On any given weekday some 15 to 20 residents of a four-story apartment building in the Tokyo suburb of Fuchu converge in the Scandinavian-style cafe-lounge at around 9 p.m. to converse in English.
The residents, of both sexes and of varying ages and nationalities, including Japanese, share a common kitchen to cook their meals and chat about life, studies or whatever comes to mind.
This is an ordinary scene at Will Fuchu, an English-immersion share house where nearly 70 residents — 70 percent Japanese and 30 percent from overseas — live together to experience a life of mixed culture.
Although many share houses nowadays offer similar intercultural environments, Will Fuchu, which is run by Irodori Factory, targets Japanese who want to learn English and non-Japanese who seek the cultural exchange.
To become a resident, candidates go through a rigorous screening process to ensure they are highly motivated to learn English. All are required to speak English in the shared living quarters.
In addition, Japanese residents can take English lessons from resident native speakers twice a week, with the lesson fee included in the monthly rent. Non-Japanese residents get a discount because they don’t need lessons.
“When people who share the same common interest gather to cooperate . . . that synergy generates a tremendous energy,” said Masahiro Uchino, the 36-year-old president of Irodori Factory.
Established in 2009, Irodori Factory now runs 14 share houses from Tokyo to Kyushu, all of which have unique concepts, such as for aspiring and fledgling entrepreneurs, single mothers and even those who aim to enter the prestigious University of Tokyo.
Tokyo’s Will Fuchu is one of eight English-immersion facilities.
Launched last November, rooms at Will Fuchu, which was formerly a corporate dormitory, have consistently been full with inquiries growing.
The English-intensive environment helps both Japanese and foreign residents, Uchino said.
Unlike studying at schools, “residents here are not required to score good marks on paper exams; it doesn’t matter if they are beginners or advanced speakers, they learn from trial and error while living here,” he said. “Even telling native speakers where the nearest post office is, is a great opportunity to study.”
A Japanese resident of Will Fuchu, who asked not to be named, said his half-year experience living in the English-dedicated share house has already been fruitful. He likened it to studying abroad but staying in Japan.
“Competing with other Japanese residents studying hard to acquire English also gives me good motivation to keep up my studies” without feeling forced to do so, he added.
The English-first environment also benefited people from overseas looking for a speedy, convenient start to life in Japan, said Antonio Radich, a 25-year-old backpacker from New Zealand who has lived in Will Fuchu since December.
Looking for a cheap, comfortable setting to start his working holiday in a completely different cultural environment from his home, Radich chose the English-intensive, fully-furnished Will Fuchu as his home in Japan after checking out three to four other international share houses in Tokyo.
“All share houses are an easy start. . . . But Will Fuchu is very friendly and . . . very homely” because Japanese residents in the share house are all highly motivated to talk to native speakers, Radich said.
Irodori Factory’s Uchino started his life in an international share house in 2005, making him a “share house enthusiast.”
His love for share houses prompted him to launch a business so he could provide the experience of a close-knit relationship with people of different backgrounds for others.
“But back then . . . I couldn’t openly say I was a resident of a share house” because it often carried the negative image of cash-strapped people living together in a dirty apartment, Uchino said.
“I wanted to change such negative images toward share house culture and offer a new, stylish lifestyle” for people to cooperate and aim for the same goal, he said.
Uchino said he hoped to expand the share house concept to pet-sharing, dieting, and even a place where people from overseas can immerse themselves in Japanese culture, including experiencing customs such as the tea ceremony.