new round of expensive testing, only to benefit a handful of residents. Removing lettuce from a burger can lead to excessive roughage rubbish, impacting the bottom line of a restaurant already just scraping by. Yet businesses factor government-mandated costs and waste calculations into their budgets all the time, so there must be something else going on.

The core issue seems to be one of authorization. With Japan’s hierarchical social structure and preference for consensus, individuals seldom make fiat decisions, at least not without clearance from higher-ups. Burger flippers cannot arbitrarily decide to omit pickles just because a customer objects. Even highly trained doctors refuse to deviate from the approved list of services without passing it up the chain of command.

I recently started reading The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, by American anthropologist Ruth Benedict. Written in the closing years of World War II, the book’s analysis is a bit outdated and likely skewed by wartime sentiments. But I was struck by her comments on Japan’s enforcement of defined rules. According to Benedict, Japan does permit deviation from such rules provided that it maintains harmony and avoids embarrassment for those involved. She gave one example communicated by American soldiers held in Japanese prisoner-of-war camps. Such environments were extremely strict, but the guards allowed captives to break some rules as long as the violations were done quietly and without bringing shame on the guards.

The war is over, but this observation may still prove useful. Foreign residents are expected to comprise nearly eleven percent of Japan’s population by 2070. All these immigrants will bring new habits and cultural standards, greatly testing Japan’s penchant for adhering to standards. Japan will need to adapt to these new residents and adjust procedures to take this population into account. But immigrants also have the chance to practice their flexibility skills.

When I reflect on my brushes with uncompromising dictates, I now see that I was making things difficult for the other party. What doctor wants to have their clerk spend a half-hour trying to match insurance codes against a made-up procedure? What barista wants to explain to another customer that they ran out of decaf because a foreigner insisted on an off-menu caffeine-free beverage? Some of these rules need to be broken or corrected—consider my friend’s CPAP mask. While waiting for official adjustment of these standards, immigrants will need to find ways to have it their way without bringing distress on those who are already doing their best to offer quality services.

[Image Credits: CrioStudio/]


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