[From May Issue 2011]
“That’s the difference in hospitality between Japanese and non-Japanese people, I realized,” says TORIMOTO Masao, the Executive Director of the Kagaya Ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn. “It was when I visited Nishosei Kagaya in Taiwan, the first Kagaya Ryoken that we opened abroad. I was thirsty and waiting for a cup of tea to be served. But the Taiwanese employee didn’t do anything. I called her over and asked, ‘Why haven’t you served me tea.’ And she answered, ‘Please tell me when you’d like some tea. I’ll be happy to make it for you anytime.’”
Located in Ishikawa Prefecture, Kagaya is a hot spring inn almost a century old, with room rates starting at 33,750 yen per person per night. It can accommodate up to 1,400 people a day, it houses a theater, a spa and several souvenir shops, and its staff has the reputation for great hospitality. It has also been chosen No. 1 overall for 31 consecutive years in the Ryoko Shimbun-Shinsha Co., Ltd’s yearly travel agency questionnaire which helps recognize “the best 100 hotels and inns in Japan as selected by industry professionals.”
Kagaya’s room attendants are well-trained to attend to their guests’ individual needs. For example, they eyeball a guest’s height and then prepare just the right-size yukata (a kimono worn when relaxing), or, when a non-Japanese guest is not enjoying sashimi (raw fish) they will bring over a “nabe” pot so those who don’t like eating it raw can cook it like shabushabu (a method of lightly cooking ingredients in boiling stock).
“The important thing in offering quality hospitality is to put yourself in your guest’s shoes,” says Torimoto. “For instance, if I were a guest, I might be thirsty by now. If you keep that in mind when you look at your guest’s facial expressions and gestures, you can get a sense what they really want. It’s a matter of course to serve your guest tea after being asked to. But, you should try to read their minds and serve them before being asked,” he suggests.
Kagaya opened in Taiwan last December. Explains Tomimoto: “For a Taiwanese worker to be hired, they had to have passed the second level of the Japanese Language Proficiency Test. We thought that those who took an interest in learning Japanese would be able to better understand Japanese hospitality. But in reality, it’s just not so. Furthermore, some of our Taiwanese guests think it’s enough for our staff to just do what they are asked to. At times I wonder what to do about it, but my policy remains that we should stick to the Japanese hospitality model.”
There are even some companies that are trying to instill the values of Japanese hospitality into particular countries so that it takes root there, such as the Japanese convenience store chain, FamilyMart. With the third largest share of Japan’s convenience store market, FamilyMart operates 8,248 stores at home and 9,350 stores abroad, as of February 28, 2011.
Japanese convenience stores really are very convenient, with many of them open 24 hours-a-day all year long. Mainly carrying food, drinks and daily necessities, these stores provide small services such as warming o-bento (boxed meals) in microwave ovens and bagging food and daily necessities separately. Moreover, they provide photocopy and fax services, accept utility bill payments, and you can even send and receive packages there, as well as many other convenient services.
“As lifestyles become more varied, customers’ needs become more diversified as well, and as a result, more individualized services will be required,” explains ITO Shiori, a member of public relations department. “There are many convenience stores in Japan today, so customers choose the ones they can most comfortably use. We would like to be known as the one chosen for its better hospitality.”
“Since ours is a company born in Japan, I think we have a sense of hospitality unique to our own country,” says Ito. “We see the customers who come into our stores as guests visiting our homes. For example, some of our stores provide customers with dry towels on rainy days, while others have small shopping carts for children to use.”
Ito continues: “We also respect the local sense of hospitality. So, rather than just offering typical Japanese products as they are, we include local customs and ideas so as to provide better hospitality. For instance, when selling oden (a Japanese winter dish) in China we alter the flavoring and ingredients to suit the local palate. We even sell it skewered as well.”
Meanwhile, there is one non-Japanese who is also trying to inject some Japanese hospitality into the hospital where he works. John WOCHER, the Executive Vice President at Kameda Medical Center in Chiba Prefecture, says, “I think that the hospitality offered at Japanese hotels and stores is amazing. But at hospitals, the quality of hospitality extended to patients is very low.”
“Hospitals in Japan impose too many restrictions on their patients,” points out Wocher. “Take visiting hours for example. Why can’t patients be visited freely, or why can’t their family members sleep in their rooms? What’s more, for patients who are not on a restricted diet, why can’t they eat their favorite food or drink some alcohol? And getting a private room is usually out of the question.”
“Japanese doctors and hospital staff have traditionally thought that they were more important than their patients,” analyzes Wocher. “So they don’t have the right mentality to offer hospitality to their patients. They hardly give any explanations and act as if patients should just shut up and believe whatever they say. On the other hand, hotels and stores have a higher regard for their customers. That’s why they offer such great hospitality.”
“The hospitality that we believe in helps create a warm and comfortable atmosphere, one of doing for others what you would want done for yourself, the offer of having something done for you rather than having to ask for it. Both our Japanese and non-Japanese staff share this same sensibility,” affirms Wocher. “As a company, we make every effort to provide general patients with private rooms, and they can usually choose their meals. I hope that our hospitality will become the standard for all the hospitals across Japan.”
As globalization broadens, Japanese hospitality seems to be changing right along with it.
Text: SAZAKI Ryo