Japan Times: Japan’s “Omotenashi” (“selfless hospitality”) not in tune with what visitors want, NJ expert warns


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Hello Blog.  Let’s start 2015 with a discussion about Japan’s tourism policy and some of the memes within.  Submitter JDG offers these thoughts about a recent Japan Times article:

JDG: Hello Dr. Debito, First of all, a happy new year to you. I wondered if you had chanced upon this article in the JT:
Now boastful Japan not really in tune with what visitors want, foreign expert warns | The Japan Times

It’s really interesting, since it was written about a guy who has no connection (AFAIK) to the debate about NJ human rights, and is not a scholar of Japan. However, he has independently reached a conclusion that you yourself have expressed several times on Debito.org; Japanese deciding amongst themselves what NJ want/need/have difficulty with, is a sign of cultural arrogance aimed at controlling NJ.

I think this is important external reinforcement of your point of view. It shows that you are not alone and paranoid (as the apologists always try to portray you), but rather shows that in a totally different field of expertise, another observer has witnessed the same phenomena as you.

There are many interesting points that he raises, and I agree with him, but the main takeaway from the article is that the concept of ‘omotenashi’ is being used as a system of control over NJ in Japan (and we know how much the Japanese establishment believes that NJ need to be controlled), whilst at the same time serving a very racist nihonjinrongiron function of reassuring the Japanese themselves that they are unique and superior to NJ. Nice win for your logic. Sincerely, JDG.


Let me open this up to discussion on Debito.org. Article excerpt first. Dr. ARUDOU, Debito


Now boastful Japan not really in tune with what visitors want, foreign expert warns

Japan’s self-professed “omotenashi” (spirit of selfless hospitality) is often misinterpreted to force predetermined services on foreign visitors, says one longtime observer.

Cultural services expert David Atkinson, 49, says the nation’s confidence in what it offers the world is misplaced: Many foreigners who visit leave unfulfilled…

Atkinson says it is troubling to see Japanese increasingly lauding their own culture and that the trend could even become an obstacle to the government’s goal of getting 30 million tourists to visit annually by 2030…

“Originally, omotenashi means leaving the choices to the guests, not forcing foreigners with a different set of values to behave the way Japanese people expect,” he said.

Omotenashi became a buzzword in August 2013, when television celebrity Christel Takigawa used the term during Tokyo’s final presentation to the International Olympic Committee’s general assembly in Argentina for permission to host the 2020 Olympics…

Full article at http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2014/12/25/national/now-boastful-japan-really-tune-visitors-want-foreign-expert-warns/


19 comments on “Japan Times: Japan’s “Omotenashi” (“selfless hospitality”) not in tune with what visitors want, NJ expert warns

  • j_jobseeker says:

    Funny, I was just watching TV Asahi’s “Morning Bird” where they had a corner lauding this very thing. First of all, the title of the piece: “Why foreigners are keeping hotels and inns fully booked even after the end of the New Year holiday.” Right off the bat, the segments is already expecting that foreign tourists would leave after the beginning of the New Year the way Japanese tourists disappear after the “Oshougatsu” holiday ends. Well, guess what, people in other countries don’t put any value on that plus vacation cycles are different from country to country (gasp!). Tourism should be year-round concept when factoring in foreign visitors. The fact that the Japanese tourism boards (national and regional) as well as the media are still surprised by this only proves this article’s point.
    Next, there were shots of some of the bilingual signage and hotel guides which were meant to show how the local inns were catering to this influx of foreign tourists, and yet some of the guidances were extremely condescending (in my opinion) like “How to sleep in a Futon.” I also had to snicker a bit at the commentators’ remarks that it was so great that foreign tourists would show interest in “out of the way” places and want to experience traditional Japan. Uh…guess what guys and gals, that’s what “tourism” is about. It ain’t about shopping and eating as most Japanese tourists tend to only do when they are abroad.
    Finally, I insinuated from the entire segment that while the tourism industry is appreciative of this influx of tourists from foreign nations, they really still don’t understand the nature of why visitors come to Japan and how to attract them. In a country where the “lemming” mentality prevails—i.e. lots of media coverage and guidebooks telling Japanese tourists where to go and what to see/do that’s “hot” at the moment—foreign tourists like to find out for themselves, and go to places that interest them personally and not what the industry is necessarily trying to tell them to go. Thus, it would benefit the tourism industry greatly to always be prepared to welcome foreign guests no matter how out of the way or seemingly pedantic a place may be. One explorer’s impression from a tiny corner of Japan just may revive that entire area with a Tweet or Blog post.

