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Lessons from Communal Living in Tokyo: Creating a Balance in Your Life

I came home from a long day of school at Temple Japan Campus in Tokyo and was reflecting on how the week went when my thoughts were interrupted by the incessant snoring from my neighbor in the room next door. Genji-san was a typical salaryman, a Japanese white-collar worker in a middle to large company. When I saw Genji-san in the kitchen, he would bow quickly, exclaim “ohayou gozaimasu (good morning)”, and dash away. When he opened the door to his room, a waft of mold and unwashed clothing floated into our floor’s corridor.

Each interaction I had with my neighbor was pleasant enough, but it made me wonder how other Japanese people were living in Tokyo. A communal lifestyle helped me observe this. I was studying in Tokyo for two years and living in a communal “share” house with Tokyo University students, entry level employees, middle class salaryman and driven, well-traveled entrepreneurs. These residents created a diverse environment and introduced me to the many different lifestyles one can find in Tokyo. From this co-living experience, I was able to make lifelong friends and mentors who taught me lessons about work, life, and balance which I have been able to apply at home and when I go abroad.


A salaryman after work, Photo by Ricky Evance, Temple University Japan Campus student

The rumours and news stories are true about work culture in Tokyo: 75 hour work weeks, long crowded commutes by train, stuffy working spaces with small cubicles and night long company drinking parties only to repeat the next day in the same way, slowly deteriorating your body and health. Living in a communal house with working people allowed me to observe the daily strain of working in Tokyo. In a positive light, it also allowed me to adapt some of the useful habits and skills that help keep salarymen like Genji-san running.

1) Blocking Time/Time Management

Every morning, Genji-san had a strict routine with himself. He woke up at the same time, rushed to the shower at the same time, and even went so far as to have the same breakfast everyday. Although part of this was out of necessity, many of my salarymen sharemates employed this seamless routine because it helped them avoid “decision fatigue” – the concept that your brain, after making thousands of decisions every day, will suffer a lack of efficient processing power. Limiting the amount of decisions you have to make in a day helps to eliminate stress as much as possible and preserve energy. From watching this disciplined behavior, I was inspired to adopt the Pomodoro technique and 7 highly effective habits weekly planner into my student life.

2) Work as hard as possible then make time for breaks.

Making time for breaks and periods of rest is as important as working as hard as you can within an allotted time frame.  My friend Yuta used to work for Mitsubishi, one of the largest keiretsu (enterprises) in Japan, and the only break he got was when he would go to the toilet after lunch to take a power nap in the stall. This intense working environment leads to health consequences for the workers in Japan. My sharemate friends saw the benefit of breaks and used to go to work, come back home, then if someone suggested Nintendo Mario Kart, these Tokyo-ites would rarely turn down a game. Balance and moderation are key aspects to succeeding in both business and personal life.  

3) Japanese Business Culture

Living with Japanese business men and women allowed me to see first hand the way they communicate with each other. There are certain mannerisms and degrees of politeness which should be maintained in Japanese business culture. If there were business meetings in my share house, I was usually the one sent to buy tea for my sharemates’ guests. Whenever entering a room, I learned how to bow my head slightly and say shitsureishimasu, “excuse me for intruding.” I even witnessed the custom of congratulating someone on their hard work each day when they came home. We would say to each other “otsukaresama deshita” which roughly means “thank you for working so hard today.” Although the adjustment took time, I was thankful that I got a look into the business mannerisms of high functioning people in Japan.





People are amazed at the innovation and creativity shooting left and right from Japan, even though Japanese people take a toll under this stress. Rates of heart attack and obesity are rising in Japan. Cultural values such as the idea of ganbarimasu (to do one’s best), do not allow for ample downtime when there is a project awaiting completion. There is also a persistent Western push for convenient, popular fast food chains such as Mcdonalds and Burger King to be built throughout Japan. This has been damaging to the otherwise healthy Japanese food culture. Taxing work behavior can have negative long term effects on the body and mind so to avoid these stresses, these are simple tactics I observed.

1) Consideration of others reduces stress

One of the biggest skills I tried to learn by living with a variety of people was how to mitigate conflict and be considerate of others so that we can peacefully live in the same space. Your behavior, sleeping and study habits, even speech patterns will either mesh or severely contrast with your housemates, leaving a possibility for stress. The greatest thing you can do for yourself and others is be conscious about which habits you project. Pick up social cues from your roommates so that you can tell what bothers them. At the same time you have the power to decide whether or not you want to incorporate the habits of your roommates into your own lifestyle. Regardless, try to be respectful of the difference instead of fighting it constantly.

2) Communal work and living is more fun and practical than solo living.

It can be argued that Americans, compared to other cultures, are very private and are fierce advocates of the idea of our own space. In Tokyo however, this kind of luxury is not affordable for the normal person. Tokyo has the highest population density in the world. Towering buildings of forty floors are a common sight within the city. If you are claustrophobic or need an acre of your own space, then you are out of luck. But if you are able to look at this from another perspective, you might see the practicality of living with many people. Sharing toiletries, rice, spices and other groceries is more cost effective. Sharing cleaning supplies and furniture also reduces waste and helps to save money. These seemingly mundane items can even be appreciated by sharing your time with the people you live with. You can use your shared cleaning supplies to clean together and when you’re done you can cook together as well. The communal spirit is one I saw time and time again in Tokyo and throughout Japan. The harmonious way that people in Japan go about their interactions with each other reduces stress and saves so much time for other pursuits. By living in a share house, I learned to really seek out any opportunity for team work so that we were engaging with each other as human beings, while at the same time being productive.


3) Include your friends in your projects

I was so passionate about communal living because I was included in the process of creating a culture in my friend’s share house. I wanted to provide value to his share house so I made an effort to show him the work I produced. Thankfully, he accepted me as a public relations officer for his housing project and I learned how to plan events and make promotional videos for his house. Instead of focussing primarily on your solo pursuits and activities, why not incorporate friends in your hobbies and make something? If you have aspirations for business for example, try to find the best possible way to meld both friends and these goals into the same category. There is really is no better feeling than accomplishing a goal that you and your friends decided to pursue.

Help to organize events like this

Tokyo is a city of old and new, jam packed with multi generations living on top of one another. I was able to observe the contrasting lifestyles of people by living with young workers and students who questioned the heavy expectations which Japanese society placed on them. At the same time, I compared this to the demanding lifestyle of a dedicated salaryman who puts his work above all else, including his health. Amazingly, I managed to find the positive aspects of both types of people and apply them to my student life.

In business, I have been able to use my minimal business Japanese with my teacher during class. Concerning personal life, having new roommates can be rocky. In my living situation, I try my best to be respectful of different lifestyles through consideration and by making sure my personal area is non stressful. To find balance, I meld both business and life and incorporate friends in projects whether it be through blog posts or talking about academics we are interested in.

Many of you have a similar situation of communal living. You interact with a variety of people and lifestyles every day. I encourage you to embrace what they can teach you. In my case, a Japanese salarymen is almost the complete opposite of a 21 year old from the Northeast of the USA, but I was still able to learn from his behaviors. Embracing people who are much older than you or from different backgrounds can give you a wider perspective on what you could become. It allows you to take the experiences that others have overcome and place them in the scope of your own life. This visualization can prevent you from falling down a rabbit hole of expectations that society places on you such as getting a job right out of college.

Some of the greatest joys of studying abroad come from the people you spontaneously get to live with, and the lessons they bless you with upon return to your home country. Throughout your life as you travel and mingle, make your best effort to connect with their stories. The knowledge they share will serve you for years to come.

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