Manaaki atu, manaaki mai

Recently I was fortunate enough to present some of my research in Japan. I attended, and presented at, a social science conference that had over 42 nations represented and was pretty awesome. I was also lucky in that I was invited to do a guest lecture at Rikkyo University in Tokyo through some recently formed relationships via previous research.

At this stage, you’re probably thinking I’m going to talk about my research. As much as I would love to, as I’m sure you’re all avid rugby league fans who would love to know more about how sports, such as league, can be used as a decolonial option (hehe blatant teaser and attempt at getting invited to write again there), I want to speak more to my experience as a guest in a nation that truly exemplifies, and has reshaped how I understand the Māori concept of manaakitanga.

So, I guess I’ll start by explaining my position, or understanding, of what manaakitanga is. For me, it is the concept of hospitality. It imbues, to me, a sense of respect, acceptance, generosity and understanding. That is, we want people to feel welcome, accepted and respected…I think. I also recognise that manaakitanga, in both a traditional and contemporary sense, has a connection to face. I mean, it has the word mana in it, so there is an inherent link to our own prestige through being kind, respectful and generous. So, is manaaki something we do just to come across as kind? Is it, perhaps, something we do because we are told we should? Is it something that we retain as a value because, in the end, we care more about our own perception of ourselves than the way others see us?

For many years I have thought of manaakitanga as a quality that is intrinsically Māori. I know the word is a Māori one, so I assumed that the qualities that it embodied were also. As I age, gracefully I must add, I reflect on these kinds of things a bit more when in the presence of people other than Māori. I have done some travelling in my time and I guess it must be said that almost all hosts will endeavour to make their guests feel welcome. But, for me, the Japanese have this on lock.

I have a couple of particular instances that I would like to share. The first I shall call, ‘Man on a train’, because it is about a man on a train. It goes a little something like this:

My partner and I were sneaking in some sightseeing and, as we’re both mad animé fans, we were visiting the Tokyo Tower (the world has been saved multiple times from that tower if you didn’t know). Anyway, we walked out and into torrential rain. We ran in the direction that we thought home was. Then, succumbing to the elements we took refuge in a subway station. Seeing us dripping wet and unable to figure the local train system out, a man of around 70 years of age approached and asked if we needed any help. We said “Oh, it’s OK we’re just heading to Tokyo station.” To which he replied “This train doesn’t go to Tokyo station.” Our response was something like “Oh.” Anyway, he said, “I can get you close enough to walk underground to where you want to go.” So, with his help we board the train, travel a few stations and then he tells us, “This is your stop.” We jump off, he follows. He then proceeds to tell us from this station we need to catch another train. We do, and he’s still there with us. A few stops later, he tells us that if we get off here we can walk down the station into an underground walkway that will emerge on the street we were trying to find. So we get off, and again he follows. He walked us right to the walkway. At this point one of us said something along the lines of “Thank you, we’re so glad you were coming this way.” To which he replied something like, “I wasn’t, I need to go back to Tokyo Tower to catch my train for work. I should be going, enjoy Japan.”

Now, I know I’ve given people instructions in Auckland before but they’re usually a simple “Oh, OK, bro, um…what ya wanna do is take a left up at those lights, then take your third right after the purple dairy and you should be there.”

So, I’m thinking to myself about my own understanding of manaakitanga and, I guess more importantly, how limited it can be. This guy took us 20 minutes out of his way to ensure that we got where we needed to be, thus, ensuring we left with a positive perspective of Japanese people and their culture. Sometimes I go above and beyond, but for this guy it wasn’t an option not to. I can’t speak for anyone other than myself, but at times when I think of manaaki, or manaakitanga, I think of doing for others because I should, not just because I want to.

The second instance that I want to talk about, I’ll call ‘Yoko’. Because we met someone called Yoko, and she was choice.

