Small commentaries: A response to Philip Brasor’s distorted commentary on ‘Omotenashi’

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Introduction

By way of introduction, it’s necessary to underline that it’s difficult to discuss “omotenashi” properly if the signified (meaning) of the signifier “omotenashi” and the way in which the signifier structures interactions between subjects is ample understood. Understanding or even better experiencing the specificity of Omotenashi, Japanese hospitality, is essential to be able to provide a fruitful commentary.

Without a decent understanding of the specificities of “omotenashi” and how it structures relations, one easily falls prey to assessing the Japanese hospitality using mainly preconceptions based on one’s own cultural background. If one thus wants to examine “Omotenashi”, one needs to examine it from within the context and interactions it structures.

In other words: one doesn’t need to be Japanese to be able to understand the situations omotenashi creates, but that doesn’t mean that non-Japanese – and even Japanese people as well – should be ignorant of the specificity of Japanese hospitality. If one stays ignorant, this can only produce pointless observations given the subject at hand.

And isn’t a misunderstanding concerning “omotenashi” governing Philip Brasor’s biting commentary? A misunderstanding which has obviously created a distorted commentary of the phenomenon.

Irasshaimase! Irasshaimase! Irasshaimase!

“A man tries to choose a set of chopsticks in the Daimaru Department store in Osaka. Every time he looks in the direction of the shopkeeper, the shopkeeper utters: Irasshaimase!”

“In the same Daimaru Department store, a man receives the signifier “Irasshaimase!” on his way to the exit”.

What one should learn from these examples is that in essence the ‘meaning’ of the word “Irasshaimase!” is unimportant. The fundamental purpose of the utterance of the signifier “Irasshaimase!” is to establish and thus structure a relation between two subjects. The signifier’s primary effect is the recognition of one subject as the ‘guest’, only because the same signifier positions the other subject, the subject who utters ‘Irasshaimase!’, as the ‘host’. Furthermore the utterance of “Irasshaimase” informs the other members of the staff of the fact that a subject has entered the “omotenashi” situation as guest: this means that the utterance positions the other members of the staff as hosts as well.

The subject’s response to the “Irasshaimase!”, which can be a slight bow, nod, …, implies that the subject accepts the role/image of guest, the role that the utterance assigns him/her to. This means that, and this is only slightly touched upon in Brasor’s commentary (note 1), that the “guest” has a role to fulfill too, because the “Irasshaimase!” implicates the subject in the “game” that is called Japanese hospitality. The subject’s first role as guest, besides enjoying himself, is to be respectful and appreciative towards the host. In a restaurant, for instance, this can take the following form: every time the ‘host’ fills up the guest’s glass with water – every time after asking the guest, the guest has to respond with: “arigatou gozaimasu”. But the more fundamental trait that defines the image of the guest is that he has to place trust in the host, as “omotenashi” is fundamentally underpinned by ‘trust’, by trusting each other.

It seems that Brasor’s commentary forgets the fact that the subject entering the “Omotenashi” situation as guest has to clothe himself with a specific image of ‘guest’ – although the guest’s role is less governed by precise rules. As such Brasor’s representation of “omotenashi” as primarily a ‘dominant’ relation that favours the host implies that he slightly misunderstands “omotenashi”.

“Omotenashi”, in our view, implies first and foremost a structured interaction, exchange – based on mutual trust – between the subject as host and the subject as guest. In the case of the traditional tea ceremony, it’s not the host or the guest that gets favored, but the act of serving tea or the ceremony/ritual of serving tea. “Omotenashi” structures the interaction between host and quest around the act of serving, preparing and drinking tea. And isn’t it the ceremony of tea-serving itself and the ritualized interaction it implies that is desired by the guest in most cases?

If one sees ‘Omotenashi’ as first and foremost the ‘introduction’ of structure, then one can also understand why differences exist in the “subjective implication” of the subject, who takes up the role of host, in his role as host. In other words: the genuineness by which of the host offers his service can differ, independently of the structure Omotenashi formalizes. The structure delineates the playing field by which genuineness, warmth, … in hospitality is possible.

It’s not ‘knowing’ but the “act” that governs Japanese hospitality

Brasor’s commentary describes the problem of Omotenashi as follows: “This is the problem with omotenashi, whose tenet is not that the customer is always right, but rather that the service provider knows what’s best for the customer”.

