Nov 6, 2019
Let’s cut to the chase -- it’s highly unlikely that you’ll be able to make a living solely out of working as a writer in Japan. But don’t let that dishearten. The brutal truth is that it’s hard to make a decent living as a writer anywhere in the world. Even the marquee names have side gigs as public speakers, visiting lecturers, and every-now-and-then teachers. This shouldn’t stop you from looking for writing work in Japan.
You’ll increase your chances of making a fist of it working a writer in Japan though if you can turn your hand to a variety of writing styles, most of which will likely be targeting Japan’s inbound tourism market or maybe other foreigners like yourself living and working in Japan.
Japan’s inbound tourism market, right now, offers rich(ish) pickings for the current or would-be writer looking for writing jobs in Japan as state and regional-level authorities, companies and organizations clamor for the attention of the tourist, bolstered by Japanese government targets to attract 40 million foreign visitors each year to Japan by 2020, when the Olympic circus rolls into town.
Quite what potential the inbound tourism market will hold once Tokyo 2020 has wrapped probably remains a shadowy concern for many but maybe there will be momentum enough to carry things on to Expo 2025 which will be held in the city of Osaka.
For now though the current climate in Japan sees new websites and social media accounts spring forth with whatever company or authority behind them often lacking in both content and a voice that makes them look “authentic.” And this is where you, writer in Japan, can apply your skills.
In the interests of honesty and in the application of our own layer of “authenticity” let’s be clear here, this guide to types writing work in Japan is based entirely on the experience of this “writer in Japan.” And it’s an experience of writing jobs in Japan the primary focus of which has been for the inbound tourism market, with a smattering of news journalism thrown in. All of the writing listed below has been done in English.
Jump to a specific kind of writing work in Japan:
Let’s start with the journalism side of writing work in Japan
“Journalism” is a loose term but in this case we’re talking about news sourcing, news writing, and news editing.
“This is a different world,” came the stern words of a department head at one of Japan’s major news agencies when faced with the prospect of working with this particular writer. A writer who, in their eyes, had largely been wallowing in the “10 best blah, blah, blah” genre of clickbait garbage.
And they were right. Working in classic news journalism proved to be a different world, one of fact-checking, style manuals, cutting through the bullshit, scary editors, and a constant applied fear of tarnishing the brand with a misplaced semicolon.
Look, I’m not a seasoned journalist. I do my bit every now and then -- event coverage, press briefings, press release write-ups, and original features.
In my experience and based on what I know about the journalists around me, a lot of writers get into journalism with the major news agencies and publishers as their writing job in Japan through contacts, rather than responding to a job listing. And most of them come with prior experience -- think the major news agencies and publishers back in their native country.
On one occasion when one of the news services I work on was in need of an extra hand the powers that be turned to putting a job listing on one of Japan’s more popular job-search platforms. They were asking for 3 years of experience in working with web media, N2 level Japanese, demonstrable experience with news sourcing and writing and the usual stuff about teamwork, task management and so on.
The listing proved to be unsuccessful. What I took from this, rightly or wrongly, is that if you’re at the stage of a career which sees you looking for journalistic writing jobs in Japan by way of the popular job-search platforms in Japan, you’re perhaps not at the required level to get into work as a journalist at a major news agency or publisher.
There is hope though. A colleague of mine entered work at a news agency as a translator and when resources were sparse a voice-recorder was thrust in their hand and they were told to get down to the mic zone of a sporting event. And just like that they became a sports journalist.
Starting salary in news journalism (with experience and a major agency / publisher) in Japan: ~ 300,000 yen / month
Perhaps the easiest of writing jobs in Japan to find is by way of the myriad of websites that cover travel, or maybe lifestyles / products / hobbies, in Japan.
In terms of content for this kind of writing work in Japan think, “How to”-style guides, trip reports, top 10 lists, cute foods, seasonal event listings and “5 reasons why …. “.
In terms of quality, well, articles for these kinds of websites will likely come under the mildest of scrutiny which focuses on the writing basics, a sense of fun and genuine experience rather than a specific approach to word choice, fact checking and good journalistic / writing practice. Basically, are you readable, are you selling the theme, and do you sound like you know a bit about life and travel in Japan?
Entry into this kind of writing work in Japan could come through a request for writers posted on the website itself. It could also come via the “media” or “writing” listings on a site like craigslist.
One or two writing samples will be required as part of the application process. If you’re starting from scratch a blog post or two might suffice. There are also plenty of websites out there that are happy to accept your content if they don’t have to pay for it. Don’t turn your nose up right away. This is how portfolios can get started.
It’s almost certainly not the case that this kind of writing work in Japan will be full-time and in-house.
Think freelance. Think around 2,000 - 4,000 yen per article.
An extension of this kind of writing work in Japan is writing for those media outlets that focus on exploiting the thirst for all things mad, bonkers, cute and sometimes plain disturbing that come out of Japan.
