I went to the bank yesterday. I started walking toward the unattended counter, and was intercepted by Welcome Man. He fetched me a lady to help me, and while I was waiting for her to get information, I observed:
Someone walks into the bank to an "Irrasshaimase!" from Security Man and Welcome Man. They use the ATM. They walk back to the sliding glass door to leave, to the tune of a loud "Arigato Gozaimashita!" ("Thank you very much!") - from both the Security Man and Welcome Man. Rinse, Lather, Repeat. Congratulations. You've met some of the Useless People in Japan (okay, Security Man may be a neccessity).
Don't get me wrong - I have nothing against these people themselves... but the amount of Useless People in Japan is incredible! And no, it's not just me who thinks so. I suppose they're getting their exercise, at least - because with every interaction they have and then some, they bow. Some examples...
To welcome you and make sure you don't trip on the way to the counter.
Lobby Ladies / Elevator Girls
To push the button to call the elevator for you, just in case your finger is too tired. (They bow an average of 2500 times / day.)
To whistle at the truck to stop as it comes out of the industrial driveway; just in case it was thinking of running you over at 0.01 MPH - and then to wave you across the crosswalk, just in case you were scared of the truck. Also to whistle at you and hold out their baton to stop you, just in case you were thinking of walking into the truck that they will then wave onto the road.
Traffic Light Crossing Guards
The same thing as above. Except with a working traffic light above their head.
(More at Quirky Japan.)
Most people who are not living in Japan assume that everyone in Japan works extremely hard, and that Japan is extremely productive. Armed with observations, conversations, and some hard facts, I digress. (Check out this article and especially this article.) However, I used to think so too. The few Japanese students I knew spent incredible amounts of time and effort studying. Some of the world's newest and most advanced technology comes from Japan. Must be a hard-working and productive country, right? It has it's hardworking and productive people and industries, of course. But culturally (in general), it's not so much the effort as the appearance that matters.
Work - Few people in my office leave when the workday ends at 5:40. Most of them stay until at least 7, some until 9 or 10. Every night. Why? Because no one wants to be the first to leave. When leaving the office for the day, a polite employee says, "Shitsurei Shimasu" to their coworkers, who respond with "Otsukare sama desu". Roughly meaning, "I am sorry to leave before you." and "It's okay - you did your job well." Appearance-wise, more time = more work done. Not always true...(one word: napping).
School - Highschool students who want to get into college / university do work very hard; the entrance exams are difficult. But once you get into a 'good' college? You're home free. Get a degree of some kind, with some (almost any) grades, and you'll have no problem finding a good job with a good company. (I could hardly believe it when Satomi explained this to me.)
None of this is to say that Japan doesn't have hard working and intelligent people. It does, and I work with some incredibly smart and hard working people who accomplish a lot. It's just interesting to notice the Useless People (who you would not find in nearly equal numbers in North America), and the cultural expectations and opinions when it comes to work.