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Japanese Hospitality – Omotenashi

The essence of hospitality is deeply rooted in Japanese culture and mentality. A word has evolved in Japanese usage that does not exist in any other language. It describes the Japanese approach to hospitality in a wonderfully accurate way. 

Omotenashi. O-mo-te-na-shi.

But what is “Japanese Hospitality” and how is it different from our western understanding of customer service?

A Japanese sushi chef serving customers in a small sushi shop in Tokyo, Japan.

The essence is selfless hospitality

Back in 2013, Christel Takigawa, Tokyo 2020 Bid Ambassador, introduced the Olympic committee to the word omotenashi, explaining the roots of Japanese hospitality.
She opened her speech with these words:

“We will offer you a unique welcome. In Japanese, I can describe it in one single word – O-mo-te-na-shi. It means a spirit of selfless hospitality. One that dates back to our ancestors. And since then has remained ingrained in Japanese modern culture. Omotenashi describes why Japanese people take care of each other and of our guests. And they do it so well. Let me give you just one example. If you lose something, you will almost certainly get it back, even cash.

It goes two ways

In the West, we often understand customer friendliness as a tool to improve business interests. Different from our understanding, but very typical for Japanese culture, there lies a truly holistic philosophy behind the Japanese approach of interacting with customers and guests. It is also understood as a mutual concept, which includes the actions of the customer as well. It doesn’t lean on the hierarchy between two people but on mutual respect.

The meaning of Omotenashi

The original word was motenashi, the “O” is added as an expression of politeness.
It seems that today, Omotenashi has several meanings: treatment, feast, entertainment towards customers and guests, but in most cases it is understood in the context of attentive customer support in hospitality or commercial environment, like a store or a restaurant. The literal translation says:

“Achieve something by using all the things you have.”

The saying reminds people to emphasize not only the actual product of our service but also the invisible things, like friendliness and attentiveness.

The word itself is taken from the traditional Japanese tea ceremony, where you can see a tightly structured process of steps that create a meticulous workflow, resulting in impeccable service towards the guest. Imagine you go to a café in a western city and order a beverage.  We would measure the level of customer service based on the quickness of service, the price in relationship with the quality of the product. Sometimes, we weigh in the overall atmosphere. But that is usually it.

But services of any kind are regarded differently in Japan. Service suppliers, from a chef to the receptionist, to traditional tea master – all of them will take great pride in perfecting their craft to the fullest.

It is not about any hierarchy between the person delivering and the person receiving a service. In this very interaction, both parties are equal. Omotenashi can be understood as the reflection of this equality in every step of the process.