“Customer is King” is the slogan of every business. The sentence does not originate from Japan, but it profoundly runs in Japanese customer service in the form of omotenashi.
What is Omotenashi?
The word omotenashi spread globally after Christel Takigawa said it in 2013 when promoting Japan to be the Olympic 2020 host. The closest word in English to omotenashi is hospitality, but it's not quite the same. There’s more to omotenashi than hospitality or customer service.
Omotenashi is a Japanese concept of welcoming and caring for guests with warmth, graciousness, and attentiveness. Some people define omotenashi as “wholehearted hospitality”, “selfless service”, and such. Key elements of omotenashi are paying attention to the small details, anticipating the needs of others, and going above and beyond to meet them.
Omotenashi is a deeply ingrained part of Japanese culture and can be seen in everything from how hotels, restaurants, and shops treat their customers. It is about creating a comfortable and enjoyable experience for the guest without waiting for them to ask or expecting anything in return. Although omotenashi is common in the service industry, it can be practiced by everyone when inviting others to their home, hosting a party, and such.
Omotenashi in Japanese Tea Ceremony
Omotenashi is also an essential part of the Japanese tea ceremony (茶道 - sadō/chadō), which is a traditional ritual in which tea is prepared and served to a small group of guests. In the tea ceremony, omotenashi is demonstrated through the host's attention to detail and efforts to create a welcoming and harmonious atmosphere for the guests. This includes things like the careful preparation of the tea, the selection of the utensils and cups, the overall ambiance of the tea room, and the host's demeanor.
Tea master during tea ceremony
Omotenashi comes from omote-ura nashi, literally meaning there is no front or back. This definition applies in tea ceremonies where the host does everything in front of the guests, including cleaning the utensils and tools and preparing the tea. It means to prove that the host honestly serves their guests, not pretending or hiding anything.
The tea ceremony and omotenashi are the legacy of Sen no Rikyuu (1522-1591), the great tea master in Japan. He taught the “ichigo ichie” or “once in a lifetime experience” principle. According to him, the tea ceremony should be done to the extent of a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The host must prepare everything wholeheartedly and tend the guests to their absolute best. In return, the guests must also appreciate the tea, the utensils used, the host’s effort, and the overall meeting with sincerity.
Omotenashi in Daily Life
Omotenashi not only exists in Japanese tea ceremonies or service industry but in every business in Japan. Even if it's a bookstore or hardware store, the staff are trained to practice omotenashi.
Here is some example of omotenashi you can find daily:
Servers and store attendants greet every customer with loud and cheerful いらっしゃいませ! (irasshaimase), which can be translated as welcome or please come in. Customers are not expected to reply or react with anything.
When you enter a restaurant and sit down, you will immediately get a neatly rolled wet towel to wipe your hand and freshen up. The wet towel can be warm or cool, depending on the weather. The towel would be warm on a cold day, and vice versa.
The grocery store cashiers put ice on the fresh items, such as meat, you bought to keep them fresh.
The store cashiers wrap every purchase neatly. If it's fragile, they will give extra measures. If it’s heavy, they may tape a soft foam wrap so your hand won’t hurt when carrying it.
The store staff will give you a plastic bag to cover your purchase if it's raining outside.
Taxi drivers open and close doors automatically for their customers.
Store attendants bow and thank customers when they leave.
Wet towel in a restaurant
You will find many more occurrences of omotenashi if you visit Japan. One thing about omotenashi is it is often subtle and sometimes goes unnoticed. Japanese people don’t like confrontation and making others uncomfortable by it, so they quietly do something for your comfort and convenience. Omotenashi will leave you pleasantly surprised and wonder how the staff notice and think of it.
The Difference between Omotenashi and Western-Style Service
Omotenashi and western-style hospitality both involve making guests feel welcomed and comfortable, but there are some key differences between the two. Omotenashi emphasizes anticipating the guest's needs and going above and beyond to make them feel comfortable even before they say something. It involves paying close attention to small details and ensuring everything is right for the guests.
In western-style hospitality, the focus is often more on meeting the guests' needs in a prompt and efficient manner. While western-style hospitality can also involve going above and beyond to make guests feel comfortable, the emphasis is more on meeting their needs and providing them with excellent service, rather than on creating a sense of peace and tranquility for the guests.
Another difference between omotenashi and western-style hospitality is the role of the host or server. In Japan, the host or server is expected to be selfless and put the guests' needs before their own. They are also expected to be attentive and anticipate the guests' needs rather than simply reacting to requests. In western-style hospitality, the emphasis is often more on the professionalism and efficiency of the host or server.
One thing that is entirely different between these two styles is the tipping culture. Guests are expected to tip when they receive good hospitality as a token of appreciation. In Japan, tipping is not common. In fact, it can be seen as rude. All kinds of services in Japan include a service fee, so you shouldn’t pay more than the price. If you feel extra cared for, it’s omotenashi for you.
How to Appreciate Omotenashi
What you can do to respond to omotenashi is to be respectful toward service workers. Smiling and thanking them back for their care is enough. You can compliment, but don’t flatter. If you want to praise them more, tell good reviews to others so more customers will come.
Being respectful also includes following all the rules meant for your sake. For example, you will be asked not to wear strong perfume in tea ceremonies and some sushi restaurants so as not to interfere with the taste and aroma of the food. Another example is being on time for your reservation or even a few minutes early.
In today's fast-paced, impersonal world, omotenashi can be a refreshing reminder of the value of genuine human connection and kindness. Whether you are a hotelier, a restaurant owner, or simply someone who enjoys entertaining at home, the principles of omotenashi can help you create a warm and welcoming atmosphere that will be appreciated by all who enter your space.