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Japan’s otooshi fee practice riling foreign tourists in Okinawa

Foreign tourists in Okinawa are increasingly complaining about being charged for otooshi appetizers in restaurants (J-Cast News)
Foreign tourists in Okinawa are increasingly complaining about being charged for otooshi appetizers in restaurants (J-Cast News)

OKINAWA (TR) – As the number of foreign tourists visiting Okinawa Prefecture continue to climb, so, too, are complaints regarding a table charge custom practiced by restaurants, the prefecture’s tourism organization said.

Tourists are increasingly consulting with the Okinawa Convention & Visitors Bureau (OCVB) about bills for seafood cuisine ending up higher than expected despite “market price” listings and confusion over table charges without any explanation, the Ryukyu Shimpo reports (Dec. 6).

An official at the OCVB, a public-benefit corporation that promotes tourism in Okinawa, explained that foreign tourists are increasingly contacting the body to complain about about being charged for a table charge included in the price of otooshi appetizers after paying for a meal.

Restaurants and izakaya pubs typically provide otooshi dishes without express instruction from customers, the fee for which is commonly understood as a table charge — akin to a U.S. restaurant charging for bread and butter brought to the table.

Split opinion

Opinion is split over the practice, with advocates welcoming establishments serving otooshi as an extension of hospitality and something to accompany drinks until food arrives while others deplore having to pay for unwelcome and usually cold food that some claim are made using leftover ingredients.

The restaurants in question sometimes provide refunds after the OCVB investigates, the OCVB official said. “Some foreign tourists refuse the refund if they’ve already moved on elsewhere or they’re in a rush to return home,” the official said.

The OCVB is calling on restaurants to provide multilingual menus to prevent misunderstandings, many of which appear to stem from language barriers due to tourists being unable to read clauses on menus explaining an otooshi or table charge is required.

Chizuko Mura, 53, a lawyer and author specializing in consumer law, recommended that customers determine whether otooshi are justified based on such factors as the restaurant’s location, atmosphere and service.

“If you come across otooshi at the kind of restaurant that normally probably wouldn’t charge a table charge, you need to be straight and ask, ‘Is this free?’” Mura wrote.

‘Not the same thing as a table charge’

A public relations spokesperson at Yoronotaki, which operates numerous izakaya chains, told J-Cast News that issues related to otooshi are unheard of at its establishments.

“If a customer can’t eat [otooshi] because of allergies, we can offer alternatives,” the Yoronotaki spokesperson said, adding that menus provide explanations about otooshi in English and Chinese.

“[Otooshi] are nibbles to be enjoyed as ‘side dishes that go well with alcohol’ until the food arrives,” the official said. “We only charge this for people who drink alcohol, and is not the same thing as a table charge.”

An online 2014 survey of university students by Rikkyo University indicated respondents were unable to refuse otooshi at half of the izakaya chains they visited, and some 70% said they thought otooshi prices were “high” or “somewhat high.”