What is Japanese “Omotenashi”?

Posted by on September 30, 2015 – Japanese Study

Have you heard this word before? Omotenashi defines Japanese hospitality. But its meaning goes way deeper than the way of providing hospitality. The noun means “to entertain guests wholeheartedly”.

One only needs to reside in Japan for a short time to realize just how much attention to detail is paid across many sectors of the service industry. Remember the Japanese proverb 「お客様きゃくさま神様かみさま」. The customer is aways right. Although many translate this proverb more literally as “the customer is god”. Indeed, it seems more a propos to the omotenashi sentiment. The extent of this sentiment is highlighted in the service industry, when the sales associates address the customer by adding the honorific “O” and “-sama” to the beginning and end of kyaku (customer) respectively.

You will experience omotenashi everyday in Japan. A taxi driver automatically opens and closes the door for her passengers. A toothpick nicely wedged between the indentation of a pair of wooden chopsticks. Even the umbrella and bag holders placed within hand’s reach at a Japanese ATM. The cleaners of the Shinkansen, bowing to the passengers as they rush to clean the cars is also a famous expression of omotenashi.

Visiting a Japanese department store opening in the morning is a ceremonial experience displaying omotenashi at its finest. Every staff bows as you enter. The Japanese sense of hospitality is exemplified by a deeply rooted pride and effort in welcoming visitors to one’s business. Many historians trace the roots of omotenashi all the way back to the traditional Japanese tea ceremony.

The word is most often written in hiragana because there are several ways of writing it with kanji. On one hand  omote would derive from the 表 character referring to a surface or carrying of something, while the 成 character consists of the meanings less or to accomplish something.  Therefore, if the Japanese exhibit exquisite omotenashi, they are expected to provide a service without expecting anything in return. On the other hand, omotenashi would come from the verb “motsu”, 「つ」,  “to have”: 「おし」.

– Thank you for your kind hospitality.

– Thank you very much for your hearty hospitality.

Finally, among the aspects that defines omotenashi, selflessness and anticipation are easy to highlight. The concept is all about offering the best service without the expectation of a reward. You abandon your interest for the benefit of your guest or your customer. That explains why in Japan, the culture of tipping is not the norm. Last but not least, a core idea of omotenashi is to anticipate the needs of your guest. One of the best example is the water and the hot towel brought to you as you take your seat in a restaurant.