A look at the opportunities available and what is involved in establishing a side-hustle and expanding it to become an independent operator.
As a foreigner resident in Japan, there are likely three freelancing scenarios that you’ve considered.
Stepping Stone: Perhaps you want to work as a full-time employee but need some income to tide you over while you look for a new position. Or, maybe you want to use freelance work to gain skills and connections to help you change careers.
Side Hustle: If you’re currently working full-time, and you don’t have an exclusivity contract with your employer, you may be looking for something that you could do to supplement your income and grow your experience.
Full-Time Career: Perhaps you want to eventually work as a freelancer so that your income is diversified and you have more control over who you work with.
In this article, we’re going to take a look at some of the options available and the logistics involved in getting set up.
The Benefits of Freelancing
Freelancing isn’t a fit for everyone all the time, and I’m not going to try and sell it to you if you’re not ready for it. Also, it may take a while for you to get established, so I’m not going to tell you it will be quick or easy. That said, let’s take a look at some of the benefits you may enjoy if everything comes together for you.
Mobility: You can work from home or from a cafe. If the type of work you do doesn’t require meeting your clients face-to-face, you may even be able to travel.
Income: If you find the right niche and can secure the right clients, then you can end up earning more than you could at a traditional full-time job.
Security: Since you’re not dependent on a single income source, so you have greater stability and more options.
Appreciation: When clients know that you have options and can walk away at any time, they are more likely to treat you with respect and show appreciation for your work.
Learning: Working with a variety of clients that have diverse needs will force you to learn new things and pick up new skills.
Choice: If a client doesn’t appreciate your work or is difficult, you can politely end your working relationship and move on to more appealing opportunities.
Qualifications: While some fields definitely require formal qualifications of some sort, many don’t. If you can show a portfolio of work that demonstrates your competence, then often that is enough.
Even though you’re located in Japan, it may not always be feasible for you to attend events to find potential clients. Ditto for visiting client offices for an initial interview and subsequent meetings. In that case, one option is to do work for Japanese companies who are hiring online.
Freelance Job Marketplaces
Conyac is a freelance job marketplace based in Japan. While the site’s interface is available in English, most of its job listings are currently in Japanese, and most clients struggle to communicate in English. Thus, it is best suited to those with advanced Japanese skills.
It can be a good way to get experience working with Japanese clients, it is easy to get started, and you can get paid via PayPal — so you can continue working on the site if you leave Japan.
These are their top job categories:
Translation: Various translation tasks, proofreading, interpreting, localization
Writing: Articles, email newsletters, copywriting, and transcription
They’re working on getting more job listings in these categories:
Business: Legal, tax & accounting, HR, recruitment
Design & Creative: Web design, app design, logo & identity, art & illustration
Digital Content: Images, video, music, animation
Marketing: SEO, branding, social media, research & analysis
Tech & Programming: Web, mobile apps, infrastructure, and data analytics
Other Tasks: Data creation, voice data collection, image data collection, agency work
You can also set up a profile and offer bespoke services via Conyac. Prospective clients might hesitate to inquire to an individual’s website, blog, or social media. However, since platforms such as Conyac have various safeguards in place, clients are more likely to feel confident in trying you for the first time.
Of course, there are some things that don't change when working freelance jobs with clients you find online. Once the project begins, you'll want to communicate openly and clearly and work to create a successful outcome for all.
Online lessons are popular with busy people. However, unless you’re offering something that is specialized and in demand, the rates are likely to be quite low relative to the cost of living. It may not be worthwhile if you’re living in Tokyo. Check out sites such as ClassDo to see if you can find an approach that works for you.
Another alternative is to set up an online presence that showcases what you're offering and attempt to reach prospective clients directly. For example, if you are a graphic designer, you could set up a website showcasing your portfolio, explaining your services, and then try to contact companies that might need your services. Ditto if you’re offering editing services.
Note that unless you’re targeting international businesses in Japan, you’ll need to be able to communicate in Japanese. Perhaps there might be scope to partner with a local who will handle the client sourcing side of things while you take care of the specialized work.
Work That Requires Offline Availability
As a foreigner in Japan, you’ll want to position yourself in a niche where you’re leveraging skills, experience, and knowledge that most locals are lacking. Here are some examples that I’ve encountered.
