Japan’s Past Should Be Its Future

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Like “gemutlich” (a German adjective describing fireside coziness), the Japanese word “omotenashi” is hard to define but easy to picture. It’s a cashier greeting you nicely rather than chatting with colleagues and tossing your purchase across the counter -- an all-encompassing focus on service and caring professionalism.

Long hailed as the epitome of Japanese quality, the concept is for the first time coming in for a beating. More and more Japanese are wondering whether human-scale omotenashi makes sense in an age when Alexa, Siri and Japan’s own robotics are seeking to provide a frictionless experience through technology. I’d argue that the term belongs in our vocabulary and, in fact, offers a key to growth and prosperity.

Skeptics make a persuasive case. While the spirit of omotenashi contributes to high service quality, it requires higher labor intensity per output, fueling low productivity both in the service sector and in white-collar work overall. According to the Japan Productivity Center, the per-hour productivity of Japanese workers is only about two-thirds that of their American counterparts. Japan ranked 20th of 35 OECD countries in 2017 and has been stuck at the lowest level in the G-7 ever since the statistics became available in 1970.

Omotenashi can also work against transparency and good governance. Directed towards an internal customer -- in other words, one’s boss -- an excessive emphasis on omotenashi may lead to organizational collusion. The raft of Japanese corporate scandals shows how hard executives find it to put principles before what are seen as the firm’s interests, and to fight back against corporate malfeasance.

And finally, the concept of omotenashi seems awfully inward-looking at a time when Japanese companies need to grow more comfortable operating globally. If omotenashi grew out of a homogenous, high-context environment such as Japan where citizens can easily relate to one another, can it really work as well outside the country?

In fact, deployed wisely, omotenashi can help Japanese companies set themselves apart. For one thing, the concept can help rationalize how Japanese firms deploy their workers. Nowadays, many jobs can be divided into two buckets -- mundane tasks that can be automated and people-to-people tasks that require communication. The latter are designed for rich omotenashi. For example, at a commercial bank, AI-enabled technology could screen mortgage applications, while highly trained employees could perform complicated financial planning for customers who want their needs understood in detail and by another human being.

A focus on omotenashi could also increase diversity and help mitigate Japan’s labor shortages. Despite a shrinking population, the productive labor force in Japan is expected to remain flat over the next five years, according to recent research by Mitsubishi UFJ Research and Consulting. This is due to an inflow of women and elderly workers compensating for the decrease of men between the ages of 15 and 64. Instead of assigning those women and senior citizens to back-office operations or support roles as was traditionally the case, companies could enhance their omotenashi by moving them to front-line tasks such as sales and customer service.

Most importantly, the concept of omotenashi can be expanded abroad if it’s updated and made more flexible. Not everyone reads Japanese hospitality the same way; a European expat who’s worked in the country for many years might find the almost comically exaggerated hospitality of a country inn to be fussy, while a first-time Chinese visitor might find it charming.

Omotenashi shouldn’t have an instruction manual; it’s about basic care and respect for the other party. In this sense, it should be globally applicable, assuming that the practitioner is ready to think on his or her feet. As Japanese companies expand abroad, local staff members need to be empowered to carry out their own versions of omotenashi according to the local culture. If this spirit is rightly conveyed, omotenashi will become part of charm of working for a Japanese company, attracting even more talent.

Omotenashi would be easy to dismiss as yet another Japanese quirk. It should be a Japanese strength. 

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.

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