Refining Hospitality: “Omotenashi” and Foreign Visitors to Japan


Japan is opening its doors wide to foreign travelers, with the aim of welcoming 40 million international tourists annually by 2020. Yet many visitors from religiously diverse Southeast Asia can stumble into the shadows of the nation’s widely touted hospitality. A journalist reflects on the state and true meaning of Japanese omotenashi.

A while back I took some Indonesian friends visiting Japan out for steaks. We went to a popular izakaya under the tracks near Tokyo’s Yūrakuchō Station, a place bustling with foreign tourists and businessmen, that offered reasonably priced fare. We expected a pleasant evening but wound up experiencing a shockingly different side of Japan’s famed hospitality.

After entering the restaurant we tried in vain to flag down one of the waiting staff, and out of necessity—one person in our party had walking difficulties—we sat down at the nearest empty table. Once seated, though, our most ardent attempts to hail a server were ignored. Frustrated, I pressed a young waiter for an explanation, to which he curtly replied that the table had been promised to different customers and our group should have asked before sitting down. This seemed an odd excuse as we had noticed several Japanese customers walking in and seating themselves during the short time we had been there.

When I translated the waiter’s comments, my companions stormed out, vowing never to set foot in the shop again. The incident was striking to me for the blatantly callous attitude the staff showed toward non-Japanese-speaking foreigners.

Two Faces of Hospitality

Omotenashi, a term signifying warm hospitality, has become a buzzword in the government’s ongoing campaign to woo tourists. But as the above story illustrates, this much-touted brand of heartfelt service can at times be sorely lacking. Visitors on the whole are apt to meet with genuine conviviality, but in certain circumstances they may be confronted with raw inconsideration. While escorting two separate groups of Indonesian government officials around Japan last autumn, we saw such contrasting approaches to service we were left wondering which most accurately represents the true face of Japanese hospitality.

The itinerary of the first group took us to Osaka, Kyoto, Nagoya, and Tokyo. While touring Kyoto we stayed at a top-class hotel boasting a multilingual, international staff. The hospitality was exemplary, but there was one incident that gave me pause. A member of our group admired one of the fixtures in their room, and one evening around 10:00 I inquired at the front desk if it would be possible to purchase it. The young Japanese clerk on duty responded in surprise, asserting that no guest had ever made such a request and that the item was not for sale. I persisted, but the clerk deferred, saying that there was no one on duty who could make the decision. He promised to get back to me the next day, but this would not do as we were scheduled to check out early the following morning.

Drawn by the commotion, a senior staff member took control of the situation and very politely asked us to wait in our rooms while they checked if the fixture could be sold. A half hour later they offered to sell the piece at the purchase price. This incident reminded me of something an acquaintance of mine who managed the Bali Imperial Hotel often said: “Service is giving the customers what they want when they want it, or working out the next best thing when you can’t.” I couldn’t help but feel the Kyoto hotel had forgotten this fundamental rule.

Leaving Kyoto behind, we headed to Tokyo, where our stay at the Hotel Okura was the pinnacle of omotenashi. The hotel’s commitment to extend the highest level of service to each and every guest was apparent from the moment we checked in. The manager and surrounding staff swiftly recognized the group’s status as Indonesian VIPs and provided seamless security and service without once impinging on our comfort or humor.

More than Service

One of the hottest stop-offs for Indonesian tourists to Japan is an outlet mall in Gotenba, Shizuoka Prefecture. The shopping center, which boasts a wide selection of premium brands along with a stunning view of nearby Mount Fuji, has introduced a variety of services tailored for visitors from the predominantly Muslim nation, including Indonesian-speaking staff and halal choices at on-site restaurants.

During a trip to the mall with several Indonesian colleagues, we received impressive care indeed from the staff of an Italian eatery. We had decided to grab a quick bite after a busy afternoon browsing the stores, and despite the mealtime crowds we were immediately seated. When our meal was brought, however, our server recognized that my companions were Muslim and quickly and courteously informed them that one of the dishes contained pork. After a profuse outpouring of gratitude for the revelation my colleagues decided on a different, more expensive plate. (Not bound by halal, I enjoyed the dish instead of returning it to the kitchen.)

