One of the key factors driving Japan’s unprecedented tourism boom is its culture of hospitality — epitomized by the concept of omotenashi, which can be roughly translated as “wholeheartedly looking after guests.”
Yet perhaps because omotenashi has a long history and can be taken for granted by Japanese innkeepers — there was never a strongly perceived need for professional training programs at the university level.
Unlike in North America and Europe, university training to educate would-be managers in the hospitality industry can be hard to find in Japan.
The problem is especially acute in the Osaka region.
As the Kansai’s region’s largest city prepares for the 2025 World Expo and continues efforts to host one of Japan’s first integrated casino resorts, there is a citywide hotel boom underway that is expected to make at least 83,000 rooms available in about 1,100 hotels and ryokan (traditional inns) by 2020, officials say.
That, in turn, has spawned demand for talented hotel workers and future managers.
To help meet this demand, Kansai Gaidai University, along with several Osaka-area hotels, has begun one of the nation’s few hotel management programs for undergraduates.
The new program is perhaps the first of its kind in Japan, according to Stephen Zurcher, dean of Kansai Gaidai’s Asian Studies program and vice president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan’s Kansai chapter. The idea emerged a few years ago after informal meetings between the ACCJ’s external affairs committee and several general managers of luxury hotels in the region.
“The managers told us they were unable to hire, or even find, talented Japanese who would be able to move into a management path,” Zurcher said. “They said they needed three things from their managers: English-language ability, cross-cultural living experience, and content, or industry knowledge.”
As Kansai Gaidai focuses on English-language education and already has more than 1,800 students studying abroad every year, Zurcher felt it satisfied two of the three requirements.
What the school lacked was courses about the hotel business — inspiring Zurcher to establish a two-year hotel management program at the university, one that would work with area hotels to provide internships.
“Our program is designed so students begin their study in the second semester of their sophomore year. They take courses in hotel operations, marketing, finance and accounting. It’s not all about hotels, as some classes cover general business topics,” Zurcher said.
The first internships began this month. One of the participating hotels is the Ritz-Carlton Osaka, where Kansai Gaidai students will be working for about six weeks.
“They’ll partner with senior staff to experience whether they like working in a hotel and get on-the-job training where they can see how employees serve guests of different nationalities,” said Christopher Clark, general manager of the Ritz-Carlton Osaka. “That’s key, because they’ll see how expectations of different guests are quite different depending on the nationality.”
A couple of other students are at the Osaka Marriott Miyako Hotel. Masahiko Torii, senior managing director of Kintetsu Miyako Hotels International, Inc., said students will be doing everything from working at the bell desk and helping guests with luggage, to assisting the housekeepers and even helping the sales team.
“Usually, internships in Japan are done in one place, such as a restaurant. But our interns will work at six or seven places in the hotel over the time they’ll be with us. If they do a good job, we intend to hire them after they graduate,” Torii said.
Zurcher is quick to emphasize that this is a program, not a course one can take to earn a full degree in hospitality like those offered overseas.
But with more than 1,000 hotels and lodging facilities in Osaka as of April 2017, according to city statistics, with another 120 expected to open by early next year, the demand for workers and managers who will be able to host international guests is expected to grow just as rapidly.
That means demand for educating and training such people at the university level is also likely to grow, and not just in Osaka.
Currently, Tamagawa and Meikai universities offer undergraduate studies in tourism, as approved by the education ministry. Kyoto University has a graduate program for tourism manager specialists and Hokkaido University has a center for advanced tourism studies.
But these programs focus more on research and vocational training related to the industry, as opposed to the focus on hotel management offered by Kansai Gaidai.
If Kansai Gaidai’s program is successful, however, other schools could follow suit, meaning Japan may well end up being known not only as a major tourist destination, but also as a place to formally study how to combine omotenashi with the international hospitality industry.