Drivers gear up for the end of the forecourt's five-star service

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The Independent Online
TODAY, for the first time, Japanese motorists will be able to drive into a petrol station, fill up their engines and pay for it completely unassisted, writes Richard Lloyd Parry.

Elsewhere, this would be a routine chore. Here it is an unknown experience, for even in a country renowned for its service, nothing matches the simple experience of visiting a Japanese petrol station. Nothing like it has been seen in Britain since the good old days. And now it is under threat, from the unstoppable forces of deregulation.

Rather like the tea ceremony, which begins to cast its spell in the tranquil garden surrounding the tea house, the Japanese petrol experience begins before you have even swung onto the forecourt. Alerted by the engine note of your car, a young man (or two) begins simultaneously waving and bowing you in. Cohorts of other helpers, all bowing and shouting "Welcome!", emerge to fill your tank, check your oil, water and tyres, and attend to pigeon excrement on the wind screen. It is the automobile equivalent of a relaxing massage. And soon it will be no longer.

The truth is that the the petrol stations do not provide their service simply out of conscientiousness: until today it has been simply against the rules for Japanese to fill their own cars, on the grounds that it is simply too dangerous. The arrangement had its advantages - apart from pampering motorists, it provided jobs to even the least qualified school drop-out. The cost was reflected in the prices - but since the same rule applied to all, the petrol companies did not complain. The only victims were consumers, paying for services which they had no choice whether to accept or not.

To walk through Tokyo is to witness one example after another of unnecessarily employed people, like the man standing next to the road works, holding the flashing red light which could just as easily be mounted on a stand. It often appears absurdly inefficient, a waste of taxpayers' or customers' money. But it is a reflection of the way in which private and public enterprises act as an unofficial welfare state, protecting from unemployment those who might otherwise be welfare dependent.

Now in its effort to free up its services to the forces of competition and consumer choice, the Ministry of Home Affairs has yielded to the inevitable: from today manned, self-service petrol stations will be allowed. Prices at the stations will drop from about 90 yen to 80 yen a litre; so will the numbers of people they employ (from an average of eight attendants to two). And no longer will a gallon of four star come with five star service.