The Hilton’s YouTube channel uploaded a Japanese commercial for Conrad Hotels & Resorts, one of its nineteen hotel brands on November 9th.
Hilton removed the video less than a week later. X (formerly known as Twitter) users bombarded the American hospitality company for “making a joke out of Japanese culture,” as one viewer wrote.
After taking down the video, Hilton reportedly commented that it “had no intentions to degrade anybody or give off negative impressions,” but that it would take steps to prevent reoccurring incidents.
Old and uncomfortable portrayal of Japanese ryokan
The commercial begins in a Japanese ryokan before it segues to the Conrad.
The side-by-side comparison of the two establishments––a rustic hotel lit by glitchy fluorescent lights versus a grand luxury high-rise with sparkling chandeliers––angered Japanese viewers for insinuating that a ryokan is just a musty, old-fashioned hotel.
Another point of comparison was between the ryokan’s Okami (女将) and the Conrad’s manager.
The Okami, whose role corresponds to that of a general manager in a Western hotel, appears to overwhelm her two check-in guests by chattering away each of the ryokan’s rules.
“Bath time is between 5 AM and 11 PM. We will bring dinner to your room at 6 PM. Please finish eating by 9 PM. Breakfast is between 7 AM and 10 AM. The last order is at 9:30 AM. It gets really busy around 8 AM. Checkout is at 10 AM.”
The couple standing at the front desk’s opposite side grimaces at the Okami and each other. Their expressions say: What kind of hotel is this?
The Okami’s continuing dialogue becomes background noise as a narrator says “When you can’t lay back at all despite being on a holiday you’ve looked forward to…”
The commercial cuts to the same couple idly lingering in the Conrad’s grand hall, gazing out at Tokyo’s awing cityscape below.
“My dear guests, if you prefer to relax longer, we can change your dinner reservation to a later time,” says the manager.
The commercial closes with the couple clinking champagne glasses as a narrator closes with the line “Your journey depends on where you stay.”
What ryokans think
Japanese ryokan owners spoke to reporters, expressing disappointment and anger towards the commercial.
Yuji Tanaka, 4th generation owner of the ryokan Yumori Tanakaya in Tochigi said, “I think there’s some ill intentions there. A difference in the (style of) hospitality of course exists as it should.”
Tanaka’s ryokan has the sort of rules that Hilton’s commercial pokes at, including the designated meal time between 6 PM and 9 PM.
But Tanaka says that his ryokan accommodates its guests by serving a later dinner to those who arrive late (due to traffic, for example).
Comparatively advertising one’s business to the competition is a common practice in the West, with the feud between Pepsi and Coca-Cola being perhaps the most famous.
However, in Japanese advertisements, downgrading the competition is considered bad taste.
Writing for Yahoo News, journalist Shinohara Shuji went so far as to describe this as a “difference in national character.”
Shinohara wrote, “Despite their [Hilton’s] aim to attract Japanese customers, why would they release a commercial making fun of Japanese culture?”
Legally too far?
Takashi Matukuma, a lawyer at Hashimoto Law Office, told reporters that Hilton’s commercial may have violated the Act against Unjustifiable Premiums and Misleading Representations.
“[The commercial] is based on the premise of some ryokan and misleadingly suggests that the [Conrad] provides a better service.”
 ヒルトンのCM動画に批判 旅館の若旦那「悪意ある」 景品表示法に違反の可能性も. Yahoo!ニュースJAPAN
 ヒルトンの「旅館見下し動画」大炎上も当然の理由. 東洋経済
 「日本の旅館や文化を馬鹿にしている」ホテル・ヒルトンの旅館との比較CMが炎上。動画は非公開に. Yahoo!ニュースJAPAN
 Okami, the Landlady. Japan Ryokan & Hotel Association