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How to REALLY be a successful freelance writer in Japan

After nearly a year on a Working Holiday visa, picking up bits of work where I can., remaining here as a freelance copywriter isn't sustainable. The biggest problem is the visa issue. I could probably survive financially, but without 'proper' visa sponsorship I'd have to go home anyway.


As a copywriter, I've been moderately successful over here. As a freelancer, specifically, it hasn't worked out. Without this 'proper' job, my bags would be packed in a few months' time.


How do you do it? How does anyone manage to make it as a freelance writer here?

Here's what you REALLY need to do.


The following methods are listed in order from easiest to hardest to achieve.


Be married to a Japanese person / someone with Permanent Residency


I've searched for - and read - a lot of articles online about being a ('successful') freelancer in Japan. They're not hard to find.


Every last one of them was written by someone who's married and on a spouse visa. That point is key, enough that their actual writing ability (almost) doesn't count for anything.


Being a spouse takes the work visa struggle - one of the highest barriers to success - out of the equation. You can freelance because you have the luxury of not worrying about making enough money or qualifying for a different visa.


It doesn't matter if you're any good at being a writer or not. Many of the articles I read weren't written particularly well - typos and grammar issues all over the place. Ain't that a kick in the pants.


And pro tip (as much of a 'pro' as I can claim to be, compared to a bunch of these people): knowing English doesn't automatically qualify you to be a copywriter. Same way it doesn't mean you're born to teach. It's difficult to be truly good at it.


That said, some people here are great writers. Which brings me to...


Teach English as your main job and freelance on the side


I know several (decent) freelance writers who've taken this route. They work normal hours and write in their spare time.


As above, successes in freelance work aren't primarily what keeps them here. That'd be the 'Specialist in Humanities' or 'Instructor' visa instead.


Becoming an English teacher is, by far, the easiest way of getting a work visa for Japan. It might also be your only way, depending on how strong your Japanese is. Which means you could be stuck teaching for as long as you decide to stay.


It's a risk. You might eventually make the leap from a teaching job to a writing job. Or you might not. And after X years as an English teacher, how's your CV going to look?


Sponsor your own visa


Making some decent progress with writing projects and repeat clients? Thinking of applying for a visa on the strength of your freelance work contracts?


Do those contracts add up to at least 3 million yen a year?


If not, forget it.


You should also ideally have either a degree or at least 3 years of experience in your field. A degree's a minimum requirement for a lot of jobs here, anyway. You'll need your diploma to apply for a Certificate of Eligibility, which you can then use for the visa application.


Incidentally, 3 million yen's the average basic annual salary for a full-time English teacher. Just saying.


Get a business visa


The 'Business Manager' visa conditions include 'having at least 5 million yen to invest'. At the time of writing, that's nearly £35k. Which you need to show you have ready, in cash (in a Japanese bank account).


You also have to have your own registered business. Registered in Japan, that is. With a physical office/stock storage space (not your home address, if you can help it). And at least one employee who's either Japanese or has long-term or permanent residency.


And a solid, detailed business plan. In case that wasn't obvious from the name of the visa. There are more conditions, but these are the main hurdles.


If you thought running a limited company in the UK was a ball-ache, welcome to Japan! I might ask some of my friends about this one and do a follow-up post.


Go to the immigration office or go home


All of these options have the same implication at heart: no visa, no dice. Figure out how to stay here legally first, and work up to being properly successful later.


(And, not to labour the point here or anything, but if you're going to be a freelance writer in any country then at least be good at writing, yeah?)

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