While Japanese are gradually becoming more aware of halal, there is still room for greater mindfulness in observing the culinary requirements of Muslim visitors. This was painfully illustrated to me during a Japan Airlines flight from Jakarta to Tokyo’s Narita Airport last spring. An Indonesia woman in a hijab head covering was enjoying an omelet for breakfast when a sudden look of concern crossed her face. The menu described the meal as a “bacon omelet,” but being Muslim she would have presumably requested a pork-free version prior to boarding. Wishing to double check the ingredients, she hailed a passing cabin attendant who unequivocally stated that the dish was made with bacon. This revelation caused other Indonesians in nearby seats to stir uncomfortably, and feeling something needed to be done I called for the flight purser. After checking with the head of catering, the purser confirmed that the omelet was in fact made with beef and apologized for the misunderstanding.

Later, I emailed an acquaintance who had previously worked in JAL’s PR office to ask about the incident. The response noted that the airline was looking into the case and working to bolster training procedures for cabin attendants so as to prevent a recurrence. It seems reasonable that cabin attendants would confirm meal selections on flights with numerous Muslim passengers, so for me the episode reflected a basic lack of understanding, rather than a misstep in observing omotenashi. By comparison, rival carrier All Nippon Airways has declared the menus of all flights from Jakarta to be “pork free,” illustrating clear thought and concern for Muslim customers.

The Heart of Hospitality

Japan is enjoying a boom in tourism. On January 10 this year, Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism Minister Ishii Keiichi announced that the country hosted a record 24 million international visitors in 2016. Buoyed by this success, the government is laying the groundwork to welcome 40 million overseas visitors in 2020, when Tokyo hosts the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Measures include opening up the home-sharing market, adding English to road signs, introducing easy to understand symbols for street maps, and easing requirements for travel visas.

Ask Indonesians about visiting Japan and their answers are likely to be surprisingly down to earth. They do not expect an aggrandized level of service and will be the first to admit that they anticipate hitting a few bumps. But that is part of the fun. They come to Japan assured that people are helpful and polite and that English is understood broadly enough to make traveling through the country relatively easy. I believe that such practical expectations mesh superbly with the care and consideration that form the backbone of omotenashi.

Hoping for a Mindful Approach

While I was showing a group of Indonesian colleagues around Nagoya’s famous Ōsu shopping district, we stopped at a locally known women’s apparel store. The clerk, an older lady, kindly bade our group to sit down, inquired where we hailed from, and expressed genuine interest in how hot it must be in Indonesia. As we spoke she politely invited us to stay as long as we liked and assured us there was no obligation to purchase anything. The experience impressed my companions and added to the enjoyment of a day out shopping.

However, another outing in Nagoya ended less amicably. I was escorting representatives from Indonesia’s Ministry of Transportation around the site where Mitsubishi Aircraft Corp. is manufacturing its MRJ passenger jet. During a briefing on the project, a young staff member was proudly explaining that Mitsubishi had built Japan’s famous Zero fighter when he carelessly let slip that Japan had “unfortunately” lost the war despite having such a superior plane. Thankfully the translator passed over the comment, but I was still incensed at the lack of consideration. The person must have been unaware that Indonesia was the site of fierce World War II fighting that took the lives of countless innocent people. When I pointed out the thoughtlessness of his words, the young staffer admitted he had misspoken but failed to explain what he had meant by the comment or even offer an apology to his Indonesian guests.

The incident reminded me that sincerity is a pillar of omotenashi. Japan has forged close relations with many Southeast Asia countries that once strained under its colonial yoke. It is not cheap for visitors from places such as Myanmar, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Thailand to book trips to Japan. We should welcome these guests with both open arms and minds and strive to understand and recognize the requirements of their religions to assure that they see the best that Japan has to offer.

(Originally published in Japanese on January 19, 2017. Banner photo © Aflo.)

tourism Indonesia Islam hospitality