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Reinventing 'Work' in Japan through office Design

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The Job

One of my first big job assignments working for Brainlab, cutting edge software developer improving neurosurgery and radiotherapy, was the creation of an office space in Tokyo, a complete makeover of the current layout. The CEO, Stefan Vilsmeier, laid the foundations for Brainlab when he was 17 and 27 years later is still its CEO. He is one of the most passionate and determined people I have met. "We are an amazing company and I want every aspect of our cooperation to reflect that," Stefan told me.

Left, the CEO of Brainlab Stefan Vilsmeier with German Chancellor Angela Merkel during the opening ceremony of the new HQ in 2017

After a few weeks of research and preparation I came back to the HQ in Munich. I was gloomy, because I had to revise my initial estimate for the cost of the project. The idea was to create a jungle-like atmosphere with flexible seating, open space, natural light and large coffee area. It would cost around six times more than I had initially presented. The budget I suggested initially was not big enough for anything satisfactory. I was certain the project would be killed. I went the CEO's office and said: "So Stefan, the cost of what we wanted to do is just too high." Typing on his keyboard, he was like "Is it going to be great?". Not the question I expected. I hesitated and asked "What do you mean?" With the same disengaged tone he rephrased "'What we wanted to do' - is it going to be great?". I needed a second to think and started explaining: "I mean, we wanted to really challenge conventional wisdom about work and work-life in general in Japan, so 'Yes' we have all the-" He interrupted me: "Then get to work." That's the kind of person he is.

The company loves slick and simple design in bright colors - a drastic contrast to other medical companies

The company loves slick and simple design in bright colors - a drastic contrast to other medical companies

I have to admit that I fell in love with this company even before submitting my CV. Not only is it a highly innovative medical tech company, it is also very unique in its sense of style and aesthetics. Every cell and thread of this company screams boldly of 'innovation'. 

The Japanese subsidiary had kind of developed on its own for many years. As I realize today, very typical for Japan-based foreign companies, only the name is foreign, and inside you find ancient hierarchical traditions that date back to feudal Japan. The appearance of the office, we believed, would initiate a radical change and was among other projects one of the major things we wanted to tackle.

Before submitting anything in terms of design, I had spent a lot of time understanding how the software Brainlab produces works. I realized that 'challenge to conventional wisdom' was the soul of the company. The software they develop has revolutionized the way neurosurgeons can remove tumors and oncologists can make radiotherapy treatment plans.

How to Reinvent Work in japan


Imagine the average boring western-style office and take it several notches down, add tiny spaces, tiny desks, no natural light, no lighting concept whatsoever, clutter, sleeping colleagues, cables, endless meetings, zero discussions. Basically something like this picture on the left (a google search result on "Japanese office")

First, I had to understand the 'conventional wisdom' of working in Japan. It is terrible. Long hours, abusive work relationships, no emphasis on output. The work spaces are a perfect representation of that - unless you work for Google or IDEO. Japan has an infamously brutal work culture. "People work themselves to death" is what we usually associate with the salaryman culture, the modern day necktie-wearing samurai. However, there is another side: It is not unheard of that an 80-year-old company has never fired anybody of its employees, ever. On the other hand, offices are filled with people who mentally retired 20 years ago, creating their safe space and do not want to be bothered. So, I would say that the average employer-employee relationship is like a loveless (sexless!) marriage. You stay together, but you certainly do not make any babies (maybe one for appearances sake). Hence, the conventional Japanese office is as exciting as the bedroom of a couple that last had intercourse 30 years ago. 

Let's get the work

One of the early models. While the round center remained, the seating became more stringent

One of the early models. While the round center remained, the seating became more stringent

The creation of the concept was great fun. I quickly threw many conventional partners overboard. Most of the suggestions we received were a copy of the same old. In the end we assembled a creative team of which half did not came from traditional office creation business.

In the process we carved out what we  believed to be the office design that would turn the company around: A slick office with plenty of natural light, plants, natural materials and open spaces. Fostering communication in a comfortable environment was important.

An early sketch that outlines 'the first impression'

An early sketch that outlines 'the first impression'

While the CEO had some clear ideas on material, I spent a lot of time with each employee. Precisely 90 minutes with each. It was important to me that the design would reflect their needs. For example, I realized that most informal communication between back office staff happened at the coffee machine. Being next to the printer, it was not really a space you could hang out at for too long. We also realized that sales people were working a lot at the coffee shop next door. So our coffee area needed to be more attractive than the coffee shop, have better coffee and invite people to take a break and chat. A place to share news openly was needed as much as an area to close the door and get things done.

With the final paper model under my arm, I went to Munich to present the idea.

"The office’s interior architecture creates a comfortable and ergonomic atmosphere. Japanese architectural style meets international flair to create a space that has both a traditional and modern feel. A harmonic green oasis, with large personal work spaces, clean and efficient surfaces and cooperative areas allow for collaboration, creativity and productivity to flourish. The jungle concept is harmonic to Brainlab's values, as its “life” the employees seek to protect with their work by selling and manufacturing world-famous, high-end technology in the fight against disease and cancer."

