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‘Omotenashi’ comes up short on humility

by Philip Brasor

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.