Becoming a freelancer in Japan – here’s how to start

So, You Want to be a Freelancer: Part 1 – For those already in Japan

This series will look at issues with becoming a freelancer in Japan. It will focus on several points, including official procedures. We will examine general issues for people working in various fields but I will include field-specific information when possible.

This series will look at issues with becoming a freelancer in Japan. It will focus on several points, including official procedures. We will examine general issues for people working in various fields but I will include field-specific information when possible.

This first article will focus at some issues related to starting out when you are already in Japan, rather than moving to Japan specifically to freelance.

Assumptions

Base assumptions this time are 1) experience working in Japan as a company employee and 2) familiarity with the field or industry. Thus, I’m not going to focus on things like basic cultural assumptions. You can always review articles on WorkInJapan. Today for guidance on things like business cards, meeting etiquette, etc.

If these things are not true, you might benefit from a future article for those who don’t live in Japan already.

Getting Started

As with freelancing in any country, leaving a company to become your own boss can be a very rocky transition. You’ll need to be ready with enough savings to cover your needs until you build a solid client base. Obviously, everyone is going to have different needs, but plan for at very least six months of savings to cover you until money starts coming in regularly. Keep in mind that once you leave a company job, you’ll be out of 社会保険 Shakai hoken social insurance, so you‘ll need to enroll in 国民健康保険 Kokumin Kenko Hoken National Health Insurance (we will cover this and other procedures in a future article). This is fully self-funded, and although the premiums are based on your income (from the previous year), the burden is heavier than social insurance. Thus, your financial needs will be greater than you might initially expect.

You should also make sure your visa allows your planned change. Company-sponsored visas will end soon after you end your working relationship, so you should look into the requirements for applicable visas (Business manager, Engineer/Specialist in Humanities/ International Services, etc. ). Again, we’ll cover the procedures in a future article.

Finally, make sure that whatever you’re going to do is something that will result in a successful career. Writing, translation, web design, and so on are all reasonable careers you can do from home. Consulting is also a viable career, if you have the kinds of experience that will convince companies to pay you for your expertise in the related field. But this is part of market research, which leads to our next point:

Remember, You’re Opening a Business

Going freelance is, in short, starting your own company. As such, you must be ready to not only do the work you’re selling, but you must also manage your affairs. Success as a freelance worker depends wholly upon your own efforts, so you have to understand the essentials of being in business. This includes, but is not limited to:

  • Making a business plan
  • Handling your finances, including taxes
  • Maintaining professionalism
  • Tracking your tasks and deadlines
  • Balance expanding your client base with meeting current client needs
  • Communicating with clients
  • Etc.

I think you get the picture. Above all, be prepared to spend time dealing with problems, because problems will happen. You will mess up your schedule, you will send emails to the wrong client, clients will change their requests at the last minute, and so on and so forth, forever.

All of this takes resolve. Make sure you’re ready before you take this step.

Brush Up Your Japanese

It is entirely possible to work in some fields without business Japanese. I have spoken to people in fields like photography, web design, and finance, who have built careers without needing a high level of Japanese.

At the same time, it makes everything difficult. It limits potential client bases and networking opportunities, and in many ways makes private life more difficult. Improving your Japanese can only make your life easier.

For those who have already achieved some proficiency, try working on presentation and other skills related to sales, because freelancing is also about selling your skills. Being able to do so in Japanese opens up a whole new potential client base.

On Building a Client Base

The truism “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know” is more or less true pretty much everywhere, but is particularly so in Japan. Networking is absolutely vital in building a client base, because personal connections and introductions go a very long way in building business trust. In my own experience as a freelance translator, most of my very best jobs have come via recommendations from other translators.

Japan has a robust culture of professional events in a variety of fields. You can read about tech conferences, for example, in reports written by Tadashi Yoshimasa here on WorkInJapan. Today ( PyCon, PHP Conferences, etc. ).Freelance translators are served by the Japan Association of Translators, which holds networking events all year round. You can check out websites like 10 times.com for information on other professional events, as well.

Don’t forget connections from your previous employers, as well. While it’s often a bad idea (professionally and ethically) to take clients from your previous employer, you can take advantage of relationships made, even if you’re changing professions. If, for example, you move from English teaching to freelance writing, you could contact old students in industries that require copy in English. The point is, follow every avenue.

One important piece of advice I have heard from many freelancers in Japan is that cold emailing is not a particularly effective technique. This is directly related to the above focus on personal connections. A cold, unsolicited email will often just go ignored.

Conclusion

This is a big step, and you should be prepared for a long, difficult slog until your freelance business reaches a sustainable level. At the same time, it can be a viable way to find success your own way.

Jim Rion

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