Gone are the days when a “job for life” was the standard. With Japan’s evolving business landscape embracing temporary employment and independent contractors, both foreign nationals and Japanese citizens have a broader array of employment options.
The burgeoning startup scene exemplifies how companies are fostering more varied work environments. This shift towards sustainable employment practices is helping Japan shed its notorious image of “ブラック企業” or black companies known for employee overwork.
Among the emerging options is freelancing, which has not only attracted affluent nationals but has also become a sought-after avenue for foreign residents seeking alternative work styles.
Below, you’ll find examples of professionals I’ve encountered who are making their mark as freelancers in the Japanese business realm.
My Own Experience
I landed in Tokyo back in July 2014. Stepping off the plane at Fukuoka Airport, I spotted the “YOUは何しに日本へ？” (A TV program that interviews foreign tourists and residents in Japan) camera crew and interviewer hanging around. As I made my exit, I locked eyes with the main interviewer – couldn’t tell if they were about to pounce or not. But hey, the crew seemed a bit hesitant, so I took my chance, dashed for the door, and hopped into a Taxi straight to my hotel. Interview dodged, for better or worse!
I stayed in Japan for about 8 months until my freelancing gig kicked off. This all happened during my stint at Japanese Language School. As a student there, you could rack up to 28 hours a week, which isn’t bad if you can land some decent-paying work. The trouble was, I hit a wall finding work at first. I always intended to find some work as a corporate trainer, but I got barely any response from ads I found on GaijinPot and Craigslist. My next avenue was social media so I did some LinkedIn digging.
Now, you might know that LinkedIn isn’t exactly Japan’s go-to social hub, but surprise surprise, it was buzzing with foreign residents. I reached out to an HR person on there, met up for coffee, and bam, the next thing I knew, I was in for an interview and lesson demo. Nailed it, and got the gig. They were all about business communication training, so having around 5 years of business experience under my belt was kind of a must. Any teaching chops were a plus. My finance background with product management and sales training ended up being my golden ticket.
Being in Berlitz’s corporate comms crew had its perks. They tried to work around your schedule as much as they could, though it often depended on the clients’ availability. The only hitch was most students preferred those off-hours – early mornings, lunch breaks, or post-work evenings. That was all pre-COVID craziness, of course.
When the whole pandemic hit, clients started tightening their belts, sure. But working from home gave us a ton more flexibility. No strict 9-5 balls and chains for our clients anymore either, so that meant much more reasonable working hours. On the other hand, COVID was my wake-up call for a career switch. Patience was wearing a little thinner, and that’s when I stumbled upon the world of Life and Executive coaching. Combining that with the startup scene, opened up a whole new professional adventure!
In the world of business communication training, relying on just one company is rarely enough. Peaks and valleys are par for the course, so diversification is key. Maintaining consistency means partnering with multiple agencies or firms to fill gaps and balance out slower periods.
With higher hourly rates, you’ll be responsible for sorting out health insurance, pensions, and taxes on your own. If you’re unsure where to begin, local ward offices can often provide English support. For taxes, you can arrange a meeting at the tax office to clarify payslips and obligations if finding an accountant is a challenge.
Keep in mind that taking holidays or sick leave means going without pay, so budgeting for this is vital.
Despite freelancer downsides, the enhanced freedom and ability to plan weeks and months ahead offer flexibility for side projects. This makes the 9-5 grind nearly unthinkable. Plus, since starting my coaching business, I haven’t looked back.
If you would like to connect with me or learn more about my journey, you can find me on LinkedIn here.
Translation is a fascinating profession in Japan, and Alexander Farrell is a well-known figure in this industry. As a freelancer, he has been working in the field of translation for over 15 years and has also spent more than 20 years in the Kansai area of Japan. Like many others, Alex started his journey in Japan as an English teacher but soon realized the abundance of opportunities in translation. After successfully passing the N2 (Business Level) Japanese-Language Proficiency Test, he felt confident enough to dive into the translation world.
For Alex, translation was a perfect fit. He enjoys working independently, using computers, immersing himself in languages, and conducting thorough research for his projects. Although he initially tried interpretation, which involves translating spoken language on the spot, he found it challenging due to the pressure of cameras and audiences, and eventually decided it wasn’t his cup of tea. He also had a stint in-game translation, which he found immensely enjoyable. However, the compensation wasn’t satisfactory, and the field proved to be highly competitive.
Where Alex truly finds fulfilment is in what he refers to as “transcreation.” Many of his projects involve tailoring content to suit his target audience. He collaborates with government departments on marketing pitches and foreign speeches, as well as with Japanese advertising agencies for similar projects. Some notable projects he has relished working on include children’s books, medical handbooks, and video games.
He mentions that the majority of his work comes through agencies, as they alleviate many of the potential headaches that arise from working directly with clients. Agencies handle tasks such as educating clients on work submission, quality control, and setting expectations. Additionally, the agency professionals are native Japanese speakers, so they help to set realistic expectations and manage the end users who are usually Japanese natives.
Alex highlights a significant challenge in the translation field: the emergence of AI translation tools and language models. He shares his thoughts on this matter in a LinkedIn article he wrote which can be found at the following link:
He often receives inquiries about starting a career as a freelance translator, and so he wrote detailed articles about it, which is an essential resource for those considering this path.
Please keep in mind that the articles are based on his personal experience and that the market dynamics may have changed to a certain degree between the time he entered the industry and now.
Mat is a video producer based in Japan who relocated from Australia after spending over 10 years running his own video production company from home. His decision to move to Japan was influenced by his partner, who is from Japan, and his frequent visits to the country allowed him to expand his network. Each time he visited Japan, Mat made a conscious effort to connect with new people, knowing that it would benefit him when he eventually decided to make the move permanent.
Currently, Mat S is engaged in video production work with larger corporations and government departments. He has successfully capitalized on his existing network, which took him several years to build, as well as utilizing LinkedIn and the BIJ Group to discover unique and profitable prospects.
Mat acknowledges that initially, his Japanese language skills were not sufficient for effective collaboration with others. However, after immersing himself in the environment for a solid 12 months, he has become more proficient and can now actively engage with his clients, particularly on-site. He also emphasizes the importance of being able to communicate in simpler English, even with bilingual individuals, as Australian English differs from British or American English typically studied by locals.
For those interested in pursuing a freelance career in film production, Mat highlights some key challenges. Working with traditional or established institutions such as the government or large corporations can often be bureaucratic. Project scopes and contracts tend to offer little flexibility, and specific expectations regarding services may include step-by-step manuals or even physical recordings on DVD rather than digital copies. It is crucial to thoroughly research and understand the scope and requirements of any contract.
If you wish to explore collaboration opportunities or learn more about Mat’s work, you can find him on LinkedIn.
After interviewing several other people on this topic, some of the most common tips that came up were:
- Building and developing new connections is important for finding new businesses and ongoing success
- Don’t underestimate the value of your existing network, including student Alumni, friendship circles and existing clients
- The more Japanese you speak and the better you understand the working culture, the easier it will be to navigate the business world in Japan
- Sometimes starting at the bottom with lower paying gigs is crucial in order to build trust and get bigger and higher-paying jobs later
- Business networking opportunities are everywhere, especially in Japan’s no-mmunication (a Japanese play on words between ‘nomu’ – to drink, and communication) culture
- A good level to aim for is the N2 (Business Level) in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test