Notes on Hosting: Japan Invites The World

Japan is in the midst of a big twelve months. The Rugby World Cup? Just a warm-up. The 2020 Tokyo Olympics will see visitors from every nation on Earth arriving in this most mysterious of countries. Japan is hosting the world – what can guests expect?

Sure, expect the bright lights of Shinjuku, the centuries-old temples, and a whole range of brilliant (and sometimes weird) delicacies. But above all, expect a unique approach to hospitality… Omotenashi.

What on Earth is Omotenashi?

Omotenashi is the Japanese approach to hospitality and service.

  • ‘Omote’ means ‘the public face’: the image one may wish to present to others.
  • ‘Nashi’ means ‘nothing’.

Combined, it represents a service where there is nothing hidden, no secrets, honesty.

Where did Omotenashi begin?

geisha public face

The Japanese trace the origins of omotenashi to 16th-century tea master Sen no Rikyū, and his chakai (tea ceremony). Each chakai was considered a once-in-a-lifetime experience, so it had to be prepared and performed with the utmost care and attention.

The tea masters performed the ceremony right in front of their guests, demonstrating that nothing is hidden. But more than anything the ‘service’ had to genuine, honest. Sen no Rikyū had a poem to sum up omotenashi:

“Though you wipe your hands and brush off the dust and dirt from the vessels, what is the use of all this fuss if the heart is still impure?”

Sen no Rikyū

What does this mean today?

sushi restaurant

The concept of omotenashi is pervasive in Japan. It’s why in many restaurants the chefs prepare food right before you, or why the train conductors bow to every carriage.

Interestingly, it’s also why tipping is considered strange – rude, even. Service in the West is a transaction (extra money for good service). But as a result the friendly smiles and ‘have a great day!’ can seem a little fake.

If you’re truly performing omotenashi, then the service should be without reward. Otherwise it’s not as ‘honest, nothing hidden’ as it appears. Tipping may call sincerity into question.

Is it all good?

Omotenashi is uniquely Japanese. Foreign visitors have found elements of the concept uncomfortable or – ironically – dishonest. Some visitors just want to be left alone to enjoy their meals or shopping. Certain ryokans have even stopped the tradition of lining up outside to greet guests as a result of feedback and changing tastes.

One thing’s for sure though, people need to discover omotenashi and Japan for themselves – hundreds of thousands are about to do exactly that.


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