Twenty-four years later...

Posted by David Chester on 2 April 2017

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I arrived in Tokyo on April 1, 1993. I was thrilled beyond belief. I had been to Japan twice before, once in 1988 when I was a musician on Royal Viking Cruises, again in 1989 as a pianist working at one of the last Playboy Clubs in the world (located in Roppongi). I had had a taste of the unusual, the bizarre, the beautiful, the strange, the enchanting... and more. I knew I wanted to return. 

I brought USD $8,000 with me, because I already knew that in order to "purchase a phone line" (that's what you had to do back then) and rent an apartment, I would have to shell out a lot of money. I did. I went through every conceivable emotion as I grappled with setting up my new life. Check them off the list: living in a 6 tatami-mat room and sleeping on a thin futon; struggling to get a visa sponsor; fighting homesickness; being shocked at the price of food; loving and hating everything at the same time; getting my own apartment (I was told that the landlord was "not a racist," so there wouldn't be any problem), and any other misadventure a gaijin could have. Finally, after about eight months of doing anything I could think of to make everything come together, I was "legally" in Japan and able to start my new life.

I came to Japan with the strong belief that I would be able to write songs for the J-pop industry. I had had some success with a Japanese music producer in Los Angeles (my hometown) and I had no reason to believe that that success would not continue. But it did not, and that was the first of many, many shocks and eye-opening moments.

In order to survive, I took on piano jobs, and then English-teaching jobs. Things unfolded and I ended up doing everything: voiceovers, acting, dancing, singing, editing, cooking... anything legit, you name it, I did it. 

As the years progressed, I realized I had a strong interest in screenwriting and filmmaking. I naturally gravitated to both and I can now say that I am a professional screenwriter (i.e. I have been paid to write scripts for production companies) and a professional filmmaker (i.e. I have produced my own short films which have won awards). Had I not come to Japan, I do not know if I would have ended up with the same realizations. Regardless, it has been a fantastic ride. 

Along the way, in order to benefit others and help them avoid some of the mistakes I made, I wrote "Freelancing in Tokyo." The first version was published in 2009, with the second version published in 2016. 

I can say, with authority, that almost all of the tips, advice, suggestions and knowledge I share in FIT is still valid. The main thing I have observed that is different now about people who come to Tokyo (or Japan) to establish themselves: they basically know what they want to do and they are doing it. I would say there are less people who seek out "English-teaching" positions, and more people who set themselves up as professionals in the fields of their choice: photography, voiceover acting, web design, financial advisors, life coaches... you name it. Whatever it is that people can do differently or better than others, they pursue here. As to why they pursue it here, that is hard to say: Tokyo is extremely, extremely crowded and expensive. Although more English is spoken, it is still not spoken often enough nor in places where you imagine it would be (restaurants at international hotels, I have noticed, are sometimes a challenge). There are still numerous hurdles and hoops one has to jump over and through to make life work here. Is it worth it? 

That is a question only you can answer. I vacillated on that question for years. Finally I can say that for me, personally, "Yes it was and is." 

As the incredible American jazz singer, the late Dolly Baker once said to me, "Japan pays you to learn." 

No truer words were ever spoken, and I discovered how much I could do just by saying, "Yes." I never thought I would sing acapella in front of crowds in Shibuya, or use my (ancient) tap dancing skills in a corporate video, nor voice all the characters in a video game (including Japanese ones!), or have a single release of my pop song, "This Must Be Love" in Tower Records. I never thought my film "The Lesson" would win the top award at the Tokyo LGBT Film Festival or that "The Lesson" (conceived and produced in Tokyo) would travel to more places in the world than I have. I didn't anticipate meeting two wonderful American co-writers in Tokyo, allowing me to pursue my screenwriting dreams with a level of confidence. I didn't think I would fall in love with a Japanese and set down roots in Tokyo for all these years. But... I did. So much has happened, it boggles my mind. 

I am no longer involved in the "music scene" in Tokyo; too much has changed and it does not fulfill me creatively or emotionally. It was hard to let go of it, hard not to be "on the scene" or "part of the nightlife." It was fun, but ultimately it was not taking me where I needed to go... which is where I am right now: in a beautiful room, sunlight pouring in, surrounded by the "treasures" of two decades of an adventure, ready to do some rewrites on my latest screenplay and ready for, I hope, at least another two decades more. 

Much has changed in so many ways... life for me as an American will never be the same, not in the current political climate. People have died, illnesses have come and gone, friends have come and gone, jobs have come and gone. But in the background... there has been Tokyo. Ever-changing, vibrant, beautiful, sad, modern, with hidden pockets of the past, if you just look. There is always a surprise, always a new taste treat, always something bold and exciting... and yet... there is still a sense of order, stability, politeness, traditions, culture. Nothing is perfect, but it's perfect enough for me for the foreseeable future. 

Whatever you do with your time in Tokyo, I hope it enriches your life and brings you closer to your dreams... dreams you may not even have had yet.