Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.
Born in Avignon in the south of France, Carine Lafitte first visited Japan at the age of 27 when she came to study in Hirosaki, Aomori Prefecture. Won over by the warmth of the local people, she decided to stay in Japan, eventually finding work as a nakai, a highly skilled waitress at a ryotei, or formal restaurant.
January 5, 2017
Japanophiles: Carine Lafitte
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Japanese service is famed the world over for its extreme formality and meticulous attention to detail. This is evident not only in exclusive settings like high-class department stores and hotels, but also in bustling environments such as convenience stores and airports -- locations that in other countries are seldom seen as synonymous with courtesy.
Even when it comes to major global fast food and coffee chains, many visitors from overseas will notice the marked readiness of staff in this country to go the extra mile. And in the same way, Japanese chains with activities abroad tend to demand the same exacting standards of their local employees.
Rather than responding to a customer’s needs as and when they arise, so much about Japanese service when practiced in its purest form seems designed to preempt such needs. And a response is often proffered before patrons themselves have even realized what it is that they might require.
This is the very embodiment of omotenashi, a celebrated approach to hospitality that is proactive without being pushy, and warm while allowing patrons just the right amount of space that they never come to feel awkward.
As Tokyo gears up to host the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic games, omotenashi has become something of a buzzword. With the expected spike in visitor numbers, the spirit of Japanese hospitality is seen as a vital tool in ensuring as pleasant and memorable a stay as possible for all comers, thereby winning more fans for Japan and cementing the country’s place among the world’s top tourist destinations.
There is no doubt that advances in technology have enabled Japan’s service to cover an astonishing range of eventualities. But the essential, unchanging spirit of omotenashi has deep historical roots, and some of the best places to experience the epitome of Japanese hospitality include highly traditional settings such as ryokan inns, and ryotei restaurants.
This banquet room at this ryotei showcases the work of leading craftspeople from the time of the building’s construction almost a century ago.
A private dining space.
The quality of the ryotei experience is shaped in part by a nakai. These highly trained, kimono-clad servers devote themselves to ensuring the most agreeable experience possible for each patron.
Not only does she thoroughly clean and prepare the dining environment before guests arrive, the nakai also conducts every interaction with the utmost respect and codified, choreographed etiquette.
The need to serve diners kneeling down makes a nakai’s job very physically demanding.
A nakai must kneel even when opening and closing the sliding door of the dining room.
From opening and closing the door, to placing and removing dishes, everything is done while kneeling. Though it was once the norm for Japanese to kneel in many situations, the habit has become less and less common in recent years. For contemporary Japanese, this lack of kneeling practice in everyday life makes the role of nakai something of a physical challenge.
The nakai must also familiarize herself with every aspect of the formal kaiseki cuisine in which formal restaurants specialize. For diners, the opportunity to learn in great detail about the local, seasonal ingredients that go into each dish, as well as the methods of preparation, is just one more enchanting perk of nakai service.
The required knowledge of the menu extends to memorizing a great number of kanji characters relating to the food on offer. Because many of these terms are seldom used in day-to-day settings, they can be difficult even for many Japanese to read.
Lafitte’s duties extend to the kitchen itself, where she arranges the plates to help the chefs achieve the perfect presentation.
Lafitte and a colleague coordinate their activities.
All of this combines to make the position of nakai a formidable hurdle for anybody to clear, let alone somebody who did not grow up in Japan. That being the case, the career trajectory of Carine Lafitte, subject of this edition of Japanophiles, is especially impressive.
Lafitte was initially drawn to the country through an interest in the martial art aikido. Her love of Japan was then cemented by the warm reception she received from the people of Hirosaki, in the snowy northern prefecture of Aomori, when she went there on an exchange program at the age of 27.
Following the end of her studies, she vowed to return to Japan. So when she was offered a job as a nakai at a historic ryotei, she jumped at the chance, despite the obvious difficulties. Her ability to offer service of equal quality to both Japanese guests and those from overseas has made her an indispensable member of the team.
As Japan welcomes more and more international visitors, this marriage of quintessentially Japanese service with the curiosity of the Japanology Plus connoisseur would seem to be a dream combination.
Lafitte gives Peter Barakan the lowdown on the life of a nakai.
Formal kaiseki-ryori course dining presents a diversity of exquisite local and seasonal ingredients.
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