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[Kim Seong-kon] A comparison of Japan, Korea and US

Recently, a Korean journalist stationed in Tokyo wrote an amusing article comparing Japan, Korea and the US. He wrote of his experience in each of the three countries when he tried to change the delivery date of a TV he had purchased. In Japan, the customer service agent was extremely nice and friendly, but declined his request politely, saying it was against the policy. In Japan, you are rude if you try to change your appointment when the prearranged date is near.

In Korea, the customer consultant was not particularly friendly, but she changed the delivery date for him anyway. In fact, in Korea it is possible to change your appointment even until the last moment. Koreans are quite flexible about such things. Besides, Koreans are well known to do things quickly, too. Indeed, everything is so fast in Korean society that it surely is convenient to live there.

Then the journalist wrote that in the US he could not even talk to the customer service representative. Presumably, when he called, the answering machine put him on hold forever. In my recent experience, I had to wait about 40 minutes before I was finally able to talk to a customer service representative. Although it varies depending on the companies and calling hours, putting a customer on hold for about half an hour seems to be common in the US these days.

The Korean correspondent’s comparison of Japan, Korea and the US made me smile because it revealed the radical differences between the three countries. Indeed, Japan is a country where people are polite and friendly, and yet they do everything “by the book.” Additionally, in Japanese society it is seriously frowned upon to put someone to much trouble or to take up much of anyone’s time. You should not make yourself an annoyance or nuisance, either.

Korea is a country where the people do not always live by the book strictly and thus can be flexible. Although such elasticity may cause problems sometimes, it certainly is convenient for ordinary people’s everyday lives. In addition, Korean society is speedy. Everything is so fast so you do not need to wait for a long time. Some foreigners like it so much that they decide to live in Korea much longer than they originally planned.

Compared to Korea, everything is so slow in the US. For example, when you apply for a driver license or transfer from another state’s license, it usually takes a month to receive the license by mail. In South Korea, you can get your driver license within 10 to 15 minutes. When you submit a paper to an American journal, it takes at least a year to get published. In Korea, it takes only a few weeks.

Recently, an American friend of mine called a company to paint his house. The company told him that the paint job had to wait for about a year. He also called an electrician to repair an electrical problem in his study. The electrician informed him that he had to be on a waiting list which stretched for about three months. Granted, the COVID-19 pandemic and the current housebuying boom in the US has had significant effects on supply and demand, but it still is too long to wait. In Korea, painters or electricians would come right away when you call them. As for a doctor’s office in Korea, one can drop in anytime, even without an appointment. In the US, you may have to wait for several months unless it is an emergency.

In the 1970s, when I lived in the US, America was a truly advanced country. Everything was so admirable and commendable. At that time, the social system of America was superb, and American society was reasonable and rational. Living in the US at the time was indeed convenient and pleasurable.

Half a century has passed. The problem is that the American system has not changed much since then, while other countries have changed rapidly and radically to suit the hyperspeed electronic era. As time goes on, therefore, the once-efficient and impeccable American system has become relatively inefficient and slow. Perhaps the American people may not realize it because they have been living in such an environment for a long time. However, in the eyes of young foreigners who are used to speedy procedures and dynamic changes in their country, obviously many things seem to be so slow in the US.

In America, when you are a regular customer, not a new one, things are much better. For example, when my toilet began leaking a few days ago, the plumbing company initially set up an appointment to install a new one two weeks later. When notified of the urgency, however, a technician came immediately and took care of it. Thus, it all depends.

By such comparisons, we can learn many intriguing things from other countries. 


Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.
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