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‘Omotenashi’ comes up short on humility

by

Special To The Japan Times

A Japanese friend who used to travel a lot for work told me of a funny thing that once happened to her in a Tokyo hotel. She was checking in when a bellhop came up and, without saying anything, picked up her bag. She resented the presumption and tried to yank it out of his hand. A silent tug of war ensued.

The bellhop wasn’t being rude or, for that matter, particularly Japanese. He was just operating according to instructions. My friend told me this story to illustrate her reaction to the increased currency of the word omotenashi, which, ever since Tokyo won the right to hold the 2020 Olympic Games, is used to describe the Japanese style of hospitality and, when it’s covered by the media, a source of national pride. To my friend, omotenashi is not something you talk about, much less brag over. There’s something arrogant about the idea that one’s hospitality is superior to another’s, which was the message implicit in the Olympic bid campaign.

Though I know other Japanese people who feel the same way as my friend, the media usually go to non-Japanese if they want an opinion about omotenashi, since it is foreign visitors who are meant to be impressed by yet another unique quality of Japanese culture.

Last January, the economic magazine Toyo Keizai interviewed Mohamed Omer Abdin, a Sudanese who works at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. In the piece, Abdin calls omotenashi “Japanese snobbery.” He isn’t talking about the over-solicitous service offered by the bellhop, but rather the high-minded attitude contained in the word. He cites an NHK survey from 2013 that found 67 percent of respondents thought “Japanese people possess excellent characters compared to other countries.” He found this self-praise contradictory, given that the ostensible reason for omotenashi is to treat guests in a special way, but the survey suggests that the respondents “reject the good features of other countries.”

The usual reaction to such comments is that because the person is not Japanese he or she doesn’t fully understand the situation, which is often true but a pointless observation given the subject at hand. If the individual who is receiving the benefits of omotenashi finds them not beneficial, then something must be wrong. Abdin believes that the associated interaction is skewed. In the dynamic of omotenashi, the giver of hospitality knows what is best for the guest and does not consider alternatives. The wishes of the guest are not important, because the idea is to provide “service even when it isn’t asked for.”

Cultural insensitivity aside, the focus on omotenashi actually distracts from its main purpose, which, as the Olympic bid illustrated, is to draw foreign visitors to Japan. According to David Atkinson, a former analyst for Salomon Brothers and Goldman Sachs who has become a kind of one-man refutation of the virtues of omotenashi, while hospitality is appreciated by non-Japanese, it is not what they come for. They come to see things, and the Japanese tourist industry mostly disregards this aspect.

In a Sept. 20 article on the financial page of the Asahi Shimbun, Atkinson, who currently heads a 300-year-old company that oversees the preservation of temples and other historical buildings, contends that Japan needs as many tourists as possible in order to achieve growth, because growth is impossible without an increase in population. Since Japan is unwilling to accept permanent immigrants, it needs to attract more “temporary immigrants,” meaning tourists.

But the tourism sector hasn’t really done enough research into what foreign visitors are looking for. They only talk about omotenashi. The government loves to designate things and places as important cultural assets, but they don’t promote those assets in ways that appeal to foreigners. Atkinson finds most of the historical sightseeing spots in Japan lacking in value-added features that would make them attractive to non-Japanese. The U.K. invests the equivalent of ¥50 billion a year in the repair and maintenance of its national treasures, and tourism accounts for 9 percent of its GDP. Japan invests ¥8.1 billion, and tourism accounts for 2 percent of GDP.

It’s true that foreign tourism is on the rise in Japan, but that’s because of the large influx of Chinese, who come to shop, not to sightsee. Kyoto, considered the jewel of Japanese cities, receives almost 2 million foreign visitors a year. Paris gets 15 million, and while the French capital has the advantage of being in the middle of Europe, Atkinson thinks Kyoto could boost its numbers if it endeavored to find out what foreigners want to do there.

He elaborated on this idea in a conversation with Hitotsubashi University professor Yoko Ishikura in the Harvard Business Review in June, saying that Kyoto’s leaders have an “unshakeable belief” that theirs is “the best tourist city in the world,” a smug misconception “fed by the media.” This is the problem with omotenashi, whose tenet is not that the customer is always right, but rather that the service provider knows what’s best for the customer. He says this way of thinking extends to Japanese craftsmanship, manufacturing and even to some traditional pastimes, like the tea ceremony, which is not about the guest, but rather about the host. The guest’s role is to “appreciate the host’s fine taste.” What the guest wants is unimportant.

Atkinson speaks from a position of authority, and not just because he is a long-term resident of Japan whose interest in the country is wide-ranging. It was Atkinson who revealed the extent of the bad credit (furyō saiken) that brought down the Japanese economy in the 1990s. When the media reported that he had calculated the debt to be ¥20 trillion, he was castigated by the financial community, which only conveys to investors what it wants them to know. Actually, the debt was even worse, but the point is that omotenashi even extends to the banking industry. As in my friend’s case, it won’t let you alone.

  • Karma Arachnid

    Excellent article! I’d never been able to put my finger on what’s so bothersome about over-the-top hospitality before. It’s patronizing. It flatters the host’s self-image of being a superior host while the guest must endure the insulting implication that they think themselves entitled to royal treatment. If the guest is embarrassed and requests more humble treatment then he is the one who is considered rude.

  • Steve Jackman

    On a scale of 1 to 10, I would give Japanese-style hospitality a very generous -2 (yes, that’s a minus 2).

    True hospitality is about a genuine feeling of warmth and well being towards others. It’s about emotional generousity, personality and a willingness to share. It is about giving without expecting anything in return. It is about flexibility and keeping an open mind. It is about being curious about others and feeling that one can learn something from them. It is about empathy and an ability to see things from a different viewpoint. It is about finding out what someone else’s desires, hopes and wishes are. It’s about getting to know others on a personal and equal level. It is about opening one’s heart and home to strangers. It is about personalized service, rather than standardized and ritualized service. Above all, it is about showing humanity and humility.

    Unfortunately, Japanese hospitality fails on almost all accounts at pretty much every level. As the article alludes to, Japanese hospitality is about arrogance, snobbery and conveying a sense of superiority. It is overly formal, standardized, sanitized and ritualized, so that it comes across as cold, conceited and heartless. It values rigidity and standardization to the point that it takes all warmth, personality and emotion out of the experience. It is characterized by extreme emotional stinginess. It is about treating non-Japanese as children who need to be monitored and kept an eye on by Gaijin-handlers. It is about the Japanese always knowing what’s best for the non-Japanese.

    I think too many tourists coming to Japan confuse the formality and rituals of Japanese customer service and hospitality with good customer service or genuine hospitality. I’m not sure where the Japanese get the idea of Omotenashi or that their customer service is so superior, but they seem to be clearly mistaken.

    • Matt

      Japanese culture is different. Applying your culture’s standards to benchmark another’s will usually lead to disappointment. It is better to keep an open mind. And like you say, “be flexible.”

      • Steve Jackman

        That would be fine if the Japanese themselves were not always comparing themselves to other cultures and thinking about how much better, unique or superior Japanese hospitality/customer service/Omotenashi are to other countries.