Bingo! The CEO liked it, added a few final touches and then a work-extensive period commenced.

And theN it happened ...

Creating a new appearance became an all-engaging job. Rebuilding the ship we sail in became a job everybody was involved in. For the main construction phase, we had to decide to either temporarily rent a space or to suck it up and work from the warehouse so we could add that money to the construction budget. We chose the latter.

I learned that a cool office is not the solution to all your company problems. Coherent leadership, clarity and vision are very important. However, a physical space needs to reflect the ambitions and values of the people that choose to be inside of it. It is home. It is trust. It caries huge symbolism to the people that work there and to people who think about it.

For us, the creation of the Brainlab Japan office was a transformative experience. Afterwards we found hiring easier, we could use less expensive agencies and had better retaining rates, so the construction cost was a good investment. This process was set off in part by the CEO's simple request: "do something great". 


Below is a video of the whole renovation process of the Japan office of Brainlab. Have a look and let me know what you think!

Brainlab commemorated its fifteen years in Japan with a newly designed office. The over 500 m² space is located in a vibrant area between Tokyo Tower and Rainbow Bridge, a few minutes from the Tokyo Bay waterfront.

Haikyo - The Royal Hotel


My brother Nick and I went to Sagami and found an amazing haikyo with a spectacular view. It was basically a love hotel, but it had a Chinese restaurant on top. It wasn't easy, but we climbed to the top and onto the roof. The view was simply stunning. I always ask myself (even more profoundly this time): "How can such an amazing building with this kind of view be abandoned and left to rot"?

Later, my net research garnered interesting results: The building was until recently set up with an alarm, and others reported security personnel coming. Lucky us. I have read that some one who went after us was surprised by an alarm. So unfortunately, I do recommend not to go there. Please refrain from going and enjoy the video


Kimono Experience


As my lovely cousin Sari and her friend Vero were visiting, I wanted them to experience something special. Airbnb has started to offer "experiences", which is a great way of exploring. I gave the 'experience of making your own kimono' as a present. Mio was a great host and I think she was almost satisfied with us. We had great fun creating the kimono and even more fun showing it off at a Japanese summer festival (matsuri). By the way, no matter how long you have lived in Japan, it is hard to keep track of all the festivals that are happening. There are several useful guides for events in Tokyo such as the ones from Metropolis or gotokyo.org

Hiking along the Lost Railway


A beautiful walk along an abandoned railway in Okutama, west of Tokyo. Tracks, bridges, and tunnels along the road known as "Mukashi Michi", which means the old road, are striking remnants of times gone by. While the Mukashi Michi is a popular hike, the railway is not open to the public, as there are some challenging passages. 

Access: From the train station Okutama, ask for 'Mukashi Michi' or follow the Japanese sign むかしみち. Just as you venture into the wilderness, keep your eyes open for the overgrown train tracks. You can see them here.

Antique Japanese Fabric - It's exciting!


A short video about a passion I have, that may not have heard about: Antique Japanese textiles, Sounds boring? It's exciting!

A long time ago, abundance was a word of tales but reality was a struggle. Things were dignified by scarcity. In rural Japan around 200 years ago, cotton was precious. For millennia Japanese garments were made of hemp, and northern Japanese needed their garments to be thickly woven. This made clothes unpractical and often uncomfortable. It also did not do well to retain warmth. As centuries passed, traded goods started to flow into the country and cotton was introduced. To the rural folks this was an exotic and precious luxury. Cotton was brought from southern and western districts such as Osaka, Nagasaki or Fukuoka, where people bought fragments instead of a cloth roll as it was more affordable. Once acquired, it was common for these textiles to be passed down through generations, where they would be patched up and mended to reinforce them for the next user. Some items tell stories of usage spanning more than hundreds of years. The love and care of generations of family members who mended and wore them out again has created an unintended art form which reminds today's artisans of a time only familiar from history books, when things were scarce and frugality was a mark of character - and a virtue.


Haikyo Inspirations - Michael Gakuran


Another great source of inspiration for haikyo exploration is Michael Gakuran. Like Jordy Meow, he has an eye for beautiful imagery and an extensive library of covered haikyo. A Japan veteran, he is a source for much wisdom about living and working here. Furthermore, he has a rich and lively writing style. Reading his exploration stories combined with the dazzling pictures is almost as exciting as being there.

In research for this post, I was able to find him. We met at Shimbashi and had a coffe. A boy scout by heart, Michael eyes sparkled while I listened to his amazing adventures stories.

To get a taste of Michael Gakuran, read his fascinating account of the Red Villa here. The house is a famous 'myth' among haikyo fans in Japan. The Red Villa is filled with items from long-gone times, including a secret room filled with pre-war pornography.

