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co-ba KESENNUMA: A Space for the Misfits. The Artists and the Visionaries.

co-ba KESENNUMA is a shared work and event space. The other day, I had the opportunity to interview co-ba Community Manager, Atsushi Shida.

co-ba KESENNUMA’s Community Manager, Atsushi Shida; Photo by Momoko Muramatsu

【Nishant】When did co-ba Kesennuma first open?

【Atsushi】Co-ba opened in August of 2014, and I got involved about a year after that.

【Nishant】What were you doing around the time this place opened?

【Atsushi】I graduated from university in April of 2014, so I was back in Kesennuma, trying to figure out what the next step was. I had no idea what a shared office was back then, but it just so happened that a friend from Tokyo was visiting, and he told me that co-ba was a shared-office and event space based in Shibuya. He heard that they were opening a space in Kesennuma, so he wanted to go. I tagged along with him for co-ba Kesennuma’s opening event. That was the first time I met Sugiura-san (the owner), too.

【Nishant】What was your first impression of the place?

【Atsushi】I thought it was nice, man. There wasn’t as much stuff in here back then as there is now. The thing I remember the most were the clean white walls. To me, that empty space represented a place to create and be free.

【Nishant】Why did Sugiura-san feel that a space like co-ba KESENNUMA was necessary?

【Atsushi】After the tsunami, there were a lot of new people coming to Kesennuma from all over the place. Most of them were here to work on aid projects or doing some kind of volunteer work in the city. But it would always happen that after a certain time, or after their projects were finished, they would head back to where they came from. But a lot of those people had really great ideas about how to improve things in the city, and Sugiura-san felt that if they had a place where they could work and connect with like-minded people, they might have a reason to stay in the city and try to put their ideas into action. Sugiura-san was talking to a friend about this idea for a shared-space, and that friend happened to introduce him to a company called Tskuruba, the parent company of co-ba. They had a discussion, and they decided that co-ba KESENNUMA would be the perfect place to realize Sugiura-san’s vision.

【Nishant】I see, so the initial purpose of the space was to give people a place to work and exchange ideas.

【Atsushi】In the years after the tsunami, there weren’t a lot of places for sole proprietors, or for people working in NPOs to set up a home base to work out of. Especially in this area, most of the usable office spaces had been destroyed, and the ones remaining would need a pretty serious investment if you wanted to rent one out.  Not everyone who’s interested in starting a new business or a new side project can come up with that kind of that investment, so Sugiura-san felt like he wanted to create a space for those people.

【Nishant】How many co-ba spaces are there now, in total?

【Atsushi】Twenty-four. co-ba KESENNUMA was the fifth one. Initially, the network was based only in Tokyo. co-ba Kesennuma was the company’s first foray out of the big city. And now they’re spreading all over the country.

【Nishant】What do you think co-ba’s role is in today’s Kesennuma? It’s been seven years now since the Tohoku tsunami, and we’re well down the road to recovery, so there’s probably not going to be another influx of new people coming in to support the town. Do you think co-ba’s role has changed since the project was initially started?

【Atsushi】The word I use most often when I’m telling people about this place is “secret base.” I like to think of co-ba as the place where Kesennuma culture is made.  A place where people can eat together, drink together, play music and jam out together. I feel like the continuation of little things like this are essential for bringing a new culture into the fold. 

【Nishant】What kind of culture do you think is characteristic of co-ba Kesennuma?

【Atsushi】Personally, I’m a huge fan of 1970s British Punk like the Sex Pistols. I’m also really into the American West Coast skate culture. I think the thing that is common to those two subcultures is the undercurrent of “counter-culture.” Something grassroots, you know. My lifestyle takes a lot of influence from those subcultures, so I think it’s only natural that community I’m building at co-ba also takes on a bit of that underground vibe.

I think the thing that makes co-ba KESENNUMA unique is that we don’t have any lofty ideals about what we’re trying to do here. We’re not actively trying to make things better by hosting events or by having jam sessions here. We’re just here having a good time. That’s why I think the people who are drawn to this space are the misfits. The kids who would sleep through all their classes and then go off and do crazy shit as soon as they were let out from school. But I think having fun with what you’re doing is really important. Especially with work. The reason we’re able to continue doing things for a long time is because we enjoy them. And I think culture, at its core, is continuity.

