Why calling yourself a “Service Provider” in Japan might not be the best idea

Yesterday I had an interesting conversation with a Japanese IT network engineer. She said that it was challenging to explain to Japanese customers that also the intangible goods – that is, services – provided by a service provider need to be paid for. Instead, she said, customers would be willing to pay for tangible goods and expected anything related to service to be on top for free.

This reminded me of a chapter I once read in the highly recommended book “Japan’s Cultural Code Words”: It explains that when the term “service” is used in the Japanese language, it will have another meaning than in English. Superb customer service is expected by the Japanese consumer per se and there is no need to have an extra word for taken-for-grantedness. When a customer receives “service”, it means that a discount is granted or that a small gift is given:

A customer asking for a discount would say, “Sabisu shite kudasai” […] Ordinary green tea is a “service” item in Japanese-style restaurants, meaning that it is free if you order something else.” (Lafayette de Mente, 2004, p. 226)

Considering this, it might not be the wisest choice to call yourself “Service Provider” when dealing with Japanese clients. “Japan Intercultural Consulting” suggests to sell “solutions” rather than “services”:

“[…] this word implies they are getting an integrated product and service, which will fix their problem.” (Rudlin, 2017)

I think the point here is that language has a perceivable impact on clients’ willingness to pay. Although Japanese clients apparently are less willing to pay for a “service”, they are ready to spend money on immaterial experiences:

“The lack of space can diminish the importance of ownership and possession ofcertain material goods; instead, it can lead to a quest for (the luxury) experience.” (Synodinos, 2001, p. 243)

The problem here really seems to be the term “service” and its change of meaning when used in Japanese.

The network engineer I talked with also pointed out that as a measure of the provided service, clients will take the documentation: If there is more documentation, the service will be perceived as more extensive. While she was complaining that this measure was really not a good one, I do see the advantage that documentation does not fall by the wayside as it usually does. When time is scarce and deadlines are coming closer, documentation is usually the first item to be sacrificed in a project, making it harder for users and product owners to handle the product and to extend it later on. It is not for nothing that in this well-known cartoon on project management, one frame was dedicated to “documentation”.


Lafayette de Mente, B. (2004). Japan’s Cultural Code Words: 233 Key Terms That Explain the Attitudes and Behavior of the Japanese (1 edition). Tuttle Publishing.

Rudlin, P. (2017, February 9). Why ‘service’ has different meanings in Japanese and English. https://www.japanintercultural.com/en/blogs/default.aspx?blogid=2291

Synodinos, N. E. (2001). Understanding Japanese consumers: Some important underlying factors. Japanese Psychological Research, 43(4), 235–248.

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