As all of you are aware, Tokyo was awarded the rights to host the 2020 Olympic Games. When the announcement was made, a Japanese newscaster that was part of the team made a short speech and used a phrase that has become very popular ever since when talking about the Olympics in 2020. That phrase was “Omotenashi”. The media went into a frenzy and the word is now used to promote Japanese hospitality.
So what exactly is Omotenashi? The media uses it in the context of providing hospitality Japanese style but it goes much deeper than that.The original meaning of the word is to entertain guests wholeheartedly,offering the best service without any expectation of reward. That`s why you never see tipping in Japan. The staff would be shocked that they should receive something for their service. That is omotenashi.Omotenashi blends a welcoming spirit with warmth, understanding, and above all respect. The concept is all encompassing.
Anyone who has lived in Japan for a while soon realises how much attention is paid to giving good service. There is a Japanese proverb that says お客様は神様 (おきゃくさまはかみさま). Literally, “the customer is God” though we would say the customer is always right.
When you visit any establishment, be it a shop, supermarket or hotel, all customers are addressed as お客様 (おきゃくさま). The honorifics O and Sama are used as a form of respect. This was covered in my previous column under Sonkeigo.
One of the most famous examples of omotenashi was shared on Youtube recently. It showed the workers cleaning the Shinkansen train in quick fashion, ensuring passengers would have a clean and pleasant journey. Before and after their cleaning, the workers would bow to the passengers. When taking a taxi, the driver automatically opens and closes the door for you. If you are among the first to enter a department store in the morning, you will have the experience of all the staff lining up at the entrance and bowing to welcome you. I am sure there are others you would have experienced.
The roots of omotenashi can be traced all the way back to the traditional Japanese tea ceremony. The word is most often written in hiragana because there are several ways of writing it with kanji. It can be written お持て成し or おもてなし.
Omotenashi is a hybrid of “omote”(表surface) and “nashi”(無しless), concepts that translate together into “single-hearted.” So, from the perspective of a host, this is the rendering of service without expectation of any favour or reward.
What you may find interesting is that the Japanese language makes no distinction between guest and customer. In other countries, the concept of service suggests a hierarchy between the server and the customer. In Japan, however, the concept of Omotenashi is based on a non-dominant relationship between equals – between the person offering the service (the host) and the person receiving it (the guest or customer).
So, how does one practice Omotenashi? Simply put, the host pays close attention to detail and is committed to anticipating the needs of the guest, smiling sincerely and setting a happy, relaxed mood. When this is done authentically, Japanese believe hospitality and service should exceed the expectations of the guests.
At its best, Omotenashi offers a guest a once-in-a-life-time experience. This goes back to its roots in the tea ceremony, where the idea resonates with Ichigo-ichie 一期一会. This is a Japanese cultural concept of treasuring meetings with people. The term is often translated as “one chance in a lifetime.” It reminds people to cherish any gathering that they may take part in, as many meetings in life are not repeated. This can be traced back to the 16th Century when the great tea master, Sen no Rikyu (千利休, 1522 – 1591) was said to have used the expression 一期に一度 ichigo ni ichido (Once in a lifetime). Hence, the tea master`s belief that every encounter is single and unique.
Like all things in Japan, Omotenashi may be governed by precise written rules describing how the host should compose herself or himself in front of the customer but true Omotenashi can never be attained with a manual alone. It is a one-to-one relationship, it changes from customer to customer, from moment to moment. Gratitude towards the customer is a key part of Omotenashi, the part that warms the encounter, makes the host smile and the guest feeling on top of the world.