Japanese Private Bureaucracies: A Case Study

Japan’s government is famously bureaucratic, to the point where some commentators claim that the bureaucrats, and not the legislators, control everything. The system generates a lot of paperwork, and yet these endless forms provide a modicum of consistency. As long as everyone going into a process understands the documented procedures and follows them, things are supposed to go smoothly.

I’ve gotten used to this mindset when dealing with city hall. But until last month, I never realized how much this way of working through procedures extended into the private business world. I had always heard in Japan that 「客様は神様」(“The customer is god”). Companies would of course bend over backward to ensure my experience was smooth and free from unnecessary burdens. It’s at this point that I must introduce Exhibit A: one of the world’s largest hardware, software, and services companies whom, so as to not single them out for ridicule, I will refer to only as “MinisculeSoft.”

I’m actually a big fan of MinisculeSoft, and in general they do a swell job. But I was shocked at the amount of effort it took to make a simple laptop purchase from their Japanese Business and Education Sales department. I sought out one of their business-centric devices for my part-time writing pursuits. Buying the laptop was not too complicated, even with the language barrier. But I encountered MinisculeSoft’s bureaucratic engine when I attempted to add a three-year service plan for the device.

In MinisculeSoft’s US store, adding this service is point-and-click easy. Your communist friends are right when they say the United States is all about the money, at least when it comes to these warranty plans. To get one at the US store, you only need to provide your credit card details. Then you can sit back and enjoy the peace of mind that a multi-year support policy brings.

It was a bit more complicated in Japan. Here are the general steps I took to extend the service plan from one year to three years.

  • Order the device and service plan from MinisculeSoft’s business sales team.
  • Learn that you can’t order the service plan without a device serial number.
  • When the machine arrives a few days later, obtain the serial number and place a new support-plan order.
  • MinisculeSoft sends a formal quote and customer-information spreadsheet by email.
  • Print out the quote, stamp it with my personal seal, scan it back into the computer, and email that stamped document to MinisculeSoft.
  • Fill out a customer-information spreadsheet with my personal and business names and contact information. Email a PDF version (not the spreadsheet version!!) of that form to MinisculeSoft as well.
  • Receive from MinisculeSoft a Pro Forma invoice with the amount to pay.
  • Receive another email from MinisculeSoft demanding that I explain why I did not provide a corporate ID number in the customer-information spreadsheet.
  • Write a short note explaining that, as a sole proprietor, I do not require a corporate ID number, and therefore did not provide one.
  • Receive bank-transfer details from MinisculeSoft in yet another email.
  • Transfer payment from my bank to MinisculeSoft.
  • Receive approval for the extended warranty.
  • Receive an email from MinisculeSoft asking me to fill out a customer-satisfaction survey.

This entire process took about three weeks to complete. I have not yet filled out the satisfaction survey since in all honesty, I have no idea if this process has been completed to everyone’s satisfaction. Another Pro Forma document could, I expect, show up at any moment. Heaven forbid that I actually initiate a service request at this point.

I don’t know how I feel about this whole process. Sure, the US counterpart is extremely easy. But I kind of like the protective handrails and attention to detail that the complex Japanese variant offers. With Labor-Thanksgiving Day coming up later this week, I should be thankful to MinisculeSoft for their hard work in this transaction—and I am. My sales rep worked tirelessly to ensure that even this foreign resident with so-so language skills could acquire a business-class computer on par with something that any native Japanese business could procure. Thank you, Mr. Urakawa.

Still, this level of bureaucracy begs so many questions. Why couldn’t most of this be done at the time I placed my order? Why did I have to physically stamp and scan a piece of paper for a low-cost add-on when I didn’t have to do so for the original higher-priced laptop? Why does MinisculeSoft care about the corporate structure of my business when selling what are in fact consumer-level commoditized goods and services? Why did this process take three weeks?

I don’t have the answer to any of these questions. But with the current level of unease in Japan’s domestic and international business environment, it’s a good time for Japanese businesses and public agencies to determine how these processes can be streamlined. Perhaps a new laptop will help.

[Image Credits: Microsoft Office Clipart]

Tim Odagiri

Tim Odagiri is an author, software developer, and the host of Japan Everyday. He has published more than a dozen books and hundreds of articles covering technology, current events, and now life in Japan. Find his latest books at OwaniPress.com.

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