When I had just started highschool elective subjects weren’t really an option, so I reluctantly ‘agreed’ to take a class in Japanese language and culture. Although initially hesitant, I had heard from a friend that if the class were to behave our reward would involved some sort of screening of a Miyazaki film. Say no more, I was in.
Howl’s Moving Castle was an unsettling classic, and fortunately/unfortunately we had the English dubbed version on deck, which in retrospect is quiet sacrilegious really. Fast forward a few weeks and I was (surprisingly) holding down a solid few phrases, “Konichiwa”, “Sayonara”, “Ringo” (that’s Apple in Japanese, in case you didn’t know) “Robott-o”, pretty self explanatory and well the rest, who knows. Little did I know eight years later my inattention would come back to haunt me, specifically the morning I stepped into the office reception of Shigeru Ban Architects Tokyo to commence day one of interning.
Like any good architecture student-cum-saleswoman, as my cover letter indicated I could of course speak Japanese at a confident level, enough to say, work in a Japanese architecture office in the middle of Tokyo for a few months.
Intern 101: The day to day.
First things first, DO NOT show up at 10am. The office is locked. Learn from my mistake...just come at 10.30,10.45 if you're feeling particularly bad ass, okay?! Especially when it is raining.
Anyway, I’d describe the feeling of my first week as a mixture of having eaten something that doesn’t sit well in your stomach (repeatedly) with the panic of drowning in a shallow pool. Admittedly, I can barely remember the finer details of the ‘traumatic’ early stages. The Japanese working environment is intensely hierarchical and interns occupy the lowest category of this pyramid- but in like a warm, fuzzy, symbiotic micro-ecosystem type way.
We share the same table, covered in models, glue, paper, office dust, lunch time and materials. The Japanese are infamous for their long working hours, often until the last train at 12am, meticulousness, perfect taste and adherence to rules, and as a intern you’re expected to follow through. Amongst talented junior staff, robust client meetings, internal problem solving and the occasional sighting of the starchitect *Ban-San* himself, the days move at an unbelievable pace.
You’ll only be expected to work on tasks that are within your capability often times revolving between physical modelling, photoshop, 3d modelling/ grasshopper, CAD work, renders - the usual. Work is not rushed, unless the deadline is that day, but it can often fall victim to a Japanese style regime of iteration. Colour, composition, render quality and precision are never overlooked, and it’s common to find yourself spending hours “perfecting” just one aspect of the working document.
This attentiveness to detail and quality are admirable, and it seems that everyone in the office is working to this ideal. This ability to collaborate is from my observation, the most important attribute of a Pritzker winning practice like SBA. Every.Single.Decision is pored upon and investigated from multiple vantage points. Although the director may have the final say on whether or not to proceed, every action is examined to its minute detail. Amazing really.
The Office Atmosphere.
This precision and sensitivity to detail overwhelms the office atmosphere daily.
To a foreigner this may seem laborious and inefficient at first, but is really what distinguished the work of SBA, and Japanese architecture in general from the international field. You can literally see this in practice everyday! At times days are long, air can be stale, and in the stress of an impending presentation you might feel as if you are getting in the way. The language barrier, cultural differences, unwritten rules and ‘losing of translation’ in everything, can intensify this feeling, however, the working attitude in Japan should not be taken personally.
Getting to know a little about the personal lives of those who permanently work in the office is perhaps an office faux pas, and it seems that unless they tell, you’ll never know. The intern “parties” held at end of some months are also a nice way to get to know a little about the staff, well those who at least are willing to speak to you...in English I mean. Here, interns leaving are gifted a signed copy of one of Shigeru Ban’s books, along with a sweet memento signed with messages from the staff you have worked with.
As you’ll learn on your orientation, there are usually three main zones interns will work in.
1.The studio: houses concept development, models, much of the younger staff, and general ‘buzz’ of day to day operations. Often times, if you’re seated at the intern table on the upper level, you’ll be able to eavesdrop on the latest client meeting!
2. Ban Building: studio type setting mixed with an office space. Interns and staff work here, in a less integrated manner.
3. The Annex: more of a formal Japanese working environment that the other buildings, mostly consists of meticulous CAD work and concept model making.
All I can say is don’t be discouraged by those articles harking on about the intense Japanese working environment, strictness, hours and “slavery”.
Expect what is to be expected. Have some courage, man! Do the work, learn, if you’re struggling shout out and if you’re tired go home. Always be respectful, but don’t cripple yourself, because remember, tomorrow you’ll be back at work again.
When it’s busy, it’s busy, and when it’s not busy, interns are still busy.
SBA, has what I can see as one of the more ‘fortunate’ conditions for architecture interns in Japan. Although unpaid, the interns are expected to stay no longer that 8-9pm on an average day, with a nice long lunch break around 12.30. If you’re as lucky as I was your supervisor may let you leave at 7.30pm on the days he is feeling particularly generous, or pitiful, either really.
Aside from picking up broken-Japanese while at work, shortcuts on software and craftsmen like modelling techniques, the interns you surround yourself with will either make or break your experience. Often times the strict Japanese working hierarchy means you’ll be in most contact with the the other interns, they are the first people you greet when you walk in the door, and the last to say goodbye to you at the end of the night.
These are your people, and can best understand the strange, peculiar and exciting experience you’re having while working in Japan.
After work, you’ll complain, drink, commiserate and laugh, it is these shared experiences that contribute to the princelessness of your internship experience.
It’s 50, 50 in Tokyo.
Half of your time is spent at work, and the other half is meant to be enjoyed.
Travelling to outer regions, drinking, dancing, eating and talking about life, is what really cemented my experience. Having this type of attitude will lessen the blow of working for hours on end, and will enrich the most fun moments you share with your new crew.
Oh, and remember, “sumimasen” you’ll need it...“Kamapi” too!