Whenever you are about to travel to a foreign country, you probably wonder how you'll be welcomed. With warm smiles and assistance or cold eyes and barely any kind words? When it comes to Japan, travelers are quite unanimous, the Japanese people have a wonderful sense of hospitality, and that is called "omotenashi" in Japanese.
When it comes to tourists, the civility and friendliness of Japanese people is one great part of the unforgettable experience that is Japan. It all goes back to the root of Japanese hospitality, a concept called omotenashi.
Japanese people are praised for their politeness and thoughtfulness by tourists from all over the world. Bad experiences are rare and most often come from an unfortunate misunderstanding as the cultural and language barrier can be quite high. Japan is without a doubt a welcoming country and people will try to help if you’re in trouble. Well, for us foreigners who live on a more permanent basis, we’ll get to notice small nuances, such as southern Japan is more welcoming than the northern part, and Osaka is probably more fun than Tokyo.
Japanese people are compulsively, touchingly, Almost painfully kind and welcoming to foreigners.
~ Richard Lloyd Parry – ‘Japan: Three Cities’
Omotenashi is (so much) more than Japanese hospitality.
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 the first time I’ve experienced Japanese omotenashi was in France, aboard my plane for Tokyo.
My friend and I arrived too late for our check-in. As a result, we were assigned separate seats. As soon as our situation was explained to our Japanese neighbors, a motion was launched. Our story was shared around so quickly and so well, that within 5 minutes, we could sat next to each other in another part of the plane. Some Japanese ladies had agreed on moving around so we could be together.
Smile, smile, smile.
At our arrival at Narita Airport, we were shocked by the smiling faces around us and the airline employees welcoming us at the entrance. Not that people don’t smile in France, but the contrast with our gloomy CDG airport (one of the worst in the world) is strong.
Are you lost?
We were lost at the airport bus stops and young salarymen tried to help us. Despite their poor English, they did their best. Ultimately, one of them ran to get an airport staff to come to our help. The young woman, bright and smiling, cheered us and lead us to the train station, a much wiser choice to reach central Tokyo. She waved and wished us to have a good journey.
We lost our way more than once during our trip but each time, strangers came to our help. Even though most of them had no or poor English abilities, even if they were in a rush, they still stopped and asked us if we needed help to find our way back.
One particular time, we had taken the wrong exit at Akihabara Station and were struggling to find the path to where we needed to go to. A man on his way back to work noticed our distressed look and greeted us. He was on his bicycle and parked it in front of his company. I don’t know what he told his colleagues, but he pointed toward us and indicated that he was coming to help us. He was smiling and thanks to my Learn Japanese Easy book, filled with basic translations, we somehow communicated.
He was very talkative and in a broken English, he talked about Paris, his son (a student) and as we reached the station, he handed out his phone number with a wink.
As we visited a small museum near Ueno park, we received gifts from the counter staff. No doubt they do so for all the visitors checking this museum out, but it was done with such particular care and kindness that somehow, you felt like a very special guest.
The Mount Fuji
In our plans, there was the crazy idea to climb Mount Fuji in 1 day – which we did. On our way, lots of Japanese came to talk to us. They’d ask why we’re in Japan, how old we are, how do we like Japan so far, if we had any problem and so on. An old couple ate lunch with us, shared some cookies while telling us stories of another time.
When the climb got a little bit harder and we ended up almost climbing onto big rocks, a group of young male students gave us a hand. Surely, the fact that we were 2 young girls, French, was probably an invitation to play the heroes. They didn’t speak a single word of English, but we laughed together. Gestures and body language are enough.
This was to be expected, considering how little we prepared for the Mount Fuji, but we got lost. Again. However, various groups of climbers took the time to tell us on which path we were and which way we should head for.
In the end, but nightfall we had met with other lost people. They were Japanese and suggested we teamed up to go to the station.
So we had taken the opposite mountain path and at the station, people called a taxi for us. While we waited inside the station little ramen shop, the locals cheered us up and laughed (with us, not at our expense) with our adventures. “Foreigners got lost on the mountain!”.
An evening in Kyoto. The girls from our guest house were nice and we hit it up quite nicely. They told us to join them for an evening at this local cosy bar, hidden from the main roads. This kind of bar, you know, where popular and cool students hang out. Although we were minors, from a Japanese legal standpoint, we were warmly welcomed, and everyone wanted to talk with us.
We felt the same friendly atmosphere in Hiroshima where people were particularly kind and peaceful. Our guest house had this “you’re coming back home” kind of feeling. The place was run by a couple who patiently shared a word with each host and spend the nice with those who stayed in the kitchen.
What omotenashi is about?
I came back to Japan in 2012 and again, was lucky to meet so many nice Japanese people again. Back then, I spoke a little Japanese and had a better understanding of the culture thanks to my Japanese boyfriend. I discovered that the concept of omotenashi was the back bone of the hospitality industry in Japan.
The Japanese word omotenashi comes from omote (area) and nashi (less), which can mean “single-hearted. Another possible approach is mote (to carry) and nashi (to accomplish) in which case, omotenashi would mean “to achieve”.
Omotenashi appears to have two interpretations, all which come down to offering a service without expecting anything in return. The English words “service” or “hospitality” aren’t entirely accurate to transcribe what omotenashi means. Service somehow suggest a hierarchy between the one who serve and a customer, so a business relationship, although omotenashi has deeper roots than business. Hospitality, which broadly means to satisfy a customer, to make him happy, would be closer to the true meaning of omotenashi. However, omotenashi is done without consciously having the aim to satisfy someone. It goes deeper into the human consciousness.
Living in Japan, I realize that omotenashi isn’t always entirely true.
In 2013 I came back to settle for a more permanent situation. Not being a tourist but a resident this time wasn’t an easy transition. I needed to learn more, to adapt and to communicate better. I realized that, yeah, like in every country, you’ll meet friendly and not so friendly people. Japanese people are certainly quite polite, but not always. And bonding with them is a tough cookie! I wanted more than the mere omotenashi, which although very nice, stops at the surface of things. But it took me years to build friendly relationships that are more meaningful than juste smiles and polite conversations about the weather. Surely, learning Japanese helped a lot!