A few months ago, I wrote about how the lauded Japanese concept of omotenashi, or hospitality, had a dark side. Some customers in Japan feel emboldened to vent their discontent in uncivilized ways - verbally and, in some cases, physically abusing store staff who won't give them their way. Some Japanese business experts argue that Japan needs to rethink its customer service model, and stores need to set firmer limits for customers on what constitutes unacceptable behavior.

Sadly, that doesn't seem to have happened. If anything, the problem appears to be getting worse. The media and experts have even given it a nickname: kasu-hara (カスハラ), which is shorthand for "customer harassment". The phenomenon consists of customers starting off with a malicious claim (akushitsu kureemu; 悪質クレーム) - e.g., demanding special treatment because a soup they received was too cold. When staff attempt to offer a solution, the customers reject any proposed solution out of hand, and instead jump straight to abuse.

A few oft-cited examples include:

  • A customer who was dissatisfied with the way his crab was cooked picking up the poor fried creature and smacking an employee's face with it.
  • Someone fully finishing a bowl of soup, then demanding a refund.
  • A restaurant customer flinging a tray at an employee - then, when the employee bowed in apology, taking his picture and uploading it to the Internet.

Above: An Ameba News segment from October 2018 documenting some severe cases of customer harassment.

Japan's Mainichi Shinbun printed a good round-up on the issue in a recent feature-length article. A survey by the labor union UA Zensen found over 14,000 of verbal harassment of customers by employees, with another 12,000 incidents involving outright threats. 70% of all employees surveyed said they've received some form of abuse from customers. Service personnel report customers using all sorts of denigrating language, such as telling them they're "worthless" or that they should "drop dead".

Poor Morals - or Stress Relief?

What's behind the spike? Mainichi pins the origins of kasu-hara on a 1999 incident, when a customer with a faulty tape Toshiba tape deck recorded the poor service he received from a Toshiba repair person. He then uploaded the video to the Internet, sparking the fans of consumer outrage. Since then, there have been other notable incidents of customers using the Internet to roast companies for their poor service, the most notable example in recent years being when supply chain problems with McDonald's Japan led to customers discovering weird foreign substances in their food - up to and including a human tooth (!).

But even these examples of egregious customer service don't explain why Japanese customers have progressed into making unreasonable demands and being violent. What explains this shift in behavior?

Over a quarter of customer service employees who were surveyed simply blamed the issue on "customers with poor morals". However, another quarter said that abusing staff is "an easy outlet for stress". Experts interviewed by Mainichi seemed to back this explanation, noting that such customer behavior escalates at the end of the year, when everyone is at their max level of stress. The long working hours demanded by many Japanese companies leave people exhausted and frazzled - and service staff, who are culturally expected to cater to their customer's whims, are punching bags within easy reach.

(JP) Link: Excessive Claims from Customers and Clients...On the Rise - "Customer Harassment"

ハラスメント:客や取引先から過剰なクレーム…広がる「カスタマーハラスメント」 - 毎日新聞
「カスハラ」が深刻だ。客や取引先による過剰で悪質なクレームで企業の従業員が苦しむ「カスタマーハラスメント」の略で、国の労働政策審議会(労政審)でもどんな対策を取るべきか議論となっている。「カスハラ」が広がる背景に何があるのか。処方箋はあるのか。【宇多川はるか/統合デジタル取材センター】

The morning TV show Sukkiri! (スッキリ!) also ran a kasu-hara segment last week. The show, which had previously asked viewers to submit stories of customer harassment via e-mail or Twitter, re-enacted some of the most audacious examples, including a businessman who booked the lowest class of room and then was so dissatisfied that he ordered staff to find him a room at another hotel - and then insisted that the hotel cover the cost of both the hotel and his taxi fare.

Screen cap from TV show Sukkiri!
An episode of the TV talk show Sukkiri! that focused on customer harassment. The caption reads: "You're stupid! That's why this is the only work you can get!"

As part of their segment, Sukkiri!'s experts pointed out another potential cause of the problem: Japan's rapidly aging population. Older people sometimes feel powerless in their lives. Asserting their authority is one way to disperse that feeling - at least temporarily. Health concerns, such as the onset of dementia, could also be a factor.

Last year, UA Zensen submitted a petition to Japan's Ministry of Labor with over 20,000 signatures demanding some sort of official policy from the government. This year, UA Zensen's petition had over 1.7 million signatures. However, it's hard to see what kind of guidelines can or will be instituted. As Ameba News points out, it's difficult to set guidelines around what constitutes a "malicious" claim. And it's hard to see how government regulation will fix anything. It seems it would be more effective to cure the patient - an overworked middle class and an elderly population that feels lonely and abandoned - rather than treat the symptoms.