I don’t think you can create a culture just by willing it. But if you’re able to keep doing the things you love for a long time, a subculture sort of develops around that organically.

【Nishant】In that sense, I guess co-ba isn’t so much a place to create culture, but a place where culture springs up from a bunch of people just hanging out and doing cool shit together.

【Nishant】Have you met anyone interesting lately?

【Atsushi】I recently had the chance to meet the people from Tsukuruba, co-ba’s parent company. Those guys are incredible, man. They’re so passionate about the work they’re doing. They’ve got a vision that they are trying to realize through their work, and they’re out there trying to make that vision a reality every day. I think their passion is something that people like us in Kesennuma can learn a lot from. Sure, Kesennuma is blessed with an abundance of natural resources, but instead appreciating those resources passively, the people at Tsukuruba are always trying to build something new. And they’re not just focused on profit either. “To do the work you love, and love the work you do.” Building a fulfilling lifestyle around that ethos. That’s the kind of lifestyle I’d like to see take root in Kesennuma, too.

【Nishant】I think the concept of a shared office, is something that’s very “big city,” I imagine that there are challenges involved with translating that concept to a town like Kesennuma.

【Atsushi】There are still a lot of people who are unfamiliar with how exactly to use a shared office. I wasn’t really sure if I understood the idea myself when I first started here. But I think that now that we’ve built this space, we can give more people the opportunity to interact with it, experiment with it. 

I think one of the benefits though, of living in a town like Kesennuma though, is that we’ve got so many role models here. Role models for work and for life. I think as we learn from those local leaders, things here are gradually gonna start to change. People like Asaya’s Hirono Issei-san, and Sokoage’s Takafumi Narumiya-san. There are so many people I admire in this town.

【Nishant】It’s crazy isn’t it? I think about that a lot too. Within the people I work and interact with, and hang out with every day, there are so many people I consider my mentors.


【Nishant】For comparison, Tokyo is a city of 9 million people, so I think it’s natural that there would be people who have all kinds of different life skills that the professionals working there would be able to pass on to people of our generation. But at the same time, in a city of 9 million people, what are the chances of finding the exact right person to guide you in the direction you’re trying to go? In Kesennuma, I have so many people that I can rely to get the advice I’m looking for.

【Atsushi】And it’s not like everyone is focused on the same thing either. Everyone seems to have their own mission that they’re trying to accomplish, but in the midst of all that, it feels like we’re all working towards the same larger goal. Kesennuma is an interesting place, man.

【Nishant】No doubt that there are a lot of serious issues that Kesennuma faces. And there are no guarantees that the work people are putting in today is gonna bring positive returns tomorrow. But is tomorrow ever guaranteed? I think the people here know better than most other places in the world that it’s not. But what’s important is to give everything you’ve got, push forward every day to bring every dream a step closer to realization. Because if you can look back on today tomorrow, knowing in your heart that you’ve done that, I don’t think you’ll ever have anything to regret. That’s what amazes me about this town. It’s full of people who’ve got their eyes set on the destination, pedal to the metal, without a worry about whether they’ve got enough gas to get there. 

【Atsushi】I think the path that gets carved from that pioneer spirit is what people are gonna look back on and call “culture.” So slamming down on the gas right now is all we can do. And it’s not like we’re alone, either. All our friends are with us speeding down the same track with us. And none of us wants to lose! 

【Nishant】There are times we all mess up on a turn though. And then we spin out and crash all Mario Kart-style… 

【Atsushi】You gotta watch out for those bananas, man! But on the other hand, don’t you feel like there are times where you just grabbed the Super Star, and you just feel like you’re invincible? Like, in your zone.

【Nishant】Yeah. But the Super Star only lasts like 15 seconds, tops.

【Atsushi】Yeah man, and if you get careless you’re get messed up by another banana as soon as the star ends…

At some point during the interview, Atsushi snapped this picture of me “working…”
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