Life in Japan: Omotenashi – the spirit of Japan’s customer service & hospitality

I just returned from a one-week trip to Tokyo to attend a traditional Japanese Shinto wedding ceremony and visit the city that I recently called home for a year and a half.

I have a deep love for Tokyo and Japan in general and had fun just walking around the city, catching up with friends, and, of course, eating so much delicious food. After four months away, it was great to be back!

Omotenashi – Japanese hospitality and respect

Something that stands out to me deeply about Japanese society that I haven’t yet written about is the concept of “Omotenashi”, translated to mean “hospitality”.

After awhile of living in Japan, the deep respect and service that one experiences in everyday living comes to feel expected as the norm. However, now that I’m living back in the United States, I have renewed appreciation for the polite and welcoming service one consistently receives in Japan. My visit back to Tokyo last week was no exception.

O-MO-TE-NA-SHI!

My kids (in June 2015) riding the famous coin operated giant pandas, while escorted by one of our new Japanese friends.
My kids (in June 2015) riding the famous coin operated giant pandas, while escorted by one of our new Japanese friends.

I first learned of the term “Omotenashi” last year when my family and I went to a visit the Hanayashiki amusement part – the oldest in Japan – located next to one of Tokyo’s most famous shrines. This contrast of old and new is just one of many examples of the contrasts one encounters in Tokyo.

At the park, we met some locals who didn’t speak any English – we got along with my husband’s and my elementary Japanese and lots of enthusiastic gestures.

They insisted on buying us drinks, showing us around the park, escorting my children on several coin operated giant panda rides (see photo), and invited us over for dinner and a party afterwards (which we respectfully declined).

During our afternoon with them, our new friends chanted multiple times “O-MO-TE-NA-SHI” and pointed to themselves and us.

I later looked up what it meant and realized that I finally had a word to describe the hospitality that is part of daily life in Japan!

Hospitality and respect is part of everyday life

The cleaners bowing at the Shinkansen's arrival to the terminal station.
The cleaners bowing at the Shinkansen’s arrival to the terminal station.

The spirit of omotenashi is the reason for the the amazing service one gets at department stores, shops, restaurants, train stations, taxi, and chance encounters with strangers.

In what other country does the chef walk outside of his small restaurant to walk you down the street to show you the restaurant you are actually looking for, or does the chef or store clerk walk you outside after your meal or purchase to bow and say thank you? This happened to me almost daily in Japan!

Other examples of omotenashi can be found in experience of daily activities:

  • taxi drivers with white gloves, lace on the seats, and taxi doors that open automatically by the driver via a special lever inside the cab. But be warned, you get a stern look if you try to touch the door to open or close it! Not touching the cab door quickly becomes a habit and I have found myself in other countries standing awkwardly outside a cab waiting for the door to open.
  • Shinkansen (bullet train) cleaners bowing to the train as it pulls into the station
  • beautiful displays of food, meant to make one’s dining experience an even better one
  • clean bathrooms in most public places (though not everywhere)
  • little baskets under or beside tables at restaurants and bars so your bags and coats don’t have to go on the floor. I miss this small touch of hospitality nearly every day back in the U.S. (see below for just two examples of baskets one finds under nearly every table).

Purse basket in Japan Another purse bag

Service for the sake of giving, not receiving

And of course, all this wonderful service is done without the expectation of a tip. In fact, if you try to give a tip – to anyone! – they will refuse.

Omotenashi is given without the expectation of being given anything in reward.

However, of course, servers are actually properly compensated in their wages unlike in most restaurants in the U.S. (I know from my experience from years past working in the service industry).

Consistent service, but little customization

Japanese customer service excellence is consistently excellent, though it only operates in the boundaries of rules and kata of proper behavior. Jeff Liker and I talked about this recently in my interview with him about his book “The Toyota Way to Service Excellence”, as I was interested in his thoughts on how cultural preferences and traits impact service excellence.

I once described Japanese hospitality to Mark Graban as constantly high levels service with no customization (don’t ask for the tomatoes on the side if the menu says tomatoes!), where is the U.S. high levels of customization are generally accommodated, but there is great variation in actual service delivery.

Asking for exceptions and customization falls outside of what most Japanese know how to handle and one might soon find the limits to our definition of “the customer is always right”. However, even declines for requests outside the description of service or menu will be given in the most respectful and almost apologetic way.

Now that I’m back in the U.S. I feel the variation in service acutely, but do appreciate the flexibility of asking for – and usually receiving – what I specifically want.

Omotenashi in action at the local ward - trying to provide the best customer experience through service and kaizen.
Omotenashi in action at the local ward – trying to provide the best customer experience through service and kaizen.

Omotenashi and kaizen

Last June I had a chance to visit a local Tokyo government ward uses the concepts of omotenashi and kaizen to deliver value to their customers – the residents of the ward.

Tim Wolput was my generous host of that tour and has written about the concept of omotenashi in Japan. I had a chance to meet up with Tim again last week and talk more about omotoenashi, kaizen, and problem solving thinking.

I’ll finally be writing about the visit to the ward office – and some other organizations – in the near future as I catch up on writing about my final three months living in Japan. Stay tuned!

Exchanging gifts as a sign of respect

I restocked on Darumas at one of my favorite stores, the Loft.
I restocked on Darumas at one of my favorite stores, the Loft.

Giving gifts is a essential part of omotenashi – even if it is for a small meeting. In addition to handing out my business card, the giving of gifts quickly became habit for me as well and I learned to stock up on chocolates and other small items from California so that I could give them out to colleagues and others when meeting them for the first time or for a special visit.