Being able to convey a sense of humor, dry wit and irony seems to be a requisite here. You’ll also need to have a grasp of Japanese, an encyclopedic knowledge of mad Japanese websites and endless patience to churn out piece after piece about pillows in the shape of a gorilla, ridiculous concept foods, pajamas that stop you from feeling lonely, viral YouTube videos, stupid Japanese TV commercials …. the list is endless.
As far as I can tell, such content is essentially sourced from Japanese websites and either translated and / or re-written into English.
Search engine optimization remains a key aspect of web media growth and client service here in Japan.
As a writer in Japan having some SEO savvy in your creative arsenal will stand you in good stead, and this savvy should be evidenced in two ways -- being able to identify keywords and key search terms to meet the media or the client’s needs (i.e. an understanding of the needs and wants of foreigners in Japan), and then being able to crowbar these into any resulting article effectively.
Writing for the purposes of effective SEO is unlikely to account for the entirety of one’s work as a writer in Japan. However, such articles masked as something else may form the backbone of a growth strategy for any media that you are writing for. It’s boring and tedious work and may go against any sense creative pride that you harbor.
Think of it like this though -- writing articles for the purposes of SEO is like the serious thesp taking a demeaning role in a high-concept bit of trash from Micheal Bay, it pays the bills and paves the way for freedom to pursue more rewarding projects.
More specifically, if you can stomach the SEO stuff and produce it effectively, it will hopefully give you (and the media you write for) license to pursue more interesting writing opportunities in Japan.
Once again, it’s unlikely that you’ll see openings for writing jobs in Japan focused solely on SEO. More likely is that it will feature as one aspect of your work as a writer in Japan.
Note: Being able to show potential employers or clients in Japan a handful of your articles that come out on the top pages of internet searches will look very good for you and could potentially pave the way to more writing work in Japan.
The top pages of web media in Japan often serve as a dumping ground for banner ads and promotional articles. (It’s worth noting that the Japanese have little sense of artistic shame when it comes to selling their talents and services for the purposes of advertising.)
So it is then that as a writer in Japan you’ll be faced with the prospect of producing copy on behalf of paying clients.
The writing of PR articles in Japan for Japanese clients might start from as little as having to translate or tidy-up some text provided by the client themselves. On the other hand it may provide the writer in Japan with the opportunity to attend interesting events and visit interesting locations, and interview interesting people.
Producing PR articles means working closely with the client (in this writer’s case typically with a Japanese sales colleague or project leader in tow) to identify their needs and understand their demands.
It is also likely the case that you will be more than just the writer. You will be the foreign voice. The foreign perspective. As such the client will be expecting your input as to the best angle to take for the article as well as the most effective approach to getting some SEO value.
Writing PR articles is easy enough in the sense that the topic is predetermined and contacts or fixers are already in place to arrange interviews and give insights. The pressure comes in the form of demand for high search ranking, page views, and ultimately conversion for the client in the form of increased customers, visitors et al.
The writer of PR articles in Japan should also be prepared to have articles picked apart by representatives of the client who may question the meaning of just about every phrase you have written. It can test a writer’s patience especially when we consider that these people are invariably Japanese and invariably have a slender grasp of English, at best.
Again, PR article writing in Japan is unlikely to be a job in and of itself. Depending on the reach of the platform which the client is being offered though, PR articles can fetch hundreds of thousands of yen -- for your employer, not you!
As much as tourists are flocking to Japan and the country seems to be the host nation of choice right now for global sporting mega-events, rural communities in Japan are struggling. They are struggling to hold onto their populace in the face of an aging and urbanizing Japan. In some cases they’re struggling to even stay on the map.
In this climate local authorities in Japan, armed with central government grants, are throwing large percentages of their budget into regional revitalization projects. A lot of these projects focus on the inbound tourism market, usually in the form of multi-language websites, press tours, influencer tours and social media accounts.
Rural Japan then, needs content and it’s likely the case that resources don’t extend so far as to pay the salary of the war correspondent-level journalist. Writing copy for rural revitalization could be a way into getting more writing work in Japan for those starting closer to the bottom rung of the career ladder.
Of course, writing to express the appeals of a local region of Japan will require knowledge of said region. To this end, it will mean living in that region.
Many, if not all, local governments and municipalities in Japan have “cultural exchange,” “tourism development,” and / or “regional promotion” teams or departments ensconced in local city halls. Some of these employ foreigners to handle English (or other) language sections of city homepages, newsletters, social media accounts, or local travel websites.
Sometimes these foreigners are titled as “ambassadors.” While the pomp is a little embarrassing being a regional ambassador could be a way to at least do some writing as part of your work here in Japan.
If you end up working on, or writing for, the creative team for media of any significant size in Japan you should be ready to turn your creative hand to projects funded by clients in need of regional revitalization.
The challenge here will be to find the story, the hook, the appeal of a town or region that would actually appear to have little appeal. Be prepared to get very creative for this kind of writing work in Japan.
