Why Ann loves Japan

Ann and me under the cherry trees last year (Photo credit Debra Bajaj)

My friend Ann McHugh is one of those people who you can’t help but admire.  She’s smart and more than a little bit sassy.  She has three kids, ages 5, 10, and 13, and she keeps each of their schedules organized, never forgetting a lunchbox or a school form.  More often than not, she’s the one arranging the carpools for the kids’ various activities. Her husband is in International Banking and this is their sixth year in Tokyo.

So it was quite a shock the other day when she discovered she was missing her cell phone.

Ann was one of the early adopters of the iPhone, which says a lot because the iPhone was slow to catch on in Japan in the beginning.  Now, of course, with the advent of iPhone4, the Softbank shop can’t keep them in stock.  As a note, Softbank is the carrier of iPhone services in Japan, much as AT&T is THE carrier of iPhone services in the U.S.  I know it’s changing and becoming more open in the U.S. but I have no idea if or when that will happen in Japan.

Ann has had her iPhone – the same phone – for the better part of two years.  And then *poof* it was gone.

For more than two days, she hunted everywhere, tried calling it a million times from various places where she thought she may have mislaid it, and called around to the spots where she could have possibly left it.  Her husband kept telling her not to beat herself up.  He had been mentioning that she might want the new iPhone4 anyway, so this was the perfect opportunity to get one.  Ann was resistant.  She didn’t want to spend the money when she had a perfectly good phone.  Besides, iPhones in Japan happen to cost about double the price of the same item in the U.S. and it’s really hard as an American to justify that type of expense.

This morning, however, she had had enough.  She decided to give up the ghost and go to Softbank to get a new phone.

Nothing works quickly in Tokyo.  She had to take a number and wait.  And wait.  Ninety minutes worth of waiting at 11am.  Then, after all that waiting, she was told that they did not have any phones in stock.

Understandably, Ann was not exactly happy when she walked out of the store, still phone-less.  Then, she remembered that one of the first questions the girl (and believe me, they’re all girls – barely even women, all dressed in pert little uniforms with a little too much mascara and their jet-black hair touching their shoulders, falling forward in their eye as they speak…) asked was if she had reported the phone missing.

Ann is a New Yorker.  No, she had not reported the phone missing because in New York, she would have been laughed out of the police station.  But partly on a whim and partly out of frustration and partly because it was nearby, she decided to stop in at the Azabu district police station.

Ann went up the steps to the lost and found department and stepped into line to make the report.  She told me that after a short wait, she got up to the counter, but neither the man nor the woman who were trying to help her spoke any English whatsoever.  So she knows the word for phone – keitai – and tried to pantomime losing the phone.  She got lucky and the woman next in line, who as it happened, had lost her wallet, spoke perfect English and was able to assist.

The woman behind the counter gave Ann a form.  Beyond the regular name and address and all that, she had to describe the phone.  She had to tell them the color, about the scratch on the side and the photo that comes up when it’s first turned on.

As she finishes the form, the woman behind the counter goes over to a drawer and after a short search, pulls out Ann’s phone.

Of course, then the rigmarole began, Japanese style. Both the man AND the woman behind the counter had to look the phone over, turn it on and check the opening photo.  It took them a minute or two to decide that it was, indeed, Ann’s phone.

So they handed it over to her and she was joyous!  But one more thing – could she please fill out the form to confirm that she received the phone back from the police station?

Ann would have done just about anything at that moment, she was so excited to have her phone back.  So, sure, why not one more form??

What cracked her up, however, was that the form was virtually identical to the one she had filled out less than two minutes prior.  It asked for all of her identifying information, and then again for the identifying information of the phone.  She had to re-write the stuff about the color, the scratch on the side and the photo of her daughter in a silly pose that appears when the phone opens.  She felt like they could have just stapled the initial form to this one and been done with it.  But no, they could not.  So she filled out the form and left.

There are so many things about the day that are a lesson – both good and bad.  The wait in Softbank is never under an hour, and they will never have precisely what you want – the most popular items come in limited quantities.  The Japanese people will always turn in an item they’ve found to a local police box and it will be taken to the central police depot at some point.  Nothing in Japan is ever truly lost, simply mislaid.  Pantomiming rarely works, but there’s often an English speaker nearby.  Forms are involved – many of them.  Many forms are ridiculous and useless, but they keep everything running.  And I’m sure you can glean more information than just that!

In the end, Ann has her phone and that’s what’s important.  Her older daughter can text her the after-school schedule and she can return emails promptly once again.  Japan is a wonderful place built on a pyramid of contradiction.  The culture is kind and honest to a fault and bureaucracy keeps the wheels of the country greased.

All in all, as my husband likes to say, “that’s so Japanese!”  What a country!

3 thoughts on “Why Ann loves Japan

  1. Great story!!! Soo… there is a positive correlation between beurocracy and paperwork… and getting things done? Wow! Maybe that’s another “only in Japan” thingy. 🙂 Very glad Ann got her phone back! Thank you both for sharing this bit of culture-adventure!

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