Japan’s self-professed “omotenashi” (spirit of selfless hospitality) is often misinterpreted to force predetermined services on foreign visitors, says one longtime observer.
Cultural services expert David Atkinson, 49, says the nation’s confidence in what it offers the world is misplaced: Many foreigners who visit leave unfulfilled.
Atkinson runs Konishi Decorative Arts and Crafts Co., a Tokyo-based team of heritage restoration professionals who help to conserve the nation’s cultural properties. The company itself has around 300 years of history.
Atkinson says it is troubling to see Japanese increasingly lauding their own culture and that the trend could even become an obstacle to the government’s goal of getting 30 million tourists to visit annually by 2030.
The 25-year resident of Japan achieved a measure of fame in the 1990s for his incisive reports on the nation’s bad debts, when he was a banking analyst for Goldman Sachs. Now retired from the world of finance, Atkinson made a buzz again in October when he published the book “Igirisu Jin Anarisuto Nihon No Kokuhou Mamoru” (A British Analyst Protects Japanese National Treasures).
The book, written in Japanese, focuses on what Atkinson believes are the weaknesses of Japanese society — weaknesses that the native population often fails to notice.
“Originally, omotenashi means leaving the choices to the guests, not forcing foreigners with a different set of values to behave the way Japanese people expect,” he said.
Omotenashi became a buzzword in August 2013, when television celebrity Christel Takigawa used the term during Tokyo’s final presentation to the International Olympic Committee’s general assembly in Argentina for permission to host the 2020 Olympics.
Speaking in French, Takigawa said the spirit of omotenashi makes Tokyo a perfect host for the Olympics. Some in Japan credit her words with helping Japan prevail over fellow contenders Madrid and Istanbul, but perhaps more importantly, it appeared to boost the nation’s collective self-confidence.
Now not a day goes by, it seems, without some Japanese TV program making out that foreigners in the remotest parts of the world are wild fans of Japan and its culture.
Atkinson said the reality is that Japan has a long way to go before it will fully satisfy foreign visitors.
“If love for Japan is indeed a worldwide trend, as Japanese people themselves say, why is it that only 13 million people visited the country this year, while in France they had some 83 million visitors?”
Most have little real engagement with Japan during their visit. Only 3 to 4 million of the total, he said, truly explore the nature and culture and form a real connection.
This means the government is merely trying to reach targets without regard to the quality of the experience.
In the meantime, he said, the Japanese often push a prejudiced image of their country — one they believe foreigners should have when they leave.
Instead of making fancy presentations with 3-D graphics, Japan should go back to the basics, Atkinson said.
Its priorities should include explaining what the nation’s cultural assets stand for, installing signs in English that have been proofread by a native speaker, and producing souvenirs that match foreigners’ lifestyles, he said. Many souvenir dishes, for example, are simply too small to be used in foreign cuisine.
Tourists place no great value in some of the qualities Japanese often brag about, including safety, clean streets and the punctuality of public transportation, Atkinson said.
These things “may be interesting to see once or twice. But visitors don’t come back” to see them again.
It is “embarrassing” for Japan to be proud of such small things while its government is not spending enough to maintain and restore cultural properties, he added.
Restoration work on centuries-old assets such as the famed Byodoin Temple in Kyoto, is usually put on hold until the very last minute, when structures begin to fall apart, he said.
Fortunately, Japan is blessed with four assets any nation aspiring to be a successful tourism destination must have: a culture, a history, a mild climate and glorious nature, Atkinson said.
“If they can collaborate more with foreigners and listen to a bit of what they say, I think Japan can be more attractive,” he said.