Kenta Nakamura, Nihon Shigoto Hyakka: New Work-Life Balance in Flexible Spaces

People have to work in order to live. These days we usually search for a job online. But Nihon Shigoto Hyakka (literally “Japan Work Department Store”) is a different kind of website to the typical job-hunting portal in which you positions are itemized on the page. The jobs have stories; they are also lifestyle choices. We spoke to Kenta Nakamura to hear his ideas about how living and working are connected.


What do you think the difference is between living and working?

For the people who we write about and feature on Shigoto Hyakka, living and working are connected things. It’s not a case of switching one on and the other off. For example, someone who immediately springs to mind is Tomi Matsuba from Gundendo. About thirty years ago Matsuba moved to near Shimane Prefecture’s Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine, where her husband is from. She runs an apparel company there, making fabric products. But around ten years ago she renovated a 220-year-old former samurai residence and that’s where she resides today. She renovated it a bit, using waste materials, fixing up the tiles, and fitting each of the windows with a different type of glass.

In the kitchen there was a stove and she cooks there while guests eat meals at the next table. Matsuba is basically living there. But while she lives there she also makes the guests’ breakfasts. Even though she is the head of the company, she cooks the food herself. Living and working completely “co-habit”, so to speak.

It’s interesting to tell others about your livelihood, isn’t it?

Yes. Besides Shigoto Hyakka, we have also created Little Tokyo. The building was originally a sushi restaurant and we renovated this, along with the vacant lot next door and a very thin building. We integrated them into one location and called it “Little Tokyo”. We were searching for an office and we found this big space for a reasonable price. We wanted to make a place which other people could also use and where we could hold events, run a cafe, bar or even a bookstore — somewhere we could do all kinds of things. And we wanted to work together with different types of people in this fictional city we called Little Tokyo. While doing the things we want to do ourselves, we want to share this with others and also enjoy it together. We want to tell others what we are thinking while connecting with people, and also receive things from the people that we come into contact with. To do this, we believed that a physical place is necessary.

I originally studied architecture and I used to think that I wanted to build something, but after much thought, rather than building a place with which I wasn’t connected, I realized I wanted to build a place where everyone could be connected with each other. An office is usually closed off, right? It’s not a place where people can visit freely. But if we call it a “jobs bar”, then it’s a bar where people can drink and become friends and talk. More than making a concept for a place or designing it, I like really connecting with the people that I can see around me.


It’s like it is a workplace but also a private place.

Yes, right. The two are intermixed.

And so how is this different to a home, then?

Because our homes are not open.

No, they’re not. And nor do we want them to be.

Right. That would be too tiring. In our homes we are with our families. There’s a balance. We need both the time in our homes and the time when we are connecting with others. We can’t just have one. A home is a place for settling down with almost no connections with others.

Little Tokyo actually does have an office space. You can’t enter it. Where we are now [on the second floor of Little Tokyo] is a semi-closed space which people connected to Little Tokyo and us can enter, but people off the street can’t. The ground floor is a completely public space which anyone can enter. With a home or workplace, there are things you can’t do if you divide things up.

When I started making this PingMag book, I had lots of questions about what constitutes a Japanese home. One of these was the question of how a Japanese home separates the private and the public. In a traditional Japanese residence, there aren’t really many partitions in the space. Instead you have the doma earth floor at the entrance. The doma is neither outside nor inside. It’s a strange space. In a way, this ground floor here at Little Tokyo is like a doma. When a guest comes to a house in Japan you tell them to “step up”. When they are in the doma, they haven’t “stepped up” into the house yet. So it’s semi-public.

Yes, that’s right. In that sense, it’s not a place where the space alternates explicitly, but it changes while staying connected. And this is something good. Rather than taking down the stone walls, there are various options here. You can seclude yourself upstairs or you can go downstairs and drink coffee with someone while you work. The spaces are flexible in their own ways.

Little Tokyo was made from scratch by us because we wanted to try building a new place by ourselves. Of course, you can make something by letting professionals take care of things to a certain extent, but because we have made it ourselves we are able to change things as we use them. We opened Little Tokyo in July last year. Since then people have said that it seems to change every time they visit!

Next door there is the empty lot where we have a hut. Right now it is a bookstore for books about how to work. We started off just wanted to build a hut and then someone had the idea that a book shop would be nice, but it took until April for us to open it, nine months after Little Tokyo opened.

