The Business of Omotenashi

By Dominic Carter
CEO, CarterJMRN K.K.

Much has been written and spoken lately about the “Cool Japan” initiative. With the slogan having been in common use since the early 2000s, the idea of Cool Japan is not a new one.

It encompasses a large range of modern Japanese cultural outputs that have struck a chord overseas. Mainstays such as manga, anime, cosplay (dressing up as characters from films, games, etc) and Hello Kitty are key platforms of Cool Japan, but music, fashion, food and architecture have also played a role.

Now that the Japanese government has gotten involved and is promoting Cool Japan as a key national objective, we’re sure to be hearing more about this.

Of course, “cool” is by nature a somewhat ephemeral concept, and one could argue that self-recognition, let alone endorsement from one as decidedly uncool as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, is the kiss of death for cool!

Thankfully, there are some things unique to Japan that are beyond cool, but nevertheless represent latent national assets. The one I particularly have in mind is the phenomenon called omotenashi.

Most non-Japanese had never heard of the term until the bid ambassador for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics campaign Christel Takigawa used it in her address to the International Olympic Committee during the final stage of the capital’s successful bid.

Omotenashi is hard to define, but Japanese use it to describe what they believe is their unique approach to hospitality. Omotenashi involves 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.

If, in the course of a service encounter in Japan, you’ve ever been left thinking “How did they think of that?”, you’ve probably been omotenashi’d.

Department stores such as Takashimaya have always aimed to provide excellent customer service and embody the values of omotenashi on a daily basis.

Recently in a routine transaction, when one of my employees stopped by Takashimaya to buy a large roll of plastic film to cover books, the store went the “extra mile” that to Takashimaya staff was nothing but normal.

The purchased item being quite unsuitable (yet not out-of-the-question) for a standard shopping bag, the clerk actually created a customised carrier for it on the spot, asking my employee how she would prefer the product to be oriented (vertical or horizontal) when she carried it, to determine where to attach handles.

Other major Japanese brands seem to follow the same doctrine of customer service. Popular fashion retailer Uniqlo, for example, even with its very ambitious goals for global expansion by 2020, refuses to lose sight of the standards of customer service native to the original stores on home soil.

To ensure that a Uniqlo store anywhere in the world is a true ambassador for the brand, Uniqlo’s training programme includes having foreign staff sent to Japan to train “in the Japanese way”, and, alternatively, sending “missionaries” out to the branches abroad.

“There is customer service, and then there is Japanese customer service”, summarised Chief Executive Officer Tadashi Yanai, upon the opening of the Uniqlo store in Melbourne, Australia, in April. “We have spent a full year training our staff to get them to the levels we want”.

This is certainly far from the average level of attention paid to service in retail establishments in Australia, and augurs well for the brand’s chances of success there.

This is all very well for Japanese business, but what about omotenashi as a national strategy for building up the Japanese economy?

It may sound far-fetched, but this is precisely what some people are putting forward for Japan. In a world where little remains uncopied or unemulated, this is a gutsy direction.

But, as anyone who has lived in Japan knows, there is indeed an element of commitment to providing excellent service that is not found as commonly anywhere else.

Perhaps in these days of “soft power”, omotenashi might be Japan’s most charming and effective weapon.