Home > Economics, Travel > Tipping


April 17th, 2015

Living in Japan, tipping is just something you don’t have to deal with. You don’t tip here, ever. Not at any restaurant, not for taxi drivers, not for deliveries, hotel service, nothing. It’s actually very nice, as you don’t have to research and remember complex rules about how much to tip which kind of service. You don’t have to deal with the fear of seeming like a cheapskate, or worry about how the person serving you will feel if it’s this much or that much. Here in Japan, paying for something is a stress-free process.

Honestly, to this day, I have no idea how much I would tip a taxi driver for a fare (is it different from short and long hauls?), or a bellhop to show me to my room (I have to ask family and friends when that’s something I have to deal with). I recall that 15% used to be the standard for restaurant tips, now it seems to be 20%.

This causes problems for me when I travel back to the U.S., as I have to break long-held habits. Once, some years back, while on vacation from Tokyo, I went to a restaurant in San Francisco with a friend who was also visiting from Japan. We ate, paid, and left. I realized I had left my jacket at the restaurant, so I went back. I told the waiter who had served us that I had forgotten my jacket. He said, “You forgot your tip, too.” Somewhat abashed, I got out a generous tip as I tried to explain why that happened; I am guessing he didn’t believe me, but whatever.

So I was a bit confused on more recent trips back when I would go to a place that had general seating, but I would instead order something for take-out. There would be a tip jar on the counter, and when I pad by credit card, there would be a line for the total, the tip, and the total with the tip, so that you would have to write the same amount twice, essentially making an outright statement that you are not tipping at all. I was rather taken aback when I first encountered it, and have never been comfortable with it—it seems excessively pressuring, like a few years back when many businesses asked out loud in the line at the register if you “wanted” to make a donation to a charity (which you usually had never heard of and knew nothing about) with your purchase, and to refuse you had to say it out loud in front of a line of people.

When someone waits on me, that deserves a tip. They have to show me to a table, be prompt with service, carry stuff back and forth across the restaurant, make sure your water glass is full, deal with complaints corrections, take care of the payment, maybe other things we don’t even notice. With a home delivery, well, they drive across town to deliver for you, presumably doing so promptly but safely. The standard is, special work is being done.

But a counter pick-up? Really? The person behind the counter is doing no more work than any other register person at any other store. Do you tip the check-out person at the supermarket? Do you tip the concessions seller at a movie theater? Nope.

The argument is often made that these people are paid minimum wage. If that’s the standard, then why are only restaurant people afforded this generosity? Not to mention that servers get tipped because they get paid a pittance (well below minimum wage, often just a few bucks an hour) as the tips are expected to be their main income; cashier people, I understand, are paid a regular wage, as are the cooks.

I’m also pretty sure that a tip was never demanded for counter service when I was younger—of course, tip jars were hardly ever there, either. I’m not arguing that counter staff don’t need the money; however, a lot of minimum wage earners who never get tips deserve better as well. It just seems like an attempt by restaurants to justify paying more workers less, and/or an attempt by better-paid staff to get a gratuity simply because it is a close extension to an established but separate gratuity system.

I would be quite happy if America followed Japan’s example and just got rid of the system completely. Pay people a living wage ($15 at the very least for a minimum wage for whatever job), and just factor that into the prices.

Of course, what would probably happen is that the businesses would all pretend like the difference would cost them a lot more than it really would, and would take the opportunity to hike prices too much… still, the change would be a good thing.

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  1. Troy
    April 17th, 2015 at 12:52 | #1


    I’ve made hundreds of FRED graphs since I discovered the functionality years ago, but that is one of my favorites.

    Blue is per-worker corporate profits, 1970 = 100

    Red is the average private wage, 1970 = 100

    showing that profits are up 18X, yet wages have risen only 6X.

    It was when I watched the board room scene about money flows in Network that it hit me how the macro economy is simply driven by the ongoing distribution of money.

    This shouldn’t be all that revolutionary, but economists don’t actually study the economy that way, everything is in equilibrium and the future is always discounted to zero / fully factored into the now with them.

    This economy has lost a LOT of honest, wealth-creating jobs since 2000:


    shows how the prime working-age population has risen over 50% since 1980, yet construction and mfg jobs are down 20% since 1980 (and 2000, since employment peaked then, too)

    These two sectors were 25% of the core workforce in the 1970s, if we had that level of employment now we’d have 13M more workers in these sectors.

    Puts the +200,000/mo job gains into perspective!

  2. Brad
    April 18th, 2015 at 19:22 | #2

    Tips are crazy. We don’t have them in Australia either.

    I appreciate that they supplement a too-low minimum wage, but as you say, a lot of those minimum wage earners can’t access tips.

    Tips have become a farce. Originally an ‘extra’, these days I gather they are treated as just another wage/income component. The government taxes them – even monitoring percentages to see if tips claimed fall below the expected fraction! – the employer factors them into salary calculations, the employees theoretically have to keep a ‘tip diary’, the customers are trained to always include them and so on.

    Just raise the minimum wage already and do away with the overhead of this clumsy and artificial system.

  3. kensensei
    April 19th, 2015 at 12:29 | #3

    Here in California, I never tip for to-go orders or for a buffet-style restaurant. In fact, I see more and more people ordering take-out at fancy restaurants in order to avoid the additional $10-25 in tips.

    Interestingly, there is a new class of no-frills Indian restaurants popping up here that have “servers”, but no waiters. You order at the cashier and then seat yourself at an available table. If you want plates, silverware or a glass of ice water, just grab it yourself from the station in back. Then the food arrives by “server” and you begin your meal. It’s a sensible approach to eating out. (And yes, there is a tip jar next to the cashier if you’re feeling generous…)


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