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The Soul of OMOTENASHI おもてなしの心

Updated: Apr 25, 2022

I did not originally intend to talk about Omotenashi on my Washoku Renaissance blog. However, after I saw numerous reactions on social media to this topic, I learned that people were interested discussing authentic Japanese food culture. I will need some help along the way from academics who have specific knowledge on this subject, that many younger Japanese generations ignore. I started cooking at restaurants in the US, later learning Washoku和食 and Washu和酒 flavors and techniques in Japan. I have learned the background and the history of Washoku from a culinary perspective. I am not an anthropologist or a historian. I can only write what I know. But one thing I can say, “I am Japan-born Japanese”. I have a mindset related closely to the philosophy and mentality of “OMOTENASHIおもてなし”, “BUSHIDO武士道”, “WABI-SABIわびさび”, “MOTTAINAIもったいない” etc.. That is the perspective from which I write this blog.

I was born in 1967. I grew up in the Kanagawa prefecture until I came to the US in 1992. When I was a teenager, I didn’t really appreciate how things are going among Japanese people. I thought it was an outdated mentality, although I respected my parents. I grew to love Japanese culture through my Japanese Literature studies and frequent trips to the central Izu peninsula where it has a famous ryokan inn that Yasunari Kawabata used to stay.

When I drove to the ryokan Inn, there was a light rain. Unsure where I would park in the unpaved space, I saw the “banto番頭” (head clerk) came out from a small wood entrance with wooden umbrellas. It didn’t look like anything special, but the gesture was seamless, and his timing was perfect. I was late to arrive. I wondered how long he had been waiting for us there.

When I stayed another ryokan Inn, I had a similar experience. My girl friend and I had a romantic moment waiting for a traditional ryokan style dinner room service whose serving time was uncertain. After a while, we wondered if we had missed the service because they might thought we wanted privacy. All of a sudden we heard a sound. It was someone lightly knocking on the sliding door. It was the “okami”女将” (the head hostess). We answered and were surprised by her exceptional timing, and of course, all the kaiseki 懐石 food which was served at a perfect, warm temperature.

These experiences were surprising not because I felt special, but because I was in a harmony with their environment, without ever needing to express my wishes.

A distinguished professor shared this article about OMOTENASHIおもてなしwith me on Facebook. It’s well researched and pointed out problems around the word and how traditional Japanese philosophy that has faded. The article starts with a somewhat shocking title: “'Omotenashi' comes up short on humility“.

I particularly like this paragraph:

“…tenet is not that the customer is always right, but rather that the service provider knows what’s best for the customer. He says this way of thinking extends to Japanese craftsmanship, manufacturing and even to some traditional pastimes, like the tea ceremony, which is not about the guest, but rather about the host. The guest’s role is to “appreciate the host’s fine taste.” What the guest wants is unimportant…..”

However, I am afraid that English readers may misunderstand it because this article starts with a story the writer cited from their friend’s experience with a bellhop at a hotel. Let me explain why.

The Writer’s friend expected OMOTENASHI style hospitality by a bellhop, which seems strange to me. If the hotel has a bellhop, it means that the place would be somewhat European in style. The bellhop might have been short on Western hospitality, but it has nothing to do with OMOTENASHI.

The oldest traditional Japanese hotel was established in 705. European style hotels appeared in 1868, just before the Meiji Restoration happened. Tsukiji Hoteru Kan 築地ホテル館 was built for travelers and businessmen from England to have the same service that they would have in England. Although the hospitality in the hotel could be a hybrid of Western and Japanese styles, if not 100% European style. It wouldn’t be a Japanese style hotel. And it is hard to create a hybrid style of hospitality, in my humble opinion, because each style came from totally different mentalities and philosophies.

Let’s think about the words “MOTENASU(verb)” and (O-)MOTENASHI(noun.)” (“O” before words are attached when they are to be respected.). MOTENASU means entertaining and treating, not serving guests’ wishes. So OMOTENASHI should be entertainment and a treat by host, and guests come to join the party. Neither side is more important. The importance is the ritual of the OMOTENASHI entertainment itself, not the entertainer who performs MOTENASU. That is the mindset among the traditional Japanese community that is different from Western Individualism. The sense of “selfless” would not exist because there is not “selfishness”. The wishes of the guest are not expressed as a demand towards the entertainer. The host and guest create the world of ritual together with the host’s leadership and craftsmanship. “Service even when it isn’t asked for” is how they translate the concept of OMOTENASHI in Western culture at European style hotels, Tokyo Disneyland, etc..

If you really would like to understand and enjoy OMOTENASHI and their craftsmanship, stay at a traditional style ryokan Inn that has a good reputation with older Japanese people, run by old school Japanese owners, where they only speak Japanese. You will not be disappointed!

Youji Iwakura / Justin Ito-Adler

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