Contemplating “Omotenashi”

GLOBAL LEADERS PROGRAM Faculty of Economics Dean, Graduate School of Economics & Faculty of Economics (since April 2013) Jota Ishikawa

I am Jota Ishikawa, the new Dean of the Graduate School of Economics & Faculty of Economics from April 2013. In this column, I would like to convey my thoughts concerning globalization based on my own experiences and reflections.

From late August through early September last year, I participated in a conference held in Evora, Portugal, after which I visited the University of Oxford.

Evora is located 130km east of Lisbon, the capital of Portugal. The Old City district of Evora is registered as a World Heritage Site, and is steeped in a historic atmosphere. The city was visited by the Tenshō Embassy to Europe in 1584, and the ambassadors played the pipe organ in the cathedral. The University of Evora, which was the venue of the conference I attended, originated as a theological seminary that was established in 1559. Each classroom still features an altar, and is decorated with tiles. This was my first time visiting Portugal. There were many sights to see, and wine and food were delicious and reasonably priced. I could certainly like to visit again. At the University of Oxford, I visited a professor at Merton College, where the Crown Prince Naruhito had studied. I was guided around the college, taking in such places as the beautiful garden, the historic reading room for faculty, and the dining room, finding all of them truly moving.

Omotenashi” vs “When in Rome, Do as the Romans Do”

The word “omotenashi” has become a fashionable turn of phrase since Ms. Cristel Takigawa used it in the final presentation by the Tokyo bid committee at the International Olympic Committee, held in Buenos Aires, on September 7th. This term was used to convey that we Japanese pay careful attention to foreigners visiting Japan and welcome them kindly.

Hearing her speech reminded me of two experiences I had during my recent trip. The first occurred at a long-distance bus terminal in Lisbon. I inquired about having my baggage looked after at the temporary baggage service, but although I asked in English, all of the responses I received were in Portuguese. I did not understand what the baggage keeper was saying. I repeated the same sentence slowly, but the outcome was the same. He kept responding to me only in Portuguese. Being at a loss, he suddenly began speaking in English:
“I understand every single word you said. However, please understand that this is not the English-speaking sphere, so you should not expect that everyone in this country speaks English. You should try to use Portuguese — if you would like to use English, at least you should ask the person if he/she speaks English first; that is courteous.”

I was able to see his point, but was not completely convinced. If I were asking for directions in town from a Portuguese person I did not know, then I would have indeed started the conversation by asking, “Do you speak English?” like he suggested. However, the place in question was a long-distance bus terminal in the capital city, used by many foreigners. Moreover, people at the information desk and ticket windows were speaking English fluently. Being able to communicate in English must be one of the requirements to work at such places. The person in question must have also gotten his job due to his skill at speaking English, and would have been paid highly as a result of this skill (it must be my fate as an economist to think in such a way!). The point he wanted to make could probably be conveyed by the old saying, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.” I could understand that sentiment, but I could also not help but wonder if someone in his position should have tried harder to display a spirit ofomotenashi.

The other experience occurred when I was visiting a professor at the University of Oxford, who is an acquaintance of mine. He is a world-famous economist, but rather than being haughty he is frank and kind. After discussing our research, he guided me around the campus. Moreover, he even invited me to his home, saying “It will be nothing special, but why don’t you come over to my house to have supper with us?” Since we then headed to his house, I assumed that his wife would have cooked supper for us. When we arrived at his house, however, he told me that he and his wife would then start preparing supper together. I learned that since his wife is also a professor and is occupied with her work responsibilities, they always cook together. It surprised me, but I enjoyed chatting with their daughters, who are high-school students, in the kitchen while noticing how efficiently he and his wife prepared the meal. Before long, the meal was ready. Although it was simple, it was truly tasty and we enjoyed lively conversation during the meal. I unexpectedly received “omotenashi” in the form of home-made cooking by the family of a world-famous professor, which truly warmed my heart.

Omotenashi” and “Consideration for Others”

It depends on the case, of course, but I feel that Japanese generally have the tendency to display excessive Omotenashi. Let me give an example. A well-known researcher told me with total satisfaction that he was treated like a king when he visited Japan, being treated to full dinners every night and being fully attended to when going out. His case is not particularly exaggerated. On the other hand, I also know a scholar who has been confused by the excessive Omotenashi displayed by the Japanese. He was unable to find time to enjoy Japan by himself due to the excessive reception during his stay in Japan.

It depends on the person whether a particular treatment is considered omotenashi or not – the key point is what the person in question truly wants. The aforementioned case at the bus terminal in Lisbon was a bit regrettable for me, but welcoming a guest with the local customs might represent the best form of omotenashi for some people. “Omotenashi” and “omoiyari” – consideration for others – are two sides of the same coin. In practice, omotenashi is more difficult than it might sound, and is not easy to deal with. What kind of omotenashi would be most comfortable if it were me? Each of us might want to start thinking about that question before the Tokyo Olympics in seven years’ time.

Jota Ishikawa,
Dean, Graduate School of Economics & Faculty of Economics (since April 2013)
January 2014
Originally published in Japanese in Monthly Financial Journal (December 2013).

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