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Robot smile syndrome in Japan
Japan’s Smile Mask Syndrome and omotenashi

If you’ve been to Japan, you may have noticed that Japanese service staff are almost always smiling when they serve you, whether it’s at the airport information desk, in the hotel lobby, or in a clothing boutique, Japan’s Smile Mask Syndrome. This is partly due to omotenashi (おもてなし), the Japanese philosophy of striving for excellence and beyond, acting before asked, and making the customer feel welcome and like they’re the top priority. 

Despite Hard Times, McDonald's Japan Plans to Smile Again - WSJ

Some Japanese service staff, especially women, are specifically instructed to smile to show omotenashi, and you can even order a free smile with your UberEats McDonald’s order. A redditor relayed his friend’s experiences here

“My old coworker used to work at a hotel in Japan and he was told his smile wasn’t good enough and to stop what he was doing and go practice. He was practicing for hours until his manager found him and told him to get back to work.”

Learning to smile

Smile School (2000), a documentary, even looks in on a Japanese “smile class” where Japanese employees are taught how to smile by learning about facial muscles and through exercises such as sticking a pair of chopsticks in their mouth, and so on. 

But, such unnatural and unwilling smiling has created the Smile Mask Syndrome (sumairu kamen shōkōgun, スマイル仮面症候群), where patients develop depressive symptoms and physical illnesses due to smiling unnaturally for too long.

Smile Mask Syndrome

It was first observed in 1983 by Makoto Natsume, a university professor and counselor, who noticed his students would smile even when talking about stressful or upsetting events (Your Local Guardian, 2013). Natsume reported that his students would also suffer from muscle aches, headaches and could even develop clinical depressive disorders, where previously they had shown no signs of having depression.

The Smile Mask Syndrome is not currently listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), but if Natsume’s reports are accurate, it could certainly get a patient diagnosed with other types of psychological disorders. Natsume is not alone in thinking this; other researchers have also agreed that service staff faking smiles to accommodate customers can cause them to burn out faster (Patterson & Kinchington, p. 146). 

I’m sure there are Japanese service staff members who are genuinely happy to serve customers and who aren’t faking their smiles. But what about the ones having a bad day, the ones who are struggling with personal problems at home, the ones who didn’t get enough sleep the previous night? Should they still be made to smile to accommodate customers? If Japanese businesses want their staff to constantly smile, should they replace them with Pepper the Robot? Let us know what you think in the comments!

As mentioned in our blog article about honne and tatemae—Japanese people’s true feelings versus the facade they put up in public—this doesn’t make Japanese service staff two-faced or dishonest. Putting a smile on their faces is meant for the customers’ benefit and is considered a part of service professionalism. 

What about in your countries? Are service staff expected to constantly smile as Japanese service staff are? Do you know anyone who suffers from Smile Mask Syndrome? Have I gotten anything wrong in the blog article, or is there anything you’d like to add/share about omotenashi? Let us know in the comments!

If you have any questions about Japanese onotenashi or require any assistance regarding Japan or traveling around Japan, feel free to reach out to us on Instagram or Facebook Messenger, we’d love to hear from you! 



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