Interview with Tomoo Matsuda
Should we establish our life and work in the city or the countryside? Perhaps, the best answer is both.
I met my friend Tomoo Matsuda the first time a few years ago. We were both invited as speakers at the International RCAST Workshop, organized at the University of Tokyo by prof. Stefania Bandini of the University of Milano-Bicocca. Last year the workshop - reaching its 7th edition – focused on experiences of “convergence” in the world of design. Since the beginning of our friendship, I got genuinely fascinated by Matsuda-san job as Research Director of the Mitsubishi Research Institute (MRI) in Tokyo. He often mentioned his inspiring trips in the countryside of Japan. Many would envy him for this dream-job that bring him to travel around so often.
Since I was a child, travelling has been one of my main passions after architecture. Mainly, I love discovering secret places out of the average touristic paths. I remember a long and beautiful trip I did a few years ago to explore the southern part of Japan. With my camera and a lot of curiosity, I visited countless places by train, bus and feet. Then, a few years later, I got my red Vespa Sprint 150, and it changed my life. With my wife Valentina, we started exploring the countryside in the weekends during the warm season. I can honestly say that this “slow” way of travelling contributed to understanding Japan and Japanese people better. Living in a megacity like Tokyo, we are used to spending most of our time between home and workplace. Everyone is rushing, and a little time is left for the people to communicate at a deeper level.
This bizarre moment the entire world is experiencing due to the pandemic could be an incredible occasion to redesign our work-life balance. When Matsuda-san showed me his last book, I got immediately inspired. Since 2017, he has been advocating a reverse participation shift plan, a simultaneous realization of work style reform and local revitalization. So, what is precisely the Reverse attendance shift mentioned in the book? The concept is not new to Japanese culture. During the Edo period, the Tokugawa Shogunate imposed a policy - called Sankin-kōtai - that required the feudal lords to alternate living for a year between their domains and the capital Edo (Tokyo), to show their loyalty to a Shogun. “Gyaku Sankin Koutai” - the reverse attendance shift proposed by Matsuda-san - is similarly an idea which “encourages business people in the metropolitan area to carry out remote work for a limited time in the rural area”.
This strategy could offer several benefits to a country, Japan, that is struggling to promote work-life balance among its citizens. The “2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development”, adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015, provided 17 integrated Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to balance social, economic and environmental sustainability, including "combining work satisfaction with economic growth". In recent years, more than fifty of Japan's local governments teamed together pushed the idea of 'workation' - a combination of “work” and “vacation” - to boost regional revitalization. The alliance focused on developing attractive workation environments to attract companies from the big metropolis to spur migration from urban to rural areas.
The coronavirus outbreak is forcing Japan to scan its outdated workplace culture, where spending long hours in the office is still considered as imperative to success. A recent article on the Japan Times analyzed this situation with regards to the current sanitary crisis: “Panasonic Corp., NEC Corp. and Mitsubishi Corp. are among the growing number of firms that have mandated or recommended remote work for tens of thousands of staff. The change is testing the ability of the nation’s companies to embrace a more flexible work style - overturning a workplace culture that dates back decades and values physical presence and endurance of long hours over productivity or efficiency. Even as the virus forces companies and workers to accept the reality of remote work, many are complaining that in reality, firms are simply not equipped or prepared to let employees work remotely”.
This unprecedented crisis could reverse into a great opportunity. Thanks to the Gyaku Sankin Koutai proposed by Matsuda-san, rural areas and small prefectures could become the drive to improve work-life balance all over Japan, stimulate the local economy and reduce the overcrowding of the metropolitan areas. Furthermore, it could be also a powerful strategy in the months to come to minimise the risks related to Covid-19. Mie Prefecture is one of the most evocative success cases. Thanks to its rebranding as “the work-life-balance prefecture”, Mie attracted several companies that reported extremely encouraging results by allowing their employees to practice workation.
Corporate managers in the big cities should read this book because it contains a lot of awareness to boost Japan (and the world) in the future. This volume is a must-read for thinking about work style reform and regional revitalization in the post-COVID19 era.
(The next page is the following interview with Tomoo Matsuda)