      • Matt

        Well, let’s face it: Japan’s service is light years ahead of most places. I should have written in my previous comment that applying Japan’s service standard to benchmark another country’s will always lead to disappointment. Japan should be proud of that. It’s awesome!

        I can’t believe people are complaining about politeness and kindness. You’ll need the jaws of life to get that stick out of your ass.

      • Steve Jackman

        Well, Matt, I rest my case. It is obviously not worth my while to respond to a poster who writes in such a crass and immature manner, since any rational person would be hard pressed to take your comments seriously.

      • Matt

        Steve, I rest my case. If you can’t take that joke, then even the jaws of life offer you little hope.

        If you’re in Japan, please try to enjoy the endless kindness shown by most Japanese. I’ll be in Boston counting myself lucky when the barista says “hello” and the register attendant tells me the price of the sandwich I’ve just purchased.

      • Steve Jackman

        Matt, yes, unlike you, I actually live here in Japan. However, I am an American and think that customer service back in America is just fine. I’ve been to Boston and received great service everywhere I went.

        Sorry, that they’re giving you such a hard time in Boston, but it could be just you. BTW, if that’s your idea of a joke, hate to burst your bubble but you’re not funny.

      • Matt

        Steve, if your standard excellence places Boston – a place whose residents are commonly are referred to as “massholes” – as the pinnacle of hospitality, I think you may need to flip your brain into the ON position.

        By the way, I lived in Japan for 5 years. It was great.

      • Steve Jackman

        You really seem to have a chip on your shoulder about where you live. The Boston residents you’re calling “massholes” happen to include people at Harvard and MIT, in case you haven’t noticed.

      • Michael Petraeus

        For all the warmth and openness you talk about dear Steve, you reek of Western supremacism. Clearly you may be living in Japan, but you have not even pierced through the surface to experience it. You’re a Westerner who simply resides in a foreign country – and clearly doesn’t enjoy it one bit.

        You accuse Japanese of feeling or showing superiority while displaying exactly the same – or worse. That’s what makes me want to keep away from ignorant Westerners like you.

        Really, do the world – and Japan – a favor and just leave.

      • Steve Jackman

        Michael, are you always this prone to overreaction? Why such anger and hostility towards someone who is just expressing his personal opinion in the comments section of a newspaper?

      • Michael Petraeus

        Just giving you the taste of your own medicine. Talk less, listen more.

    • Matt

      Japanese culture is different. Applying your culture’s standards to benchmark another’s will usually lead to disappointment. It is better to keep an open mind. And like you say, “be flexible.”

    • John L. Odom

      I experienced the opposite. I felt genuinely welcomed and accepted.

      • Steve Jackman

        Do you also believe that Disneyland is actually the happiest place on earth? I guess there are always those who don’t mind role playing.

      • John L. Odom

        Not at all. It is fake. The Japanese hospitality I experienced was not.

      • Michael Petraeus

        Steve, do the world a favor – don’t come back to Japan.

      • Steve Jackman

        I live in Japan and have for a long time.

      • rapinii

        You seem really bitter and unhappy with Japan. Are you only highlighting the negative because it’s the subject of the article, or are you this delusioned in every spheres of your life? If it’s the latter, I don’t understand why you’re staying in a country you’re unhappy living in.

      • rapinii

        You seem really bitter and unhappy with Japan. Are you only highlighting the negative because it’s the subject of the article, or are you this delusioned in every spheres of your life? If it’s the latter, I don’t understand why you’re staying in a country you’re unhappy living in.

      • Steve Jackman

        Your asking me why I live in Japan is like my asking you why you’re posting a comment here, given that all 16 of your other Disqus comments (from your Disqus history) are on a marijuana website, People, TMZ and a manga website with lots of inappropriate erotic pictures of partially dressed adolescents. What brings you to The Japan Times?

      • rapinii

        You seem really bitter and unhappy with Japan. Are you only highlighting the negative because it’s the subject of the article, or are you this delusioned in every spheres of your life? If it’s the latter, I don’t understand why you’re staying in a country you’re unhappy living in.

    • 108

      Why not minus 20? It’s far worse than just -2…

      While in Japan you may be inconvenienced by excessive formalism, I certainly prefer it to carelessness.

      • Steve Jackman

        But, I do find Japanese service to be careless where it really matters. All the formality and rituals are often used to mask poor service by unknowledgable and poorly trained staff.

        It is frustrating to walk into a store and be greeted by bows, standardized greetings and smiles, but yet not be able to get a straight answer from the staff about the basic features and functionality of the wares they’re selling.

        I also don’t appreciate being lied to by dishonest staff who are only interested in making a sale, as has often happened to me in Japan. For example, I’ve been told several times by a Japanese salesperson that the manufacturer does not make the product in a size, color or specs that I’m looking for other than what is available at that store, only to find out later online or at another store that the salesperson was lying to me.

        In other cases, I have taken things for repair, only to find out later that it was damaged in another place while in the repair shop.

        Such poor customer service is all the more confounding, given how overstaffed most Japanese businesses are with salespeople. In my estimation, there are generally two to three times more staff in Japan servicing the same number of customers, as compared to America (which of course results in much higher prices in Japan, without any corresponding improvement in real customer service).

      • Jenn J

        Yes, also when things go wrong or deviate from the staff member’s training, the politeness flies out the window. Staff members need to be trained on how to be more flexible when dealing with foreigners. An example is when I went into a hospital and was looking for an English version of a medical form so I could see a doctor. When I asked a the reception staff if there was an English form they began laughing uncontrollably, probably because they weren’t used to dealing with foreigners and were really uncomfortable. Feeling overwhelmed, anxious and frustrated that I couldn’t get any help, I started to cry, and was left standing in the lobby confused and with tears running down my face because everyone was too flustered by my foreignness to help me find the form. Omotenashi is all well and good, but sometimes I wonder what’s the point when staff members often can’t deal with basic inquiries from a foreigner?

      • Steve Jackman

        But, I do find Japanese service to be careless where it really matters. All the formality and rituals are often used to mask poor service by unknowledgable and poorly trained staff.

        It is frustrating to walk into a store and be greeted by bows, standardized greetings and smiles, but yet not be able to get a straight answer from the staff about the basic features and functionality of the wares they’re selling.

        I also don’t appreciate being lied to by dishonest staff who are only interested in making a sale, as has often happened to me in Japan. For example, I’ve been told several times by a Japanese salesperson that the manufacturer does not make the product in a size, color or specs that I’m looking for other than what is available at that store, only to find out later online or at another store that the salesperson was lying to me.

        In other cases, I have taken things for repair, only to find out later that it was damaged in another place while in the repair shop.

        Such poor customer service is all the more confounding, given how overstaffed most Japanese businesses are with salespeople. In my estimation, there are generally two to three times more staff in Japan servicing the same number of customers, as compared to America (which of course results in much higher prices in Japan, without any corresponding improvement in real customer service).

