Maju, a regular at the Manuscript Writing Café, in Koenji, in west Tokyo, is working on a novel in her spare time.
The woman — who didn’t want to give her full name — hunched over a laptop, said that she comes here at least once a week to make as much progress as possible on her first novel. It’s her passion project, she said, which she toils over while holding down a full time job.
Maju said that she has found that the café is especially helpful when she needs an extra push, and she finds the prices reasonable.
“I'm very grateful that [the manager] asks about my progress,” she said. “It gives me a change of pace and we also exchange words. That’s what makes this place different from the other cafés.”
At The Manuscript Writing Café, there are no excuses for missing a deadline.
The self-declared “anti-procrastination café” only accepts customers who are struggling to write. People self-identify, but they also fill out a form with the details about the deadline they hope to meet.
There is no barista, tea, or food. But they are welcome to bring in their own food or drink, and there’s a convenience store across the street, according to Takuya Kawai, who launched the café in April.
For Kawai it’s all about the pared-down experience: “We don’t play any music, and there isn't the noise of any staff members fussing over your order or coming to bring out food. There are also no kitchen sounds to distract you.”
In some ways, it is a makeshift café that resembles a library study space located in a bar that was forced to close under Japan’s numerous COVID-19 state of emergencies.
For $3.50 per hour, the café offers small, partitioned bar desks fitted with self–cooling laptop stands, an office lamp, phone chargers and a handful of writing resources, such as dictionaries and encyclopedias, which customers are free to use.
The atmosphere is serious and the tension is palpable.
Kawai contemplated a variety of café concepts before he developed the Manuscript Café, including a video editing space that failed to take off. He believes there is no such thing as the perfect writer.
“I think no writer can always 100% make a deadline,” he said. “People are always looking for ways to extend them. I think it is easy to write but reaching the point where you start to write is the challenging part.”
Already, more than 500 customers have passed through the space in search of a procrastination antidote, according to Kawai. Not bad for a tiny, 10-seat café that is only open sporadically, and doesn’t have daily hours. Kawai is the only staffer.
Kawai has developed an unusual hourly monitoring system for customers and promises not to let them leave without completing their goal. The system entails registering your word count upon entry, detailing how many hours you intend to stay and selecting the level of verbal check-ins at 30-minute intervals.
“The strictest rule we have is that when you come into the café, you need to write down the goal you want to achieve,” Kawai said. “If you are not able to finish it, you will need to stay back until it's done.”
He explains that customers can choose from a mild, normal or severe caution.
“The mild caution is for people who can concentrate and don’t need any check-ins. Normal is an hourly check where I stand behind them and ask them for progress,” he said. “Severe is where I stand behind them and peek at their computers. I don’t look intricately at what they are writing. But people are so engrossed in their work or they have headphones in that they don't even notice me.”
When you read the rules on the website, they seem quite rigid, but Kawai’s anti-procrastination strategy is actually far more nurturing.
“During the check-in, I ask people how much they have completed, which the guest usually replies with half or one-third, and I reward them with candy or sweets.”
Many customers here come to get away from the distractions at home.
“A lot of the customers tell me that when they are about to start writing, they get distracted by their kids, they feel sick, their pets need feeding, they get hungry or the café they are in gets too noisy. There are a lot of obstacles.”
Kawai said that his aim is to help guests concentrate rather than to scold.
“It is kind of like a game that we play with customers. You need to follow the rules and finish the task to the end. If you say you have finished when you haven’t, that doesn’t serve you any purpose. I am not the person who has commissioned the piece.”
The concept has resonated with locals and has attracted a cult following.
“Japanese people are very serious about rules, and they are very careful about what others are doing, so I think this concept works well in terms of following the rules. No one really tries to break the rules, in general.”
Koki, who didn’t give his full name, was at the café to work on building a website. It’s his seventh trip.
He said that it’s not only that he can concentrate better, it’s the way Kawai manages everyone’s progress.
“It’s not like at high school where teachers are strict and tell you what to do,” he said.
“It doesn’t feel like a place where things are mandatory. It’s a concept where the manager works with the customer to guide you to do your work in a good environment.”
So far, the café has only had one customer who wasn't able to complete their writing goal in time. Kawai said that he fulfilled his duty by staying back after closely monitoring the customer until midnight.
The café’s success rate speaks for itself. But it simply harnesses what you set out to accomplish.
Every week, more than 2 million listeners tune into our broadcast and follow our digital coverage like this story, which is available to read for free thanks to charitable contributions from listeners like you. But less than 1% of our audience supports our program directly. From now through the end of the year, every gift will be matched dollar for dollar by a generous donor, which means your gift will help us unlock a $67,000 challenge match.
Will you join our growing list of loyal supporters and double your impact today?