Japanese Stores and Businesses

Points to Keep in Mind About Japanese Stores and Businesses

  • Most stores and restaurants are cash only.

  • A Japanese store's focus is often more specific than that of a US store. A Japanese store selling tatami mats, will pretty much only sell tatami mats. This is especially true in the larger cities. Some (but by no means all) grocery stores in Japan sell only groceries. If you need TP, tooth paste or soap, you may need to head over to the Japanese pharmacy. The supermarket that we patronize however, covers most general home needs. The more specialized stores are generally found in urban areas. We live in a semi-rural / sub-urban area so our stores are more all inclusive.

  • If you're looking for something like "Home Depot", ask around for a "home center". Home center is not the name of a particular store, but rather a type of store. They can be described as a cross between a Walmart and Home Depot.

  • Many stores (and restaurants) in Japan are closed on one day of the week. The particular day will vary from store to store, so check ahead of time if you intend to visit one. As a general rule, chain type establishments are open seven days a week. It's usually the mom and pop establishments that only run six days.

  • The packing for food items is ridiculously small in Japan. A bin of sour cream is about four spoonfuls. Milk is only sold in 1 liter containers (4.2 cups, four bowls of cereal and I need more milk). Salad dressing is usually sold in 300ml (1.25 cups) bottles. This is all highly annoying. They say that this is all due to the small size of the Japanese home, but I'm not buying into that. The homes here are smaller on average, but the refrigerator in a Japanese house is about the same size as those in the US. It's true that most of the apartments, and their associated refrigerators, are tiny but there are plenty of people in Japan who don't live in apartments. Doesn't add up to me.

Put the Yen in the Tray

In most stores in Japan, near the cash register you will find a small plastic tray with what looks like a clear Astroturf lining. When you pay the clerk, you are expected to place your cash or card into this tray as opposed to just handing your payment to the clerk or setting it on the counter. Note, the opposite is not true. When you are given your change the clerk will hand it directly to you.

These cash trays are pretty much ubiquitous, but for some reason they are often not used in Japanese convenience stores. If you don't see the plastic tray anywhere near the register, just hand your payment to the clerk or place it on the counter.


Bagging Your Own Purchases

Some stores (almost all grocery stores and dollar stores) in Japan will require you to bag your own items. Do not start bagging you stuff at the register. There will be an area setup just beyond the register for this purpose, usually a separate table or counter against the wall. Once you hand over your yen and the transaction is complete, take your purchases to that area and pack up. Japanese dollar stores (or 99 Yen Stores, as they are known in Japan) often have racks of used newspapers in the packing area that you may use to wrap up any breakable items that you may have purchased.

Some Japanese grocery stores charge a small fee for bags, but most do not and the clerk will give you an appropriate number of bags for your merchandise without you having to ask. The clerks in most Japanese convenience stores as well as department and electronics stores will bag and pack your items for you, often being so meticulous in the process that it becomes annoying.


Japanese Business Hours, Closing Time and "Auld Lang Syne"

While there are a few stand outs, like ramen shops, snack bars and yakitori spots, most businesses open to the public close earlier in Japan than in the west. It's not uncommon for a grocery store to close at 8:PM or for smaller Japanese restaurants to close at 9:PM. A number of Japanese businesses seem to be designed to make the majority of their sales during a fairly narrow time band and then close shop until tomorrow (an example of which are the many Japanese restaurants in the states that open for lunch, close in the afternoon and then reopen for dinner).

Of course a city like Tokyo will have plenty of late night options just by the virtue of the sheer number of establishments, but overall I've noticed that these early closures seem to be more prevalent in the city than in the suburbs. Assumedly because customers in the city have many options whereas the suburban customers are a more captive audience (thus guaranteeing more late evening traffic).

Japanese businesses also differentiate themselves from the US in how they handle closing time. In the US, closing time for many places simply means the time after which no new customers will be accepted. This isn't written in stone and if you show up to your local steak house ten minutes before closing you'll likely garner some (well deserved) sinister looks from the wait staff, but you will, by and large, be seated at a table. This isn't how Japan runs the show. Most establishments here actually intend to actually close at closing time and will often not accept new customers even an hour before closing. They are not going to toss out existing customers on the spot, but those customers will be reminded of closing time and are expected make a hasty finish to whatever they are doing.

Japanese grocery stores have a particular way of handling this situation. At 15 minutes prior to closing time, an announcement will be made over the PA system, informing customers that they will be closing in 15 minutes and to please make your final purchases at this time. If you happen to visit a grocery store during your travels in Japan (and I recommend that you do, they can be quite entertaining for Westerners), listen for Auld Lang Syne (that's the New Year's Eve song in the US). It's not done everywhere, but that song is your queue that it's time to get your purchases together and head for the checkout counter.


Don't Break the Auto Sliding Doors

Japanese push button for opening a door

Many businesses in Japan have sliding doors that require you to press a button in order for the door to automatically open. This button will be metal, oblong shaped and labeled "Push". The issue is that this button does not really look like a button if you're unaccustomed to seeing them (they all look like one in the photo below). Do not make the mistake of pushing on the door itself or trying to manually slide it open. A number of things in Japan are more fragile than their counterparts in other parts of the world. If you push on the actual door, you may get an unpleasant surprise

The Japanese version of the fully automatic door (no button to press) usually requires the customer to be closer to the door before it opens than say an auto door in the US. Overall, these are not too popular in Japan but you will encounter them from time to time.


Dealing With Loquacious Japanese Store Clerks

After you've paid for your items and you receive your change, the Japanese clerk will likely start into what may seem like an endless string of words directed at you. Don't be alarmed, this is just their normal "Thank You, Please come again!" speech. They just happen to use a lot more words to get that point across than we would in English. Customer service, and politeness in general, may at first confuse and frighten you if you are from a large metropolitan area in the US and therefore not accustomed to it.

Keep in mind that the store clerk knows perfectly well (or at least expects) that you do not understand the Japanese language and you are not expected to respond in any way. Even native Japanese do not generally offer any response to them. It can take a while to get used to just walking away from people speaking to you, but that is normal in this situation. You would cut your vacation time in half if you tried to stand there and wait for all these little speeches to end every time you did business somewhere. If it makes you feel better, just nod politely and give them a quick "Arigato" as you are making your exit. That seems to work for me.

More Japanese Clerk Loquaciousness

If your bill is ¥800 and you put down a ¥1000 note, the clerk will ask if you want to take the ¥800 out of that ¥1000 note. Japanese store clerks are trained to ask this question regardless of whether or not the answer is obvious (the asking of questions with obvious answers seems to be a common practice in Japan). A typical response is just to nod and say "Yes" or "Hai".