Guests and Beverages

お客様と飲み物

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I’ve heard some people say that customers/guests are treated like gods. There is even a Japanese phrase about it: “お客様は神様”. It is kind of similar to our phrase in English, “The customer is always right”… But if I take the Japanese phrase literally, it says that customers are gods.

When I arrive at schools to teach, I am treated like a guest. I sit down at an empty desk or visitor’s table and get out my materials for the day. Then the office assistant usually makes me coffee or tea and offers me some sort of cracker or cookie. Sometimes the person makes me coffee with cream and I feel really bad because I don’t drink coffee and I don’t take cream either. I ask them if they have green tea instead and they look surprised, saying, “Oh! Can you drink tea? お茶飲めますか?” … Why yes, I am American and I love green tea! (Oh, and they never offer water…when actually that is exactly what I want. I usually go to the faucet and fill up my water bottle by myself.)

When I first came to Hirosaki and started working at my office, I thought serving beverages to office guests was just a polite thing to do. But then as the months went on, I watched and saw that every single time an important person came to have a meeting and sat down, they were served tea. A rather small cup of green tea with its own lacquer ware saucer.

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Sometimes the guest didn’t even drink the tea! They didn’t even ask the people if they wanted something to drink. And sometimes the guest would sit down for less than five minutes, finish their business, and then leave. The cups of tea sat untouched on the table.

I have been to 12 schools and every single one of them has offered me either tea or coffee when I arrived. Most schools still make me a cup of “obligatory” tea every time I come, but some do not. Maybe it’s because I have been there too many times to be still considered an “honored guest”.

Last fall, one of my co-workers here at the office had some friends at another elementary school where I would be teaching. He actually called ahead (or talked to them somehow) to let them know that genmai-cha (green tea with toasted brown rice) was my favorite. Then, when I visited the school the following week, the office assistant made me… you guessed it: genmai-cha.

Last week I visited an elementary school for the third time. I sat down and there was only one man working in the office at that time (everyone else was off doing something else). I had been served tea the past two visits, but the man made no move towards me… So I wondered if I had breached the point of not being a “guest” any more. But about 5 minutes later, he came up to me, looking slightly apologetic that no one had served me yet, saying, “Would you like something to drink? It is our custom in Japan to offer guests a drink, so what would you like?”

When I went to the gathering for all teachers in the south-central area, I was able to sit in the room with all of the special guests before the speeches started. I rubbed elbows with all the education bigwigs in the Hirosaki area! We all were served snacks and exactly one small cup of green tea. I want to say that 99.9% of the guests did not touch the snacks, but I think most of them drank their tea. The cup was really small and the tea was really delicious, but my supervisor told me that it would be rude to ask for another. The custom is to just offer one cup. I guess that makes sense, seeing as the meeting was not a “café” or anything.

Still, I thought this was very strange, because I have done things a little differently in the US. When someone comes to your house, you normally ask your guest: “Would you like something to drink?” It’s just good manners and I try to remember to do this. If the guest is a good friend, they know where the cups are to get water for themselves.

But in the office in the US… I guess it depends on the office! I have worked in two offices in America. In the chiropractic office, I was an office assistant some of the time. When a new patient came in, I asked them if they wanted me to show them how to operate the coffee machine (so that they could do it by themselves the next time they came in). It was one of those new-fangled machines where you chose your flavor, put in the single-serving packet, pressed a button, and it did the rest for you. If it was a patient who had been to the office before, I just let them get their own coffee/tea/water by themselves. The beverages were served in disposable cups, so there was nothing for me to clean up afterwards.

In my office at the University of Texas, we often had important guests come in. People like managers, directors, field experts, deans, etc. Most of the time, the guest just walked in and went right into their business meeting. If the person was really important like a CEO or President, I think we would have offered them coffee. We had a pretty amazing coffee machine and regularly made orders from Starbucks. But it wasn’t obligatory or a “custom” to offer a beverage. You don’t expect to be served a beverage when you visit an office, but it is a nice gesture of politeness. Can anyone else with some more office experience in the US offer some more input on this?

So how do I feel about this custom in Japan? I actually really like it (mostly because I just really love a warm cup of green tea). It requires offices to budget a little more money for coffee/tea, but it is really courteous and makes the guests feel welcome.

I have a few questions, though. Is it considered rude if you do not touch what you are served in Japan? Are there Japanese people who don’t like green tea and just drink it not to be rude? And why isn’t water an option? From what I’ve seen, my co-workers could definitely stand to drink more water, especially in the summer. I am the only one in my office with a water bottle that I refill a couple times a day.

Lots of things to think about!

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3 Comments to “Guests and Beverages”

  1. Great observations. I experienced this a lot when I would go to various Sumitomo/3M facilities and was always offered green tea which I too really like. Often times the office girl would bring a small paper cup and a pot of tea. After a while though they showed me where to get refills. The only thing I did not like is during the summer they would bring in iced coffee which to me is “yuk.” Whether real or just an obligatory custom I do like their sense of manners. Reminds me of the old South. DDY

  2. I finaly got to read your latest and once again you are finding
    so may different ways of doing things.I find that when I go to certain
    affices there is a coffee pots around-ear office,dentist rct, but no
    gren tea.Had great vixit with your Dad(2 years since I had seen Him)
    and AJ.Glad your Dad is getting on his new job but he sure knows
    his win!!!Much love sweetty!!!!Nana.

  3. In my office days it was very common, at least in the entertainment industry, to be offered a beverage by the secretary of the person you were meeting with. At one time, Perrier (!) was the go-to offer, along with coffee or tea. No green tea, though that may be the new go-to choice nowadays!

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