The challenges of moving to a new country to work are many, and if you add the stress of starting a new freelance career, all those can be overwhelming.
However, with a little preparation the way can be smoothed a bit, and that’s what I’d like to offer here: some ideas to prepare the way.
Disclaimer: I am not an immigration lawyer. Make sure you consult the current regulations and consult a professional if you have questions or issues.
You can check the current requirements and procedures on the Japanese Immigration Services Agency of Japan website.
Working in another country always requires official permission. Even if you are doing work for clients in other countries, living in Japan long term you will need a visa that grants permission to work. For freelancers, this tends to be the Business Manager (you will officially be running as a business) or perhaps Highly Skilled Professional. This page has all the various Japanese visas, so take a look to see which visa (technically “Status of Residence”) you think fits.
You will also need a Japanese company to sponsor your visa at some level. You will need to have a client in Japan who is willing to fill out documentation showing their business outline and relationship with you.
There is also a minimum income requirement, meaning you need to prove a reliable source of income for your stay. Again, the government is requiring you to have a real business with clients in Japan before you will be allowed to enter the country to work. Japan does not have a “freelance visa” per-se, or a self-sponsored visa, but if you can prove the income and find a sponsor, you can still work on your own.
There are, of course, alternatives. If you have a family-based visa, like a spouse or dependent, this will be much easier. You can also try to start from another company-connected visa by getting permission to engage in other activities.
It goes without saying that it’s important to research the market you plan to work in. How you do so will depend entirely on your field, so I can’t go into details, but something that is of particular importance in Japan is networking. In many ways, Japan is very old school in that personal introductions and interaction are the best ways of finding and keeping work pretty much across the board. Whether you’re hoping to translate, do IT consulting, or even teach English, building a network of people to pass you information and (hopefully) work is the absolute most valuable way to build your career in Japan.
The barriers to doing this before you’ve actually made the move are real, but even without residency, you can come for conferences and trade shows in your industry. These offer on-site opportunities at both market research and business leads. Go, and do your best to meet as many people as you can. When doing so, make sure you have business cards (see this article on meishi) printed up. Yes, old fashioned business cards are still a must here.
Here’s a site for checking on trade events in Japan, and articles from Tadashi Yoshimasa on WorkInJapan.today also feature occasional reports on tech conferences in Japan, as well as market trends in the tech industry.
Once you’ve made some connections, be sure to cultivate them.Contact people, even if just to say hello. Keep yourself in their minds, while not necessarily asking for work leads. You want to be a natural part of their career network, and not just the person harassing them for help.
Start Learning Japanese ASAP
Successfully working and living in Japan will be much, much easier with a good mastery of the language. Yes, it is possible to get by without it by depending on friends/coworkers/employees to handle official documentation (which is almost always solely available in Japanese), but the benefits to learning to speak and read Japanese to almost any level you can are enormous. You’ll be better equipped to network, engage in professional meetings, sell your services, and create a memorable impression. There are any number of ways to start learning Japanese outside of Japan, and WorkInJapan.today has education articles to help you navigate the process.It’s never too late, or too early, to get started.
With Japan’s strong social and medical welfare system, reliable infrastructure, and solid internet access, it can be a great place to freelance. Lots of people (myself included!) find professional success and private satisfaction here, and with some effort it can happen for you, too. Good luck!