The Japanese people are proud of their country and culture. One of the top things they take pride in is ‘omotenashi’ (おもてなし). This is a Japanese concept that’s identified as ‘hospitality’. It’s deeply ingrained in Japanese culture and it’s something the rest of the world looks up to Japan for. 

This top quality customer service and overall hospitality is prominent in all aspects of the culture. You’ll definitely experience it when you travel here. If you’re planning to work in Japan, especially in the customer service line, you would also be expected to adopt omotenashi. You’ve come to the right place if you don’t know exactly what it is. In this article, we’ll cover the definition of omotenashi, how it came about and how it’s different from regular customer serivice!

What is omotenashi?

As we mentioned earlier, omotenashi refers to Japanese hospitality. This word became popular when it was used in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics candidate speech. Omotenashi is extremely prominent in customer service where staff pay extensive attention to detail and be at the beck and call of guests’ needs. 

One simple example is shop workers bowing to customers as they walk in or out of a store to thank them for coming to the store. Even if they didn’t buy anything, it’s part of Japanese culture to show the utmost level of respect and politeness to customers. 

However, the translation to ‘hospitality’ is such a loose translation as its meaning runs far deeper. Omotenashi is not just hospitality and impeccable customer service – it’s a way of life of the Japanese people. You’re focused on providing the best, regardless of what the situation is. This form of Japanese language is one that’s highly respected and abided by by all locals. 

The origins of omotenashi

So, when did this concept of omotenashi come into existence? It is said that the grandfather of Japanese tea ceremony, Sen no Rikyū (1522-1591), was the one that established this Japanese hospitality. The great tea master started the tradition of chado (茶道), which translates to “tea ceremony”. In a tea ceremony, every experience is “ichigo ichie” (一期一会), to mean “once in a lifetime experience”. He said: 

“Because life is full of uncertainty, one must engrave in his heart the events of the day as if there is no tomorrow. Today’s tea ceremony is a once in a lifetime experience, and one, along with his guests, must wholeheartedly approach the meeting with sincerity.”

Sincerity for the host is going through immense preparation so that the guests can have the most memorable experience possible. Preparation can take up to a year to prepare for a single tea ceremony. Flowers are picked properly, and so are the tea set, hanging scrolls and confections to match with seasons and guest preferences. If these parts aren’t perfect, the host will search high and low until they find the perfect match. Most tea masters agree that while this is the most difficult aspect, it’s also the most creative and interesting part of the process.

Omotenashi in the tea ceremony doesn’t stop there. Preparation of the tea in front of guests is also crucial. This involves cleaning cups performed in a ceremonial way to show their honesty and transparency. 

One of the roots of the word “omotenashi” is the phrase “omote-ura nashi”. This can be literally translated to “there is no front or back”. This means that guests are provided with genuine hospitality from the heart. Another root of the word is from a phrase that means “to accomplish through both conceptual and physical objects.” This combination, of decoration and intention, provides the best set up for the guests. 

Now in the present day, omotenashi is present in life encounters. Everything from customers treating guests to how one invites a guest to their home and how business partners treat each other. 

Omotenashi vs service 

Outside of Japan, service refers to the relationship between the service provider and the customer. It’s like a transaction between two parties, sometimes involving service fees and monetary returns. 

Japanese omotenashi is nothing like that. Service elsewhere is expected to get something in return. Omotenashi is done without expecting anything in return. It’s genuine from the soul. Japanese people are not providing Japanese hospitality for tips or charges. 

Another difference is that omotenashi is sometimes not as visible as service. It can frequently be intangible. It’s similar in the things done as it is in the things not done. For example, omotenashi needs no recognition. Service outside of Japan might be a topic raised to the customer to remind them they are getting customer service, whereas in Japanese hospitality, it’s the opposite. It’s best to not mention it blatantly, or at all. 

More to omotenashi

Omotenashi doesn’t just stop at customer service. It extends way past that. The wet towel you get when you enter a restaurant is part of that. That toothpick packaged together with that disposable chopsticks is also part of omotenashi. When a worker slips an ice pack into the box they’ve packed your cake with, that’s also part of omotenashi. 

Even the smallest of actions that would usually go unnoticed are part of omotenashi. Sometimes you would have to really look for it to figure out what is considered Japanese hospitality or not!

Don’t be surprised by Japanese hospitality! 

When you come to Japan for the first time, don’t be surprised if you are on the receiving end of omotenashi. Don’t think you need to tip the worker. They’re doing all of that because it’s part of their culture, and they’re happy to do it. All you can do is treat them with the same respect they give you. Omotenashi is beautiful, and you can only truly feel its beauty when you experience it.