Comparing daily life in Japan versus the United States, various differences are readily apparent, but one that comes to mind given recent trending topics is tipping. While the concept of giving a gratuity is not unheard of in Japan, actually doing so is limited to very particular circumstances where such a gesture is considered necessary, hardly approaching the frequency of giving and receiving tips in the U.S. Despite tipping having embedded itself in the U.S. cultural fabric, Americans themselves appear to disagree with one another over whom and how much to tip. An internet search of “tipping in the United States” produces a startlingly high number of websites dedicated to discussing such points of controversy.
The first time I myself encountered this tipping culture was shortly after I arrived in the United States for my first assignment in the country 24 years ago. An American friend I had made back in Tokyo treated me to dinner in New York, and I still remember his muttered complaint when it came time to pay the bill: “In the U.S., you always have to add a 15% tip, no matter how bad the service was.” Regardless of the truth, or lack thereof, of this statement, this friend of mine did not seem to have a particularly positive view of the practice of tipping. A tip is, after all, an additional expense, and I believe he wanted to express the dissatisfaction he felt at the perceived obligation to part with a certain additional amount of money which, though framed as reflective of the quality of service, is paid regardless of how poor said service actually was.
There are various theories about the history of tipping in the U.S., but the prevailing one is that the practice was initially imported from Europe in the first half of the 19th century. The theory purports that Americans who had seen the custom of tipping on their travels in Europe, which was flourishing at the time, started tipping to show their social and economic status, or that Europeans who practiced tipping immigrated to the United States, bringing the custom with them. One factor that led to tipping spreading far and wide within the U.S. was the Civil War. In its aftermath, a movement began to employ formerly enslaved, now free persons—many of whom worked in the entertainment and leisure sector in such capacities as waiters, personal caretakers, and railroad baggage handlers—as cheaply as possible. Their employers, as they had originally done with those they enslaved, attempted to pay these freed persons zero fixed wages, with all income instead coming from tips directly given by customers.
Movements against the spread of this kind of tipping began to emerge, backed by the idea that the act of giving and receiving tips was un-American; rather, true patriots should take pride in the lack of (overt) class structures in U.S. society, compared to the hierarchical state of affairs in Europe that originally gave rise to tipping there. In any event, these movements soon gained traction, with seven states passing laws banning the practice as the U.S. entered the 20th century. William Taft, who would become the 27th president, famously declared during his 1908 campaign that he would henceforth not give tips in barbershops. Despite the anti-tipping movements, the custom continued to spread around the country. By 1926, all the anti-tipping laws passed by individual states had been struck down in the courts as a violation of the Constitution, and so tipping continues to this day. At present, the U.S. federal hourly minimum wage is set at two levels: $7.25 for employees who do not receive tips, and $2.13 for those who do. While employers are legally obligated to pay the difference between a tip-receiving employee’s wages and the non-tipped minimum wage if an employee’s received tips do not reach a $7.25 per hour equivalent, there have been cases where this obligation has not been met, with the existence of two separate minimum wage levels now considered by some Americans to be problematic.