Through a hole in a wall, no bigger than an airplane window, customers are handed their drinks and decorative parfaits. Replacing the usual hum of scurrying servers is a single fuzzy, bear paw - like Winnie-the-Pooh’s, but hairier. Unlike traditional cafes, the absence of seating and a grey, cave-like outer perimeter are its atmospheric traits.
But Osaka’s Kuma No Te, or Bear Paw, Cafe is not to be mistaken as unwelcoming.
The cafe, which opens to the general public on Saturday, was conceived with the goal of providing employment to those with mental health issues, many of whom struggle to work in settings that require face-to-face contact. The bear paw, which serves as both a physical barrier and a tactile sense of comfort for customers receiving their drinks, is meant to emulate security.
The founder, Yuichiro Hiramura, who also runs a school that provides counseling and classes on mental health, noted how isolated many of his students felt during the pandemic. Many were also finding it difficult to secure jobs that didn’t demand close contact, or provided sufficient support for their mental health concerns.
“In Japan, the physically disabled and those with severe mental health issues receive proper care at hospitals. But the people deemed not ‘needy’ enough, those experiencing depression, anxiety, harassment at work, have very few support systems to fall back on. With this cafe, it’s our goal to make work environments more nurturing,” he told VICE World News.
During the pandemic, the need for mental health support intensified in Japan. Despite nearly a decade of decreasing suicides, the country saw a huge spike in the number of female suicides, an increase of 15 percent. The government even appointed a Loneliness Minister to combat the issue by increasing funding for supporting services.
According to Hiramura, about 80 to 90 percent of his students are women, who he said can be unfairly targeted in Japan’s male dominant workplaces.
“A lot of companies still have the senpai (higher ranking employees) power structure, which means that kohai (lower ranking employees) can face the brunt of harassment and exploitation. A lot of our female students experienced bullying in such environments,” he said.
On the other hand, Hiramura explained, “Men find it difficult to even seek out mental health support. Talking about your emotions is seen as weak and unmanly, which leads to a lot of men feeling isolated.”
One of the six current employees at Kuma No Te Cafe, Megumi Ezawa, 32, said she used to struggle with her workplace relationships. As a female priest in a shrine, where men often hold the most senior positions, she often felt isolated and struggled with bouts of anxiety.
But after moving back to Osaka, she discovered Hiramura’s school and said she learned how to better communicate with people. “I can draw health boundaries and put distance between myself and others when needed,” she told VICE World News.
As a woman living in Japanese society, Ezawa said she felt pressured to agree with the general consensus, rather than contradict others. “There’s a tendency to go along with what everyone says, and that can result in ignoring your individual needs,” she said.
Though she’s nervous about her new job at Kuma No Te Cafe, Ezawa said she’s looking forward to working with familiar faces.
“Every part of the job is new and there are many things to do, but I’m thankful to be working with people I trust,” she said.
Hiramura hopes to one day expand the cafe to a bigger, more multi-purpose space, equipped with mindfulness, meditation and other relaxation facilities. Until then, employees will continue serving customers through a window into the outer world, separate but linked, one coffee at a time.