    • 108

      Why not minus 20? It’s far worse than just -2…

      While in Japan you may be inconvenienced by excessive formalism, I certainly prefer it to carelessness.

    • thebigf

      Spot on! I’ve lived here for 30 years. I was asked once to describe Japan in one word. I chose ‘insincerity.’ Almost all human relations are formalized, ritualized and lack depth or warmth.

  • Matt

    I have traveled quite a bit and have found Japan to be one of the most hospitable countries. When lost, strangers not just offered directions but walked me to my destination. When I mistakenly went to the wrong airport (very silly), JAL attendants provided a free ticket and special service so I could still make my connection across the country.

    The Japanese are wonderful people. And confusing their structured method with “coldness” is less a reflection of their insensitivity and more a reflection of the guest’s.

    • Steve Jackman

      Matt, I’m surprised at this comment, since in another comment below you write, “You’ll need the jaws of life to get that stick out of your ass.” For someone who speaks so highly of Japanese hospitality and sensitivity, your making such crass and immature comments at other posters here seems inconsistent to say the least.

    • Steve Jackman

      If you were just travelling through Japan, you may not have noticed the “Japanese Only” and “No Foreigners” signs which are prominently displayed outside restaurants and other businesses in Japan. Long term foreign residents of Japan are also well aware of the “No Foreigners Allowed” clauses which are routinely stated in rental listings at almost all real estate firms in Japan. These racist and xenophobic signs are aspects of Japanese hospitality and Omotenashi which tourists don’t get to experience often.

      • Matt

        Steve, like I said, I lived in Japan for 5 years and can read/write/speak Japanese. Yes, once I was denied access to a restaurant in Kyoto. But only once. I do not remember seeing the signs you mention. I always felt welcome in restaurants, shops, and anywhere else I went.

        I lived in 3 apartments in 3 cities and not once was I ever felt unwelcome. Realtors responded to inquiries immediately and treated me like any other customer. I never had a problem with a landlord. In fact, neighbors would go out of their way to help me settle in!

      • Steve Jackman

        There have been several articles here in this newspaper and other places about discrimination in housing for foreigners in Japan, so your experience seems extremely unusual. You can search the online archives yourself for accounts of other foreigners and their difficulties in finding suitable housing due to discrimination they faced in Japan.

        However, it does not stop at housing or denial of entry to restaurants only. For example, in my many years working in Japan as a professional at well known companies, I have seen numerous cases of mistreatment, harassment, and even physical abuse of foreign staff by Japanese management and Japanese coworkers.

        In cases of expats, its pretty common in other countries that the staff from the host country will try to show some form of hospitality to the them, but this does not happen in Japan. I’ve known many expats from several countries here who during the course of several years working in Japan were not invited to lunch or dinner by their Japanese colleagues even once. It is as if they were invisible. This is why I have to laugh when I hear all the silly talk about Japanese hospitality and Omotenashi, since I think Japan is often an extreme inhospitable place for foreigners.

      • Matt

        I do not think my case is extremely unusual. I have many friends who have had similarly fine experiences with apartments and jobs. I worked at two Japanese companies and was never excluded. In your case, perhaps it is more company culture that is the problem. Or, like you said to me, maybe it’s just you.

        I am not denying that Japan is absent of racism. Every country houses racists. But I am saying that Japan’s xenophobia is often overblown by foreigners because they take offense at being called “gaijin” or because they spread rare instances of racism and exclusion far and wide, while keeping quiet about the many instances of friendliness and inclusion.

        If you have elected Japan as your place of residence, then it can’t be all that bad.

      • Steve Jackman

        You do not live in Japan and I’m not sure what types of jobs you were in when you were here. From my perspective as an American professional living in Japan, I can tell you that there has been a huge exodus of expats from Japan over the last several years (in their place, Japan is attracting mostly lower skilled workers these days, many in the construction or service industry). Most of the skilled professionals I know were fed up with Japan and the types of things I have described, so they packed up and moved.

        Now they are much happier back in America and Europe, or as expats in other Asian cities like Hong Kong, Singapore and Shanghai. All these cities are much more foreigner friendly, as compared to Tokyo. These days it is rare to find professional expats working in Japan, since their numbers are extremely small, especially as compared to other developed countries. You can say whatever you like while you’re living in Boston, but numbers here in Tokyo don’t lie. Recently, in an effort to attract more foreigners, the Abe government offered a points-based system to highly skilled professionals which makes it easier for them to get visas and work/live in Japan. The problem is that almost no skilled foreign professionals applied to come and work in Japan under the new system, so it was a complete failure.

        In regards to your point about racism and discrimination, yes, they exist everywhere. However, they are much more widespread, systematic and a part of the DNA in Japan than anywhere else in the developed world. Once again numbers don’t lie. Visible minorities make up less than 1 percent of the Japanese population. This is lower than any other developed country. If Japan was an attractive place for foreigners to live in, more would be coming here, but that is simply not the case.

      • Steve Jackman

        You do not live in Japan and I’m not sure what types of jobs you were in when you were here. From my perspective as an American professional living in Japan, I can tell you that there has been a huge exodus of expats from Japan over the last several years (in their place, Japan is attracting mostly lower skilled workers these days, many in the construction or service industry). Most of the skilled professionals I know were fed up with Japan and the types of things I have described, so they packed up and moved.

        Now they are much happier back in America and Europe, or as expats in other Asian cities like Hong Kong, Singapore and Shanghai. All these cities are much more foreigner friendly, as compared to Tokyo. These days it is rare to find professional expats working in Japan, since their numbers are extremely small, especially as compared to other developed countries. You can say whatever you like while you’re living in Boston, but numbers here in Tokyo don’t lie. Recently, in an effort to attract more foreigners, the Abe government offered a points-based system to highly skilled professionals which makes it easier for them to get visas and work/live in Japan. The problem is that almost no skilled foreign professionals applied to come and work in Japan under the new system, so it was a complete failure.

        In regards to your point about racism and discrimination, yes, they exist everywhere. However, they are much more widespread, systematic and a part of the DNA in Japan than anywhere else in the developed world. Once again numbers don’t lie. Visible minorities make up less than 1 percent of the Japanese population. This is lower than any other developed country. If Japan was an attractive place for foreigners to live in, more would be coming here, but that is simply not the case.

      • AlfredvonTirpitz

        Can you provide us some evidence for the supposed outflux of expats, Debito? Because I have seen plenty of them, and seeing more.

      • Steve Jackman

        I don’t know if anyone tracks this, but I can back up my own personal observation about this by giving you a few examples.

        Terrie Lloyd is a long term resident of Japan, who has started several companies in Japan and is vey plugged into the expat community here. He writes an excellent weekly newsletter, which is business focused. Many professional expats subscribe to it, so they can keep tabs on business intelligence and trends in Japan. A few years ago, the newsletter had over 18,000 subscribers, but now it is down to less than 8,000 subscribers.

        Similarly, the Japan-focused English language Nikkei Business Review was recently discontinued and replaced with Asia-focused Nikkei Asian Review, presumably due to declining interest and readership of the former.

