Hawaii’s been catering to visitors from Japan for decades, but recent reports from Japanese travel sellers indicate that customer service has been getting lost in translation.

Travelers from Japan have been listing Hawaii among their top aspirational destinations since Japan Airlines starting flying to the isles more than 60 years ago, providing the momentum for them to grow into the state’s top international market. In 2013, travelers from Japan accounted for 1.5 million visitor arrivals, or 18.5 percent of the state’s total. That number was 31 percent behind 1997, the market’s peak year, which brought 2.2 million Japanese travelers to Hawaii.

Two years ago the Hawaii Tourism Authority pledged publicly to work with the Japan Association of Travel Agents to improve Japanese visitor arrivals by 2016 to 2 million, which would bring in an estimated $4 billion in annual visitor spending and $440 million in state tax revenue.

“I’m not optimistic that we are going to hit this,” said Leon Yoshida, president of Sawayaka Hawaii, which sells tours of Hawaii to Japanese visitors.

While visitor arrivals from Japan have improved, Yoshida said they have not grown as aggressively as anticipated. Fewer flights and hotel rooms, rising fuel surcharges and other costs, as well as generational and economic changes in the market have all been blamed on the downward trajectory.

Another reason may be complaints, which Japanese travel sellers say are growing and driving their customers to consider other destinations that they perceive will provide a higher level of customer service for their yen.

“Japanese customers always have been used to an extremely high level of customer service. However, I think that their customer service expectations for Hawaii have risen along with the cost of a Hawaii vacation,” Yoshida said. “A lot of Japanese tourists that come here find that our prices are higher than properties in Asia that are more luxurious and offer better service. We have to step it up.”

A new training initiative, sponsored by the Japan Hawaii Travel Association (JHTA) and developed by LearningBiz, kicks off Aug. 21 with the goal of improving Hawaii’s track record with Japanese customers.

The program, which is funded by a $112,500 grant from the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations’ Workforce Development Division and by donations from the Hawaii Tourism Authority, will provide training to tourism workers who come in contact with Japanese visitors on a daily basis.

The three-hour-long course, which will be offered on Oahu, Maui, Kauai and Hawaii, will cost $75 per person. The Hotel and Restaurant Industry Employment & Training Trust Fund will underwrite costs for Unite Here Local 5 members who are attached to one of its 18 hotels.

“Japan is a vital market to the health of Hawaii’s visitor industry, and this grant underscores the state’s commitment to ensuring that its travelers will be pleased with their vacation experience in our islands,” said JHTA President and Chairman Akio Hoshino.

JHTA urged the state to develop the training program because its member companies have noticed a spike in complaints from Japanese visitors, said Gregg Yamanaka, president of LearningBiz.

“We received copies of 700 complaints from Japanese visitors in 11 months from just one wholesaler,” Yamanaka said. “With the hotels, it’s primarily an issue of inattentiveness or rudeness of the front desk or inadequacy or cleanliness in the hotel room. For the optional activities as well as the transportation companies, it’s a matter of rudeness and miscommunication and lack of being on schedule. These are not real big problems, but we are trying to minimize them.”

The level of complaints is especially significant given that the culture of Japanese travelers makes them hesitant to vocalize criticism, said Danny Ojiri, vice president of market development for Outrigger Enterprises Group, which supports the training initiative.

“Culturally, the Japanese guest may overlook slight guest service issues. When a complaint is made, it means it annoyed the guest enough for him to make it an issue and may have offended the person as a paying customer expecting a certain level of service of attention not received,” Ojiri said.

Just under 80 percent of Japanese visitors said they would be very likely to recommend Hawaii to friends and relatives, according to the state visitor satisfaction survey from the third quarter of 2013, the latest numbers available. For other major markets, including the U.S. West, that number was 90 percent. The likelihood of Japanese visitors saying that they would return to Hawaii in five years dropped seven percentage points to 55 percent in the third quarter of 2013 from the year-earlier period.

While Japanese visitors tend not to elaborate on their complaints in person, they are increasingly sharing their experiences on social media, said Kim Fujinaka, director of integrated marketing for PacRim Marketing Group.

“Social media and mobile technology present opportunities for Japanese consumers to share both positive and negative customer service encounters with their peers, in real time,” Fujinaka said.

As a result, Japanese wholesalers are imploring Hawaii’s visitor industry to take seriously the customer service needs of Japanese tourists, who easily could be lured away by domestic destinations like Hokkaido and Okinawa and international destinations such as Guam and Bali — where travel offerings are often less expensive and service levels are higher because lower labor costs allow for higher staffing.

“Two-thirds of our Japanese visitors to Hawaii are repeaters. If they realize that Hawaii is not welcoming them, they may never come back,” said Shinji Iijima, president and CEOof Jalpak, a Japanese travel agency. “If this continues, we could see maybe a 25 to 30 percent drop in repeaters. … Maybe even first-timers don’t repeat anymore.”

While other international markets like Oceania, China and South Korea are growing, PacRim Marketing Group President and CEO Dave Erdman said that Hawaii cannot afford to neglect Japan as its most important source of international revenue, loyal guests and fans of Hawaiian culture and the islands, which they consider their second home.

“We need to always keep training to improve our skills and service, no matter what business we are in,” Erdman said. “We have new workers from outside Hawaii who may not be familiar with Japanese customs or traditions, and young people entering the job force, so it’s essential to train them to provide even higher levels of service that are expected by our most demanding guests, our Japanese travelers.”

Hoshino said JHTA’s findings show that complaints about Hawaii’s hospitality are due mostly to a lack of awareness about the subtleties of service expectations. Ojiri said that’s because “omote-nashi” is at the core of Japanese hospitality. The concept “embodies a host and guest relationship which anticipates a guest’s needs before it’s verbalized,” he said.

Konosuke Oda, president and CEOo f Hawaii HISCorp., a travel agency, said Hawaii’s visitor industry will have a chance to see “omote-nashi” up close during a soon-to-be-announced Hawaii Tourism Authority-sponsored familiarization trip to Japan. During the trip a group of Hawaii travel industry partners will be able to shadow hospitality providers and experience firsthand the service standards offered to guests.

“We want to show real Japanese service that make people in Hawaii understand,” Oda said. “For me personally, I want the people in Hawaii to see some other Asian destinations, too. For instance, Bali offers wonderful service.”

David Nadelman, general manager of the Hyatt Regency Waikiki Beach Resort and Spa, said he intends to take the training and to encourage associates to embrace the opportunities being offered.

“I have been very critical in a positive way that we need to get better connected to our Japanese guests. The best way to give better service is with better training and focus on a culture. That is why I am grateful and a big supporter of the Japanese training,” Nadelman said. “Education is the key, and every member of our team will inadvertently touch the guest in some way, shape or form. We must be cognizant of their needs and work to service them in an effective manner.”

In addition to encouraging employees to take advantage of training opportunities, Hyatt is dedicating a significant portion of its $100 million renovation to making improvements that provide Japanese visitors with a better experience.

“One of the most exciting of changes has been the installation of Toto Washlets in each guest room by the end of the first quarter of 2015,” said David Martinez, Hyatt’s director of sales and marketing. The Toto Washlet is a bidet toilet, which is common in Japanese homes and public restrooms. “This feature is very important to our Japanese customers and was intentionally included in improvements we are making on property currently.”

Photo Credit: Beach chairs outside a hotel in Honolulu. Roxanne Ready / Flickr