Michael has a way of writing about his explorations that make videos unnecessary. Super exciting, simply put. Well, in the case of the Red Villa there will never be a video - I was planning to go there but found out the shocking news: It seems that shortly after he wrote his report, to my great dismay, that place was bought and demolished. It is gone.

I do hope that whoever did it has kept the items that were on display inside. On the antique markets around Japan, great things keep showing up. I guess most people who love antiques feel that they want to protect something from fading away too fast. Well, I hope somebody did that with the things from this villa. Either way, I am happy Michael wrote this wonderful exploration report. 

The Red Villa, hidden in a bamboo forest, holding many secrets

Nude pictures found by Gakuranman in one of the rooms in the famous Red Villa.

Nude pictures found by Gakuranman in one of the rooms in the famous Red Villa.

Abandoned Japan - Jordy Meow


Jordy Meow has been one of my biggest inspirations for haikyo exploration. His book Abandoned Japan has been on my coffee table for years, and he is able to show the beauty of haikyo through his amazing photography. You can check out his elaborate blog here.

This guy has put so much time and effort into this and has even created an extensive map for haikyo around Japan. Whenever I feel I cannot explain well enough what the beauty of urban exploration is, I just reach for my coffee table. That usually conveys my point.

Abandoned Japan
¥ 3,577
By Jordy Meow
A photo o the 'Royal Hotel' by Jordy Meow. We made an amazing tour right up to the top. Sta tuned, it will be posted soon on this blog

A photo o the 'Royal Hotel' by Jordy Meow. We made an amazing tour right up to the top. Sta tuned, it will be posted soon on this blog

Jordy also does artistic photo shoots with bands and models in haikyos. Here, he is with Mana in a long abandoned Strip Club. I love this shop, as you can see that trees peeking through the now removed wall.

Haikyo - The Last Strike


A very special haikyo exploration with my brother. After it was abandoned, this bowling alley / pachinko parlor / game center has been heavily frequented and unusually vandalized. Check out the video below and you'll be as mesmerised as we were - what a place!

The video captured many aspects, but of course not all. It was amazing to see what pachinko parlours looks 'behind the scenes'. For those not living in Japan: Pachinko is a Japanese addictive console game that is something between one-armed-bandit games and vertical pinball machine because it has little metal balls. Well addictive to Japanese people, I have never seen a foreigner in there and too me this places look like hell from outside, bright, noisy, filled with empty souls killing time without emotions. Anyway, what I did not know before this haikyo is that backstage there huge tanks the size large phone boxes filled with these balls. Through tunnel and bridge systems they are connected with each machines to refill them with balls. We could not get a good shot as it was too dark backstage. 

Hope you enjoy the video! The handsome man smoking is also the producer of the music in the video. Music credits to soundcloud.com/klasma

Caught in action


Japanese have a curiosity for foreigners that have a curiosity for them. There are many programs on TV about foreigners in Japan, especially those who speak or write Japanese exceptionally well or have mastered a traditional Japanese art. 
This is the third time I was filmed by a TV crew buying antiques. They were like: "A retro sign that says 'Do not smoke' - what the heck do you want with this old junk?" The shop owner, also Japanese, looked slightly upset at the cameraman. I kind of just wanted to get on with my shopping as the place was about to close.

When in Tokyo, check this market out


There are tons of fantastic markets all over Japan where you can buy antiques and retro vintage items. My personal gems are either far out in the countryside or buying privately from friends and through their networks. However, there is one market in particular that I check out regularly because it is large and always full of surprises. When in Tokyo, make sure to visit the Oedo Market.

The market is held every other Sunday on the Tokyo International Forum. Do not forget to confirm the dates before you go!

Mari found something

Shopping with friend Mari and Fabien. Oh, Mari got herself a nice indigo scarf.

What is 'Haikyo'


Haikyo, simply put, is the Japanese word for ruins (廃墟). But its less literal meaning carries much more weight and involves a vibrant subculture. You might know it by its English name, an ever-growing hobby in the industrialized world - 'urban exploration'. This basically means exploration of abandoned man-made structures. Haikyo, or 'Haikyo Mania' as some people call it, thus means urban exploration practiced in Japan.

But why would you climb around some rotten houses, hotels or factories?

"What drives me is the exploration of the abandoned and the rusted-out carcasses of things long gone. There is a unique feeling of excitement, sadness, and consolidation in the experience. On one hand, it’s doom and gloom, broken dreams, childhood memories of strangers. But on the other hand it's the profound beauty of nature's untamable willpower to reclaim whatever mankind once occupied - the blurring of the artificial dividing line of what man thought to be his world and the world of Gaia. Or maybe a forecast on the result of his battle against nature that started around 10.000 BC when he started building structures, some of which he believed to be eternal. The beauty of haikyo is an artistic play on these apocalyptic sentiments. It consoles my heart that after we expire, the planet will incorporate our remains into something beautiful. Gaia will create a beautiful world - just without us. "

Michel from japanborovintage.com

There is a codex to be followed: Do not steal, do not vandalize, and do not get hurt. Read more about it here.