Text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
Two years ago, on September 2013, and during Tokyo’s presentation to the International Olympic Committee as part of its bid for the 2020 Olympic Games, TV-announcer Christel Takigawa used a word that has since become a slogan (and a cliché) in the mouth of almost all Japanese. The word was “omotenashi” (おもてなし) and it’s usually either summarized as “selfless hospitality” or more periphrastically rendered as the offering by someone in the service industry of a series of added “micro-services” that the customer didn’t ask for but which will make their life easier and better anyway. And even though the concept is familiar to all Japanese, from that day in Buenos Aires onwards, it seems to have gained a new life and to have been included in any literature related to Japan and directed to visitors regardless of said literature’s relation to the Olympic Games.
As usually happens in this peculiar country and especially in anything related to its communication with the rest of the world, most references to omotenashi seem to be missing the essence: it goes without saying that it will be found in the expensive ryokan or the luxury hotels but establishments of this caliber offer a broad range of services regardless of where in the world they are based. What makes Japan really different is a multitude of small things provided by anyone and everyone and anywhere and everywhere and usually gone unnoticed by both visitors and the Japanese themselves. And this is where the idea of selflessness comes in: nobody announces these services –they just think preemptively their necessity and offer them without either advertising them or expecting anything more from the person who will use them.
I could write a whole book about these micro-services: the special hooks for umbrellas or walking sticks in public places (ATMs, public services, restrooms), the return of the change by the cashiers with the coins on the receipt so that customers can slide them quickly in their wallet without having to touch them, the cashier’s other hand going below the hand of the customer so if something drops they can get it so the customer won’t need to bend down and pick it, the public-use presbyopia glasses in all places offering services to the elderly, the group “irashai-mase” (welcome but in the most polite form available in the Japanese language) when a customer enters a store and the hundreds of others. And perhaps at some point I will. But until then, and in the face of all those who refuse –or are unable- to understand –or accept- it, I will say again that, at least for me, all these are the best definition of the word “civilization” anyone could give.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes on the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.