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What makes Japanese customer service one of the best in the world?


Every foreigner that has ever come to Japan has definitely experienced Japanese amazing customer service. This is also why Japan has more and more visitors every year. For example, train punctuality , constantly smiling waiters/waitresses, perfectly constructed toilets, etc….Every detail of the country attracts you to visit again. What’s so special about Japanese customer service? Let’s see the word “o・mo・te・na・shi(おもてなし)” first. It became famous in 2013 when Christel Takigawa first introduced it to the world as an invitation to the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Instead of customer service, the word is primarily translated as hospitality. It defines the way of Japanese customer service. Rather than customer service, they aim at treating customers as their family members. They give customers service that exceeds expectation but ask for nothing in return.

Always on-time trains

In many countries, trains are often late and people are used to it which is understandable in these kinds of situations. But in Japan, trains are always on time. Last year, a train company apologized for their train leaving 20 seconds early, which triggered numerous discussions from people around the world. Tsukuba Express, which is run by a metropolitan intercity railway company, apologized for departing at 9’44”20’” instead of 9’44”40’” as planned. Therefore, some people in Japan commented saying that Japan is a country calculated by seconds. We can check a similar news report concerning Shinkansen in Japan. Tōkaidō Shinkansen, which is the high speed Shinkansen-line connecting Tokyo and Osaka, apologized in 2015 for having an annual accident error for 54 seconds. We have to be aware of the fact that it runs 120 thousand routes in one year. This annual accident error number of only 54 seconds is already shocking. But in 2016, the same Shinkansen-line reported of only 24 seconds annual accident error. This accident error even includes errors caused by natural disasters.

Japanese customer service in different places

Aside from trains, we can see Japanese hospitality in hotels, shops and restaurants. In other countries, you may have to tip for nice service. But in Japan, tips are not necessary because you can feel that the Japanese service industry is providing service beyond anticipation without asking for anything in return. There are some details in places mentioned above that every tourist may encounter. Imagine a situation when you step into an elevator, a man/woman wearing a suit asks you which floor you want to go. This frequently happens in big shopping malls or office buildings. There is staff that pushes elevator buttons for each customer/guest. Moreover, in shops, besides staff constantly smiling at you, when you leave, they will follow you outside of the shop and bow at a ninety degree angle. Even after you have walked a fair distance and decide to look back, you can still see them bowing with the same posture. This really makes a strong impression that almost no tourist can forget and avoid talking about after they have left Japan.

“O・mo・te・na・shi”ーーanother expression of Japanese customer service

The Japanese way of customer service is called “o・mo・te・na・shi” as we mentioned above. The point of this is to treat customers as family members and to slightly betray customers’ expectations in a good way. We know that ambiguity takes an important part in Japanese culture. Therefore, not expressing something directly is a Japanese way of aesthetics. The origin of “o・mo・te・na・shi” is based on this idea. And this makes Japanese service unique because you may not probably feel it right on the spot, but after you leave you will recall this memory again and again. What’s the cultural background of “o・mo・te・na・shi”? “O・mo・te・na・shi” is a word that originated from “mo・te・na・shi” which has 2 levels of meaning. One level is perceived as a verb which means treating customer with “mono(something can be tangible or intangible)”. The other level can be understood from its “kanji(Japanese characters)”. It’s written as “表裏無し” in kanji, which can be translated as ”nothing inside or outside”. Nothing inside or outside means “without specific purpose” in Japanese. We can see what Japanese want for “omotenashi” is to treat guests without specific purpose.

The connection with Japanese tea ceremony

Actually, “o・mo・te・na・shi” has a deep connection with Japanese tea ceremony in many ways. When “o・mo・te・na・shi” is perceived as a verb mentioned above, it means treating customer with “mono”. “Mono” can be tea, food or something else. Treating guests with tea was common in Japan. Therefore, it is no wonder that “o・mo・te・na・shi” is influenced by tea ceremony as well. It is said that flight attendants in JAL used to learn customer service with Japanese tea ceremony. Why is learning Japanese ceremony is important for Japanese service industry even nowadays? There’s one word in Japanese which is “ichi-go ichi-e(一期一会)”. Literally it’s translated as "one chance in a lifetime", "for this time only", "never again". Sen no Rikyū, a historical figure with the most profound influence on Japanese tea ceremony, once wrote his comment of “ichi-go ichi-e” as the “right this moment with which you can never be encountered in the future. Therefore, to cherish this moment and serve you with the top hospitality is what I can do for you.” Cherishing every chance of meeting with you as if it is the last time is what “ichi-go ichi-e” indicates and it is also the base of the Japanese way of treating guests.