The best way to begin freelancing in Japan is to just start doing whatever it is you do — as long as this is allowed under your visa. You’ll need to obtain a “Permission to Engage in Activity other than that Permitted under the Status of Residence previously granted” from the Immigration Office, but essentially, the first step to going freelance is to just DO it. If you wish to continue with your current field of business but move into freelance, then you will not need permission to engage in the same activity, but you will need to self-sponsor your visa or be sponsored by one of your regular clients.
Legally, it’s up to you to make the appropriate enquiries to find out if the activity you plan to do is permitted under your current visa. Generally speaking, foreign residents who are sole proprietors will have either an “Engineer/Specialist in Humanities/International” visa (hereinafter, Humanities visa), or a “Business Management” visa, unless they are on a permanent resident visa.
Freelancing on a Humanities Visa
There are several types of contracts under which you can work on this visa. There is the standard “employment contract” (ko-you keiyaku) for those who work full-time at a company. Freelancers can also be hired under three other types of contract. For instance, English teachers in Japan who work at multiple language schools are often hired under a “consignment contract” (itaku keiyaku), as are many IT engineers or freelance translators and writers. Skilled workers who are able to manage their own time and deliver projects by themselves can be hired under the above consignment contract, under a Contract of Mandate (i-nin keiyaku), or under a commissioning (shoku-taku keiyaku) contract.
Jobs you CAN’T do on a Humanities visa
The following, (from Immigration Lawyer, i-socia Advisors website), are examples of jobs that are NOT permitted under the Humanities visa: waiter/Waitress, Cashier, Driver, Factory Worker and most other manual labor jobs
Permissions and tax
Whatever the activity, if you work freelance on a Humanities visa, you need permission from Immigration and to have a total monthly income of 200,000 yen or above. Immigration will require evidence in the form of, for example, copies of consignment contracts.
As in other countries, freelancers and independent business owners generally need to fill in a tax return for the payment of income and residence tax. They should also enroll in the national pension and public health insurance schemes of their own accord.
Some pros and cons of working freelance
The benefits of being able to manage your own time, take on projects you like, avoid ones you don’t like, and potentially earn a higher income than as a salaried worker are very attractive. In terms of lifestyle, you may not enjoy spending most of your time cooped up working in your apartment if your work involves being online all day, but on the other hand, Tokyo residents may enjoy missing out on the stressful, crowded morning and evening commutes.
Although you can earn more money during busy periods than by working at a company, what about quiet periods? When business is slow, it may be better for your professional development and income to combine working for a company part-time on a salary with your freelance work. Mind you, this could be a catch-22 situation because the more time you spend working for one single employer, the less time you’ll have to grow your freelance business — which means those quieter periods are likely to get longer if you’re not answering emails or phone calls so regularly.
Finding out more
There is some good information available in English online about how to switch from being a company employee to doing a side job or going full-time as a freelancer in Japan. There are also some English articles that give advice on how to manage your own tax affairs, confirm your visa status, and find co-working spaces, etc. In addition, large libraries with an English book section usually stock one or two bilingual Japanese-English handbooks with fairly comprehensive sections on freelancing or setting up a business, as well as information on taxation and other business/employment related matters.