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    Thanks for posting this Dr. Debito!

    In Max Hastings book ‘Nemesis’ he talks about how imperial era Japan emphasized the linguistic word-games of the Japanese language as proof that the Japanese were unique as a race, and therefore superior to NJ. I think that we can see a continuation of this (like so much of imperial era ideology) that survived the dismantling of the imperial state following the surrender, that has been ‘orphaned’ from is connection to an official all encompassing ideology, but persisting unchallenged (just like the obsession with blood types, and Shinto) in the modern era, where it is thoughtlessly justified (on the rare incidence of it being challenged), as simply being part of Japan’s ‘unique’ culture. And in that sense alone it continues to offer life support to ideas of Japanese ‘uniqueness’, and ‘othering’ of NJ.

    To be clear, what is this ‘omotenashi’ that Christel Takigawa (and now all of Japan) talks of?
    She described it in English (and henceforth it has been repeatedly described as) ‘selfless hospitality’. What exactly does that mean? Seriously, I’m asking. After all, what kind of hospitality would be ‘selfish hospitality’?

    I would propose that ‘omotenashi’ means exactly ‘hospitality’ in English, since hospitality in, and of, itself includes the concept of a lack of selfishness, and therefore in translation, ‘omotenashi’ requires no addition of ‘selfless’. So why add it?

    I believe that it has been added as an attempt to ‘mystify’ the concept so as to differentiate it from hospitality in the sense of any other language (and by extension, amongst non-Japanese speaking peoples). Doing so serves two purposes;

    1. Perpetuates to NJ the idea that the Japanese are a unique race, with a unique language and culture, that is impossible for NJ to understand completely, thereby contributing and reinforcing stereotypes that allow (for example) Japanese politicians (or the man on the street) to make racist or inflammatory comments, which can then be denied later with a simple ‘I was misunderstood’, or ‘I will correct the incorrect understanding of my meaning that is being reported overseas’. We can see a case of this happening when Hashimoto made his comments about the Korean sex-slaves, and much more recently here on Debito.org, the ‘no foreign cars’ sign at the car park.
    You see, it’s not ‘racism’, it’s just NJ failing to understand the (alleged) ‘complexities’ of the Japanese language.

    2. Such intentional mis-translations reinforce to the echo-chamber Japanese populace that they are ‘unique’, and ‘special’- more ‘unique’ and ‘special’ than ALL NJ.

    Omotenashi is not the only example I can think of. Off the top of my head, how about ‘mono no aware’?
    The Japanese translate this as ‘the pathos of things’. What are these ‘things’, exactly? Yes, whilst a quick check in the dictionary will show that ‘mono’ is ‘things’ in English, this is not the function of the language. How about if I said ‘mono no nomu’? The dictionary would dictate that in English this would translate into ‘the drinking of things’. This sounds absurdly archaic in English, hence most native speakers would simply say ‘drinking’, making the ‘of things’ redundant.
    It’s the same with ‘mono no aware’. The ‘of things’ is redundant in English, since ‘pathos’ in itself sufficiently expresses the concept.

    The only function of the use of ‘of things’ is to deliberately attempt to ‘mystify’ the Japanese language, for all the same reasons that ‘omotenashi’ should not include ‘selfless’ in English. I’m sure Debito.org readers can think of many other examples, and I once read an excellent paper by an NJ scholar on just such deliberate attempts to ‘mystify’ the Japanese language (if anyone can recall the scholar’s name, or the title of the paper, I’d be grateful).

    So, since most Japanese fluent NJ are too polite, too vested, or simply uncaring about these issues, this hangover of imperial era linguistics as proof of racial superiority has been allowed to persist to the present day. After all, why aren’t scholars like Don Keene angrily phoning the worlds English language newspapers to complain that their repetition of the use of ‘selfless hospitality’ at the 2020 olympic bid is a form of Japanese oppression of NJ?

    I think you know the answer.

  • Trying to teach unwilling Japanese about the world is like trying to teach my mom how to learn how to use a computer… It’s not gonna happen 🙂 Would be nice if more people sought out wisdom but regardless of the country, most people suck at being gracious, empathetic, and ego-less. It’s an unfortunate coincidence that the thing to be egotistical about in Japan is the whole racial thing… By-product of their history.

  • #1, and an interesting side issue but still related is this an article on the BBC.*

    “…Japan’s comics and cartoons – known as manga and anime – are a huge cultural industry and famous around the world. But some are shocking, featuring children in sexually explicit scenarios. Why has Japan decided against banning this material?..”

