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Compliments Available for a Price on Tokyo Streets

May 23, 2000|MARK MAGNIER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TOKYO — What's it cost to feel good about yourself in Japan these days as this once-proud nation wallows in economic recession and social gloom? About 95 cents, by one measure.

Aware that politeness pays, two young Japanese are turning compliments into cash with a professional flattery service. And in this notably traditional society, it seems to have hit a chord. The two CFOs--chief flattery officers--report a steady increase in business, recognition and number of standing ovations since the company's inception last August.

On Meiji Dori Street in Tokyo's trendy Shibuya neighborhood, 25-year-old Yuzo Koyama and 23-year-old Keiya Mizuno unpack the tools of their trade: a large signboard ("House of Flattery, 100 yen a minute"), bright red sweatshirts ("Professional Sweet Talkers") and lots of chutzpah.

"Have you been flattered lately?" Koyama calls out to the stream of Tokyoites rushing by.

"Feel good about your hidden charms," adds Mizuno. "Indulge in a pick-me-up minute."

Taeko Hayashi, a 20-year-old student, sidles up for a try. Koyama and Mizuno compare her to a rock star, admire her great fashion sense and tell her she's stunning. "How many carats in those diamond eyes of yours?" one of them adds.

Combining quick wit, excellent timing, a bit of irony and a ton of praise, the two soon attract a crowd--all part of a day's work for these aces of adulation.

Behind the joviality, however, customers voice a more serious concern. Many Japanese just don't feel very good about themselves these days as they fret over job cutbacks, rising crime, weak political leadership and a loss of national confidence.

"Obviously you're paying for the compliments, but they still feel nice," says Hayashi, dressed in a bluejean jacket and slacks. "With all of Japan's problems right now, maybe these guys can help brighten the atmosphere and improve the mood a bit."

Some customers look embarrassed. Others can't seem to get enough. Naoaki Tobe, a 19-year-old student, is told he looks like Tom Cruise, has real presence and a promising future. It's music to his ears.

"I feel so good," he says. "I don't have much confidence. And people rarely compliment you in Japan, no matter how good you look. This feels terrific."

Sociologists say the Japanese are more sparing with praise than people in many other cultures, in part because the society has put a premium on formality and understated communication. Compared with a country like the United States, with its large immigrant population, there's a greater sense here of a homogenous culture where feelings don't need to be stated because people share an implicit understanding.

"I sometimes find I have a difficult time with Western people who immediately say, 'You have nice shoes,' " said Mariko Fujiwara, a sociologist with Hakuhodo Institute of Life and Living, a think tank. "If a Japanese did that, you'd often think the person lacked tact or was even insincere."

Explicit compliments can be embarrassing in a Japanese setting, sociologists add. A boss who praises his employee in public, for instance, is setting that worker apart from his or her colleagues in a country where group identity is very important. Co-workers may interpret the boss' action to mean they're not doing as well, leading to division and envy. In extreme cases, being singled out can result in bullying and charges you've become the boss' pet.

On a personal level, of course, social niceties are important and welcome, as they are in any culture. In Japan, however, they tend to be expressed in more formulaic and less personal ways, say social scientists.

But Tobe, for one, believes these traditions no longer serve Japan well. "Japanese hold back their feelings too much," the student said. "It's a real shame. They should express themselves more."

Flatterers Koyama and Mizuno say they got the inspiration for their business while attending a cram school for job hunters. The two realized they had several things in common. Neither could find a job despite attending prestigious Waseda and Keio universities, respectively. And both had a bit of the showman in them and enjoyed making people feel good.

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They also realized that their friends who managed to land jobs in such a difficult market often felt lousy, racked by guilt that their classmates weren't sharing their good fortune. If even the winners felt such stress, they reasoned, there must be real demand for some morale boosting--giving rise to their Flattery Co.

"We especially like complimenting tense salary men and students awaiting exam results," said Koyama. "They really need it. And helping them makes us feel good."

Because flattery in Japanese culture tends to be handled with such delicacy, its misuse has at times served as a weapon. In a practice known as homegoroshi, employed most famously in the late 1980s against former Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita, political opponents use exaggerated compliments to humiliate a top political figure.

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