Have you seen the movie Pay It Forward? The one where 11-year-old Trevor has an idea to change the world for the better by, rather than repaying a favour like a debt to the person who did you that favour (pay back), the idea is that you “pay it forward” by doing something for someone else just for the sake of it. In the movie, the result of paying it forward was a miraculous chain of giving.

As great as it seemed in the movie, in practical terms it’s difficult to pay it forward and know that the kindness is passed on. But a small restaurant in Tokyo has embraced the idea and allows customers to literally pay their kindness forward to the next guest. Our Japanese reporter headed over to Karma Kitchen to gave it a try!

■ A unique method of payment

Karma Kitchen is a restaurant project run by volunteers which started out in the U.S. The volunteers take over a restaurant which would normally be closed on that day and provide meals for the people who come in, but what’s really interesting is the method of payment.

・Your meal has already been paid for!

If you go to this restaurant, you’ll hear that “today’s meal is a gift from someone who’s visited Karma Kitchen before you.” (It’s written on the friendly sign in the picture above.) That is to say, a previous customer has already settled the bill for your meal.

You can pay for the next customer’s meal or give a gift

The recipient of the previous customer’s kindness can pay it forward by paying for the next customer’s meal, or choose a totally different way of paying it forward. Most people choose to pay for the next meal, but some other past gifts included singers performing for the other customers at Karma Kitchen, or guys taking home a big bunch of flowers for their wives.

What if the restaurant’s swamped with freeloaders?!

With this system, you’d think that crowds of people would come to drink and eat their fill without paying for anything, but the people running it aren’t trying to maintain a business, they’re trying to make a go of this experiment, so they’re not too worried about the possibility. “If suddenly one day no one would pay for the next person’s meal, it would only mean that we couldn’t hold the event next time. We’d just have to try another way of paying it forward.”

・The first Karma Kitchen (in the U.S.) has been going strong for eight years

By the way, the very first branch which opened in America has been sustaining the circle of giving for over eight years now, and has managed to provide over 36,000 meals through people’s generosity. That’s quite the chain of kindness!

Karma Kitchen in Japan is held at irregular intervals, run by an organization called Gift Keizai Lab. The first event held in Tokyo was paid forward by the American Karma Kitchen, and there have been four held in Japan so far.

Getting to know your fellow customers

Our reporter attended the fifth Karma Kitchen. When she walked in the door, the volunteer staff told her that the idea was to get to know each other, “so if you don’t mind, how about sharing a table?” they added. Our reporter ended up sitting with Mr. X, a guy she didn’t know from Adam.

Being something of a delicate flower, she was a little nervous, but the staff were solicitous. “People tend to get along well in a place where so much kindness is in circulation. We’ll give you some games too, so you’ll have something to talk about!” The pair were duly provided with conversation starter cards, and some other card games, and before she knew it she and Mr. X were getting on like a house on fire.

Now it’s time to pay it forward!

The set menu this time around was pasta, salad, dessert and a drink. During the meal, we all sang Happy Birthday to one happy customer, and got some messages from people who’d paid it forward at the last Karma Kitchen. The staff were caring, the food was delicious, the conversation was lively, the atmosphere was warm, and just as my heart was full to the brim with kindness, it was time to go.

Our reporter had thought about how she could pay it forward, but as she don’t have a special skill or talent that would make people happy (other than writing, of course!!), she decided to simply pay for some future person’s meal. Thinking that it’d be great if more people could have an experience like this, she paid a little more than the meal would probably cost. If the majority of people did the same, Karma Kitchen should always be able to bring forward a positive balance to hold the next event.

If you’ve felt the love, you can be kinder to others around you

That was the end of our writer’s experience, but she commented that on her way home she noticed something. “Coming back from Karma Kitchen, I felt like giving up my seat and helping people in their difficulties. Well, on the train isn’t it pretty normal to forget common courtesy and grit your teeth against the selfish seat-grabbers?” This kindness stuff really does have an effect!

The happiness from human kindness that goes around, may just come around.

To see when the next Karma Kitchen will be held in Japan, check out the links below (Japanese only, sorry):

Karma Kitchen
Karma Kitchen’s Facebook group

(Original article and photos by FelixSayaka, with the cooperation of Gift Keizai Lab)

▼This is a sign outside which reads “Your meal today is a gift from someone who has come to Karma Kitchen before you. Our staff are volunteers.”


▼This is the set meal of pasta someone gifted to our reporter


▼Messages from previous participants, full of warm comments.


[ Read in Japanese ]