When you enter any place as a customer or guest in Japan, you’ll quickly notice that everyone seems to be at your service. It almost makes you feel that you have done them a favor just by visiting!
Omotenashi is the selfless desire to take care of others. It plays a positive role in Japanese culture, and is especially noticeable in business. You can translate it into English as hospitality or customer service, but it’s not exactly the same. In fact, many Japanese companies with branches in other countries train their employees in omotenashi so that customer service is improved.
Omotenashi is not only about etiquette, but also in exceeding expectations and anticipating the needs of the other person in advance. Here’s an example of the history behind omotenashi.
Omotenashi in the Tea Ceremony
The Japanese tea ceremony (also called sado, chado, or chanoyu) is one of the most important cultural activities of Japan. The tea used for the ceremony is the powdered tea called matcha which is prepared in a very exacting and careful manner. The concept of omotenashi also plays a central part in the Japanese Tea Ceremony. The idea is not just to drink tea, but rather to have a special moment with the guests. The host painstakingly makes the tea in front of the guests, and every aspect of the preparation is beautifully presented.
The guests are very important for the host, which is why there’s so much attention to detail. The sweets, flowers, tea ware, and the wall hangings are all chosen carefully to match the event and the time of the year. Even the garden outside the tea house and the architecture of the tea house itself helps to set the mood.
The famous tea master Sen no Rikyu wrote the following poem:
“Though you wipe your hands and brush off the dust and dirt from the vessels,
what is the use of all this fuss if the heart is still impure?”
Even if you conduct the ceremony showing flawless skill, it’s useless if you don’t prepare the tea from your heart. How can you reach into another’s heart if you don’t open your own?
By practicing the Japanese ceremony, one becomes aware of the beauty of the present moment. Both the host and guests can open their hearts in total peace, as well as share a bowl of tea. I encourage you to attend a Japanese tea ceremony and enjoy the experience, even if you only do it once.
This article has been reformatted and updated from the original December 2013 publication.