Omotenashi isn't the point

Good morning everyone,

These cool mornings and warm middays will continue for a while...have I mentioned recently how much I love fall in Hiroshima? If I haven't, rest assured that it is, by far, my favorite season in Hiroshima. Unfortunately, the downside is that it's followed by winter, which is my least favorite. It's always so damp here in the winter...I know it doesn't get that cold, but there's just something about the coldness here that makes it way more uncomfortable than the winters back home...

Anyway, we're still a couple of months away from worrying about that, so we can cross that bridge when we come to it...

I might have to split today's blog into two parts because there are so many different things I'd like to talk about and there's just not enough time or space to squeeze it all into one blog...actually the more I think about it, the more likely it may turn into more than two blogs.

It's about 'omotenashii'. Do you remember it? It was one of the buzzwords that was used by the Japan Olympic Committee during its presentation and caught on back here in Japan and now it's everywhere. Omotenashi is not something Japanese should brag over. There’s something arrogant about the idea that one’s hospitality is superior to another’s, which was the message implicit in the Olympic bid campaign.

Last January, the economic magazine Toyo Keizai interviewed Mohamed Omer Abdin, a Sudanese who works at the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies. In the piece, Abdin calls omotenashi “Japanese snobbery.” He isn’t talking about the over-the-top service offered by hotel and restaurant staff, but rather the high-minded attitude contained in the word. He cites an NHK survey from 2013 that found 67 percent of respondents thought “Japanese people possess excellent characters compared to other countries.” He found this self-praise contradictory, given that the ostensible reason for omotenashi is to treat guests in a special way, but the survey suggests that the respondents “reject the good features of other countries.”

The usual reaction to such comments is that because the person is not Japanese he or she doesn’t fully understand the situation, which is often true but that doesn't work in this case. If the individual who is receiving the benefits of omotenashi finds them not beneficial, then something must be wrong. In omotenashi, the giver of hospitality knows what is best for the guest and does not consider alternatives. The wishes of the guest are not important, because the idea is to provide “service even when it isn’t asked for.”

This is the problem with omotenashi, whose tenet is not that the customer is always right, but rather that the service provider knows what’s best for the customer. This way of thinking extends to Japanese craftsmanship, manufacturing and even to some traditional pastimes, like the tea ceremony, which is not about the guest, but rather about the host. The guest’s role is to “appreciate the host’s fine taste.” What the guest wants is unimportant. While this may mean 'good service' in Japan, it doesn't always translate as good service in other cultures.

What do you think? Do you think I'm off my rocker? Am I being a whiner? Or is there something to my feeling that somehow the real point of 'omotenashi' has got lost?

I know this blog feels only half-done...because it is...but there's a lot to swallow in this one, so you'll have to wait till the next blog and maybe the one after that for me to clear it all up...

Have a great day!

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