        Another English language business publication called Japan Inc also shut down as large numbers of expats started leaving a few years ago. Now, there is virtually no English language business publication in Japan, due to the small numbers of foreign expats here.

      • AmIJustAPessimistOrWhat?

        I lived in Japan for 23 years, traveled all over the country, and never once saw a “Japanese Only” or “No Foreigners” sign in either English or Japanese. Frequently going to Onsen and Sentou (hot springs and public baths), never once denied entry. I did notice that some establishments had signs “no tatoos” (in Japanese – irezumi enryou simasu”); but on the other hand some sentou were noticeably popular with the elaborate full back irezumi yakuza crowd.

        Restaurants, inns, cafes, never once denied access. While looking for housing, once only a real estate agent said no-gaijin. But three times I found landlords who bent over backwards to welcome foreigners, including Koreans and other Asians.

        I had a great social life based around sports such as marathon, trail running, hiking, and cycling. Lots of friendly, open, forward looking, positive people.

        I’m calling your bluff Jack!

      • Ken Foye

        Have lived in Japan a total of 17 years (3 different stints) and have never once seen a “no foreigners” or “Japanese only” sign. Never once. Granted, I don’t live in Tokyo or Osaka. But even when I visited there, I never saw one. Just my experience.

        Have also rented three different apartments here and never had a problem getting one on account of being a foreigner.

  • 108

    People across the world are proud about certain aspects of their countries and cultures, be it cuisine, history or craft beers. Apparently, “omotenashi” is a dirty word now.

    “There’s something arrogant about the idea that one’s hospitality is superior to another’s,”

    Same for those who believe they’re #1 at any given sport/have the best wine/the most beautiful women, right?

    It’s such an arrogant world.

    “…the dynamic of omotenashi, the giver of hospitality knows what is best for the guest and does not consider alternatives. The wishes of the guest are not important, because the idea is to provide “service even when it isn’t asked for.”

    This is basically what most mothers in the world do when kids living on their own visit home. Japan is not the world’s mother, and moms can get annoying, but I think it’s a matter of expectations, not arrogance.

    In my 10 years in Japan I never experienced “omotenashi arrogance”; on the contrary, I sorely miss that level of service. Sigh.

  • David W. Rudlin

    Good article! i would only add that the increasing spotlighting of omotenashi is part of the long-standing Japanese desire to be unique. Over the years we’ve been told the Japanese have different digestive tracks (which make it difficult for them to digest beef and milk), noses, ways of communicating (e.g. aizuchi), appreciation of nature, etc. etc. etc. This tendency is most pronounced either when things are going very well — like during the Bubble before we knew it was a Bubble — or badly, when people need to reaffirm their core beliefs remain true despite all the upheaval on the surface.

  • Liars N. Fools

    A perceptive article. Having been a guest at kaiseki dinners more than a few times, i sometimes find the pride of the house in the quality of their food matched by a degree of unrealistic expectation that surely this had to be the best cuisine the customer has ever had. In true when in Rome fashion, I make the noises of enthusiasm and interest, I still harbor the notion that the line between pride and arrogance is not all that solid.

    I would not for the world change Japanese hospitality. Even if shallow, it is in play. Better than in places where it is not in play at all.

    • J.P. Bunny

      Agreed. Annoying at times, but infinitely better than the “to hell with you” attitude of other Asian countries.

  • CheapoGreg

    I don’t think there is anything broken with Japanese hospitality – it is what it is. Trying to invent a new term in English that means “Japanese hospitality” and then use it as some kind of unique advantage of Japan is a bit of a stretch though. Anyone remember the mottainai campaign? Japanese hospitality really can be quite exasperating in its more rigid forms – like when you visit friends or relatives who plan out every minute of your stay, try to feed you twice as much food as you could possibly consume and pile you up with mementos that you don’t want. It’s all done with the best of intentions, but I personally prefer it when the needs of the guests are taken into account rather than trying to be the ultimate host.

  • CheapoGreg

    I don’t think there is anything broken with Japanese hospitality – it is what it is. Trying to invent a new term in English that means “Japanese hospitality” and then use it as some kind of unique advantage of Japan is a bit of a stretch though. Anyone remember the mottainai campaign? Japanese hospitality really can be quite exasperating in its more rigid forms – like when you visit friends or relatives who plan out every minute of your stay, try to feed you twice as much food as you could possibly consume and pile you up with mementos that you don’t want. It’s all done with the best of intentions, but I personally prefer it when the needs of the guests are taken into account rather than trying to be the ultimate host.

  • Soudesune

    It is what it is, and it’s part of what makes Japan unique (a very good thing). As is so often the case with people who groan on in Japan Times editorials – if you don’t like it, go home. Personally I find Japanese hospitality to be world class and I could not imagine receiving better service abroad. My only gripe about omotonashi is that people here keep using the word. We don’t need to hear the word or see it on a restaurant sign – it should be inherent in the service provided.

  • Karagarga

    “Kyoto… receives almost 2 million foreign visitors a year. Paris gets 15 million.” The fewer tourists in Kyoto, the more I like it.

  • A.J. Sutter

    “Atkinson thinks Kyoto could boost its numbers if it endeavored to find out what foreigners want to do there.” This is positively moronic thinking based on the economistic vision you’d expect from a banker, that all that counts is maximizing money you can get from an activity. Look at all the beauty spots of the world that have been ruined by pandering to tourists: Waikiki and Los Cabos are a couple that spring to mind (Bali might also qualify). And nowadays finding reasonably-priced good food has become difficult in Rome and even impossible in central Florence (so say the natives, and I found it to be true) because of the huge influx of Chinese tourists for whom the traditional local flavours are too alien.

    Maybe visitors to Kyoto would prefer cream and sugar in their matcha, or would prefer the sort of souvenir market where you have to bargain to find the right price, or have a hankering to go to the beach right after visiting the Golden Pavilion, or enjoy a bustling red-light district convenient to their 4- or 5-star hotel — at some point, usually sooner rather than later, you lose the character of the place and its culture, and the spirt of prostitution (in at least a figurative sense) takes over.

    The idea that Japan desperately needs to attract foreigners in order to survive is a frequent gaijin economist trope. But actually, someone who travels to a place has a responsibility try to appreciate that place. More flexibility of hosts to deal with foreign languages and special needs of guests, what might be called making omotenashi more flexible at the margins, is fine — if it’s really necessary: I haven’t encountered many problems that can’t be fixed by a request and a smile or a “sumimasen.” (And I don’t eat pork or shellfish, so you can imagine how often I have to ask for special adjustments here.) But transforming the country or its historical centers into a commodity for the consumption of foreigners is wrong, no matter how much cash analysts project could be generated. Increasing tourism is only one of several possible means toward the end of revitalizing local areas, even if the current government can’t imagine alternatives.

    • Steve Jackman

      A.J. Sutter wrote, “The idea that Japan desperately needs to attract foreigners in order to survive is a frequent gaijin economist trope.”

      That’s funny, I did not know that Shinzo Abe was a gaijin, since, it is part of his “Abenomics” policy which set a goal of doubling the annual number of foreign tourists to 20 million by 2020.