Language teaching is often the first option that foreigners take and if you’ve been living here a while you’re likely familiar with the options. There are agencies that will send you out to schools and businesses to give lessons. Also, you can offer one-on-one lessons either directly or via an agency. The key is to work towards arrangements that give you more control over your time, location, and pricing.
Consider combining your language teaching skills with something else. For example, parents might like to have their kids take fun art or dancing classes in English.
Language: As a general rule, most local clients and models will not be able to communicate in English. The flipside of this is that you will stand out somewhat if you are fluent in Japanese.
Location: Most work is in Tokyo, but that shouldn’t discourage you from trying to break into the field if you’re located elsewhere.
Camera: Although the latest top-end smartphones are capable of taking great photos, most clients will still expect you to show up with a “proper camera.” However, one way around this is to impress clients with your portfolio, explain that everything was taken with a smartphone, and then ask if they mind. However, you are likely to command higher rates if you look the part by having an impressive-looking camera.
Portfolio: Decide what you want to focus on. For example, weddings, events, corporate profiles, architecture, real estate, fashion, or food. If your portfolio is lacking, then you may need to take on some free work until you have enough samples to convince clients.
Getting Clients: Don’t expect people to discover your portfolio online and inquire about hiring you. Likely, you’ll need to do some networking at relevant industry events to secure your first gig. Perhaps carry along a tablet so that you can flick through your portfolio and show them relevant works. Have business cards ready with your URL and make sure it has your rates listed. Also, check out local photographer directories or introduction services such as Go Cameramen.
Scope: Make sure clients are clear on exactly what they’re getting for their money. Give them a detailed list of your process and what they can expect in terms of final deliverables.
Web Design & Development
There is a niche business of foreigners who offer web design and development services. A growing number of Japanese companies are open to having either an English version of their existing website or creating a separate site to cater to English-speakers. Other popular languages include Chinese and Korean.
Furthermore, some foreign companies operating in Japan prefer to work with a native speaker of their own language who can set things up the way they want it and coordinate with a Japanese counterpart for the local language sections of the site.
Since the advent of the web, it has become progressively easier for companies to set up websites. However, many still prefer to sit down with a designer or developer who will take a consulting style approach and give them what they need. Similarly, while machine translation has made it easier to offer a multilingual website, it is still preferable to have one that has been properly localized.
There are two ways foreign specialists tend to get business:
Networking at relevant events
Developing a relationship with an agency who outsources work to them
Japan is suffering from a lack of engineers in various fields, including software development. It is common to hire freelancers who might visit their office for face-to-face meetings when required. Sometimes foreign engineers are more likely to have expertise in specific software languages. Or, it could be that they need a native speaker of a foreign language for some reason.
Scour local job boards to find work and attend relevant networking events with a business card that links to some kind of portfolio — or perhaps your GitHub profile.
Visas, Tax, Health Insurance, Pension, etc.
I am not a lawyer or accountant, and the laws are evolving. Rather than risk giving you erroneous advice, and assuming you already have an idea of how things work in Japan, I’ll just say the following.
Taxes, Health Insurance, Pension: Visit your local city office if you have any questions. In any case, always be sure to pay everything on time otherwise you’re unnecessarily making life difficult for yourself by damaging your records.
Sole Proprietor vs. Company: Unless you plan on hiring full-time staff, you’re probably best off going the route of a sole proprietor. It’s generally cheaper and more straightforward. However, having a company can give you more options.
Documents: Keep a copy of all documents, including records of any bills or payments. You’re going to get a ton. I use the Genius Scan app to “scan” them into PDFs, have it send the files to my Google Drive account, and keep everything organized in folders. I suggest you take a similar approach because you never know when you’ll need to be able to dig up and refer to some obscure document.
Consultants: There is no legal requirement for you to use any kind of consultants, such as a lawyer or accountant. However, they can be very helpful if you can afford their services. As a general rule, the ones which offer services in English cost more.
Assistant: If you are earning enough, you might find it makes sense to hire a local assistant to handle the administrative side of your solopreneur business.
As with anything in Japan, building a successful career as a freelancer isn’t going to be quick or easy. However, it is possible if you position yourself in the right niche, figure out how to get clients, satisfy them with excellent service, and maintain relationships.
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