Lessons of coworking with a pioneer in Japan

Or how to cowork when nobody knew about coworking

Before heading to South East Asia, I had been living in Japan for more than 4 years. While working on my Coworking.Coffee project, I got to explore the coworking scene there and even talk with the pioneers of the movement in Tokyo, like Kyo Satani.

Kyo opened the first coworking space in Tokyo, the second in Japan. As one of the true pioneers of the movement in Asia, he has been traveling to spread the word and animating local communities. He also wrote and published books about it, like Coworking: Working as Partying.

Pax, his coworking space is a wooden open space, located on the upper floor of a three storey building in the Kyodo neighborhood.

Kyo, thumb up in the middle

It is early in the morning and the street after the salarymen rush hour is quiet. The members have not arrived yet. There are around 20 of them, on a monthly plan. Now the business is good, but it has not always been easy when it started.

It was back in 2010 and Kyo remembers it vividly.

“I’m running the restaurant downstairs and of course we serve food. We serve パクチー food. パクチー (pa-ku-chi, read paxi) means coriander. Coriander food. But we not only serve food, we also provide friendship and communication.
I mean, my background… I traveled more than 50 countries. I understand the atmosphere of a guest house. Travelers travel just one by one, and at the guest house naturally, they start talking. It’s like coworking. They start discussing and sometimes they make a friendship and sometimes they make their own business together.”

Kyo’s restaurant was founded almost 9 years ago. It was his first attempt to tackle a social problem in Japan.

“The problem of contemporary Japanese society is the lack of communication. There are many people, especially in Tokyo. Since you came here, maybe you met more than 10,000 people but you won’t talk to them.
We meet so many people but there aren’t many opportunities of communication. But a guest house is a very nice place to talk. It’s easy to talk to others. And I thought that we need that kind of communication more.
That’s why I started the restaurant. It’s easy. Everybody, everyday, eats and drinks and I just added the communication aspect to the restaurant.”

Going further into communication, the idea of coworking space arose years later.

“The restaurant was going well, lots of friendly people coming. And they started making friends and some of them started working together and made their own company together and I was thinking about working.”

Before embarking on the entrepreneurial adventure, Kyo had been a salaryman in a Japanese megacorp and also an innovator in a startup.

“Working alone, in general, is not very hopeful. For most people, working is boring. They don’t want to work. But after working in a big sugar company in a similar situation for ten years, I understood that. We should enjoy working.
Actually, I’m a restaurant owner, so, even when I drink, I’m working. When I talk with my guests I can get many ideas. So, those ideas teach me about working.
And people eat for two hours, three hours in a day but they work for ten hours a day. The working part should be improved. So, I just created the office upstairs and the concept is absolutely the same.”

I basically learned how to speak Japanese in restaurants myself because it’s a limited vocabulary, the structure of the conversations is basically the same all the time and you can split and process the sentences and words with little variation. It’s a good environment to practise and I went there a lot.

And from my time there I have observed that Japanese workers eat fast, really fast.

“When I was working in the big company, my lunch time was 10 minutes including the time to order. But I didn’t like it. Now, our restaurant opens only at night.
I have tried the lunch time. We served curry rice, rice and curry. We recommend our guests to eat with their hands, India style. If people eat with their hands, they eat very slowly.”

But along with developing his philosophy about restaurant, working and coworking, Kyo has been building his community from the ground up.

Being a pioneer in Japan, he recalls his research time.

“Actually, before opening, I had never visited any coworking space. I just got the information on the coworking Google group. I just discussed and got a hint.
Over the past 5 years , since 2010, the coworking group community has very much been improving. There was no coworking before that. People started exchanging ideas much more. Coworking was born five years ago for me, in a mailing list. It’s very recent.
Once, I found on a website the guy who was going to establish a coworking space in Kobe, the first coworking space in Japan. I just made a phone call to him and talked maybe two hours about coworking.
I studied about coworking for three months in this mailing list and discussions on the Internet and the following July, I opened this coworking space.
But I quickly found out that nobody knew about it so…
And I started thinking about how to spread the concept of coworking. I think that for the first two weeks I was really alone here. No music, maybe only this furniture.”

And there was a hint of the key ingredient for a coworking space success, long before I got the confirmation from all these places spread around Asia. It all depends on the communities and the events organized to keep it alive.