    “..”I want to make it disappear,” she says. “By 2020, when the Summer Olympics will take place in Japan, we have to turn Japan into a country which people don’t call a perverted culture.”..”

    What they (J) are trying to control what NJs must think or feel, it shall be interesting when the spot light is firmly on them; in reverse. Since as the article points out, with the Olympics coming to town, they wont be able to control the…awee suchs… manga of sexually exploited images of children as being kawaii, simply because that is what “they” feel!

    * http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-30698640

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    @ John K #4

    Thanks for the link! Very interesting article indeed.

    With the coming of the 2020 Olympics, and hordes of tourists wandering around Tokyo, being constantly exposed to manga and real images that sexually objectify young girls, Japan will face a crisis of identity as it tries desperately to balance it’s ‘unique’ culture against being called out on an international level as having a sick obsession with young girls. After all, it’s one thing for your Japanese colleagues or friends to politely explain to you that this is Japan’s ‘unique’ ‘cute’ culture (please understand), but it will be impossible for J-society as a whole to ‘police’ tourists perceptions, since there will be too many tourists (and they aren’t going to care about any stranger who tries to lecture them on the issue), and this type of sexualization of young girls is too prevalent in Japan to hide.

    — Drawing this tangent of sexualization to a close, thank you. Let’s stick to tourism and hospitality in this blog post.

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    @ J_jobseeker #1

    Interesting comments about tourists during Japanese new year (just as an aside, ‘Japanese new year’? How can Japan’s most important holiday be January 1st? The calendar system is a western import!), since can you imagine what would happen if the hotels and restaurants didn’t finish the holiday festivities when all the salarymen went back to work, but rather when the tourists went home?

    I imagine that some Japanese would be most indignant that NJ were still enjoying mochi and shrine visits, with all the associated new years fanfare, whilst they were wading their way through rush hour to the office! I’m sure that many would be very offended that the NJ tourists weren’t respecting Japanese culture (we Japanese are at work again now, new year celebrations are finished!), whilst maybe many would be thinking ‘Why can’t I have a two week vacation? A vacation when I want it?’. That is a potential concern for J-employers surely, and as such, now matter how ‘selflessly hospitable’ the tourism industry attempts to become for the benefit of NJ, things like new year WILL FINISH (!) when the salarymen have to go back to work.

  • Mark in Yayoi says:

    Off the top of my head, how about ‘mono no aware’?
    The Japanese translate this as ‘the pathos of things’. What are these ‘things’, exactly? Yes, whilst a quick check in the dictionary will show that ‘mono’ is ‘things’ in English, this is not the function of the language.

    It’s the same with ‘mono no aware’. The ‘of things’ is redundant in English, since ‘pathos’ in itself sufficiently expresses the concept.

    To be fair to that translator, the Latin phrase lacrimae rerum, meaning “the tears of things” and specifically including “things” (res), has been with us for centuries and carries a very similar feeling. I don’t blame a translator or writer who keeps a literal translation like this, particularly when the West has something so close.

  • “I would propose that ‘omotenashi’ means exactly ‘hospitality’ in English, since hospitality in, and of, itself includes the concept of a lack of selfishness, and therefore in translation, ‘omotenashi’ requires no addition of ‘selfless’. So why add it?”

    Seriously. Nothing I have seen or experienced in Japan has lead me to believe that Japanese hospitality is in any way unique – let alone “selfless.”

    In all honesty, “quirky” is the best way for me to describe Japanese service. Sometimes it’s flat-out rude. Store clerks often give flat, unapologetic refusals to even the simplest requests. At the same time, some store clerks will literally run through a store (as you trail along behind them) to find some random article you asked about – going way, way overboard in their efforts to answer your question.

    Then some stores will offer little bonuses, or rewards, or cute packaging, or what have you, and it’s this lovely little thing.

    It’s quirky, though. Uneven. Inconsistent. Sometimes good, sometimes bad – but I never, ever, ever, get the feeling that it is “selfless.”

    Just people doing their jobs.

  • Jim Di Griz says:

    @ Mark In Yayoi #7

    Yes, I agree, we can say ‘of things’ in English, but as I said, it sounds unnecessarily archaic to modern native speakers, hence it would be dropped in favor of adding ‘-ing’ to the verb.
    And I believe that the Japanese know that the ‘of things’ suffix sounds archaic to a native speaker, and as such adds a degree of ‘mysticism’ to the concept.

