JAPAN - Every time I go abroad and talk with young people at lectures I give at universities and at events related to Japanese pop culture, I'm surprised and also pleased to hear that many of them want to come to Japan. It means that Japan has the potential to become a leading global tourism destination, if not for the time and cost of traveling to this island country in the East.
Unlike France, which has the Louvre, and Italy, which has the Colosseum, Japan has very few landmarks that spring to mind for most people overseas. Yet Japan is a unique country that has diverse tourism resources in the areas of culture, nature, dining and shopping. For example, visitors to Tokyo may be delighted to find themselves in completely different surroundings by just taking a local train and getting off at the next station.
One type of place that many overseas visitors love to visit is a maid cafe. It has already become well established in Japanese culture.
When I met a professor in Hawaii who studied maid cafes in graduate school, he said that he had been conducting academic research on the Japanese spirit of "omotenashi" hospitality and found that a maid cafe was the best place to do it. He also had his students set up a maid cafe as a booth at Kawaii Kon, a Hawaiian event for fans of Japanese anime and manga.
The @home cafe is a longstanding maid cafe in Akihabara, the birthplace of the business. I sometimes go there myself, taking along friends who want to experience a maid cafe. It's remarkable how many customers at the cafe are from overseas. When I went there recently, the tables around mine were occupied by foreign customers. A young woman at the next table, who was apparently American and accompanied by her children and husband, smiled happily as she was attended by a waitress dressed as a maid. The sight made me smile, too.
Many tourists from overseas can't speak Japanese. The maid kindly explained the cafe's menu and system to the American family in English.
"We want visitors, including people from overseas, to have a good time at our maid cafe, so we've been having our maids take English lessons since about two years ago," said Koki Fukazawa, chief executive officer of Infinia Co., which operates @home cafe. "Beginning in September, we made it a requirement. Now, all new maids are obliged to take 10 lessons, each lasting one hour. Afterward, their awareness is completely changed."
Fukazawa gave me a chance to observe one of these lessons. There, about 10 maids intently listened to the instructor. They practiced English conversation and also took a test.
The training includes sentences useful for waiting on customers, such as "We draw a picture on the omelette," and "You can play a game with a maid for three minutes."
"This cafe is featured in some overseas travel guides, so more foreign tourists are coming to our cafe," said hitomi, president of the company and a maid herself. "If our maids feel nervous, we can't offer proper hospitality. Therefore, it's important to ease their anxiety by having them learn English conversation skills that will come in handy at our cafe."
The number of foreign tourists will certainly increase with the approach of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Japan has yet to fully utilize its tourism resources for overseas visitors despite their great potential value. These resources will become more powerful when Japan can attract tourists from abroad for a refined, delicate culture that has been shaped by the geographic characteristics of this island country where more than 100 million people reside.
I think maid cafes and their behind-the-scenes efforts to provide better service to customers give a hint to this country to better present its merits as an attractive tourist destination.
However, making conversation with customers always in English or Chinese isn't right.
"I think people from overseas who come to maid cafes look forward to hearing Japanese spoken by maids. So we'll serve these people by occasionally speaking Japanese," hitomi said.
"Okaeri-nasai, goshujin-sama" (Welcome home, my master), "Okaeri-nasai, ojo-sama" (Welcome home, my lady).
More and more cities overseas are becoming home to maid cafes. At the entrance of any of these cafes, customers are welcomed with such greetings in Japanese.
Maintaining its uniqueness and becoming a comfortable place for foreign tourists are major tasks for Japan.