At the Japan Hotel School in Tokyo, students are acting out scenes from a restaurant. They are learning how to take an order, proffer a menu, lean in at just the right angle and pour a glass of wine. With their bow ties, white shirts and black waistcoats, they look the part. It’s a lively class with plenty of missteps and giggles. The stumbling block for most is opening a bottle of wine with a waiter’s corkscrew.
In real life it would be agony to watch but here the instructor, Shinji Ueno – a former graduate of the school – guides the students and corrects their mistakes with good humour. “It’s about confidence as much as anything,” he says.
This classroom has been decorated to suggest a smart establishment; another has a reception desk. But the pièce de résistance is a 45 sq m luxury hotel room complete with bathroom and assorted amenities. “We show this to high-school students who are deciding on their career path – this room seals the deal,” says Tsutomu Ishizuka, the school’s president.
Founded by the Prince Hotel chain as The Prince Hotel School back in 1971, Japan’s only dedicated hotel training school became the Japan Hotel School in 1976 when it was put under the auspices of the Ministry of Transportation, just as the government decided it was time to develop Japan’s hotel industry. Since 2009 the school has been overseen by the city authorities. And today, with the government setting its sights on attracting 30 million visitors per year, trained hotel workers are more in demand than ever.
Most students study on full-time day courses, others in the evenings. At ¥1.6m (€12,300) per year just for tuition, the school isn’t cheap but has such strong connections to the hotel industry that most students secure a job before graduation, almost all in Japan. Seventy-five instructors cover everything from speaking English and Chinese (increasingly important) to the running of an efficient front desk. There are classes on a whole range of hotel-related subjects, including French wine and cutlery placement.
Students study for two years but six months of that time is spent doing paid internships at some of the top hotels in Tokyo. “Of course we already have a culture of Japanese omotenashi [hospitality],” says Mansaku Nakayama, who manages the education programme. “But that only takes you so far. It’s important to do the fieldwork to get a more international perspective.”
At the end of their course students have to take proficiency tests and emerge, now opening wine bottles with aplomb, ready to start their careers.
“I was always interested in hospitality,” says Ryoji Kato, an 18-year-old from Kanagawa. “I want to aim for the very top, which for me means hotels. And the very top is the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo so I want to work there.” Students Ainie Takeuchi and Asuka Ito, both of Filipino-Japanese parentage, are giving Tagalog language lessons to Taichiro Suzuki, who is heading to a job at a resort in the Philippines. They won’t graduate until April but have hotel jobs lined up. “The internships were so important,” says Takeuchi. “It’s so different when you have to face customers in real life.”