Being a freelancer has its ups and downs. Personally, getting to work from home, with my own hours as long as I meet deadlines, being able to turn down work (you know, hypothetically, if I have that much work) if I need to, and — if we’re being honest here — cutting down on the face-to-face parts of work are all very good for me, since I’m not really sure I could handle a ‘normal’ job. On the other hand, it means work is unreliable, and you’re stuck in a sort of perpetual job hunt while also holding full responsibility for advertising yourself. So, pros and cons. If you’re reading this, you’ve already made your choice, and I’m going to offer a bit of advice for freelancing in Japan.
1. Content, not time. I generally argue against hour-based wages, partly since it’s hard to time your work while working from home, but also because the rates aren’t going to work in your favour, and the faster you work, the truer that will be. Instead, unless the rate is really good, demand pay by volume: If you’re a translator like me, that means by the word or character. If you’re a writer, by the word again. If you’re an artist, it’ll be by completed piece, and so on.
2. Once you’ve got some experience and know roughly how long it takes you to finish a given kind of work, you can start on a per-hour assessment. That means averaging how much you make in an hour, and then comparing it to other work. Is it easier or faster? Take the work, you don’t actually need to tell anybody that. Is it harder, or otherwise more time-consuming? You know how much more you need to charge for it to be worthwhile. You might not be bringing in hourly pay, but in a sense that’s exactly why time is money, and your efficiency matters — work that’s harder is, apart from the obvious drawback, also paying less unless you increase your rate to match. This does also assume that you’re picking between different jobs and prioritising, though. If you have nothing, well, you probably take what you can get.
3. Build connections. If you can impress a client the first time around, that might make a big difference (provided they’re a good client in the first place). They might be more open to negotiation for better terms in future, but even more than that, you’re making sure there’s a future in the first place. Every job that’s brought to you is another you don’t have to find yourself, and eventually that starts to give you a little more security.
4. Work out something for international payments in advance. Paypal or something if possible, go through Japanese banks with all the hurdles that involves, if not. We don’t live in the easiest country for that sort of thing, and by having an arrangement in place in advance (rather than, say, when you really need a payment you were counting on to come through), you can save a lot of trouble.
5. Look into online resources. Sometimes this means things that help directly for your work — dictionaries in my case, for example — but mostly this means channels through which you can find more work, and ideally check about potential clients. In my case this means Translatorscafe, Proz, and 翻訳者ディレクトリ (honyakusha directory), which I post my profile on and hope people contact me, or when work is a bit thinner, I go out and look for job postings there myself. If possible, find a way to vet clients. Are there past complaints about working with them? Has anyone talked about them not paying? Have they been good about payments recently? An otherwise decent company can sometimes change course if they’re out of money, after all. Make sure you’re not being scammed, because as a freelancer, you are your own primary protection. Try to limit the amount of work you’re willing to hand over before you see the money, too, or even take the money first for certain commissions if that’s an option (e. g. artists). Some useful venues for this are Glassdoor, and the Proz Blue Boards (specifically for translators in this case).
6. Don’t be afraid to make demands. Worst case, you can back down. I understand the anxiety that comes with not having a lot of security and needing the work — I’ve been there myself — but few clients are actually going to be so offended that they leave just because you asked for better rates or something, and if you allow everyone to dictate their terms with no input for you, that’s exactly what will happen — some clients are nice, but it’s not something you want to count on, and typically you won’t like the results. The correct rate is as much as you can get. Don’t think your work is good enough to earn much money? Don’t listen to yourself. If someone’s buying a luxury like a drawing, they can afford to pay luxury rates for it, and if it’s work for a company, I promise they’re not going to go bankrupt over turning a slightly smaller profit. Try to research industry standards too, so you know what’s reasonable.
7. Keep records. This goes double for purchase orders and so on, but set up some corner of your computer to keep everything organised on. You’ll be glad you did when tax season rolls around and you don’t have to, say, do a lot of archaeological work through old emails.
8. Set boundaries. Whether it’s not giving your phone number, not answering phones or emails after certain hours or on weekends, or anything else, do what you need to. I promise you will hear from people around the clock otherwise and they will expect prompt answers, especially if your clients span several time zones — do this in advance or you’ll go mad in a few months.
9. Get an idea of what you can excuse away as a business expense. You are completely allowed and expected to do this, so don’t worry about it too much. Is there something you need for work? Say, a computer? Most things you buy for your computer can probably be considered a business expense, which means part of it comes off your taxes. I know some people who take the same reasoning and claim part of their electric bill as a business expense, for example, but I’m not that bold. Just to be clear, it’s not that you would get in serious legal trouble for trying this, but in the worst case someone might shout at me over the train, and I am the kind of person who will pay quite a lot to avoid that. Still, the smaller things? Absolutely, go ahead.
10. Don’t forget to advertise yourself. Exactly what this means will depend on the circles you’re in and the work you do, but you need to periodically make sure more people are aware of you. In my case, this means refreshing some of my profiles to bump them up to the tops of sites, looking for new sites to advertise on, seeking out new clients, etc.
11. Be aware of payment timing.Freelancers have few protections in most places, as I’ve discussed, and those in Japan have still fewer (though it’s better than, say, the US in some ways). This means that payment can be quite late. In translation, for example, the standard for me is the 15 th of, or end of the month after I hand in the job. The latest I’ve seen is two months after hand-in at the end of the month — for example, if I finished a job on November 2, I would be paid on January 31. The consequences of slow months and busy months are both very delayed, and finishing a lot of work doesn’t mean you’ll have that money any time soon, so be aware of when you get paid, what you have now, and plan carefully!
12. Get it in writing. What do I mean by ‘it’? Everything. Explain that it’s not personal if you think it’s necessary, but the moment anything goes wrong in your work, you’ll be glad that you have formal contracts and written agreements — people are far less willing to break those, or even just misremember them. If for whatever reason this isn’t an option, have written records of some other kind, like email transcripts.
13. (A bonus round just for translators) If you’re coming from the US or especially Europe, I’m happy to say that Japan’s professional atmosphere for translators is much looser. That is to say, nobody is going to ask about your formal qualifications or demand a university degree in translation, and you will only rarely even have to submit a CV. More commonly you will be asked for a sample, or sometimes they just decide they like you from your profile. What actually matters is whether you can get the job done properly or not, rather than what certificates you have — as someone with a lot of experience but no particularly flattering pieces of paper, this is a big relief for me, and probably for some others as well.
Hopefully this will help you a little in finding good, steady work for yourself — good luck!