In this way I think it’s good to change things while you are doing them. 
Probably this is because I dislike making things black and white, where you don’t have any empty space. Here you are free to move around all day and you can also change things for the long-term. It’s the same as a Japanese home. You can open up all the sliding doors and make a big room, and perhaps hold a wedding ceremony there or go out on the veranda on a warm day. It’s good to be flexible in the way you use a space, matching the environment or the use.


Recently we hear a lot about “work-life balance”. What do you think about it?

At Shigoto Hyakka we talk about “working how you live”. This is about aspiring to a state where working and living co-exist or overlap. More than clear-cut “on” and “off”, I think it’s better to have various degrees of something. You might take a few days off but rather than completely cutting out work during that time and then smothering yourself in it when you return to work again, it’s better to think about ideas for work even during your days off when you see something related, or to hang out with the people you know from work who are doing things you also find personally interesting. I want to value all my time, whether during “life” or “work”. I want to value my work partners and I also want to be valued myself. Working and living like this, there is a sense then that it is actually difficult to separate things.

What Shigoto Hyakka is doing crosses over in part with “work-life balance” but it’s also a bit different. This occurred to me today but perhaps you are creating a new form of the original Japan sense of the private and the public?

Well, I also don’t really know when people ask me. I was born in 1979 and by then there weren’t so many traditional Japanese things left. I’m not really the kind of person who likes dividing things into clear black-or-white, so I also don’t make it clear whether I am working or not working. In the West, there is a clear separation of work and rest. But my preferences is for freely matching with the circumstances at that time. I don’t know if this is “Japanese” but Japanese people do tend to respond like this. At least, we have the four seasons and so there is the idea that more than there being certainties, things change in accordance with the circumstances and the environment.

The Japanese are very good at making high-quality things within a restricted framework. But this could also be a weakness.

Because responding to the circumstances is not actually making something new.

And you take it in, whatever it is, and respond to it, but you can’t really decide by yourself whether to accept something in the first place. I think this is a very important issue in Japan. Take TPP or globalization, until now these things have been accepted by the Japanese but if you’re not careful, all kinds of crazy things will enter Japan from the outside.

Yes, exactly.

For example, if you look up the word shizen (“nature”) in the dictionary, it defines it as the opposite of manmade, something not touched by man. But this is in fact a completely English-language interpretation. It’s the meaning of “nature”. But the Kanji characters include zen, which means “-like”. It’s not a word used much today but in Japanese you can also read the same characters as jinen, and this has a different meaning to the English “nature”. It’s a Buddhist idea of “non-self being made so”.

Jinen is much broader, isn’t it? It even includes manmade things.

For example, with environment issues too, the standards are totally western ones. Even as a word, the root of kankyo is a direct translation of “environment”. It means the things around you; it’s like drawing a circle around you with yourself in the center. It’s an English-language concept. But in Japan you have this wonderful word “jinen” and if this concept could be explained properly to the rest of the world, I think it might become a kind of answer to environmental problems, even though it’s not western logic. Japanese people already have the answer but they don’t really think about it. It’s such a waste.

But then responding is scary. People would have to decide what to accept and what not to accept. With TPP, it will mean that the door is always open. But then the original structure of the room may well change. If that happens, then we would make another room inside. During the 1960 Anpo crisis, people resisted because it seemed like we could change the existing frameworks, but I take the position that it is better to protect the place where you are in response to the circumstances you have than change the existing rules. It’s also no good to brown-nose but rather than wanting to change the big things, it’s easier to create your own place.

Yes, I really understand that but I’d like people to think more about the basis for what they are doing. I think there is a need for something more conceptual. Well, this might be my western logic speaking!

But the Japanese words to express those concepts are disappearing. Like jinen. It’s such a good word for expressing that Japanese relationship between nature and people. But because it’s not used anymore the idea of nature has simply become the English word, “nature”. It’s a shame, not just for the Japanese but also for the West and Asia.

In Europe and America there are lots of people trying to build new frameworks for ethics and philosophy in response to the current issues in politics, economics, religion and the environment. I want Japan to hold its ground more. There are lots of answers that the West doesn’t have. But if you just obediently respond to and accept anything and everything, before you know it, everything will have become weaker and the things that were once so good will have disappeared.

Yes, I think it is possible to assimilate new things and become better while still retaining the good things. It seems like there are more and more people doing what they believe as the bigger things are continuing to change around them. That’s why what I can do is just practice. Protecting while responding. I want to move forward softly.

Thank you, Kenta Nakamura.

Nihon Shigoto Hyakka