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Tipping in Japan

A waitress in the Edo period, from One Hundred Edo Beauties by Sandai Utagaka Kunisada

First time visitors to Japan often express their surprise, not to mention their delight, that there is no tipping in this country. People from North America and other places where tipping is a deeply embedded part of society are the ones most likely to mention it.

There is in fact no assumed tipping, as it exists in many other countries, especially in food service and hospitality. Some places may add a fixed service charge to the bill for large groups and so on, but that is clearly stated beforehand. For most people, what you see on your restaurant bill is exactly what you pay, and there is no need to calculate what 15% or 20% of the bill is, or to palm a tip to your food delivery person, hotel porter or taxi driver. Tips are not expected at all in places like hair and nail salons, shoe polishing places, and the myriad of other ones where tipping is called for in North America.

In this article I’m focusing mainly on the food service industry, which is most associated with tipping.

Inherently polite?

Server and customer

When the absence of a tipping culture in Japan is mentioned, it is usually accompanied by sentiments like these, especially by people from tipping countries:

  • “Japanese people are so polite, service is great even without tipping!”
  • “Japanese people are inherently polite and kind! They don’t need tips!”
  • “In Japan, people get paid a living wage, so they don’t need tips!”

Well. First of all, Japanese people are not that different from people anywhere in the world. Even a positive stereotype is just that, a stereotype. There are plenty of rude and obnoxious Japanese people, as well as nice and considerate ones.

However, when someone applies for a job as a server (most such jobs are baito, temporary or contract work) there is a certain expectation as to how you are supposed to act. I guess it is fair to say that standards for service are pretty high. Most establishments provide training to new employees - in some places, a new hire with no prior experience isn’t allowed to be on the floor as a server during open hours until they have become more familiar with procedures.

One thing that keeps food servers and other people in customer service in Japan on their toes is that Japanese customers tend to complain very freely, and management generally tends to bend over backwards to accommodate the customer, even if they are wrong (although this is changing slowly in recent years). The saying okyaku-sama wa kami-sama お客様は神様 (The customer is a god) may seem archaic, but it still held up as a principle by many companies.

There is a severe and growing labor shortage in the service industries, especially in food service. So far that has not resulted in a drastic lowering of service standards, but it will be interesting to see if this changes in the next few years.

Side note: a Japanese TV show recently interviewed several non-Japanese residents of Japan and asked them what they did for a living. One of the things mentioned by the interviewees several times was that working in the service industry, such as at a convenience store (konbini), was regarded as a highly skilled job by people whose native language was not Japanese, since customer service in Japan is very difficult.

Are Japanese servers paid a “living wage”?

Japanese yen

Japanese yen (source)

As mentioned above, a typical food server is a temporary worker, or arubaito (or baito for short) - often a college or high school student, someone in between jobs, out of work entertainers an so on. The average net hourly wage according to an industry web site for servers in Tokyo is 1,072 yen (US$9.86 or €8,85), and in Osaka it’s 974 yen (US$8.96 or €8) [1]. It’s a bit hard to easily compare to the minimum hourly wage of tipped workers in the United States, since the latter numbers are gross wages before taxes are paid. Still, it is really tough to live on around 1,000 yen an hour in Tokyo.

I have heard a few Japanese people state that they’d like to see a tipping system - although one more aligned to the European model of paying a base wage, but allowing workers to accept tips. I am very wary of the whole idea of tipping, since I have seen how it is used in the United States to pay abysmally low wages to servers and make them ‘hustle for tips’.

For now, despite some older folks grumbling about “young people have no manners”, servers in Japan are generally very polite and accommodating, mainly for the reasons stated above.

Kokorozuke: The Japanese way of tipping

Nakai in ryokan

Tipping of a sort does exist in Japan, but it is rather elaborate, not to mention expensive. A kokorozuke 心づけ is a tip that is given discreetly, before service is rendered, enclosed in an envelope (which can be a special for-the-purpose envelope, or just a plain white one) or wrapped in a piece of cloth, to the person in charge of the particular setting. That could be the nakai (your attendant at a ryokan, usually female), the head chef at a sushi restaurant, the floor manager, and so on. It may or may not be the owner. It does not have to have any writing on the envelope, but really stylish things to write - in elegant calligraphy, naturally - would be matsu no ha 松の葉 (a pine tree needle/leaf) or hana hitoe 花一重 (a single layer of flower petals), meaning “just a small, insignificant thing”. This is slipped discreetly to the person, who will then either keep it for themselves or divide it with others, depending on the store. The amount is usually fairly substantial, not just a few coins or 15% of your bill, although if you are a one time customer at a ryokan or something, a 10,000 yen bill or something would be fine.

To reiterate, a kokorozuke is given before service is rendered, not after. It's given to say “I thank you in advance for your service”, “yoroshiku onegai shimasu”.

I once heard an anecdote about a well known veteran actor, who made it a habit of giving a kokorozuke to any restaurant he visited for the first time (again, before service - he’d usually give it as soon as his guests had seated themselves). If I remember correctly, he typically gave about 100,000 yen (about a thousand dollars). He would give smaller kokorozuke on subsequent visits.

Non-monetary ways of showing appreciation

One rather esoteric reason why open tipping has never been a custom in Japan is that there is a lingering stigma against the handling of money. This is a legacy from the feudal system days, when the upper classes — the aristocracy and the bushi (samurai) — regarded money as a necessary yet venal thing, best left to the lower classes, especially the merchants.

But there are other ways of showing appreciation to your servers or the chefs at a restaurant. One long-term customis to buy a round of drinks for the servers; some more traditional sushi places and izakaya will be fine with it, but an increasing number of places don't allow employees to drink on the job. Instead of buying drinks on the stop, you can also offer to buy everyone there (this works best in small restaurants of course) a bottle to enjoy later. Another way is to simply bring a nice gift to your favorite establishment. When my mother ran a popular Japanese restaurant in New York City, her Japanese regulars would often bring a gift (omiyage) to her whenever they went back to Japan. (Some of her American regulars saw this and picked up the habit too.)

Conclusion: To tip a server or not in Japan?

The basic rule of “no tipping” still holds throughout most of Japan. However, these days servers in areas which see a lot of overseas tourists have gotten used to their guests leaving the change or a small tip, and won’t make a big fuss about it, unless the ownership has a firm rule against accepting any tips. So the often-repeated scenario of a serve chasing after you with the small change they think you forgot is gradually fading into history. It may still happen though, especially if you go to a place that doesn’t get a lot of tourists.

If you are really happy with the service you received, consider going the non-monetary route, and if you have deep pockets and self-assurance, the kokorozuke route. But don’t feel bad if you can’t do either. Just make sure you thank your server and make them know they are appreciated.

Addendum: Tipping in other situations

I was looking at this handy yet overwhelming list of how much and who to tip in the U.S.. In most of these situations, you do not tip in Japan. It’s an absolute no-no to tip a mover, a plumber or a cable installer. You pay them their stated fee and that’s that.

  1. Many employees also pay for all or part of a worker’s commuting costs as a general rule in Japan.  ↩

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