Last year, my boss (an American) was planning a business visit to Japan. A couple of weeks before his scheduled arrival, he wrote to say he had to postpone the trip. The Japanese president of the local subsidiary wrote to my boss, expressing concern about this last-minute cancellation and the impact it might have on customers, as meetings were already arranged. He concluded his email with:
It might be Japanese culture and style to take special care of the customer, which is kind of ‘Omotenashi’.
My boss asked me: what is ‘Omotenashi’ (おもてなし)?
The noun, literally meaning “to entertain guests wholeheartedly”, is used to define Japanese hospitality and customer service. Anyone who’s been to Japan, even on a fleeting visit, has been exposed to it: close attention to detail, anticipating customer requests, smiling, profuse apologies if something goes wrong, etc.
When Tokyo was bidding to host the 2020 Olympic Games, TV personality Christel Takigawa explained (in French) what Omotenashi meant:
Here is a (somewhat amusing) explanation in English about Takigawa’s speech and the meaning of Omotenashi:
But sometimes Omotenashi can be a bit “too much”. Because not everybody can do Omotenashi naturally, employees are trained to provide service in a very specific way. This may result in a certain rigidness with regards to what the company providing the service thinks the customer wants. In many cases, it leads to slow and mostly superfluous service.
Omotenashi also helps feed the “hidden unemployment” industry in Japan. Recently, a friend of mine posted the following picture on Facebook. No less than three employees were manning the cashier, performing tasks that could have been just as efficiently performed by one or two employees. All in the name of Omotenashi.
Some foreigners who have been here a while also like to complain about some basic things, available in the West, that Omotenashi seems to have overlooked. This is an example of such a list.
But at the end of the day, as a customer, I will take Omotenashi over service anywhere in the world, any day of the week. Here are a few mundane, daily, examples of how I enjoy Omotenashi service:
- The cashier hands back change by giving you first the bills, waiting for you to insert them into your wallet, and then the coins, placed on top of the receipt so that they will slide easily into your hand or wallet.
- The cashier will also place the items in the plastic bag and then turn the bag handles towards you, so that it’s easy to pick up.
- All employees will step aside to let you walk through the aisles (in shops or trains), and will bow as you pass them.
- You never open or close the taxi doors. The driver does that for you, using a special handle. If you need to place something in the trunk, however small, the driver will rush out to help you.
- Almost anything you buy in Japan will be delivered to your home, in many cases free of charge. If you’re not home, the delivery company will come again and again, until they deliver the package, at no extra charge. By the way, the delivery men will always run to/from the truck, never walk.
- And I won’t go into the high-tech toilets and how they give your nether body parts incomparable Omotenashi service…
Needless to say, after I explained about Omotenashi to my boss, he kept the original plan and showed up as scheduled.