Getting Paid

Posted by David Chester on 13 March 2017

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For those of you who purchased FIT, you may remember that I dedicated a section to "Getting Paid." 

I am sorry to report that even now, in 2017, 13 years after I wrote the original version of FIT, this struggle continues for freelancers in Tokyo and is so disturbing that it can no longer go without making yet another statement about it. 

Not getting paid in a timely manner seems to be restricted to mainly jobs in the entertainment industry. I will not say that it has not happened in other industries, but the batting average for money owed singers, musicians and narrators (voiceover actors) is ridiculously high. Not only is getting paid in a timely manner an ongoing issue, the amount you are paid for these jobs is almost never appropriate because agents in Japan will take upwards of 40% of what you earn (as opposed to the 10%~20% for agents/managers in the U.S. -- I don't know how it works in other countries). You will certainly never know what the salary for any given job actually is unless you marry an agent and hypnotize him/her into telling you. I know about the 40% only because one of the top narrators in town finally cornered an agent and badgered him into coughing up the truth.

That said: What are you going to do about it? 

Let's talk about "getting paid" first: Here are some of the amazing excuses I have received for not getting paid on time: 

  1. We said you were getting paid in two months, not one. (This is a lie.)
  2. Our accountant misplaced your information. (This from an agent I worked for, for six years.)
  3. Our accountant forgot to pay you today; we'll pay you next month. (I had to scream at them in order to get them to pay that day.)
  4. We never said we would pay you on such and such a day. (Another lie.)
  5. The client hasn't paid us yet and we don't know when they're going to. (As if this is your fault???)
  6. "I'm busy doing an event and don't have time to check with the accountant." (After 10 emails, this is the response I got.)

The most recent one (#6) pushed me over the edge and essentially I have decided to stop working as a musician in all capacities in Japan, except for concert appearances (and only if I get paid the same day in cash). I had to badger an agent 10 times with "polite" emails to inquire when I would be getting paid for two performing dates back in December and one in January--when we both knew the payments should have been made by February 5. I had worked for this agent for several years. I thought she and I had a good relationship. She did respond and she did say that the accountant had made an error, but had rectified it. I went to the bank (second time); nope; nothing. 

I have never not been paid in Japan, but sometimes it has required huge efforts on my part to ensure that I do, in fact, get paid. After the 10th email (I lost count), apparently the agent had been "too busy" at "an event" to respond in a timely manner. But when she needed me in an emergency, I was Johnny-on-the-spot. This obviously meant nothing, and I did not get any "brownie points" for helping out in a pinch. 

I have heard variations of the above many times from fellow foreigners who do voice work or are in the entertainment industry. For some reason, I guess, we are not perceived as being "real." Our needs or financial responsibilities are not perceived as being "important." Are other Japanese performers treated this way? My guess is "yes." Maybe they don't complain as much, I don't know. But there are no unions to help you, per se. But there are labor laws, and as I explore this more, I will create and/or add to the Helpful Websites page so anyone who finds himself in this predicament can have some recourse. Here's one for now: 

The Foreign Workers' Handbook

When things work well in Tokyo/Japan, they work extremely well. But when they don't, they can sometimes open a Pandora's box to situations that seem unsolvable. I will do my best to address these and other situations in future blogs.

Bottom line: I got paid... and better yet, I actually forgot I had done one extra date for the agent, so my payment was more than I thought. I don't have a feeling she'll be calling me any time soon with new job offers, nor am I going to be waiting with bated breath for them.

My overall advice is: You better have more than one skill to make money in Tokyo and when you find that one "career" isn't working, pick yourself up and move on. It doesn't "get better"; it's all an illusion -- another observation I've heard from many foreigners here who have "had it good" for a long time... and then, poof! Suddenly everything disappears.

Keep your wits about you.