Local authorities in Japan looking to have their region discovered, trendy new facilities in
Tokyo looking for increased exposure … such bodies often turn to media organizations and PR companies to arrange press tours.
I’ve always enjoyed attending press tours in Japan as a writer. Look, they’re much better than being stuck in an office and the organizers often lay on the finery in the form of interesting or luxurious hotels, great local food, unique experiences that would be hard to come by under your own steam, and maybe even the odd celebrity to interview.
A well-organized press tour will also come equipped with at least the ghost of a story for you, as a writer, to explore further, as well as the relevant background information and basic facts and data to get you started. All of which serves to make the writing easier or more enjoyable.
If there is a downside to attending press tours in Japan it might be that they can be exhausting as local authorities struggle to reign in a desire to show off as much of their region as possible. Press tours also mean being in close quarters with other writers in Japan who may well be strangers to you. And often these things are limited to Japanese language only (especially true in the case unveilings / launches).
It’s worth noting though that rare is the case that the organizers of a press tour or press unveiling in Japan can demand that attending writers actually produce any copy at the end of it all. They can only leave that to a writer’s good conscience or to the decision of editors.
As a foreigner working in Japan you may be made responsible for handling the social media accounts in your native language for whatever company you work for.
If you’re a writer working for a media organization for hire in Japan, you may find yourself managing and / or writing posts for a client’s social media account.
Of the writing jobs in Japan that have fallen on my lap, this kind of writing has proved to be the most “mixed bag.” Of course, it’s understandable work when a Japanese client perhaps doesn’t have their own writer / English-speaker on their books to turn to. Personally, being sympathetic to this makes the writing of a client’s Facebook posts easier. It’s even easier if the writer has at least some connection to the client’s service or product.
In the case of one Facebook account that I’ve been charged with creating posts for in the past, being taken to experience the facility (a health resort) prior to opening the account made the creation of subsequent posts much easier.
On the other hand, as a writer I’ve been tasked with creating posts for large organizations here in Japan with which I had little connection to and which I found impossible to believe didn’t have their own in-house writing resources to turn to. Such circumstances made the writing of posts feel a little tedious, if not pointless. In hindsight, I should have made more of an effort to keep open a regular channel of communication with the client in order to better understand their needs (in me) and feel a little more connected to the project.
Writing social media posts for clients in Japan has usually involved one to two posts per month with very little in the way of feedback from clients, the representatives of which just seemed happy that they weren’t having to do the writing themselves.
As a writer in Japan I’ve had to contribute editorial sections to email magazines sent out by clients to their customers. In all cases this involved going through the client’s website (English-language version) periodically to pick out a handful of features, services, updates etc, that I felt might be deserving of an extra push or that might be interesting to a foreign audience.
I usually submitted the text along with links to relevant sections of the website and a brief (written) explanation as to why I picked up the content that I did.
Sometime clients gave feedback. Most of the time they didn’t. (I put this largely down to the language barrier.)
This kind of writing work was a once every month or so task perhaps the hardest part of which was remember that it had to be done, such were the lengthy gaps between submissions.
I’m listing the following forms of writing work that I’ve experienced in Japan under “honorable mentions” because they’ve either been minimal, a little niece, or can be filed under the journalism section (which we hope to cover in more detail another time).
Writing a report on the results of a survey scrapes into this article about writing work in Japan simply because it involves writing. It’s the kind of writing that borders on being something akin to writing the slides for presentation but I think it’s worth a mention simply because it provides such a stark contrast to the forms of writing listed above. I mean writing a report about a survey is devoid of almost any creativity. It also feels strange to have to put into words that which is expressed far more succinctly by the all the graphs, charts and tables.
Most of the press releases I receive are written in Japanese. On the one hand this lends itself to a greater freedom to be creative as I’m not influenced by the wording of an English version. It does mean that I have to translate them first though, which can be a right pain, especially when I’m in a rush to get things published.
Press tour press kits
Writing the copy for press kits to be handed out to journalists prior to press tours can be time consuming. Depending on the nature and length of the tour it can involve quite a bit of research and fact checking.
Writing the copy for a press kit usually covers a basic introduction to the tour and the reasons behind it. It then picks up on the deeper theme of the tour to provide historical, social background that kind of allows the tour participants to hit the ground running the moment the tour starts. The press kit will also cover the essential details for each spot visited during the tour, basic profiles of people to be interviewed, and overview of the location in which the tour takes place (population, climate, industry etc).
Writing the basic flow, scene breakdown and rough script for a series of “how to” videos. Due to the nature of the videos and the themes they covered (and the fact that I was the one in front of the camera reciting the script) made this a light enough task aside from the stringent check applied by the client for whom the videos were being made for.
Other forms of writing any foreigner working in Japan my be charged with
These are not really down to being a writer in Japan so much as they are down to being a foreigner working in Japan -- I’m talking about emails, presentations, bits of speeches, ad copy, survey questions, notices and many more.
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