“After two weeks I hit upon the idea of having Jelly. I knew that Jelly is a first concept and coworking is about the place. I’ve studied. But I’ve never heard about Jelly so I decided to do Jelly here. And I think that that was the first Jelly in Japan. I talked to so many guests in the restaurant about what Jellies are about.
And I didn’t know how to enjoy the Jellies but in the first Jelly I shared a lot and I met people I can talk to and exchange ideas. After that, I had Jellies maybe twice or three times a month. We often do presentation, writing, talk, discussion and work. And try to talk about coworking, how the coworking is. And it took about six months to get a new member.
I thought I could create a community after making the coworking space but it takes time. On the contrary, I’ve visited a coworking space in Paris, La Mutinerie. They had started to talk about it one and a half year before opening the coworking space and the moment they opened the coworking space, they had already 40 members.”

Kyo has also created a friendly culture around his coworking space. Newcomers are taught naturally the rules, which could be common sense but are carefully enforced by a cheerful crowd.

“Three important things: greeting first, install them then drink… I’m the owner, owners should do that but it is not enough. Also, the other guests should do that, they should also do the greeting. It’s part of the culture and the place.
As a community member they voluntarily do that. And, if the working space is very silent all the time, it’s a very boring coworking space. Of course, each of us has to do our own job but, sometimes, we need to relax. Coffee break, tea time…
But actually, we have very few rules.
For example, if a newcomer comes in everybody says おはよう - ohayo. They learn, this is how you do. The next time he will do that, that’s like a culture.”

I got curious about what people were talking about in the coworking space.

Just chilling
“For example, Japanese people like business cards. Business cards say:”I’m working and actually earning by this” or something like that.
But everybody has a background. We have family, children, we like traveling, music or something like that. But this is not written on a business card.
When we are at coworking spaces, we talk, then we go to lunch. And at lunch we don’t give any business cards, we just talk about everything. About that it’s Friday, about how was your weekend, Oh, I go somewhere with my wife!
So, people are not earning from what they want, they just have to work. But most people have things they want to do but they don’t.
At a coworking space, we can share the ideas which are not written on a business card. Sometimes we start discussions about our interests. For example, I’m thinking about education by traveling. I go to many places with my children. So, we’re having the discussion on education while traveling.”

As one can guess, Kyo is not a typical Japanese person, as he spends lots of time traveling.

“I started traveling by myself when I was in the University. I traveled 20 countries in the University days. And, like most people, I thought I had to quit traveling because I had to work. Every Japanese believe they have to quit after graduation.
Some people keep doing it but they will quit some time when they get married or when they have kids. For many Japanese people, graduation, marriage and childbirth are a reason to quit something. But, I met so many travelers, especially European travelers who started after graduation, marriage or having children. It’s quite different. I loved traveling so I’ll never quit traveling. I had to do that. So, when I got married, I started traveling with my wife and, after I got kids, I started traveling with my kids as well.”

Family is really important for Kyo and kids are welcome in Pax, but there is no kid corner.

“No, no kids’ corner. We never divide the space. If kids come, it’s all right, kids can come everywhere. Actually, members know each other, about their situations, so if some guy is too busy, we don’t talk to him. And, if kids come, everybody respect it.“

Coworking space business is expanding at an impressive speed in Japan. In less than 5 years, more than 150 places opened in Tokyo only.

“In the beginning members would come from all Tokyo area. But now they live around. There are lots of new convenient places in Tokyo
Actually, also in Japan there are big coworking spaces, they are starting. It’s good but it’s not a great deal. For me, it’s just boring. Because, ok, it’s a beautiful place, it’s very big but it’s like if you talk to somebody in front of the station, you’ll be talking to a stranger. It’s just a space. I don’t like it. I want to spread the concept of coworking.
Every company and every restaurant can do that if they try. But they don’t know the concept. So, I want to spread it.
Unfortunately, sometimes coworking pioneer stop their coworking space, like in Newark city, last June (2015).
The office work is changing and not so many people want the community, they just need a beautiful place so they stay. But it’s boring. I think they are going to start a different movement of coworking. I don’t know, maybe coworking will be the next step.”

Indeed big corporation are making a move toward coworking in Japan.

I know, I went to interview two managers of the two most important office sharing companies offering new coworking services.

But that will be for another time.


This article is part of a series of adventures written by Coworking.Coffee relating to a coworking tour around Asia in 2015.

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Published originally on Coworking.Coffee’s blog thanks to the careful eye of J.L. Sougné.