We had just completed a week that had been filled beyond the brim with extraordinary hospitality. Our university has a partnership with Urawa Lutheran School (which is worthy of donor support, especially as they complete the building of their new campus, necessitated by structural and safety concerns following the big earthquake). There, we were treated with a level of hospitality I had not encountered before, despite meeting generous people throughout the the world. They anticipated our every need from coffee to sight seeing. We ate like kings: unagi, sukiyaki, udon, okonomiyaki and izakaya were among my favorite dining experiences. (Surprisingly, while we never went to a sushi place per se, I did get my fill at the airport, and was interviewed on Japanese television related to American perspectives on sushi). After all this, my colleague and I added a couple days in Tokyo to our stay, in order to see if we could navigate and explore free-style. Despite our enthusiasm, we got lost.
We made it to the area called Shinjuku, but we didn't know where to go next. We were seeking good food and Saturday night energy. A gentleman in his late twenties or early thirties came to our rescue after we stared at the map for a couple minutes. My first response was caution. What kind of swindle did this guy intend? Was he intending to rob me or con me? Did he want some cash for his kindness like I expect from some encounters in Chicago or New York? In any case, we didn't have much of a choice, so we accepted his offer to show us the proper exit and point us in the right direction.
Then, he kept following us. His English was limited, but it was better than my meagre Japanese. I had difficulty explaining that we could "take it from here." Eventually, he said, "No, I will have a drink with you." I wondered if perhaps he wanted free booze. Nonetheless, we got up the courage to follow him down stairs into a door to a basement restaurant. Instead of danger, we opened a door to a superb gyoza place. Our new friend translated for us and helped order all the best items on the menu. The food was excellent, as was the conversation and the energy of the room. The chefs were friendly; the sake was like dew dripping off an angel's wings. And then, our friend suggested he would pick up the tab. When I protested, he suggested we split it three ways. Having been treated well for a whole week, I explained I wanted to exchange the favor and pick up the tab. He eventually agreed, but took a group picture to prove to his new wife why he was unexpectedly out late in Shinjuku.
Before we parted (he also helped us hail a cab), I asked why he decided to take the time to help us have a good time. He said the concept is somewhat untranslatable, but that the Japanese term is omotenashi (おもてなし). If you search the web for a definition you can get a decent sense of what it means: a spirit of hospitality. But most sites give you the impression that it is primarily a concept that applies to the superb hospitality industry. To be sure, the hotels and restaurants reflected this quality. But an American perspective might mistake omotenashi for little more than good customer service. I prefer the way my new Japanese friend defined it: "unrestrained generosity toward an equal with no expectation--and often no possibility--of having your kindness reciprocated." It's like a culturally-embedded tradition of random acts of kindness. But in this case it isn't patronizing; it doesn't put the recipient in a position of dependence or shame. It is about the joy of giving without thinking in terms of transaction or exchange. And I love it.
It turns out that this fellow was not a hoodlum or swindler. He is a successful engineer with the Toshiba corporation. He loves jazz and baseball. Now don't get me wrong: I know there is no utopia on the planet, and I continue that my Japanese friends tend to work about 20 hours more than professionals typically do in America each week. But Japan was an astounding experience. It's culture is a well-tuned machine. Millions dance through the subways and sidewalks without colliding. There was hardly any trash to be found. The architecture was amazing. The food was unbeatable. The people, however, are the nation's greatest treasure. The League of Faithful Masks cares about serving our neighbors and confronting Western forms of selfishness. There was no greater lesson on how to do this well than my travels to Japan. I'd say their hospitality puts us Americans to shame, but that does an injustice to their intent of their hospitality. The idea that receiving a gift without strings attached might shame us is at the root of our problem in this instance. It reflects a spirit of gracelessness: one which we must shed. Giving and receiving both must be free of "bean counting" if we are to create a truly hospitable ethos. Omotenashi is about true kindness, it bears little resemblance to the indigenous Pacific Northwest concept of a potlatch.
I hope we who live in North America, and who are not of Japanese descent can begin to consider ways in which we can anticipate the needs of guests and immigrants, give without strings attached to peers, and take joy in mutual gift-giving. If you take little steps in this direction this week, it may create a well spring of joy in your life. Give it a try.
Jeff Mallinson, D.Phil.
Co-Host, Virtue in the Wasteland
Theology and Philosophy Faculty, CUI
Member of the 1517 Legacy Project Thinking Fellowship