After my guest lecture some of the staff and students joined us for some food and a beer (or two). One of these people was a woman by the name of Yoko. She was very interested in Māori language and culture as her PhD research explores the complexities of the indigenous Ainu people of Japan and the Sami in Norway. Anyway, we took a liking to Yoko so asked her if she’d like to join us for dinner the following night. She accepted. We made plans and met up for tea. She brought with her a copy of a Japanese-Maori dictionary that she had been using to teach herself Te Reo. As we took our culinary journey from dumplings to sashimi, we found that she had traveled a considerable distance (she didn’t live in Tokyo) to attend the previous night’s lecture, and then again to meet with us and show us around. At the end of the night we walked her to the train station where she proceeded to give us gifts (animé face masks) and a list of Japanese phrases that she had translated into English for us to use, with a space on the sheet for us to translate them into Māori and send them back to her once we were done. Yesterday she emailed me about next year’s World Indigenous People’s Conference on Education (WIPCE) conference, asking if we should all go. Today she tried to convince me further by sending through a list of the best burger joints in Toronto.

While, perhaps, not as grand a story as the previous example, Yoko demonstrated manaakitanga in the most literal sense. She looked after us, translated for us, showed us around and made us feel ‘welcome, accepted and respected’. What I took from this new friendship with Yoko is that everything she did had no connection to face. It was genuine manaakitanga without the added pressure of maintaining her own mana. She showed us what it can be like when you act without any thought given to reciprocity.

Another thing that I reflected on while in Japan, was language and the necessity of communication in manaaki. In particular, the language that we use in our everyday. While a guest in a foreign language speaking country, we are reduced to hello, goodbye, please, thank you and those things we consider common courtesy and etiquette. This got me thinking about how we behave when in our own comfort zones. Often, these are the words first removed from our vocabulary. Yet, when reduced to manners and the ‘p’s and q’s’, we are forced to be more humble. While this may not immediately register on your manaakitanga radar, to me manaakitanga should be directly related to being humble. If we are humble in our offerings of hospitality, then perhaps we would be more humble in our expectations of reciprocity. When I travel, I always try to learn as much of the basics as I can. I may not be able to hold a conversation, but, at the very least, I can be polite in my ignorance. But, when people come to Aotearoa without any English do we help them as much as we really could? I don’t know that we do. Are we really as hospitable as our reputation in the Western world would have us believe?

I acknowledge that manaaki in a more traditional sense, was directly linked to reciprocity or, at least, it’s potential. But I can’t help but think that if we worried less about the return, our investment might be a lot stronger. Don’t get me wrong, as New Zealanders we’re not bad hosts by any means, and Māori, well, we’re pretty awesome…I just think as individuals we could be better.

The acts of the people mentioned above, as well as the countless other stories of manaakitanga shown to us during our trip, gave me a new sense of humility and a desire to be more selfless. I’m not attempting to compare peoples here, merely show how manaakitanga, however you interpret it, can, and should, be a core ingredient in all of our lives.

‘He tangata takahi manuhiri, he marae puehu’

(A person who mistreats his guest has a dusty marae)


  1. Manuhiri

    I’ve helped people often with directions, but fell well short of manaaki, even though my heart is telling me to walk with them, to show them like the Japanese man did in your story. Needless to say, he is the example I aspire to.


    1. Philly Borell

      I would agree with that statement. Rugby was used, successfully, here as a mode of colonisation through the guise of civilisation. Always happy to talk more about this subject.


  2. paparoa

    Kia ora Phil, he panui pai tēnei, a, ka whakaae au ki te iho nei. My experience of Japan over a month there in 2011 researching for a book was very similar: manaakitanga mai! Everyone helped me in ways great and small and my only problem now is that I haven’t been able to go back and spend more time with some great friends I made there. Mauri ora!


  3. sarahdejaniero

    I absolutely love this writing Phil! So inspired me reading your experience. Challenged me also. Next time someone comes into the shop asking for directions, Ill do my best to direct them with my two feet too lol. Thank you for this.


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