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Glorious green office in Tokyo a showpiece for urban agriculture

The Pasona Group’s blooming headquarters doubles as a promotional tool for farming

Tokyo’s streetscape typically leans towards the modern and mechanized, crowded with bright signs, busy neon lights, and new office towers. But a few blocks from the city’s main train station, the nine-story office of a progressive human resources firm presents a more pastoral addition.

The headquarters of the Pasona Group, one of the country’s largest staffing and talent agencies, literally blooms, a garden in the sky that provides Tokyo with a striking display of foliage. More than 100 types of roses grow on the building’s “green curtain” exterior during the late springtime, and in autumn months, vines growing on the trellised facade display fall colors. And that’s just the outside. The ground floor entrance, lined by citrus plants such as limes and kumquats, leads to a lobby with a functioning rice paddy and urban farm.

“We’re trying to broadcast what you can do in a metropolitan environment,” says Yukie Yoneyama, who works for the company’s urban farm division, which began seeding and planting the midcentury office building in 2010.

Pasona’s investment in a greener office isn’t just about creating a better environment for the company’s more than 1,500 Tokyo employees, though the plant-filled tower does create a less-stressful workplace and cut the building’s annual carbon emissions by 7-8 tons. The living office is part of a larger strategy by the self-described “social solutions company” to help catalyze rural economies and live up to its mission to provide jobs where they’re needed. It’s a physical manifestation of Pasona’s philosophy.

Company founder Yasuyuki Nambu started the staffing agency in 1976 to help provide jobs to mothers looking to re-enter the workplace. As the company grew over the last few decades, Nambu’s social justice focus has expanded to embrace numerous issues in Japan via an array of subsidiaries (Pasona Heartful, for instance, provides jobs for the disabled).

Over the last few decades, the combination of an aging population, a long-term recession, and unemployment has hit the Japanese farming sector hard. Nambu’s proposed solution to the crisis is to “make farming cool again,” investing in ornate projects like the urban farm, which seeks to re-connect city dwellers with agriculture, and funding community-focused businesses in rural areas.

The Pasona HQ certainly offers a sleek, camera-ready model of urban agriculture. With 43,000 square feet of space dedicated to growing more than 200 kinds of crops, nearly every corner of the Kono Designs-created office features some spin on urban agriculture. One of the conference rooms features overhead trellises holding ripe, red tomatoes, while apples and blueberries grow on the grass-covered rooftop. The indoor rice paddy, built from scrap wood and harvested multiple times a years, anchors an employee lobby, which hosts regular concerts during lunch hour. A floor of open meeting spaces includes hydroponic growing systems for herbs—small containers for sprouting seeds are hidden inside benches—offering aromatherapy between appointments. Rows of lettuce plants, raised in a “vegetable factory” along with other produce, help provide more than 10,000 meals a year in the employee cafeteria.

“One of the biggest benefits growing indoors is that we don’t need to worry about seasons,” says Yoneyama, while pointing out the special lighting and watering systems that run throughout the building. “Under normal conditions, lettuce takes 60 days from seed to harvest. We can grow it here in about 45 days.”

In a country where produce prices can by sky-high, Yoneyama says the aim of the company’s agriculture program isn’t to cut costs—rather difficult, when factoring in the cost of indoor lighting—but to spur development. Regional development has been a high priority for many companies, and Nambu believes spurring entreprenurial opportunities is the solution.

“The agricultural industry was hit by all these forces at the same time, so the question is, how do you help the agriculture and tourism industries they depend on?” she says.

In effect, Pasona’s green office is a commercial for regional development, turning normally staid downtown commercial space as a promotional tool. The rice strains planted in the lobby all come from areas hit hard by the 2011 tsunami. The company also supports a farm on Awaji Island, in south-central Hyogo Prefecture, that helps train future farmers and promote local agriculture (products such as dressings and sauces are sold in the company’s lobby).

Long-term, the company plans to continue supporting and promoting small-scale, regional farms and companies, and offer its expertise on urban farming to interested companies or architects. With a renewed focus on corporate social responsibility and healthier workspaces, Pasona fields inquiries from around the world.

“This is something that can really take off and provide a lot of benefits,” says Yoneyama. “We want to look outward.”