What is Omotenashi(おもてなし)? : Japan is world-renowned for its customer service. From concierge assistance at fancy hotels to grabbing a quick sandwich at a convenience store, Japanese workers go above and beyond customer needs in order to provide a grade A experience.
This is due to an aspect of Japanese culture called omotenashi (おもてなし), which roughly translates to “hospitality.” In today’s article, we’re going to explore the true meaning of omotenashi, where it originated, and the different ways it is expressed when serving customers.
What is Omotenashi? おもてなし
Your plane has just landed in Japan. You’re exhausted and not in the mood to figure out the complicated train system to get to your hotel. You hail a taxi, and when it pulls to a stop, the door swings open just as your hand is about to reach the handle. The driver has pulled a special lever that opens the door so the passenger doesn’t have to.
Oh! That’s…unnecessary. But nice, you think.
You arrive at your hotel, and when you go to open the door, again, the driver pulls the lever and the door swings open for you.
Wow. I mean, I can open the door myself, but I’m not complaining!
You step out of the taxi and a line of hotel staff members in pressed uniforms is waiting for you. They bow and say “Irasshaimase” (welcome) in unison as you make your way through the entrance.
Wow. I feel like royalty!
You check in at the front desk and ask the clerk how to get to your room.
“Follow me,” she says. She leaves her post and begins to lead you across the lobby.
“Oh, no,” you say. “It’s just little ol’ me. You must be so busy. I’m sure I can find it.”
“Oh, it’s no problem at all,” she says and proceeds to guide you into the elevator, up to the 14th floor, and through the winding halls.
When you arrive at your room, you hand her a couple of yen for her troubles.
“Oh, no,” she says, refusing your money. “No tip necessary. Enjoy your stay!”
All of these gestures are omotenashi at play.
What Does Omotenashi Mean?
Omotenashi derives from the phrase “omote ura nashi.” When written in Japanese, it looks like this:
The first two kanji 表 and 裏 mean “front and back,” and the final one 無 means “nothing.” Therefore, when put together, it translates to “having no front or back.” This means that the customer is being provided a genuine gesture of kindness from the heart with no expectation of further compensation or any kind of reciprocation.
Where Does Omotenashi Come from?
It is said that omotenashi originated from traditional Japanese tea ceremony. During a tea ceremony, the guests gather in a circle around a kettle, tea bowls, and various other traditional tea-making instruments while a server very slowly and deliberately goes about making their tea in a ritualistic fashion. By making and serving tea this way, the host of the tea ceremony can provide a very personalized experience for the guests, as each cup of tea during the ceremony is made especially for them. Even the selection of teaware, flowers, and scrolls hung from the walls are catered to the specific preferences of the guest. It is said that one tea ceremony can take a whole year to plan out because of the close attention to detail placed on personalizing the experience.
How Does “Omotenashi” Differ from “Customer Service?”
In western countries, businesses don’t usually provide a service unless they are getting something back in return; for example, your money, a five-star review on Yelp, a feature story in a popular magazine, etc. However, when it comes to omotenashi, there is no expectation to receive something in return for a service provided. It is simply a kind gesture from the heart for the sole purpose of improving someone’s epxerience.
A perfect example of this is tipping culture in the west. If you go to a restaurant in the US and want good service, you tip well, and the waiter serves you well. If you want great service, you tip exceptionally well, and in return the waiter treats you like royalty. They’ll keep your coffee cup full, take care of your special requests at lightning speed, pile up extra bacon and sausage on the sides of your omelette, they may even throw in a free slice of pie! On the other hand, if you don’t tip at all, you’ll receive the lousiest service you’ve ever had in your life. They’ll ignore you when you call for them, they certainly won’t refill your coffee, and they may even spit in your food! In the US, if you want good service, you have to pay for it. In Japan, however, there is no tipping. The wait staff will cater to your every need, bend over backwards for you, and provide great service not because they’re getting anything extra in return, but because they want you to have a good experience.
One classic example of omotenashi that many travelers are familiar with is the map drawing. Anyone who’s ever been to Japan has gotten lost at some point and had to ask for directions. You go into the nearest shop—say, a kimono shop—and ask where the train station is. Instead of just pointing you in the general direction like they would in any other country, the owner will pull out a piece of paper and draw little boxes for buildings and winding roads that show you how to get from that shop to where the train station is. They may even call other workers from the back to help them out with the map drawing or communicating with you in English.
Why are they going through so much trouble to help me out? you may have thought at the time. It’s not like I’m going to buy a kimono from them anytime soon!
In my own personal experience, once, after visiting the dentist, one of the assistants went out of her way to drive me back to the train station in her car because I had no idea where I was. Did she expect anything in return for the obvious trouble I was causing her? No way! Why? Because omotenashi!
Omotenashi is a distinct aspect of Japanese culture that differs from just plain customer service. It is a small action of kindness that serves to improve a person’s experience with no strings attached. Omotenashi culture is why people have such memorable experiences when visiting Japan and always remember how kind the Japanese are.
Spread the kindness! We could all use a little omotenashi in our lives!