With this quote Brasor, referring to Atkinson, provides a problematic interpretation of Otomenashi: the fact that the host “knows” what’s best for the costumer. Brasor puts the accent on “knowing” and once again on the “host”, but, in our view, Japanese hospitality is not about “knowing”. To illustrate this, we’ll use the two following examples:

“A man with a men’s bag visits a Japanese restaurant in Kobe. The host gives him a box to put his bag in. He doesn’t really need this, but it’s not unwelcome.”

“A Japanese friend who used to travel a lot for work told me of a funny thing that once happened to her in a Tokyo hotel. She was checking in when a bellhop came up and, without saying anything, picked up her bag. She resented the presumption and tried to yank it out of his hand (Brasor, 10/10/2015)”.

In both situations, we see the “host” performing an “act”; an “act” that might benefit the guest. In Japanese hospitality the host needs to assess each guest individually and anticipate what his “needs” might be (note 2). This means that the host does not “know” what the guest wants – in most cases the guest doesn’t know what he could ‘want’ either, but that the host, given a particular situation in which the guest and host are structured by “omotenashi”, realizes a place in which a subject can take up the position of being a guest. This place is primarily created by the host and his “acts” of hospitality, which are quite often the nodal points of exchange between guest and host. These acts are often beyond asking what a ‘guest’ needs, but only take up their meaning within the structure “omotenashi” conditions.

In the first example this means that not every guest will receive a box to put his stuff in. Concerning the second example, one should ask in how many cases a guest would deny the act of the bellboy; in how many cases would the bellboy be wrong in creating a place for the subject to be the guest by way of his act?

But minor acts of hospitality are quite often overlooked. Think for instance about the specific way in which a “host” gives the “guest” his bag with purchases or the way the host gives the guest his change. Furthermore the immediate serving of ice water or hot tea as well as the wet towel one receives to wipe one’s hands are “acts” of hospitality.

But even though “the act” is very important in Japanese hospitality, in the exchange between guest and host, this doesn’t mean that Japanese hospitality is beyond the use of the “question”: how else will the host “know” what the guest wants to eat for example? Nevertheless, the use of the “question” seems to be reserved for the most fundamental ‘needs’ the subject as guest might have.

Conclusion: Who has to change?

In our short exploration of “Omotenashi” – which obviously has its own shortcomings, we aimed to show that Brasor approach to “Omotenashi” is problematic in three ways. Firstly, because his approach fails to underline the image of the guest in the play that “omotenashi” produces.  Secondly, because his focus on “knowing” on part of the host is incorrect.  And thirdly, because he fails to give the “act” it’s rightful place.

This problematic analysis necessitates us to ask the following questions: What kind of ‘hospitality’ does Brasor wants Japanese hospitality to be? How should Japanese hospitality change, according to Brasor? To which idea of hospitality Brasor has, should Japanese hospitality conform to?

These question ultimately leads to the following question: who has to change? Japanese hospitality or the subject who enters the “omotenashi” structure as guest? If –and we say if- Japanese hospitality needs to change, it shouldn’t change by conforming, which endangers the specificity of the hospitality, but by evolving, thereby preserving the essence of “omotenashi”. But who says Japanese hospitality hasn’t evolved already?

The problem therefore might be the subject entering the “omotenashi” structure as guest. Doesn’t our exploration of “omotenashi” show that a subject entering the structure of hospitality can be a “bad” guest? In Japanese hospitality, one can fail to assume the image of guest and enter the space the host creates for the subject to realize him/herself as guest.

The fact that the subject can fail in realizing the specific Japanese image of guest, doesn’t mean that the “host” is infallible, within the structure of Omotenashi. But to be able to specify the ways in which a “host” can fail as “host” a more deeper understanding of “Omotenashi” and the verbal and non-verbal interactions it structures is required.

[This article might be reworked in the future.]

Notes:

Note 1:  “The guest’s role is to “appreciate the host’s fine taste” (Brasor, 10/10/2015)”.

Note 2:  In the case of “Otomonashi” and more precisely “the acts of hospitality”, the use of the signifier “needs” might be incorrect and not identify correctly what’s at stake.

References:

Brasor, P. (10/10/2015). ‘Omotenashi’ comes up short on humility. Retrieved at: http://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2015/10/10/national/media-national/omotenashi-comes-short-humility/#.ViORyX7hCUl

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