About to travel abroad and always one big question : how will I be welcomed ? The Japanese are often praised for their education and politeness, and the rare bad experiences are often consequences of an unfortunate misunderstanding. Japan is undoubtedly a warm country, where people will assist you in any problems. Well, it appears to gaijins on a long stay that Japanese attitude will change – and South is often thought more welcoming than North, Osaka is more friendly than Tokyo. But for tourists, civility and friendliness of Japanese are part of this unforgettable experience that is Japan. This hospitality is even a concept – omotenashi – be kind to others. I dedicate this article to all those Japanese who have reached out to me.
“Japanese people are compulsively, touchingly, Almost painfully kind and welcoming to foreigners”
~ Richard Lloyd Parry – ‘Japan: Three Cities’
The first time I set foot in Japan, I was just 19, stars in my eyes and a “Learn Japanese easily” book in my hand. That was in 2007, but I discovered the kindess of Japanese people, before I even left France.
My first encounter with Japanese? On the plane at Roissy. My friend and I, arrived too late to check-in. We had been assigned separated seats. As soon as our situation was exposed to our Japanese neighbors, a motion was launched. Everyone passed the word, so quickly and so well, that we were arranged seats side by side, and doomed by stewardesses (I still sympathize with their cause!). The shy young me was so impressed by this kindness and assistance.
The arrival at Narita, with employees expecting you, smiling was another shock, I was accustomed to the gloomy moods of CDG (living hell on earth).
Lost at the bus stop, young salarymen tried to figure out where we wanted to go, then, limited by their English, fetched a receptionist. The woman, shining with good mood, guided us to the train station, and wished us a good stay.
Repeatedly lost in Tokyo, we were guided by perfect stranger (s), who often did not speak a word of English, sometimes losing more than ten minutes trying to help us.
In a small museum near Ueno, employees gave us gifts – no doubt they do for all tourists who passed by this little dusty place, but it remains a good memory.
I remember, we were lost after taking the wrong exit of Akihabara Station, in the middle of nowhere. A man coming on his bike – returning to his work, called us on the way. He parked his nike in front of the small company where he was employed, and greeted his colleagues, pointing at us. He met us with a smile, and with the help of our guidebook – filled with signs and Japanese translations, understood where we wanted to go.
He led us in a less known Akihabara, showing us things, spoke of Paris – he had been there several times, about his son – a student, and then smiling, he gave his phone number before leaving us in front of a store of sexy cosplay. It was his way to joke, a bit naughty perhaps, but he was charming throughout.
We climbed Mount Fuji – a fantastic story to develop later, and on our way, many Japanese came to talk to us.
Why are you in Japan? How old are you? How do you like our country? Have you had problems? Want to share some tea? Take this, we insist.
An old couple ate lunch with us, gave us cookies and shared, in this incredible moutain landscape, some stories. Time to catch our breath for the several hours climbing. When things got harder, and when instead of slope, we had rock climbing, a group of students helped us. Again there might have been a little interest from those young Japanese guys, for us, French (damned) exotic woman. They did not speak a word of English – or pretended not to, but we managed to laugh together – clowning is probably a universal communication. I look back and I regret not having kept in touch.
This adventure could have ended badly – we got lost on that damn volcano. And on our way back, several groups of climbers took the time and trouble to tell us where to go, to give us drink.
As night fall down, we met a group of Japanese lost as we were. And together we found our way back, talking in broken English. We were far from our starting point, and it’s in a little ramen shop that we waited for the taxi – called by the locals. It was run by a very old woman and her son, and they treated us with respect, while laughing at our adventure: ” gaijins got lost on the mountain! “.
In Nagoya, turning around to find our hotel in, a hurrying young woman took the time to call a cab, and explained our direction. It was not that far, but we had looked for it for over one hour.
In Kyoto, we landed one evening in a cosy bar a bit hidden, with girls from our guest house, the kind of place where popular students hang out. Again, we were welcomed – while we did not have the legal age – with kindness and curiosity. Everyone wanted to talk with us, joke with us, ask why we were in Japan.
In Hiroshima, with its special atmosphere of peace and tolerance, people are wonderful. This city burned by History’s darkest times, was reconstructed in a pacifist ideology and that is probably why you are so warmly welcomed. The guesthouse looked like coming ‘home’. Run by a couple who had a word for each host, we spent a really nice night.
Sometimes the web is laughing a little at Japanese expense – so polite they greet even objects! – But I think in terms of politeness they have much to teach the world.
And then, I came back in 2012. I met more nice people. I discovered that the omotenashi concept is the source of all services in Japan.
Finally I settled in Tokyo in 2013. It was not always easy. Adaptation, communication in another language is a tough cookie.
Sometimes, Japanese are not so friendly, more like very polite, but they do not bond. When you are settling you wish to get “more”. Alas, I’m not a “tourist”, I’m not the one we welcome – and wish goodbye, but the one that – somehow – has to prove himself by learning local Japanese ways. I can not express it, without doubt, it is in an unconscious attitude …
During my few trips – Fukuoka, Karatsu, Okinawa, Kyoto, Nara, Nagoya, Ena, Iwamura … – I have always crossed the path of nice people who didn’t hesitate to help me.
And what about koban police officers? Ready to assist a gaijin panicking to see a kitten stuck on a balcony ? Yes, yes, yes.
A year later, more and more Japanese people have shown me – and I felt it very recently – curiosity and kindness. Old people talk to me in the street, cashiers ask me about my bag or my purse – as of today, I mentioned having bought it in Nagoya, and she answered she was born there. Great opportunity to express my admiration for this city. Clerks ask me if I live here, and congrat me on my level of Japanese (yes, I know that this is part of their job, but for months not a word more than necessary). Somehow I have the feeling, “Hey! “I finally, this country is adopting me !”.
“The word ‘Omotenashi‘ in Japanese comes from Omote (area) and nashi (less) All which means” single-hearted, “and aussi mote (carry) and nashi (Accomplish) All which means” to achieve “. Therefore, Omotenashi Has Two meanings, All which include Offering a service sans expectation of Any returned no Favour, and the Ability to update idea Into That year action. ‘Service’ is a term in English That is more Likely to Suggest a hierarchy betweens server and customer, and Suggests a business relationship. ‘Hospitality’ in English means clustering to make one happy, or to serve one. ‘Omotenashi’ has a similar Meaning, aim it Suggests deeper portion of the human consciousness. “