Skip to main content
Photo of students at Global Network Week at Hitsosubashi

Exploring the Culture of Service in Japan

Kira Qi ’23 shares insights from Global Network Week at Hitotsubashi University Business School, School of International Corporate Strategy.

Japan is famous for its service industry. I went into the March Global Network Week (GNW) at Hitotsubashi curious about how the considerate and detailed-oriented service you experience in the country came to be. Hitotsubashi’s GNW Module, “Innovation x Service: Omotenashi 3.0,” revealed the evolution of Japanese service and its underlying culture by offering us a five-day immersive experience that gave us an inside look at various aspects of service.

The key word to understanding Japanese service spirit is omotenashi: In Japanese, omote means the public face thath individuals put forth; nashi means none. Omotenashi, a word that originated from sado (Japanese tea ceremony), is used to describe a spirit of full, selfless dedication to the guest. With the development of society, the spirit of omotenashi has been infused into Japanese culture, business, and service.

Kira Qi and friends at a Japanese tea ceremony
Experiencing a Japanese tea ceremony

The trip kicked off with opportunities to experience the cultural ceremonies of ikebana (flower arranging) and sado. Japanese traditional cultures put much emphasis on the harmonious relationship between nature and human beings, so in ikebana, it is important to arrange the flowers in a way that respects and showcases their natural beauty. During the traditional Japanese tea ceremony, omotenashi was shown to its full extent. It usually takes hours for the host to prepare the tea ceremony, as they need to understand the guests so that an appropriate theme and food can be prepared. Also, the temperature of the water, colors of the kimono, etc., are carefully chosen based on weather, seasons, and guests invited. There are many subtle details in the process of the tea ceremony, with great effort put in by the host to offer better service to the guests.

At the robot café
At a robot-operated hotel
At the Avatar Robot Café (left) and at the robot-managed Henn-na Hotel

We witnessed the evolution of traditional omotenashi and its presence in modern society (omotenashi 2.0) through our hotel experience, company visits, and company presentations. One presentation that impressed me was the “seven-minute miracle” created by the railway company TESSEI, whose employees finish cleaning the 17-carriage trains in fewer than seven minutes. In Japan and most countries, cleaning had been traditionally regarded as a “3K” job: kitsui (tough), kitanai (dirty), and kiken (dangerous). However, by transforming employee awareness, changing uniforms, and changing company culture, TESSEI successfully made its employees proud of their jobs and created an omotenashi service spirit among them.

Japan is currently faced with the challenge of an aging population and the fact that there will be fewer young laborers in the market, posing challenges to the  service industry. To meet the challenge, Japanese enterprises are introducing robotic services (omotenashi 3.0). During GNW, I experienced the robot-managed hotel Henn-na Hotel, and ate at the Avatar Robot Café. I was excited to see that technology and robots were transforming the Japanese service industry. At another business, Dawn Café, people with disabilities can wait on customers using remote-controlled avatar robots. The waitress for my table lived in the north of Japan and needed to take care of her daughter, who has a disability. This job allowed her to work remotely while having time to be with her child. I can see how robots are expanding opportunities for disadvantaged groups and providing solutions to labor shortage issues. However, I also feel that there is still a long way to go for both Japan and the rest of the world to promote robotic solutions for labor markets especially if people would like to offer omotenashi services.

Studying omotenashi has broadened my understanding of customer service and how it can be utilized to enhance customer satisfaction. Through my interactions with local businesses and observing their service, I have learned that omotenashi goes beyond traditional customer service practices and instead focuses on building long-term relationships with customers. This has given me a new perspective on how businesses can create a loyal customer base and maintain a competitive advantage in the market. Also, this experience has equipped me with valuable insights and skills in the areas of customer service, business strategy, and relationship-management, and allows me to explore how to bring Japanese service spirit into western business world.