What’s the secret to a genuinely friendly welcome? In Japan, a dedication to group harmony and an appreciation for the transience of the moment.
Japan’s next-level approach to hospitality is hard to miss. Travelers can feel it in the politeness of convenience stores employees all the way up to luxury hotel staff. They can see it in the details of an exquisite store display or food perfectly plated on a dish.
Akito Nishiuchi, an attaché at the Embassy of Japan, describes this depth of professionalism in terms of pride. “If you go to Japan, taxi drivers, train conductors, bus drivers, and restaurant staff mostly wear uniforms,” he says. “They take deep pride in their work. . . . Because doing their best is part of the job, receiving tips or gratuity is unnecessary.” The mind-set extends beyond the service industry to the way people conduct everyday life: from thoughtful bows to spotless streets and scrupulous punctuality.
To witness Japanese hospitality at its finest, Michiko Sato, a licensed guide and etiquette expert for the five-star Palace Hotel Tokyo, recommends attending a traditional tea ceremony. “The host meticulously prepares everything that will be presented to guests as a gesture of sincerity,” she explains. “The precious hanging scroll, the seasonal flower arrangements, and the various beautiful utensils are all selected with great care and attention to suit the theme of the ceremony perfectly.”
But you don’t have to leave this heightened level of courtesy behind when you leave Japan. Whether you’re planning a party or meeting a friend, the five practices below will welcome the spirit of Japanese hospitality into your everyday life.
Omotenashi: Anticipate others’ needs
Omotenashi is the general term used to describe the concept of Japanese hospitality. It goes beyond simply providing a service—it requires genuine empathy and concern. Sato describes it as “reading an atmosphere deeply, being mindful of every situation, and genuinely caring about guests’ well-being. . . . Japanese people strive to look after their guests without their guests needing to express their desires verbally.”
Omotenashi is integrated into every aspect of daily life, even in the minute details: In Japan, taxi doors open and close by themselves, toothpicks and chopsticks are already stocked in to-go bento boxes, and public toilets are equipped with heated seats and deodorizers.
Wa: Strive for harmony
With a history rooted in more than 2,000 years of Buddhism, Shinto, and Confucianism, maintaining harmony is the backbone of Japan’s social code. It’s based on the ancient concept of wa, a peaceful cooperation between people in a community that contributes to the collective good. Unlike in the United States, in Japan, taking care of the community takes precedence over the individual. “Japan used to be an agricultural-centric economy,” Sato explains. “For the sake of efficiency . . . it was imperative that big groups of people worked cooperatively with one another in order to be productive. . . . In big metropolitan centers such as Tokyo, people need to share very limited, very tight living spaces with many neighbors.”
This deeply ingrained idea of harmony manifests itself beyond social interactions—it’s intertwined with the country’s balanced and refined approach to food, art, and design.
Ichi-go ichi-e: Cherish the moment
A Zen saying often brushed onto the scrolls hung in tea ceremony rooms is “Ichi-go ichi-e.” This phrase roughly translates into “one opportunity, one encounter.” It reminds participants to be present and enjoy the ritual of sharing tea together. Like a cherry blossom tree, which only blooms a few weeks out of the year, experiences must be savored because life is transient. Even if the same people come together again, that unique moment in time can never be replicated.
Wabi sabi: Find beauty in imperfection
If all this focus on masterful service seems daunting, turn to the notion of wabi sabi. This philosophy recognizes that imperfect things are perfect in their uniqueness: from a withered autumn leaf to a crack in a piece of pottery. The goal of entertaining isn’t to be impressive, it’s to be personal. It’s not to show off, it’s to show up. It’s the difference between hosting a party in a cozy room using mix-and-match dinnerware and holding it in a stuffy dining room with fine china. Wabi sabi helps us let go of expectations and focuses on creating an authentic setting on our own terms, one that encourages meaningful interactions.
The goal of entertaining isn’t to be impressive, it’s to be personal. It’s not to show off, it’s to show up.
Temiyage: Give gifts of gratitude
In Japan, showing up empty-handed to a party is a big no-no. It’s not only the host’s responsibility to show respect, but guests should reciprocate it as well. Temiyage, a small thank-you gift of gourmet treats or souvenirs, is a thoughtful way to show gratitude when welcomed into somebody’s home. The ritual is more important than the present itself—it signifies how much the relationship is valued. The care that goes into wrapping the temiyage is equally as important. Gifts are covered in beautiful paper or a decorative furoshiki cloth, carefully chosen to symbolize the sentiment behind the friendship.
In an interview with the Wall Street Journal in 2014, the general manager of the Palace Hotel described the concept of omotenashi in terms of authenticity. “To me, [it is] hospitality that’s extended with the utmost sincerity, grace, and respect, however big or small the gesture or the task,” Masaru Watanabe said, “not to be mistaken with the other, perhaps more commonly experienced version of service, which is superficial service delivered out of a sense of obligation and with an expectation of reward.”
Sincerity, grace, respect—values from which all our daily lives could benefit.