Freelancing in Tokyo: Is it time for an "updated version"?

Posted by David Chester on 8 August 2012

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But StopHello All:

I hope you're enjoying your hot summer in Tokyo. For those who could afford to escape, I hope you're having fun.

I was recently asked if I planned to "update" FIT, as authors sometimes do with books such as mine. I have thought about this question a lot, but I come back to the same conclusion: Absolutely nothing has changed in Japan since I first conceived of FIT in 2004. It was released in 2009, and although it has been a tumultuous three years, with the earthquake, tsunami and ongoing TEPCO disaster(s), life for a freelancer in Tokyo is no different. 

That said, I have noticed a few things: There is less a sense of "community" amongst the foreign population now. There are less moments of acknowledging other foreigners, saying hello, smiling. It's become quite cold, I'm sorry to say. I also feel people are clinging to their contacts more than they have in the past, I guess because they think there isn't as much work as there once was. To me, there is just as much work, but maybe not necessarily in the same areas, i.e., teaching English in Japan. What that means is: sure, of course there are English-teaching jobs in Japan. But my sense is that Japan is focusing inward, and English may be a necessary "tool" to deal with the outside world, but it is only a "tool" and may not be considered essential, as it once was. 

What does that mean to you, the English-speaking freelancer? Well, here's what it means to me: voiceover jobs, English-language editing, proofreading, writing jobs, and, if you have the skills, translation/interpretation jobs. I definitely would not come to Japan in 2012 to teach English. I would make sure I had an entire other skill set (or, better, skill sets), which would include being fluent in another European language as well as having an excellent grasp, if not fluency, in Japanese. It is no longer realistic to live in Japan and assume you won't have to speak Japanese. The more I speak it, the better my life goes here. And I do not speak it well, but I try. I would also have excellent computer skills, including being a master at whatever software is considered "hot," and I would make sure I had "special" skills, such as (legitimate) singing, dancing, acting, modeling, and/or skills as a photographer, videographer, producer/director, choreographer, and/or culinary skills. I'd say speaking English is last on the list, quite frankly. 

The above does NOT negate the value of being a native English speaker in Japan. Yesterday was a great example. I was hired by an agent to do a voiceover job (in Japan they're called "narration" jobs) for a well-known English-language school in Japan. The director was Japanese, but, wisely (and this is usually NOT the case), he brought a highly qualified native English speaker with him. I have worked with this duo before, and I was really grateful that the native English speaker was present. The script I was given was filled with errors, and she was there to back me up when I said, "I'm sorry, but no one would say this." I cannot tell you how many times I've been on a narration job where the director says, "We have to do it this way, because the book has already been published." This type of "interesting" thinking is prevalent in Japan, where it seems to be okay to publish a language textbook without having it proofed by a qualified native speaker. The purpose of me bringing this up is to say that some companies "get" that the value of having an educated, qualified native English speaker/teacher/writer on their staff can only be to their benefit. This type of job, though it may be hard to get, exists, and this is the type of job I would go after if I had a college degree connected specifically with the English language. 

Otherwise, salaries are written in stone. They still remain higher than what most young people (or old people) would earn doing similar freelance jobs in their own countries, but, to a fault, they are the same as they were when I first came here in 1993! 

So, is freelancing in Tokyo still right for you? I would say it is, ONLY if you have an entrepreneurial spirit. If you are willing to carve out your own niche or corner in Japan, doing whatever it is that YOU do, and are willing to go after it wholeheartedly, then, there are adventures waiting for you. If you plan to come here and inhale the fumes of the bubble era and hope you can get a cushy English job teaching office workers for 20 hours a week giving you the rest of the time to play, I'd say, "Dream on." 

Tokyo, despite its insanity, expense and crowds, can STILL be a thrill, but unless you have a STRONG desire to go for the pot of gold at the end of Rainbow Bridge (if you live here, you'll "get" that), then I'd just come for a fun holiday and let it go at that. Again, as I have often stated in these pages, it is entirely up to YOU. Gambatte!