      • A.J. Sutter

        Cute comment, but I didn’t say it was *exclusively* a gaijin trope. It is, however, a comment made by almost all foreign economists about Japan, of which Atkinson is typical in this regard. I don’t think Abe would call tourists “temporary immigrants” as Atkinson does — the government sees them simply as tourists and/or as cash. And as mentioned in the last sentence of my post, though Abe sees tourism as key, he’s short on vision beyond that.

      • Steve Jackman

        Cuteness is not my forte – you must be confusing me with someone else. I am an avid consumer of economic and financial news on Japan and disagree with your statement that, “almost all foreign economists” have called for Japan to increase inbound tourism to support its economy. Any credible foreign economist knows that Japan’s problems go much deeper and cannot be fixed through tourism. Would you care to name the foreign economists you are referring to?

        Also, perhaps you would rather that tourists go to Saitama or Ibaraki, instead of Kyoto. Good luck attracting them with that proposition!

      • A.J. Sutter

        Cute comment, but I didn’t say it was *exclusively* a gaijin trope. It is, however, a comment made by almost all foreign economists about Japan, of which Atkinson is typical in this regard. I don’t think Abe would call tourists “temporary immigrants” as Atkinson does — the government sees them simply as tourists and/or as cash. And as mentioned in the last sentence of my post, though Abe sees tourism as key, he’s short on vision beyond that.

      • A.J. Sutter

        Cute comment, but I didn’t say it was *exclusively* a gaijin trope. It is, however, a comment made by almost all foreign economists about Japan, of which Atkinson is typical in this regard. I don’t think Abe would call tourists “temporary immigrants” as Atkinson does — the government sees them simply as tourists and/or as cash. And as mentioned in the last sentence of my post, though Abe sees tourism as key, he’s short on vision beyond that.

    • Jonathan Fields

      You clearly just skimmed the article if that’s what you took away from it. Japanese tourism boards pushing things they think foreigners are interested in and being totally wrong about it is a relatively well-known phenomenon.

      Imagine going to San Diego wanting to shop and attend a football game, but instead being prodded into visiting a museum and seeing the San Diego zoo. Then you go to a restaurant you heard about in La Jolla and really want to try, but you’re turned away. That’s what Kyoto is like.

      The city doesn’t need to change to accommodate foreigners. The marketing and services need to change.

      • A.J. Sutter

        Thanks for your comment. Sorry to hear you had trouble. I’ve never had the experience you describe when I’ve visited Kyoto: I always was able to go where I wanted to go and do what I wanted to do; I was never turned away from anywhere other than occasionally arriving at my favorite udon shop a little before closing time and finding it full.

        More generally, while tourism boards might lack skill, I can’t say I’ve ever relied solely or even primarily on tourism boards for information about a place in Japan or elsewhere: I’ve always done my own research, including asking people. I think lots of travelers work that way. BTW a Japanese-language resource like RuRuBu has lots of pictures and other hints that can be useful to someone with almost no Japanese; I speak from experience, traveling to some places little written-about in English long before I moved here. More recently some French friends with absolutely zero Japanese language ability were able to travel around happily for weeks to some very out-of-the-way areas while one of them, 6 months pregnant at the time, was researching lacquerware production as background for a novel she was writing.

        Which brings up the larger question, of why it’s so important to promote tourism to Kyoto and Tokyo at all. It’s typical of the government’s “let the rich get richer” philosophy, of which the Tokyo 2020 Olympics is an even bigger example. (E.g., the Olympics are already draining construction supplies and labor from the still-unreconstructed communities affected by the 2011 tsunami). There are better ways than tourism to improve the national economy, and especially the smaller local economies, though a moderate increase in tourism to outer areas might part of the mix.

        Contra to Atkinson’s economic point of view that I criticized above, a more persuasive justification for increasing tourism might be political: the attitudes of Chinese tourists towards Japan are often changed for the better once they actually see this country. That could mean, though, that there’s little strategic value in paying heed to the gripes of folks commenting here.

    • Jonathan Fields

      You clearly just skimmed the article if that’s what you took away from it. Japanese tourism boards pushing things they think foreigners are interested in and being totally wrong about it is a relatively well-known phenomenon.

      Imagine going to San Diego wanting to shop and attend a football game, but instead being prodded into visiting a museum and seeing the San Diego zoo. Then you go to a restaurant you heard about in La Jolla and really want to try, but you’re turned away. That’s what Kyoto is like.

      The city doesn’t need to change to accommodate foreigners. The marketing and services need to change.

  • George

    I suppose I see this article in a few lights

    1/. If that is the worst thing that has happened to David Atkinson then life cannot be too bad. Stop complaining.

    2/. Does this subject really warrant a full article in the Japan Times

    3/. To Mohamed Omer Abdin, the reason Japanese see their service with some pride is they are right – you can get this no where else in the world. I am from Australia but have travel far and wide and the level of service and hospitality you get in Japan is streets ahead of anywhere else in the world – and remember most of this extraordinary service is for Japanese – we are just lucky enough to experience it.

    4/. We have had a steam of visitors over the last 2 years and sure they come for the skiing, for Kyoto, for Hiroshima but you know the one thing they all remember and comment on is the extra ordinary kindness shown by everyday Japanese people.

    when I though of all these things and re-read the article I began to feel it was a bit self serving by David Atkinson on some of his pet projects he felt did not get enough coverage.

    Get over it.

    • Jay

      Have you ever been to the south? Nashville Tennessee has some of the most honest, grounded people I’ve met. Genuine, helpful, and kind. All of that comes 100% from their heart.

      South in general has some of the most loving people. I love Japan, but it doesn’t come close to how good people can be there.

      • Steve Jackman

        I think your statement about the goodness of Americans is true for most places in the U.S., not just the South. Americans have much more Omotenashi and show much greater hospitality than the Japanese ever can.

      • George

        Not been to Nashville – sorry for the generalization. To be honest I do find generous individuals in every country I visit. But nowhere is it a national pride.

  • Admgggg

    This is a very well written piece that handles a delicate topic eloquently. Omotenashi has become one of those buzzwords you hear so often these days, that it loses something. Hospitality does certainly feel empty when the host is blowing their own trumpet about it.

    But at the same time, there is a lot of genuine, from the heart hospitality in Japan that the article (and more so the comments below) would do well to consider. Many of the examples that have been made are foofy, high society places, where you tend to get service that is over the top, showy and cold, that you pay through the nose for (this is also often the case in equivalent places outside of Japan).

    But when you go to the little mom and pop Ramen shops, family run Izakayas, or almost anywhere in the countryside, you get a genuine warmth, a gratitude for choosing their establishment, and attentiveness without fuss or ceremony. Kaiseki ryori? I’d prefer some beer and yakitori any day of the week …

    • Liars N. Fools

      I’m with you. I prefer Osaka to Kyoto for eating. Delicious, cheap, unpretentious. And really friendly. That is because Osaka is a merchant town with customer orientation. Kyoto is sort of snooty because the Kyoto people are too used to foreigners who regard as the essence of the Japan experience the foreigners are looking for. 食い倒れ indeed.

