‘Omotenashi’: An integral part of Japanese culture, but one that is not so easily defined
By Ryoko Ward & Melissa Francis
Tokyoesque are experts in Europe-Japan relations and provide clients with unique cultural insights that can be used to accelerate business growth across the globe. In this post, Tokyoesque discusses the Japanese concept of ‘omotenashi’ that seeks to delight locals and international visitors alike, and how it can be used as a promotional tool.
What exactly is omotenashi?
Whilst there is no clear, fixed definition of the word omotenashi, we can say that it broadly translates into English as ‘Japanese hospitality’. The term became better known outside Japan when Christel Takigawa, the Bid Ambassador for Tokyo 2020, described the concept during her speech to the International Olympic Committee for host city selection in 2016. In a Japan Today article, omotenashi has been described as “[involving] the subjugation of self in service to a guest, without being ‘servile’. Anticipating needs is at the heart of the concept; and it is certainly fair to say that in Japan, acting on others’ needs without being asked to do so is at the height of savvy.”
© zummolo / Adobe Stock Photos
One of the principles behind omotenashi is to make a good guess of the unspoken demands of your guests and act accordingly, in a manner that is both proactive yet discreet in order to satisfy those demands. The emphasis is more on providing pleasant guest experiences than on physical, material goods. Whether or not this is something that is unique only to Japanese, many citizens believe it shapes a significant part of what constitutes Japanese culture.
The ‘Omotenashi Association’ is a Japanese organisation committed to spreading omotenashi across Japan, teaching best practice in order to maintain universally high levels of satisfaction. In their words, omotenashi is “a traditional Japanese way of hospitality with the most dedicated and exquisite manners. It creates an ambiance of tranquility and relaxation where guests will experience unforgettable moments at ease.” The organisation also created the below visual to aid understanding of the core elements that are encapsulated within the concept (mastering skills, maintaining harmony, and bringing people together) — the untranslated statement in the diagram notes, “to unravel, entertain, and weave together, a unique worldview.”
Japanese services that use omotenashi principles
So what does omotenashi actually look like in practice? According to a survey among foreign visitors to Japan, one of the ways in which they feel connected to omotenashi most strongly is how they are treated at ryokan, traditional Japanese hotels. They experience omotenashi when a ryokan host comes to each room to welcome/politely greet them, or when a dinner set and futon are prepared neatly in their room for when they come back in the evening. As Japanese take pride in providing guests with this level of attentiveness, this might be why they believe the concept of omotenashi is particularly unique to their own culture.
This doesn’t mean, however, that omotenashi applies only within traditional Japanese scenarios. In fact, many Japanese customer service representatives incorporate omotenashi principles as a generally accepted rule. A typical example of this would be how staff at department stores treat their customers. At department stores, staff typically stand in a line in front of the store when it opens in the morning, and bow deeply in greeting as they welcome the first customers of the day. The level of customer service demonstrated during a customer’s shopping experience is also very high. For example, this Japan Today article explains how much detail one member of staff at a department store put into catering towards the customer’s unexpressed need by making a bespoke shopping bag while asking the customer whether they want to have the product they purchased placed vertically or horizontally inside the bag.
How is omotenashi portrayed on social media?
Instagram posts by Japanese users tagged with #omotenashi (#おもてなし) overwhelmingly revolve around showcasing the beautiful presentation of food they encounter while dining out, or staying at accommodation during a trip away. Other examples of how omotenashi has been extended are also being shared with followers, such as personalised or handmade items received from hosts at a venue. This is likely because Instagram is an ideal platform through which to display these kinds of visually stunning images.
Facebook posts follow a similar pattern to those on Instagram, but with more description of the positive impression they got. On the other hand, many Twitter users are still posting their culinary delights in relation to omotenashi, but the emphasis is more on showing the level of care that goes into preparing for and hosting events, such as neat wedding invitations or the consideration of cleaning fastidiously before fans arrive for a sports game.
This Instagram post shows a Japanese porcelain designer’s seasonal cups and plates. She uses the hashtag #手描き皿de世界にひとつのおもてなし (#bringing omotenashi to the world through hand-painted plates).
This post is by Yumi Matsumoto, an Instagram influencer and TV cooking host also known as ‘Yuu Mama’. Here, she demonstrates some of the recipes found in her latest cookbook, and uses the hashtag #omotenashi amongst many other food-related tags, including; #freezerstorage #handmadelunchbox #easyrecipes.
Making omotenashi a foundation for Tokyo 2020
Given that the concept of omotenashi was highlighted during the process of winning the bid for the Olympic & Paralympic Games 2020, some domestic brands have capitalised on the concept in their own promotional materials. One good example would be Panasonic’s advertisement for USB cables. The visual strongly connotes Japanese culture as it features cranes (considered as good luck birds in a local context) created using the brand’s USB cables. The advert’s slogan is, “We connect the world with omotenashi.” This aims to signify their willingness to host foreign visitors in Japan whilst delivering the inherent spirit of omotenashi as one of the leading global companies in Japan. The advert won the Japan B2B Advertising Award at the 36th annual conference in 2015.
The practice of omotenashi is so widely accepted as being the standard for Japanese customer service, and non-Japanese brands should also take note when planning marketing campaigns. It’s one thing to localise messaging for a Japanese audience, and another to show a deeper understanding of cultural nuance. Although the term omotenashi is often not used expressly by brands when promoting themselves in Japan, it can nevertheless be helpful to demonstrate what kind of service would be offered to customers if they choose the brand, or what the desired result of using the product would be — how could it enhance their lives?
Another example is Belcube cheese (made by the French ‘Laughing Cow’ brand), who, in their advertising have portrayed actor Kouta Watabe as an ‘omotenashi guy’ entertaining his friends by cooking at home wearing an apron. He serves everyone the small individually-wrapped Belcube cheeses n a bowl as an aperitif while he continues to prepare the main dish. Ultimately, the group of friends swoon over how creamy and delicious the cheeses are when paired with their wine, but Watabe is quick to remind them teasingly that they’ve still got his cooking to try. Technically, though, Watabe shows that he can be an attentive host by serving an appropriate and thoughtful snack to share together before the meal.
How can western companies apply the principle of omotenashi to the way Japanese consumers interact with brands?
Omotenashi has been highlighted to a greater extent outside of Japan following the 2020 Olympic host city selection. However, the concept itself has always been an underlying and integral part of how Japanese professionals approach those they serve.
Japan is a market in which quality customer service experiences are taken for granted among local consumers. Whether or not the term omotenashi is explicitly incorporated into campaigns (which may come across as trying too hard to impress), it is important for western brands to understand what the expectations are from a Japanese perspective and, in turn, ensure that their own standards are in line with them.
Tokyoesque specialises in providing Japanese consumer insights to western brands who wish to enter/expand in the Japanese market. Whether you’re looking to make an initial entry into the market, revitalise your brand’s existing presence in Japan, or localise your overall strategy to resonate with Japanese consumers, Tokyoesque can work with you to realise your objectives.
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