  • Loverilakkuma says:

    Although I am not very much convinced with the author’s argument, it is really interesting to do research on how the term “omotenashi” has shaped and re-shaped its meaning for (re)constructing national culture. I think its original concept might have something to do with the appreciation of artistic integrity and aesthetic values people see in traditional arts, crafts, and/or manufacturing. I don’t know how people can find the moment of appreciation for “selfless hospitality” especially if you live in the heart of Tokyo. All you see is many young Japanese people being obsessed with international brands and luxurious consumer products.

  • Andrew in Saitama says:

    Actually, I see much of “omotenashi” as smugness – “We’ll put out our best silverware just to show you how much nice stuff we have” rather than really caring for the guest.

  • Want to know what people of the world are interested in for Japan as tourism? Do some research and ask them, involve PROFESSIONAL individuals from those nations in committees, and don’t make baseless shallow assumptions.

    In other words, ask, listen, and involve. Japan barely even makes such attempts.

  • This reminds me of the entries about the national survey Japan takes. When the subject in question is issues facing foreigner residents they never actually bother to ASK the foreigners themselves but random Japanese people who proceed to give their own distorted take. Ironic Japan will bend over backwards to get approval from a foreign audience about anything Japanese but if it’s what foreigners want or what affects them the Japanese can’t be bothered to get their opinion.

  • “Fortunately, Japan is blessed with four assets any nation aspiring to be a successful tourism destination must have: a culture, a history, a mild climate and glorious nature, Atkinson said.”

    Well, as a long-term resident of Kyushu, I’ll give you the first three, but I have to take some issue with the glorious nature bit. The river next to my house has been concreted over, as has the coastline and the mountainside. As if that were not enough, unfinished concrete, with its various patinas of mold and mildew, seem to infest just about every corner of my neighborhood — I just can’t get my head around what the wabisabi of this material might be.

    I do love a good Japanese broadleaf forest… when I can find one that has not been cut down and replanted with pollen-bearing sugi. I am all for the sakura and the manicured Japanese gardens, but would you really consider these examples of ‘glorious nature?’ They are natural as much as an English garden is natural, I suppose.

    I guess what I am trying to say is that while Japan does still have some fine examples of nature, ‘nature’ referring to places that still exist in their undefiled natural state, I find myself having to work pretty hard to find them these days. I came to Japan and found the history, the culture and even one more season (the rainy one) than had been advertised, but the nature bit has been mostly a wash.

    Maybe Kyushu isn’t the place to be…

    — I’d rather this debate not devolve into assessments of what Japan has, but rather what Japan does. The subject is hospitality.

  • “– I’d rather this debate not devolve into assessments of what Japan has, but rather what Japan does. The subject is hospitality.”

    In fairness, the assertion that Japan has a “culture, a history,” is again idiotic, because *ALL* countries have culture and history. That kind of drives the point home that “omotenashi” is an absurd thing to brag about – culture and history are literally universal things. Every nation on the planet has a culture and a history, and in no way, shape, or form could that possibly make Japan in any way special.

    Talking about what Japan DOES, then, we can pretty clearly say that the Japanese people in charge of these PR campaigns – what they DO is that they hang their hats on idiotic concepts that have no meaning. They brag in their advertisements that they have X, Y, and Z, when X, Y, and Z are in fact universal ideas that EVERY country has.

    “Come to Japan. We have breathable air and potable water.” Yeah, the entire planet does. “We have four seasons!” Yep, that’s the tilt of the planet at work. “We celebrate the new year!” The entire planet goes around the sun with you, guys.

  • Japan having “culture, a history” is just more thinly veiled racism – the sort of “more unique than the rest of you” nihonjinron that plagues the nation. No polity, by very definition, lacks history or culture, and the whole “mysterious Asia” shebang ought to be accompanied by flying monks doing karate kicks and the sounding of gongs for all of the ridiculous stereotypes it conveys. What a phenomenally dumb statement.

  • In response to Jim Di Griz:

    Was it by any chance Ben-Ami Shillony, “’Restoration’, ‘Emperor’, ‘Diet’, ‘Prefecture’ or: How Japanese Concepts were Mistranslated into Western Languages” in Rethinking Japan: Social Sciences, Ideology & Thought (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990)? I remembered reading a similar article and it was bothering me all day until I remembered I footnoted it in a college paper!

  • Jim di Griz says:

    @ Soudesuka #18

    Thank you, that is an interesting read indeed, but the one I was thinking of was (IIRC) written by a Greek guy. Just can’t remember the name.


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