  • Al_Martinez

    Omotenashi has a hefty helping of tatemae in its mix. Like a lot of Japanese politeness, its importance has as much to do with making the giver of politeness feel good about his or herself as it does about the receiver gaining a benefit. But nonetheless, the receiver does receive a benefit in most cases, so its hard to complain. Basically, “I know your intentions aren’t 100% pure, but, screw it, I’ll take it because its good for me, too.”

  • Steve Jackman

    What?? The article here in The Japan Times which we’re commenting on is about foreign visitors and tourists, not immigration. The words “visitors” and “tourists” are mentioned several time, but there’s no mention of immigration. In your original comment you yourself wrote, “Look at all the beauty spots of the world that have been ruined by pandering to tourists”, and ,”And nowadays finding reasonably-priced good food has become difficult in Rome and even impossible in central Florence (so say the natives, and I found it to be true) because of the huge influx of Chinese tourists for whom the traditional local flavours are too alien”. So, you yourself were referring to tourists.

    The links you have now provided are about immigration and hence irrelevant, since this discussion here is about attracting visitors and tourists to Japan, not immigration.

    • A.J. Sutter

      If by that conclusive tone you mean you’re through exchanging comments, it’s perfectly fine with me. For an “avid consumer of financial news” you seem not at all to be a careful reader. My initial comment on the JT piece was about the remarks of Mr. Atkinson, who *does* invoke immigration (see para. 7 of the JT article above). A quote from Atkinson was the jumping-off point for my entire comment. You seem to have missed some key points both of the article and the raison d’être for my comment before you jumped in to needle me (since, I understand, cuteness was not an option).

      • Steve Jackman

        Sorry, your smoke and mirrors approach does not work with me. As I stated, you are the one who wrote “tourists” using specific examples in your original comment, so you can’t wiggle out of it. Man up and take responsibility for your words.

      • A.J. Sutter

        I don’t know what fuels your belligerence, which seems to be widely distributed. I’ve explained my words quite precisely, and by now a couple of times. WYSIWYG.

      • A.J. Sutter

        I don’t know what fuels your belligerence, which seems to be widely distributed. I’ve explained my words quite precisely, and by now a couple of times. WYSIWYG.

  • Steve Jackman

    What?? The article here in The Japan Times which we’re commenting on is about foreign visitors and tourists, not immigration. The words “visitors” and “tourists” are mentioned several time, but there’s no mention of immigration. In your original comment you yourself wrote, “Look at all the beauty spots of the world that have been ruined by pandering to tourists”, and ,”And nowadays finding reasonably-priced good food has become difficult in Rome and even impossible in central Florence (so say the natives, and I found it to be true) because of the huge influx of Chinese tourists for whom the traditional local flavours are too alien”. So, you yourself were referring to tourists.

    The links you have now provided are about immigration and hence irrelevant, since this discussion here is about attracting visitors and tourists to Japan, not immigration.

  • Jenn J

    Hospitality in Japan is often for show only, it doesn’t feel like there’s any genuine warmth behind it, or that any real thought is being given to what the guest wants or needs. It’s a strange paradox that in Japan, people can be so polite yet so distant and cold at the same time. Of course there are many people here who are genuinely kind and helpful, but their actions are usually spontaneous and come from the heart rather than the rigid “omotenashi” checklist. That being said, there are lots of aspects of omotenashi that I really like compared to the service in my home country (Australia), where sales people and service industry staff can be down-right rude. I’d much prefer politeness, however superficial, to outright rudeness and blatant disregard for the guest/customer’s needs which is prevalent in my home country.

  • Jenn J

    Omotenashi is all well and good, but sometimes I wonder what’s the point when staff members often can’t deal with basic inquiries from foreigners. An example is when I went to a hospital and was looking for an English version of a medical form so I could see a doctor. When I asked the reception staff if there was an English form they began laughing uncontrollably, probably because they weren’t used to dealing with foreigners. Feeling overwhelmed, anxious and frustrated that I couldn’t get any help, I started to cry, and was left standing in the lobby confused with tears running down my face. Instances like this are common especially outside big cities. When things come up that deviate from the standard “omotenashi” checklist that gets drummed into staff during training, they’re unable to be flexible and often become flustered as a result, which in turn makes the customer feel embarrassed or awkward.

  • Jenn J

    Omotenashi is all well and good, but sometimes I wonder what’s the point when staff members often can’t deal with basic inquiries from foreigners. An example is when I went to a hospital and was looking for an English version of a medical form so I could see a doctor. When I asked the reception staff if there was an English form they began laughing uncontrollably, probably because they weren’t used to dealing with foreigners. Feeling overwhelmed, anxious and frustrated that I couldn’t get any help, I started to cry, and was left standing in the lobby confused with tears running down my face. Instances like this are common especially outside big cities. When things come up that deviate from the standard “omotenashi” checklist that gets drummed into staff during training, they’re unable to be flexible and often become flustered as a result, which in turn makes the customer feel embarrassed or awkward.

    • That Scottish Guy

      I’m sorry to hear this. I hope you were ok.
      Stuff like this really makes my blood boil.

      I think CW Nicol gets it right – real omotenashi is unsaid kindness done for the sake of being kind, and often the preserve of individuals in rural areas. Problem is, corporate Japan has tried to formalize and reproduce omotenashi in their Standard Operating Procedures, and has thus missed the whole point. Honda must be happy with Asimo, but Japanese education, in conjunction with the corporate sector, has been producing better robots for decades. But those robots are often nice people outside of the 9 – 5 ritual.

  • Michael Petraeus

    For the love of god dear Japanese, whatever you do, please ignore that Atkinson, whoever he is. Everything he says is simply not true.

    1. Population growth is required for economic growth? – I don’t even know where to begin with this. I can’t believe this person held posts in a reputable financial institution. Economic growth comes from increased efficiency not from population growth. That’s why you have massive countries whose citizens remain poor and small countries whose citizens are wealthy. Yes, large countries tend to have larger economies but to put things in perspective – ASEAN has 600+ million people with GDP of $2.3 billion, Japan has 120+ million people with GDP of $5.9 billion.

    2. Paris vs. Kyoto? What kind of a comparison is that? Paris is bang in the middle of wealthy Europe with cheap flights, highways and railways connecting all cities. Tokyo is at the edge of Asia, length of Pacific across from the US, with all surrounding countries apart from Korea being poor or just emerging. How do you even want to compare this?

    3. Japanese should build more attractions for non-Japanese near their heritage sites? You mean, basically, wrecking their heritage like most of the West did? What do you want? A rollercoaster around Kiyomizudera? A casino in Himeji-jo? A shopping mall next to Todaij-ji?

    Venice today is a theme park for foreign tourists, not a monument – it’s a dead, hollow city, maintained only to drain the pockets of the visitors. It would be absolutely horrible if something like this happened in Japan, but luckily Japanese do pretty well at maintaining their historic fabric in the cities.

