Imperial Hotel maintains its pride, 120 years on


Charles Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe and Babe Ruth, and in recent years U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon and former Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev are among the many celebrities who have lodged at the Imperial Hotel, Japan’s first grand Western-style inn, which opened as a state guesthouse during the Meiji Era (1868-1912).

Looking back on its 120-year history, Tetsuya Kobayashi, its eighth president, says the core of the Imperial Hotel’s operations has always been serving important foreign guests.

“With that, the Imperial Hotel is a state guesthouse in our mind, and we have repeatedly used a screening process to determine the things that needed to change and those that didn’t, but needed protection,” Kobayashi, 65, said in a recent interview with The Japan Times. “The accumulation of such selections is the present Imperial Hotel.”

The Imperial Hotel began its existence next to the famed Rokumeikan dance hall in Tokyo’s Hibiya district on Nov. 3, 1890, amid rising demand for full-scale accommodations for foreign VIPs.

Japan was then going all-out to modernize, aiming for parity amid unequal trade treaties with the West. The Imperial Hotel was built at the initiative of then Foreign Minister Kaoru Inoue, with funding from both the government and the private sector, as part of that effort.

Kobayashi, a Keio University graduate, was one of the first group of publicly recruited employees to join Imperial Hotel Ltd. in 1969, a year before the Osaka Expo and the debut of jumbo jets.

Starting his career as a room clerk, cleaning both the employee and guest toilets, Kobayashi learned from and built on his experiences working in different departments, from overseas sales and booking to human resources management.

Of his 42-year run, Kobayashi said: “A great high-class hotel can only be made by having high-grade hardware, software, which is organization, and ‘human-ware.’ “

It’s important to have good premises because they catch the eye and entice people, but if services aren’t commensurate, then all is for naught, Kobayashi said.

“Of the three elements, the human factor is the most important. Good buildings can be made simply by spending money. But it takes experienced employees to make a good organization,” said Kobayashi, whose service advice to employees is simple: Act with sincerity, humility and appreciation.

Customer satisfaction cannot be attained without employee satisfaction, he said.

“In that sense, the Imperial Hotel provides top-class labor conditions, including salaries,” he said. “For example, we have a one-year overseas study system during which employees are fully paid, and we also provide free language lessons.”

Although Tokyo has seen an explosion in first-class foreign-owned hotels since around 2000, Kobayashi believes the Imperial will hold its status as one of the nation’s leading inns, expressing confidence in a history that spans the Great Kanto Earthquake, two world wars and other maladies and mishaps.

It is important to have a certain sense of crisis, but by polishing the “hardware, software and human-ware,” the Imperial Hotel should have no problem facing new competitors, Kobayashi said.

The current hotel’s main building was completed in 1970 after the wing designed by acclaimed U.S. architect Frank Lloyd Wright was demolished. The wing, completed in 1923, had entered local legend by surviving the Great Kanto Earthquake that hit the same year, suffering little damage.

The main building has undergone two major renovations, the first between 1985 and 1990 to the tune of ¥16 billion, and again between 2003 and 2008, for ¥18 billion.

Although the climbing yen is hurting the business environment for the hotel, which mainly targets businesspeople, half of them foreigners, Kobayashi is determined to keep the inn’s cachet alive.

“I really appreciate our predecessors, who have protected the Imperial Hotel’s brand without damaging or diluting it. My job now is to pass the brand to the next generation in its best condition,” he said.