Omotenashi*

Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling.” I Peter 4:9

Omotenashi

Upon our arrival in Japan, we were initially surprised by the many small extras that were routinely extended to customers, reflecting a level of service and care we had previously not experienced in the States. For example, upon entering a large department store elevator, a perfectly coiffed woman in a smart uniform politely greeted us with a bow and pushed the button of the floor we wanted. Whenever we pulled into a gas station, attendants scurried around our car offering various forms of service and bowed in unison as we departed. When invited over for a meal, our hostess unfailingly laid out slippers for us and then proceeded to quietly turn our outdoor shoes around to easily step into in preparation for our departure.

All such efforts are part of what the Japanese loosely call “omotenashi,” a word usually translated as “hospitality.” However, such a simple summary does a huge injustice to the deep complexities that underlie the concept of omotenashi. The term itself is very unique in that different Chinese characters (kanji) are employed for the same word, adding subtly different nuances to the meaning. For this reason, omotenashi is most commonly written in the alphabetic hiragana as おもてなし, and avoids usage of the kanji. In its most basic translation, omotenashi means “not having two sides,” implying that one must be wholehearted and single-purposed when offering hospitality or a service to others. But “omote” can also refer to one’s public face or the way you present yourself to the world and “nashi” means “nothing.” This aspect of omotenashi then suggests that you are to serve others without public pretense, where ego doesn’t get in the way. This idea takes hospitality to a much higher level that goes beyond the expectations of the person being served and perhaps, even beyond the personal preferences of the one doing the serving. This form of omotenashi requires you to pay close attention to the needs of a guest or customer to the exclusion of your own.

The concept of omotenashi extends throughout Japanese society, including the manufacturing of cars. A great example of this is the circumstances that followed the launch in 1989 of the Lexus luxury vehicle model LS-400. After thousands of this particular car were rolled off of the assembly line and sold, Lexus received two very minor complaints from a couple of disgruntled customers. The company’s response? Lexus recalled all the cars and issued every owner a detailed letter of apology. In that letter, Lexus offered to come to every customer’s home, pick up their car, leave them a free loaner car, repair the car for free, wash it and then return it with a full tank of gas and an expensive gift. That’s omotenashi. Such incredible service closely aligns with the old Japanese proverb, “Okyakusama wa Kamisama,” which means, “the customer is god.”

While the values and practices of hospitality vary widely from culture to culture, we should remember that omotenashi is something all Christians are commanded to do. (Romans 12:13) On top of that, we must keep a close guard on our attitudes that accompany such acts of service as the Apostle Peter warns they are to be offered “without grumbling.” (I Peter 4:9) Biblical hospitality is not driven solely by an absence of self, like omotenashi; rather, it is spurred by higher motives: love of God and love of others. For a good example of this, we need look no further than the precedent Jesus laid down for His disciples when He washed their feet shortly before He was taken away to be tortured and crucified. That is God’s version of omotenashi.

*The idea for this blog comes from Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast “Go and See” on March 5, 2020.

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