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Japan companies fighting back against unruly customers

TOKYO (Kyodo) -- A campaign is underway among Japanese companies to clarify rules that protect employees from unruly customers as labor shortages drive public-facing industries to improve work conditions.

In one example of the shift, taxi companies keen to stem the exodus of drivers are setting strict guidelines that allow employees to refuse transport to badly-behaved customers, such as those who insist on smoking in their vehicle.

At Hiroshima-based Nisiki Taxi, one such rule took effect from April. Illustrated leaflets are posted inside taxis to warn customers about what is considered improper behavior and what could result in them being shown the door.

The impetus for the move came from the company's failure to take swift action in cases where customers have harassed drivers with complaints, accusing them of driving erratically, or too slow.

The policy change has been well-received, even among customers.

"We have seen a clear drop in abusive language and violence (directed at drivers)," said Yasuhiro Tomiyama, manager of the company's main office. "This has been more effective than when we installed surveillance cameras."

Atsuo Kamizono, 63, a taxi driver for 30 years, said, "I have colleagues who quit because they were unable to stand the abusive language."

"With the transit clause, we are able to firmly respond when the occasion demands it."

Hiroshi Nishikawa, president of Kokusai Motorcars based in Tokyo, made the decision to change the company's transit clause in 2016, largely due to complaints from female taxi drivers.

"We wanted to protect our female drivers from problems with sexual harassment (by customers), and this became necessary for us in order to hire more women," explained Nishikawa, adding that male drivers also find it easier to work under the new rules.

Not only are taxi companies troubled by poorly-behaving customers. Supermarkets, department stores and electronics retailers also face ever-growing headaches over bad customer etiquette.

According to a survey of union members released in 2017 by UA Zensen, the largest industrial union in Japan, 70 percent of 50,000 respondents said they had experienced trouble, such as repeated abuse from customers, with 50 percent complaining they had experienced severe stress from "a recent increase in troublesome behavior."

About 28 percent of the victims said abuse from customers amounted to personal attacks, with 359 people saying they were suffering from mental anguish as a result.

UA Zensen has created a guideline, which it displays on its website, for dealing with customer complaints.

Kenta Ando, a member of UA Zensen's executive committee for distribution, said since there is no clear definition of bad customer behavior, "haphazard responses by companies are delaying recognition in society. The guideline is a stepping-stone for legislation we demand be enacted by the government, but we hope companies refer to it when reviewing their bylaws."

For customers who repeatedly make claims in an unreasonable manner over the phone, the guideline advises telling the person on the third call that "We are unable to assist you." Calls should also be recorded in each case for quality control, it says.

"Customer complaints should be a shared experience at the workplace, and it should be regarded as crisis management for the company to minimize damage," said sociology professor Hiromi Ikeuchi of Kansai University.

Public transport workers also face serious problems with customer abuse. Although violence directed at station employees and crewmembers is declining, Osamu Mori, a train manager who belongs to the Tokyo Transport Works' Union said, "There is more psychological damage from abusive language."

Employees suffer from severe stress because of the patience required to deal with unruly passengers who might cause service delays or fight with other passengers.

In Tokyo, a sharp increase in railroad passengers is expected during the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games.

Hajime Tozaki, a specially-appointed professor at Tokyo Metropolitan University who specializes in transport policy, said, "When station employees have to spend time dealing with claims, this affects their actual duties, which potentially could threaten passenger safety. I think measures, such as increasing surveillance cameras, are necessary to act as a strong deterrent."

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