Monday, October 24, 2005
Awhile back, Matthew advised me to find a Don Quixote store near me. This was not bad advice, and I finally took it a week or two ago. Don Quixote, you see, aside from his windmill fixation, also embarked on another quest, this one slightly less, er, quixotic: to bring LOW LOW PRICES EVERYDAY (sorry) to the people of Japan. Why this brave knight and his faithful retainer Sancho are remembered in Japanese mythology as a pair of blue-feathered birds is not a question I am prepared to answer at this time.
So Don Quixote is a chain of discount stores in Japan. The prices are good, and they carry a wide variety of Western goods that you would have trouble finding elsewhere (e.g. Doritos, Clairol Herbal Essences shampoo, Corona Extra beer--la cerveza mas fina, ese!). I go there on a fairly regular basis these days, but yesterday's trip held a surprise: the aforementioned ドンキの侍 (Donki no samurai: "Don Quixote samurai)!
The samurai was working the register, but working it will a single-minded dedication that I doubt you would ever see at a discount retailer anywhere but Japan. Let me explain the Don Quixote setup to give you a setting for the story that will follow: when you are ready to checkout, you bring your basket up to a checkout counter. This counter has room for you to set your basket down, then a fixed barcode scanner, then room on the other side for another basket. As the person before you in line finishes, the clerk moves their now-empty basket to the other side of the scanner, leaving you room to set your basket down. The clerk then empties your basket, one item at a time, scanning the item before depositing it in the other basket. When he is done, your basket is empty, the other basket is full, and you pay. The clerk then puts a few empty bags in the full basket, and you are free to carry it away to the packing table. At this time, the clerk moves your empty basket over, and repeats the process with the next person in line.
So you carry your full basket to a free spot on a packing table, which is just a long, narrow table along the front wall. You transfer your items from the basket to one or more bags, then deposit your basket in a stack on the way out. This is the way things work at most grocery stores in Japan, as well.
Now that you know the setting, allow me to continue with the story of the samurai. This guy has a fairly straight-forward job, as I have just described: he moves your items from one basket to another, scanning them en route, then informs you of the amount you owe, takes your money, and gives you change. In Japan, however, a routine job does not mean that you do not 気を出して (ki o dashite, "put your spirit into it"). The samurai was bringing great honour to his Don Quixote feudal overlords by performing his simple job with amazing speed. He moved things from my basket, past the scanner, and into the receiving basket so quickly that he had to, on several occasions, re-scan an item because the scanner was just not as hardcore as he was. As the price of each item came up on the display, he would yell, 一点三百円 (itten sam byaku en: one item at ¥300) or whatever, which is Don Quixote store policy, but none of the other cashiers put as much into it as this guy. When he informed me that I had one item at ¥300, he said it in the same tone that you could imagine was used by the 47 loyal rônin when they swore to avenge the death of their lord. Intense, in a word.
He had apparently suffered a papercut somewhat earlier, for he kept wincing in pain from time to time (causing the lady in front of me to ask him, "Papercut? Those hurt, don't they."). This, of course, did not deter him from his sworn duty.
When my items were completely transferred, he had to hit a few keys on the register, which was to his left. Well, he pivoted 90 degrees clockwise with martial arts precision, and attacked the register like it had murdered his brother. I have seldom felt sorry for electronics (with one notable exception being Oliver's laptop when he used to slam the screen closed with all of his might in the common room in Kanazawa), but I did pity this cash register.
He announced the total, and I handed over some cash. He managed to make change, which was a reasonable complex amount, in terms of bills and coins, in record time. It was like something straight out of "Kung Fu Hustle": he brought his open palm down on the cash register draw, causing the exact amount required for my change to fly up in the air. As the change fell in slow motion, he whipped his hands back and forth in a complex pattern, one designed to produce precisely the air currents necessary to sort the change into his hands.
OK, it was not quite like that, but he did sort my change bloody quickly!
So, he gave me the change, then thanked me: "katatsuke nai desu!" This is an archaic way of saying "thank you" that was employed by samurai during the Edo Period (1603 - 1867). I have not heard it outside of 時代劇 (jidai-geki, period dramas) in my time in Japan. Quite impressive.
My only worry is that this chap is a likely candidate for 過労死 (karôshi, death from overwork). You just cannot put that much into your register jockey job without suffering some sort of consequences.
Customer service in Japan: literally a matter of life and death.
And what is Yatsu up to, you may ask? Well, he is helping out on the computer these days.