Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW)/日本からの意見

Omotenashi and Omoiyari: Japan, Long on Hospitality but Short on Compassion
NISHIKAWA Megumi / Journalist

March 21, 2017
One of the major attractions of Japan, which has been enjoying a steady rise in the number of foreign visitors, is said to be its culture of omotenashi—roughly translated as hospitality. The “customer first” attitude that Japanese society has worked to perfect has no doubt captured the imagination of many foreigners. But the more widely the virtue of Japanese hospitality is publicized, the greater my discomfort grows.

This “culture of omotenashi” refers to the attitude and practice of receiving and entertaining guests with heartfelt hospitality, always putting customers first. As an ethic that the Japanese have nurtured over the course of their long history and tradition, and a vehicle through which the Japanese form relationships with others, omotenashi is a skill that has been handed down through the ages. The Japanese brand of hospitality, which places the customer above all else, has been emulated by a number of Asian countries, where aspects of it are incorporated in the education of new recruits and sales staff as a model of good service: how to bow, how to speak, how to treat customers. But their exemplary code of behavior notwithstanding, it is doubtful whether the Japanese set true examples of hospitality and service-mindedness.

I recently happened across a certain post via Facebook about a Taiwanese mother who had come to Japan as a tourist with her young children. In it, she shared the difficulties she encountered getting around Tokyo with a stroller. People in the streets treated them like a nuisance, no one offered her their seat on the subway, and not a single passerby stopped to help her carry the stroller up the stairs at the station—until a station attendant eventually noticed and hauled it up the stairs for her. The conclusion that she drew from this experience is that the Japanese are helpful when duty requires them, as with the station attendant, but are otherwise cold and indifferent to strangers.

I do not think that the Japanese as a people are particularly cold-hearted or indifferent to others compared to those of other countries. At the same time, though, I understand where the woman is coming from. In a word, it is a question of omoiyari, or compassion; it is about small gestures of kindness and thoughtfulness, such as lending a hand to a person with disabilities, giving up one’s train seat to a mother holding an infant in her arms, or approaching someone who looks lost in front of the ticket vending machines at a train station. Why are the Japanese lacking in this regard? It may be that they are shy or are embarrassed to help, or perhaps they assume that surely someone will step up. In short, they have no intention of being unkind but find themselves passing up opportunities to help.

Kotaro Tamura, a former legislator who moved to Singapore and is now an adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore, writes about life in Singapore in his book Ajia shifuto no susume (Shifting to Asia). One day around lunchtime afternoon, Tamura and his family were waiting impatiently for a taxi ride to get to an appointed place. After some time, one taxi finally arrived. A middle-aged man had been waiting before them, but instead of climbing into the cab, he not only let them go first but even took up the stroller and put it in the trunk for them. When Tamura thanked him, the man replied, “It’s only natural to take good care of little ones, as the number of children in Singapore is declining.”

According to Tamura, this kind of episode is not unusual. “Singaporeans may not have omotenashi [hospitality], but they have omoiyari [compassion],” he writes. “The people of this country surprise me at times with their kindness, particularly toward children, the elderly, and the disabled.”

Japan has hospitality as a matter of form but falls short on compassion. What can be done about it? I believe it all boils down to education. At home and in school, children should be taught from a young age, as early as preschool or elementary school: Offer your seat to the elderly. If you see someone in need, give them a hand. Be kind to girls.

Only when imbued with a spirit of compassion will Japan’s “culture of hospitality” come alive as something more than mere formality.

Megumi Nishikawa is Contributing editor for the Mainichi Shimbun newspaper.

The English-Speaking Union of Japan

西川 恵 / ジャーナリスト

2017年 3月 21日






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English Speaking Union of Japan > Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW) > Omotenashi and Omoiyari: Japan, Long on Hospitality but Short on Compassion