TOKYO -- It's Wednesday night, and Hiroshi Ieyoshi and three dozen other gas station attendants are gathered for some tough after-hours training.
They're learning how to smile.
Or rather, trying to learn.
Relax the muscle under your nose, teacher Akio Emi commands. Loosen up your tongue. Put your hands on your stomach and laugh out loud, feeling the "poisons" escape. Even if you're down in the dumps, Emi tells his sullen audience, deliver an artificial smile and your emotions are likely to follow suit.
"In this recession, customers are getting choosy about their gas stations, so you have to think positively," Emi booms. "Laughter and a smile are representative of the positive thinking I'm talking about."
All this advice isn't making it any easier for Ieyoshi, who, try as he might, just can't fake it. "It's easy to say you should smile at the customers," the earnest 33-year-old pump manager says after the 90-minute seminar. "But to be honest, it all depends on how I feel at the moment."
Several of his colleagues nod somberly in agreement, reflecting on the daunting homework ahead.
Getting employees to smile on the job has become serious business in Japan. Many retail and service businesses are sending workers to "smile schools," which teach techniques such as biting on a chopstick, in hopes that sales and corporate morale will rise along with employees' lips.
It's all a radical change for dour Japan, where smiling at strangers -- even if they are customers -- has long been, well, frowned upon. Clerks greet customers with a simple "Irasshaimase" -- "Welcome" -- but usually don't give a friendly grin, make chitchat or even offer a casual "How are you?" or "Have a nice day."
Japanese culture calls for suppressing emotions -- be they happy, sad or angry -- to keep the "wa," or group harmony. In this formal society, families rarely touch, hug or otherwise display physical affection in public, even after long absences. Jokes that foreigners crack at the start of speeches usually are met with dead silence.
"It's so deep in our Japanese consciousness that it's not proper to move the face or body too much," explains Hiroto Murasawa of the Pola Research Institute of Beauty and Culture in Tokyo, who studies faces for a living. Until this century, he notes, some Japanese women shaved their eyebrows and blackened their teeth to veil natural expression. Many Japanese women still hide their mouths behind a hand when they speak or laugh.
For men, too, concealing emotion has been considered a virtue.
The Japanese are not humorless. It's just that their expressions are so much more reserved than those of most other countries, including Asian neighbors such as South Korea and China, says Murasawa.
So in the past few years, teachers such as Emi, a retired department store executive, and Yoshihiko Kadokawa, a former retailer who noticed that his friendliest clerks racked up the strongest sales, have made importing joviality their mission.
"Japanese are too serious," Emi tells his class. "We have to learn a sense of humor from other countries."
Not only do customers buy more when they get a warm and fuzzy feeling from clerks, but employee morale rises and absenteeism declines, says Kadokawa, author of the book "Power of a Laughing Face" and president of his own company, the Smile Amenity Institute.
With nationwide pessimism depressing sales, this is precisely the time to get more relaxed, he says. "We're in the middle of a recession, and a lot of it is psychological," he says. "Smiling will work as acute medicine to cure this psychological recession."
Kadokawa has turned smiling into a science.
At a seminar for retailing managers, Kadokawa has his students -- managers from a jewelry and accessory chain called Love-Love -- bite on a chopstick or a pen. "Lift the edge of the mouth higher than the edge of the chopstick," Kadokawa instructs. "Hold your cheeks and count 'ichi, ni, san.' ... It's how you form your mouth shape."
A middle-aged Japanese photographer at the session volunteers that the course should be taught to Japanese wives. "American wives smile at their husbands. Japanese wives never do," he gripes.
Deputy manager Kentaro Ito, 29, is inspired by the positive results he has seen at his store since starting the once-a-week sessions several weeks ago. "You easily forget unless you practice," he says.
For Emi, the hardest group to get to lighten up is young men in their 20s and 30s. Indeed, those at the seminar for gas station attendants struggle to understand the practice techniques Emi has devised, such as "underwater training," in which students put their faces in water and then exhale while laughing.
"You may think that you can't laugh if you don't feel funny, but it's a breathing technique," he says; the "natural kind" will come when you're happy or satisfied or find beautiful things, although he notes this type is rare in Japan.
Of course, smile too much and the customer might think you're crazy. When Japanese men start smiling excessively, psychologists say, it can be a symptom of suicidal tendencies.
Kutaro Matsunaga, an unusually vivacious gas station attendant wearing a checked suit and gold knit vest, says his customers sometimes look askance when he chats them up in his usual animated way. "They think I'm nuts -- I can sense that when I talk to them. But my name means 'happy man,' and I always want to make my customers happy."
The seminar was helpful, several of the attendants say as they drink beer at a company reception that follows. Hiroyuki Kobayashi, 33, says he now knows the "major categories of laughing and that certain types of smiling are not due to being happy, and the difference between an artificial and a natural smile."
Several, however, say they're still nervous about whether they can deliver. Komorita Manabu, 26, says he hopes to compensate for not smiling by greeting customers "with a big, clear and loud voice" as they pull into the station, while still providing all the standard services such as cleaning the windshield, dumping the ashtray and guiding the car in and out of traffic.
"So compared to other stations, we are vibrant and active, so I think customers like us," Manabu says.
As for Ieyoshi, his smile-phobia runs deep.
"If you don't feel open to strangers, you don't smile," he says. "Maybe I'm living in a closed, hard shell, but the Japanese character is not to express your emotions. That's why it's a difficult cultural environment from other countries."
Pub Date: 04/04/99