Omotenashi is the Japanese version of hospitality, and an important part of Japanese culture. It's one of those things that is easy to recognize, but difficult to describe. This quick article will be my attempt to explain omotenashi in a way that makes sense.
おもてなし (Omotenashi) is a Japanese word with two different roots. One is 持て成す (motenasu), a verb that translates to 'to entertain/to make welcome.' This in itself might seem like a good definition of hospitality, and all you'd need to know to understand omotenashi, but it's not quite a complete description of the word.
The other root of the word is 表裏無し (omoteuranashi), which translates to 'not having two sides,' and refers to wholeheartedness.
Putting these meanings together, we get something like 'wholehearted hospitality,' which is a more accurate description of omotenashi.
Omotenashi's origins are in the Japanese tea ceremony
The essence of omotenashi is service from the heart, without expectations of getting something in return. Omotenashi means not just providing outstanding service, but providing hospitality that goes above and beyond the expectations of the person receiving the service. This entails paying close attention, thinking carefully about the needs of the customer, and acting before the customer even thinks to ask for something.
Examples of omotenashi
People often point to small details to describe omotenashi, such as a sushi chef changing the size of their nigiri to suit the appetite of the customer, or a host arranging the guest's shoes so that they are easy to slip into when leaving the restaurant. Omotenashi is expressed in many ways, and it would be impossible to describe them all here. Instead, here are two examples that will hopefully give some idea of what it is.
Service at restaurants
One of the most obvious examples of omotenashi in Japan is the service at restaurants. The friendly and efficient service that is given at most restaurants, even cheap places, is arguably unrivaled anywhere else in the world. This is despite the fact that there is no custom of tipping in Japan. The wonderful service is not given with the expectation of receiving anything in return.
Another feature of the service at Japanese restaurants that could be called omotenashi is the fact that servers don't usually come to check on guests or take their order until called. Many restaurants have a call button installed at the table for this purpose, but at other restaurants, guests need to call the server with their voice.
At first glance, this may seem like poor service, but in reality, this allows guests to enjoy themselves without worry of being interrupted by the server. When called, however, the server will come right away, and tend to the guests' needs as quickly as possible.
Hiring a moving company
When you hire a moving company in Japan, they show up promptly on time, with a team of people ready to quickly and efficiently move everything out of the house and into the truck. The teams will lay out blankets in the entryway, and each worker will slip out of their shoes every time they enter the house so as not to dirty the floor (sometimes workers will even use a brand new pair of slippers). All of the items, including large appliances, are quickly and carefully moved, and the whole process can usually be finished in about an hour, depending on the size of your house. You don't have to pay extra for this amazing service, and no tip is needed or expected.
Omotenashi is an important part of Japanese culture, and is one of the most wonderful things to experience when you visit Japan. It is hospitality that is heartfelt and which leaves an impression on the receiver. Omotenashi is not easy to describe, but when you experience it, you'll know.