    Do Japanese people feel superior to other nations? Yes they do – but don’t Westerners barge in to other countries lecturing them about how they should be run? Why the hell do the Westerners feel compelled to talk about other countries all the time – when will they ever start to listen and learn from them?

    Because Japan has a lot to teach the West, if it was only receptive. Japanese people have the right reasons to feel successful and superior to the rest of the world, considering what they have achieved on remote, distant, earthquake-prone and virtually resourceless islands. Their standards of life are supreme, their food, their culture, safety, organization, cleanliness are all brilliant and way above the standards in the egotistic West.

    Omotenashi is one of the things that makes Japan stand out from the rest. Is it sometimes fake? Sure it is, but the sheer fact that they went great lengths to codify the standards of behavior towards tourists, so that no matter where they go and what they do they always feel well taken care of, simply proves how considerate the Japanese are.

    And here I think lies the main problem with this cultural misunderstanding. Anybody who criticizes them is simply ignorant to the cultural differences. Japanese are not individualists, they are reserved individually, because it’s customary not to express your feelings too openly. Omotenashi is simply expression of the collectivist culture standards, where the society at large decides what is the appropriate way of behavior. And the members of this society feel compelled to uphold these standards to all visitors.

    So stop talking, start listening. And learning.

    • Steve Jackman

      OK, so what about the “Japanese Only” and “No Foreigners” signs which are prominently displayed outside restaurants and other businesses in Japan? What about the “No Foreigners Allowed” clauses which are routinely stated in rental listings at almost all real estate firms in Japan? Is this part of Japanese hospitality and Omotenashi also? I have never once seen such racist and xenophobic signs in America or Europe.

      • Michael Petraeus

        No, you don’t get such signs in America or Europe. You simply get a bullet or a knife in your back when you wander into the wrong neighborhood.

      • krr

        I have been living in Japan for 7 years and never, ever ever found a “no foreigner” sign. I asked some of my foreigner friends and they’d never seen them either. (I just remember the Urawa Reds accident). So I googled around and most of these places seem to be adult entertainment kind of places and while I do not dispute your desire to visit those, as an adult man, I do not think they should be put in the same league as regular restaurants. Some Kyoto places are a bit like that but I mean it’s so typical Kyoto – even the majority of Japanese people can’t stand their arrogant pride.
        When it comes to real estate, every time I walked into an agency, spoke fluent Japanese to them and showed them I have a proper job in a proper company, I never had a problem. And honestly having also lived in sharehouses with The Average English Teacher I would not blame anyone for not wanting to rent to them.

        I am well past the honeymoon phase and I do have some things that irk me and make me feel unwelcome at times. I do agree with parts of the article, as well – working in the travel industry these are issues I deal with everyday (but god forbid more tourists in Kyoto, the city is close to collapse already!) But when I see people like you taking small incidents and talking about them as if they are the rule, it puzzles me. You are trying to achieve something, perhaps. What is that? Just self-contentment and desire for the world to pat your back for going through all that big bad Japan gets you through? Or are you trying to make some positive change and how exactly is your method going to achieve it?

      • Steve Jackman

        I’m not sure why you are puzzled by my comments, since they are some of the most upvoted posts here, so clearly many others agree with me. Several other posters here have also posted their own comments which are consistent with mine.

        Perhaps it’s a case of you just burying your head in the sand.

        As I responded to another poster above, I don’t want foreigners coming to Japan with false expectations and then be disappointed. I think they have a right to know that if they come to Japan, they will likely face pretty widespread racism, xenophobia and discrimination. I write these posts so that foreigners coming to Japan can be better prepared to face some of these situations and know how to react when these happen to them.

        I also don’t want the Japanese to live in a bubble and fall for the cult of Nihonjinron believing in Japanese superiority, uniqueness and a false sense of Omotenashi. I just want to keep things real and honest, that’s all. No hatred here for anyone.

  • Michael Petraeus

    And on topic of genuine hospitality I prefer the Japanese omotenashi to French, who act like dicks, Americans, who don’t know how the world looks like, cold and heartless Germans and Swedes – and so on, and on.

    Japan being lectured about hospitality by Westerners is some ridiculous joke.

  • Jenn

    I have been saying this exact thing to my husband for months about omentashi. Olympic cities/countries typically research what things may be difficult or unexpected for international tourists, and then bridge those gaps. For example, before the Sydney 2000 Olympics, the city painted “LOOK RIGHT” at major crosswalks so non-commonwealth visitors would not step into oncoming traffic accidentally. The Japanese seem to approach cultural gaps by responding, “But look at all these other things that are special about Japan!” They end up ignoring/deflecting issues. The article was spot on in its description of omentashi – the host knows what’s best for the customer.

  • Steve Jackman

    If you lived in Japan for 5 years, you must have seen the “Japanese Only” and “No Foreigners” signs which are prominently displayed outside restaurants and other businesses in Japan. You probably also noticed the “No Foreigners Allowed” clauses which are routinely stated in rental listings at almost all real estate firms in Japan. Is this part of Japanese hospitality and Omotenashi also? Do they have such racist and xenophobic signs in Boston?

  • Steve Jackman

    If you lived in Japan for 5 years, you must have seen the “Japanese Only” and “No Foreigners” signs which are prominently displayed outside restaurants and other businesses in Japan. You probably also noticed the “No Foreigners Allowed” clauses which are routinely stated in rental listings at almost all real estate firms in Japan. Is this part of Japanese hospitality and Omotenashi also? Do they have such racist and xenophobic signs in Boston?

  • Steve Jackman

    If you lived in Japan for 5 years, you must have seen the “Japanese Only” and “No Foreigners” signs which are prominently displayed outside restaurants and other businesses in Japan. You probably also noticed the “No Foreigners Allowed” clauses which are routinely stated in rental listings at almost all real estate firms in Japan. Is this part of Japanese hospitality and Omotenashi also? Do they have such racist and xenophobic signs in Boston?

    • Fay Ch

      Steve, I don’t know if you’re still living in Japan, but this “no foreigners allowed” trend is a bit changing. I don’t think it is a racist way to exclude foreign customers, but just a way to say “sorry but we don’t have the ability (mainly because of the language) to welcome you. I personally do speak Japanese and tried some of these places and had no problem at all, because of that. And the staff felt relieved that I could speak Japanese.
      However, I understand your point on several matters, and don’t know what do I prefer between a staff saying mechanically “irasshaimase” without even looking at you or someone who doesn’t say anything at all…

      • Steve Jackman

        Yes, I live in Japan. No, I don’t think the problem is language related, as many foreigners who are fluent Japanese speakers have attested to in the past.

      • Michael Petraeus

        Like many foreigners living in Japan you prove that you may live there, perhaps you may even know the language, but you have no will to understand the culture. If you don’t like it then pack your bags and leave via one of their pretty great airports.

      • Michael Petraeus

        Like many foreigners living in Japan you prove that you may live there, perhaps you may even know the language, but you have no will to understand the culture. If you don’t like it then pack your bags and leave via one of their pretty great airports.