I’ve brought this habit  with me back to the U.S. and have a hard time not bringing small gifts with me with I meet colleagues and friends. I just restocked up on darumas as I’ve given away so many in the past months!

They are the perfect small gift from Japan and I really resonate with their significance with goal setting.

More reflections about life, omotenashi and kaizen in Japan to come

My goal for this blog through the end of the year is to catch up on writing about my experiences visiting several Japanese organizations in the last three months that I lived in Japan – from the Tokyo ward office that I mentioned above, to a dry cleaner, a toilet manufacturer, and a town that uses 5S as a uniting principle to “revitalize” the community.

In the meantime, if you enjoyed this post, you might be interested in previous posts about living in Tokyo that can be fun in the “Life in Japan” category.

What do you think?

Have you had a chance to visit Japan? What was your experience with Japanese customer service? What do you think about how cultural preferences impact service delivery in your country? Please share your thoughts below.

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Katie Anderson
About Katie Anderson 118 Articles
Lean thinker and coach. Passionate about developing people. Healthcare change agent. Living in California again after 18 months in Tokyo. Writing about lean and leadership.
  • Steve Edwards

    Katie, first of all good to have you back. I have traveled to Japan several times, but an incident from one of my earliest visits has stayed with me. My guide had just finished backing into a parking place and turned off the engine. I noticed the car’s outside mirrors immediately retracted to be flush with the side of the car. I remarked to my guide how clever this was, because it kept the mirrors of his car from being damaged. He replied, No Steve-san, it keeps the mirrors of the other cars from being damaged. I started to think differently.

  • Samantha Lassaux

    Hello Katie, thank you for your insight! I’m living in Japan for 4 years now, working for a Japanese company where I’m the only foreigner. While I have my share of culture shock and hard times with adaptation, I’ll always be in love with Japan. Though I’m happy you mentioned the lack of customization which a lot of people forget when they talk about omotenashi. It is true Japan customer service will get stuck and still when confronted to something that is not in their rules/instructions book. Sadly, being a foreigner here, I have a lot of out of the box requests so sometimes this wall of polite apologies when the customer has no other choice but to give up is frustrating me. Another point is that this omotenashi is a national behavior (if you’re a true Japanese you have to behave that way – kind of thinking) which is putting a lot of unconscious pressure on Japanese people. Thank you for your article! I’ll follow closely your work.

  • Tim Wolput

    Great article Katie! It always makes me happy when people express their love for Japan. The fact that I am goofball crazy about Japan myself probably has a lot to do with this.

    About the customization…I think it depends on the place and the situation…what we foreigners are really bad at is ‘reading the atmosphere’ as they say in Japan (kuuki wo yomu 空気を読む) . So we ask for and expect customization without considering anything but our own wants. So much depends on how you ask it, the relationship you have, the way the people work, where you are, etc. Omotenashi is a 2-way street, but often in the west we tend to forget this. Omotenashi is not only about the customer having a great experience. It is about the host and the guest sharing a great moment and for this to happen both parties have to understand each other. So to successfully ask for customization first of all means you have to understand your host. Then you can consider whether asking for customization will make the entire experience worthwhile for both parties.

    Recently I came up with a new definition of Omotenashi:

    Omotenashi = tearing down the wall between customer and service provider to create something unique and wonderfull together.

  • Thank you for your comments, Samantha, here and on LinkedIn. I share your frustration and have written several posts about how rules and kata can constrain Japanese people – and be frustrating for foreigners at times. I can’t count the number of times I’ve received flustered responses and told (very politely, but firmly) that “it isn’t possible”. My experience with ordering gelato my first month living in Japan was one of many experiences that followed: http://kbjanderson.com/rules-are-not-made-to-be-broken/

    I welcome your experiences and insights on past and future posts! Thank you for reading.

  • Steve – thank you for sharing another great story! This is a perfect example of respect and omotenashi – true selfless thinking! Love it.

  • Tim – great to see you last week as well. Thanks for sharing your insights that omotenashi is a two-way street. That really resonates with me and also helps explain some of the poor service we might receive in the West. Just like service delivery can be variable – so too can the customer’s reaction. Some people are so rude on the receiving end as well. Doesn’t foster a virtuous cycle…

    I really like your definition! I look forward to more conversation – and visits – in the future together.

  • Clayton

    Thanks for the interesting read, Katie 🙂 I never truly appreciated the Japanese culture until I moved to the US. Not because one is better than the other, but because there was no frame of reference before being exposed to an unfamiliar culture. Keep up the good writing!

  • Thanks Clayton!

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  • Hi Katie – great posting. I found it after doing a quick Google search to see what others are writing/saying about Japanese customer service.

    I lived in Japan for 5.5 years, married in to the country and ever since my return to live in the USA have remained connected through family and business. I had a dry spell of visiting and was back in Tokyo last December for the first time since 2009. Given the overall customer service / experience provided, I instantly fell back in love with that city (don’t worry, my wife is aware of this “affair” and actually shares it with me! ;-).

    Now back in the USA I find I am hypersensitive to the overall LACK of professionalism and discipline in this country retails industry that leads to an overall disappointing shopping experience at MOST stores. Given that, my wife and I have been discussing our long term / retirement goals and have put Japan back on the table.

    Is Japan perfect? No – by far, not. But in the future where I will be on a fixed income, why not live someplace where I get the most bang for my buck? – errr… I mean: Yen. Given the plethora of options and pricing relatively on par (or cheaper) than American city pricing, combined with over-the-top customer service, I can give a little on my customization preferences in order to gain more overall. Very small price to pay vs paying more and coming out of a USA store feeling dissatisfied a majority of the time.

    Keep up the great blogging!

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