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Japan used to be rife with stories of excess overtime, unhealthy work-life balance and a rigid inflexibility that made caring for a family and full-time work an impossible ambition. The government tried to wade in with legislation but corporate culture held firm. That is, until a global pandemic began and the old rules no longer made sense. Suddenly, employees were working remotely, conducting meetings online and rarely setting foot in their city-centre headquarters. Now that normal life has slowly resumed, where has this left the Japanese office?


Café area with views of Tokyo Station


Library shelves

“After the state of emergency was lifted, companies mostly went in two directions,” says Shingo Suzuki, who works for Culture Convenience Club (ccc), the operators of nationwide bookshop chain Tsutaya. “It was either, ‘Everyone has to come back to the office five days a week’ or ‘We’ll keep the office but staff can still work remotely.’” Suzuki is sitting in the plush surroundings of the new Share Lounge that he has created for Tsutaya’s shop in a glass tower in central Tokyo. This is a new frontier for Japanese office culture: a hybrid space that functions both as a place to work and somewhere to relax out of hours. 

It’s an impressive set-up: the double-height interior looks more like an upmarket hotel lobby than an office, with people working at desks, chatting in groups and reading on sofas. There is a snack bar, coffee on tap and fridges fully stocked with soft drinks, beer and wine. The soundtrack is mellow and unintrusive, and the walls are lined with titles from the adjacent bookshop. The backdrop to it all is an unimpeded view of the historic red-brick façade of Tokyo Station. 

“At bigger companies going into the office was still standard. Now they’re more accepting of the idea of employees working from somewhere else”

Customers of the Share Lounge pay by the hour, day or month and can help themselves to nibbles, soup and soft drinks (alcohol too, if they pay more). They can also use the place as they wish – as a café or as an office. As well as the desks and tables, there are two meeting rooms and a quiet area with flattering lighting for online calls. Chargers and monitors are available for hire. Some customers look like they’re bedded in for the whole day; others are just popping in with an hour to kill before catching a Shinkansen. Every window seat has its own dimmable table lamp. “We chose it so that everyone can set their own mood,” says ccc’s Takumi Watanabe, who was in charge of the project.

Tsutaya lowdown: 

Parent company: Culture Convenience Club 
Founded: 1985
HQ: Nanpeidaicho, Shibuya
Founder and CEO: Muneaki Masuda 
Annual sales: ¥353bn (€2.46)
Mission: To be “a company that creates cultural infrastructure”

Share Lounge Marunouchi:

Seats: 220
Fees: ¥1,650 (€11.50) for one hour; ¥55,000 (€380) for one month
Hours: 08.00 to 22.00
Other locations: Gaienmae, Ebisu and Oshiage 

Tsutaya’s design team thought hard about the rhythm of the working day. Customers, unsurprisingly, don’t want to be stuck in a cubicle for hours on end. “If I think about how I work, I’m not doing the same thing for the whole day,” says Suzuki. “I might spend some time on my laptop, go to a meeting, maybe have a conversation, take a break and then talk on the phone. We had to create a more flexible space that could accommodate the different ways of working throughout the day.”

The sense of space is key. “In some cafés, seats are tightly packed and everyone’s working shoulder to shoulder – that scene doesn’t exactly convey the image that would appeal to our customers,” says Watanabe. Suzuki says that the more functional type of co-working space – where workers need silence and full privacy – still has its place but that Tsutaya is chasing a different market. “It’s for people who might never have thought of using a co-working space in the past.”

Honoka Tanabe is one such customer. She’s a nurse who has paid for three hours on her day off. “I live on my own but my place is so messy that I can’t concentrate there,” she says from her window seat. “This is my third visit. I love the view.” Masahiro Ifuku’s office is nearby but he has got into the habit of working from the lounge and has a monthly membership. “Before the pandemic there was an expectation that we’d be in the office every day but that’s all changed,” he says. “I like the staff here and it’s close to my gym too.”


Cubicles for online calls

Snack bar

Kunitoshi Hoshino, who runs the Coworking Space Association (and also his own co-working space in Omiya Station) explains that the pandemic hastened an inevitable shift to a more flexible work style. “It had to happen anyway; coronavirus just sped things up,” he says. “The population is decreasing so efficiency has to increase. People who look after children or elderly parents might not be able to work strict nine-to-five hours in a conventional office but might put in the hours in their own way. If we want to bring those people into the workforce – and Japan has to – they need a place to work.” And for many, home or a cramped, noisy café are not serious options. Hoshino says that the number of co-working spaces in Japan jumped from 1,200 in 2019 to 3,000 in 2022.

“Before the pandemic, Japan was behind the curve on co-working and remote working,” says Hoshino. “Freelancers and start-ups were already used to the idea but at bigger companies going into the office was still standard. Now they’re more accepting of the idea of employees working from somewhere else. Candidates are asking about remote-working policies at interviews and companies need to have an answer.” 

All of this amounts to a fragmentation of Japan’s once-homogeneous office culture. When the pandemic kept employees away from their offices, struggling karaoke and capsule-hotel businesses welcomed subsidies offered by the government to turn their premises into co-working spaces. Barely a day has gone by without a company down­sizing or moving its offices out of Tokyo. When bathroom giant Lixil opened its new global headquarters in Tokyo at the end of 2022 it announced, “The role of the workplace has changed decisively for Lixil.” With just 8 per cent of its HQ employees regularly coming into the office, the company did away with the traditional office format in favour of an open-plan layout. “The office is no longer a place where employees commute to a desk at a designated time to work on their own,” it said. ccc has also reduced office capacity at its Tokyo headquarters and staff can work from the company’s Share Lounges for free.

Even so, the move to remote working has had mixed consequences for companies. “Young recruits who don’t experience office culture or see much of their bosses have less loyalty and move on more quickly,” says Hoshino. The move from the office isn’t uniformly welcomed. “Some people actively wanted to come back to the office full-time and miss the camaraderie.” 

The Share Lounge hosts events as a way of bringing people together. “People used to have a group of colleagues,” says Suzuki. “But if you’re not in the office every day, you don’t have that community.” The pandemic did at least free many from the tyranny of the lengthy commute. “This more flexible way of working means that people have more time on their hands. The traditional way of thinking was that work and play should be completely separate but there is more of a blurring of the two now.”

Tsutaya’s lounge business is booming. The Marunouchi outpost opened in December, along with four other locations. “Each one is already performing 150 to 200 per cent better than our expectations,” says Suzuki. At weekends, the place is busy with families and shoppers. The plan is to open 100 such spaces around Tokyo in the next three years before going nationwide – and, if all goes well, global.

At night the lights inside go down and Tokyo’s skyline starts to twinkle. The mood is more akin to a cocktail bar than a workplace. Suzuki says that some people stay on or come in at the end of the day and pay for an hour of alcohol and free access to the manga library. “Usually you’d never be able to get a seat in a place with a view like this.” 

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