“One thing made clear from (our) survey is that the wholehearted looking after guests is not necessarily appreciated.”

— From “The lie of omotenashi,” cover story, Nikkei Business magazine

In its 18-page cover story on Jan. 22, Nikkei Business magazine sent reporters to interview bosses at two vastly different parts of the nation’s vaunted service industry: the Kagaya inn in Ishikawa Prefecture — rated the nation’s top ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) for 36 consecutive years — and the Yoshino beef-over-rice snack chain favored by salarymen, which has been experimenting with further ways to cut operating costs by adding self-service coffee dispensers.

While nearly half — 48.7 percent — of the 1,036 non-Japanese surveyed by Nikkei Business stated the level of service in Japan was superior to other countries, and another 35.3 percent agreed it was “probably better,” large percentages of customers were nevertheless not impressed, and sometimes irritated, by various aspects of service. These included employees standing in the doorway when department stores open to bow greetings to guests; room entry by maids at ryokan while guests are in the midst of taking a meal in the room; trivial gossip by hairdressers and barbers; and self-introductions by taxi drivers, among others.

Foreign nationals especially disliked being asked personal questions, such as where they came from, while they were in the process of shopping, since such questions were seen as “irrelevant.”

We almost certainly wouldn’t be having this conversation about omotenashi if it weren’t for the speech by French-Japanese TV announcer Christel Takigawa to the 125th Session of the International Olympic Committee in Buenos Aires on Sept. 8, 2013. Using a dazzling smile and graceful gestures, Takigawa precisely spelled out O-MO-TE-NA-SHI as the core attribute of Japan’s legendary hospitality, and won the day, so to speak. Tokyo was picked to host the 2020 Olympic Games.

“You know, it’s widely believed that Tokyo won the bid way before her speech anyway, largely by default, because of issues with the other candidates,” Chicago-born TV personality Dave Spector — who was interviewed in the aforementioned Nikkei Business article — remarked in an email. “She could have just read from the phone book and it wouldn’t have mattered much. Still, I think it was brilliant to feature omotenashi, as well as her well-rehearsed hand gestures added for emphasis.”

Did Takigawa’s successful presentation put omotenashi — a somewhat obscure term prior to that episode — on the travel map, so to speak?

“Absolutely,” Spector says. “I wish I had a ¥5 coin for every time I heard it used from that time.

“I do see Takigawa from time to time and kid her about omotenashi by scolding her, saying: ‘Look at what you’ve done! Now we all have to behave ourselves!'”

Spector’s also convinced that everyone accepts that the soaring numbers of foreign tourists are not only invigorating businesses, but are even helping save some from failure.

“What’s more,” he says, “that’s been happening for the last few years, and has nothing to do with the Olympics. In fact, Olympics are known for not attracting more tourists; people stay away unless they have a connection to the athletes or sports in general.”

Like virtually every other business, the hospitality industry is facing a labor shortage. The lead article atop page 1 in the Nihon Keizai Shimbun (Jan. 13) noted that dependence on foreign workers in Japan’s service sector increased fourfold over the previous four years, accounting for as much as 3.7 percent of the workers in such occupations as waste recycling and security services, and more than 3 percent in hotels and restaurants. As Japan’s service sector goes global, what’s in store for its hallowed traditions?

Spector also wonders if most tourists (Asian or otherwise) are even familiar with the term omotenashi.

“They enjoy visiting Japan because of the excellent service and kindness,” Spector says. “That’s always what gets mentioned — attentive service and politeness. Even the crudest lowbrow tourist can figure that out. Well-moneyed super-rich types like to spend their money at exclusive high-end stores in Ginza, etc., primarily because the shops are trustworthy and you never run into an attitude problem. Linked to all these, of course, is the overall safety factor of low crime.”

The media has mostly taken a positive stance on the omotenashi issue. For instance, on Jan. 30, the “Asa-chan” program on TBS and affiliates broadcast a list of the 10 most popular restaurants in Japan, based on a survey of visitors from overseas.

While awkwardly wielding her chopsticks, a visitor from Europe raved over succulent wagyu beef steak. At an Italian restaurant in Nara, the Japanese proprietor emerged from the kitchen to shake hands with his foreign customers, apologetically telling them he couldn’t speak English. Not that any of the diners seemed to care.

Later the same morning, however, TV news broadcast scenes from a mini-riot at the LCC terminal at Narita Airport, when some 170 Chinese — enraged over the unannounced cancellation of their flight to Shanghai on the evening of Jan. 24 due to poor weather conditions — pushed and screamed at a phalanx of airport policemen. One man was placed under arrest during the brawl.

Two days after the incident, the South China Morning Post reported that the man was still being treated to Japanese penal omotenashi.

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