Shopping in Japan

For four years, I studied Japanese politics and culture.  For three years, I studied Japanese and made friends with our Japanese exchange students.  I had conversations comparing life here and the US.  I read the Japanese news.  I watched Japanese documentaries.  I did everything I could to immerse myself in Japan without actually being here.  While that did leave me with a lot of interesting knowledge and an analytical eye for most things that have happened to me while here, I was lacking a lot of practical knowledge.  As an example: how to pay at a cash register.

I have seen the self checkout machines a few times here, but for me it’s easier just to go to a person.  There’s no kanji to read if I’m talking to a person.  However, most places don’t have a self checkout, so normally I don’t have a choice anyway.  Some parts of the process are the same as the US.  You put your basket on the counter (no conveyor belts) and the cashier scans them.  Then, eventually, you pay for them.  But that’s really the end of the similarities.  First, the cashier takes things out of your basket, scans them, and then puts them into a new basket (typically the basket the person in front of you was using before they checked out).

The cashier will typically say the price of each item as they’re being scanned.  I still don’t get why, unless it’s to avoid being silent.  There is typically a digital display right at eye level, so it’s not like you can miss it.  At some point they will stop narrating how much you’re spending and will ask you for something.  If you miss it, this is followed by them staring at you expectantly, probably doubting that you understand what they’re saying, until you or someone you’re with deals with the question.  This question is whether or not you have a point card for their store.  Point cards are ubiquitous in Japan.  Almost every store seems to have them.  They’re free to sign up for and they don’t even seem to cause spam e-mail.  Well, not yet at least.  I wonder if they are so popular because, due to the lack of credit card (for the most part), people aren’t earning credit card rewards.  Anyway, the point card rewards aren’t always super helpful, but they’re free.  So why not?  I’ve already spent enough at Nitori to get some money off of one of my purchases.

So now that you’ve handed over your point card to be scanned, or said you don’t have one, it’s time to pay.  The cashier will say the total.  While you’re fishing around in your wallet, they’ll appraise your basket and then put a few plastic bags in it.  You then pay.  But you don’t hand your money directly to the cashiers.  Oh no.  That’s a major faux pas, it seems.  You instead put them in the blue tray that is either sitting on the counter or the metal tray attached to the cash register.  The cashier then puts the bill in bill slot and drops the coins into the coin collector.  The cash register then spits out your exact change which is handed to you with your receipt.

You then take your basket over to a nearby counter and bag your groceries, or whatever it is that you bought.  While this isn’t always the case (if you only bought a few things or if you’re in a smaller store), the goal of having the customer bag their own groceries is vital to keeping the whole process running at optimal speed.

The whole thing definitely takes some getting use to, but eventually you know the script well enough that you don’t even have to think about it anymore.


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