      • Steve Jackman

        I live in Japan, I understand the culture and I know the language, but I will never agree with the racism, xenophobia and discrimination which non-Japanese residents are routinely subjected to here in Japan. It is not your business to tell anyone to leave Japan, so keep such opinions to yourself.

      • Michael Petraeus

        The problem with most Westerners is that they THINK they know something. And then they whine and preach. Everything you posted here proves just that. It’s not the first time I experienced this, since I know other expats living in Japan – with extreme examples like yours and others so deeply immersed that they are basically Asians in a Caucasian body.

        I’ve seen similar Westerner attitudes in other countries across Asia (where I live).

        Accusation of racism coming from a Westerner is some kind of a sad joke considering how much bigger an issue it is everywhere else in the developed world.

  • AsianReaper

    For those grousing about Japan , Try China,, Japan like most places isn’t perfect but its a cut above most.

  • Jeremy Simms

    Hang out in Osaka. You won’t notice anywhere near as much aloofness there. That I can guarantee.

  • Jonathan Fields

    Thank you! I’ve been saying this ever since the omotenashi campaign started. It’s just another form of “we’re amazing” Japanese onanism.

    Japan is a very hospitable country if you’re exactly the right kind of foreigner.

    • KetsuroOu

      If you are a mature, mentally-healthy foreigner, with basic social skills and an openness to new experiences, then the country is indeed very hospitable.

      • Steve Jackman

        Let’s not turn the tables here. The problem is not with the foreigners, but it is Japanese society which needs to address some of its outdated attitudes, evolve and join the rest of the modern global community.

  • Liars N. Fools

    Thank you for your well considered and experience-based account. You should re-do and send it in to JT to see if they will print it. Very consistent with my own experience in Japan, which I very much enjoyed. I like Korea better because of the feistiness of people there, but that is a whole other subject.

  • Liars N. Fools

    Thank you for your well considered and experience-based account. You should re-do and send it in to JT to see if they will print it. Very consistent with my own experience in Japan, which I very much enjoyed. I like Korea better because of the feistiness of people there, but that is a whole other subject.

  • Steve Jackman

    Your comment is so full of stereotypes and misconceptions, I don’t even know where to start. You write in your first sentence, “Are you gonna buy something? If not, get out.” Really? Which country in this world is that type of greeting common in?

    Contrary to what you have written, the “no foreigners” signs and real estate postings are not limited to areas around military bases only in Japan. I wish I had more time to respond to all the mistakes and falsehoods in your comment, but I don’t have the time.

    I can understand that you spent a lot of time and effort learning the Japanese tea ceremony and culture, and that you are probably a Japanophile, but let’s try to keep it real and objective.

  • Marcus Miller

    From my personal experience (I’ve lived in Osaka for the past eight years) is that this concept of omotenashi means people here often work in two modes. As people have mentioned earlier here, if someone works at a company that drills customer service dogma into them, they’re taught to give great service but they’re not taught what to do when the thing they expected to happen, doesn’t. It takes them out of their “customer serice mode” and can often leave them in a position where they might lie or be no help at all (and thankfully admit it, most of the time).

    On the other side of the coin, customers here have a very high standard for staff, no matter what kind of establishment they’re at. Occasionally I see or hear about people being unreasonably angry at restaurant or shop staff because their service was less than perfect. The poor staff in question has no idea what to do because, I assume, this wasn’t in their training, and is forced simply to apologise endlessly.

    The main problem here is expectation; there is an assumption on both sides as to how the others will act, with little wiggle room if those assumptions aren’t satisfied. Many Japanese I have met, like plenty of people from other countries, make broad-sweeping generalisations about the character of people in their country. Sometimes it’s in jest but many times they appear to very much believe then. However, it ignores that this is a country of individuals, just like any other. Not everyone wants the same thing. Not everyone thinks that speaking in Keigo means you’re being polite. Not everyone wants a plastic bag with their pack of gum. Not everyone trusts that the staff has their best interests in mind. The service industry here seems to run on these broadly sweeping generalisations that ignore the needs of the individual in favor of some idealised image of what they think customers want.

    When they’re being themselves, the people here are warm, friendly and genuinely caring, some of the nicest people I’ve ever met. A person who stops to help a tourist on the street may well do so becsuse they genuinely want to help. An old couple who run a small ramen shop might happily welcome in visitors and speak to them in whatever broken English they know, because they’re friendly people. But if a tourist walks into a department store, a hotel or any other place that is governed by these rules of expectation, they’re also entering that world of falseness and arrogance people complain about.

    I’m Australian, and my moral training was to treat everyone else like I would like to be treated, so it infuriates me endlessly when I see extreme examples of people ignoring common sense or decency here because of some antiquated system of expectation. As a foreigner I know I have no right to tell people here how to treat each other, but in the interests of catering for tourists it might serve them to adjust their expectations a little so that they can actually give visitors what they want, rather than fobbing it off as being a more Japanese experience.

  • Barbara M. Reder

    growing up in Japan and have seen the omotenashi.. for some foreigners it might be a strange concept. Yes there is signs foreigners not allowed but those places you simply don’t go.. unless you have a friend who takes you . believe me it all depends where you go but hardly seen. One thing if you have blond hair and if you behave nice you get nice response.. if you behave rude then you get rude response.. which happens in any culture.
    On train ride you are suppose to speak quietly and not loud like some foreigners do.. in the old days things were different but as the new generation is growing things are different..

  • Rocket

    More ATM machines for foreign credit cards outside of Tokyo please! Was in Nikko last year and even JR rail refused my foreign credit card for return trip to Tokyo.

    However the situation in Tokyo has improved since my first visit to Japan in 2006 and subsequent trips

    7 -11 and Lawsons ATMs in Nikko center did not accept foreign cards as well…Fortunately I was with a Japanese friend who had lot’s of cash!

    I once read that the reason was high commission by the banks on ATM withdrawals for the owner of the ATM

    Gaijin need to know this if they are traveling to small towns in Japan…Keep cash…You won’t get ripped off in any case like here in Europe!

  • Firas Kraïem

    The only time I have ever been provided with something I didn’t ask for was in a small minshuku in Aomori prefecture where upon my check-out the owners gave me a full bag of small local produce (if I remember correctly, it included several apples, cakes of some sort, and canned carrot juice, among other things). Although i did find it mildly comical, certainly no offense taken, especially since they previously (upon my requests) gave me a ride to the nearest ATM and did my laundry (all for free). Other than that, when I visit a hotel it generally goes like this:

    1. Show my resident card (or, back then, my passport).
    2. Fill the little form.
    3. Pay.
    4. Get the key to my room, and go on with my life.

    Which is exactly what I want. To me, hotels are not supposed to provide warmth, generosity, or anything of that sort. If I want those things, I have friends.

  • rapinii

    I only noticed now that the Times had removed your attack on my comment as well as my reply, but fair enough. That’s a fair reply. I’m very aware that those things happen and it’s unfortunate. I didn’t mean to make it sound like I’m a blinded weeaboo who thinks Japan is a fairy land, I just didn’t think the attack on my old post history was fair haha. Good day to you (a few weeks later)