Guide to Being a Freelancer in Japan
The 10 Freelance Commandments
That will lead to your success as a freelancer in Japan. The other guides on the internet focus on the more technical and legal aspects. We focus on the mindset you will need to separate yourself from other freelancers in Japan.
This article is part of our series on jobs in Japan.
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The steady paychecks, the constant flow of customers, and a team's comradery are some of the perks of being a corporate cog in the wheel. You wake early in the morning and decide to go for a run in your local park. Humidity mixed with dreams never pursued are typical scents that accompany you on this beautiful summer morning. While you work out, you notice a sense of urgency in the back of your mind, maybe something left undone or something left unspoken. You push through it and focus on the hip hop song playing on your iPhone. After coming back home, images start flashing in your head while taking a cold shower. You see yourself running your own business, talking to prospective clients, and pitching ideas filled with hope for what the future could be. You ask yourself, "can I do this? Is it possible for me to obtain such a grandiose goal? I'm just a normal employee."
Fast forward a couple of hours, and you arrive early at the office. It seems some coworkers drank themselves to sleep the night before, "they look miserable," you say to yourself. Next, you arrive at your seat and start working when suddenly, a coworker begins talking to you about their trip to Hokkaido and how awesome it was. Being the polite person that you are, you listen for a bit and then continue working. During lunchtime, you hear people's conversations about the person they like, the new superhero movie, how Japanese people are xenophobic and don't sit next to foreigners on the train, etc. Your life seems quite empty, and you feel entirely out of place. Later that night, after work, you attend an event for entrepreneurs in Tokyo. Instead of hearing people complain about their lives and bitch about Japan (like in your job), you listen to people talking about making businesses, discussing ideas, and coming up with strategies to help Japan become a better country. Feeling inspired, you summon all the courage you have and start thinking of ideas for a business. Your goal is simple: to be free and to contribute to society. Because you are a hot-headed brat, you go straight to your boss's office and quit your job. For a brief, shining moment, you found what was missing from your monotone life: hope.
However, the glimpse of hope is suddenly replaced by fear of the unknown and uncertainty. Welcome to the life of a Freelancer in Japan.
Working as a freelancer in Japan brings a lot of value and gratitude into your professional life. You get to do business in one of the most beautiful countries in the world, and also have the opportunity to immerse yourself in a vibrant culture. Tokyo offers many working spaces and freelance friendly cafes that make the freelancing experience something of an adventure. Living in a big city comes with many advantages; one of them is having a bigger pool of professionals to connect with. There are numerous online events and mixers that you can attend and find potential collaborators or clients.
While freelancing in Japan is fun, there are a few things that you should be aware of before embarking on this journey. Because you label yourself as a freelancer, many people automatically will compare you with a company and assign less value to your work. For that reason, a lot of potential clients might ask for freebies, discounts, demand credentials, or even straight-up lowball you. The fact that you work as an individual does not make you less valuable than a company; you have to learn to be disagreeable and say no politely when necessary. I can give you some real-life examples; a potential client wanted me to build a website for free and would pay me once people started visiting; I said no. One business owner wanted me to manage her social media accounts and create content for free; I said no. Another business owner wanted me to rebrand his business for $60, I politely refused. Last but not least, a person messaged me on LinkedIn and asked me to send all of the team's profiles and credentials before even having a discovery session; I just walked away.
I'm not sure if it's a cultural thing or a business practice, but people love free stuff here in Japan. If someone asks to do something that requires creative power, you have to charge them for your value. No one does anything for free. Before you start your creative pursuits in Tokyo, remember to have a thick skin and develop the grit to say no politely. If you don't, people will take advantage of your creative gifts.
"I love your ideas; they would be an excellent fit for our company. I also like the way you combine marketing, art, and storytelling. Before we go forward, though, could you please send me your portfolio? Ideas are great and all, but we need other people validating you to proceed...you don't have ten years of experience as a freelancer? Yeah, I think we are good at the moment, but we'll keep your ideas and make a shitty product."
In Japan, social validation or street-cred is everything. Many business deals, purchases, and hiring decisions are made based on said person or company's street cred. Public perception is like oxygen in the Japanese business world. The product or service might be objectively inferior to the competition, but as long as they have that ブランド力, they can be successful. The same thing happens when you are a freelancer in Japan; because you do not have a big corporation's logo on your business card, you have to build a strong portfolio and even stronger connections. The million-dollar question is, how do you accumulate street cred? The answer is simple: Keep taking action and detach from the outcome.
What kind of action might you ask? Go to business networking events, introduce yourself, publish consistent daily content, take advantage of LinkedIn's godsend organic reach, and take online courses on whatever your interest may be. While you take action, you will discover what makes you unique and then transform that into a brand (Commandment 7th). Taking action, saying your opinion, and being a free thinker is how you build street cred. On the other hand, building a portfolio is crucial for street cred. Start offering your valuable services for free and start helping people; after you start getting some traction, start charging.
Knowing your worth is crucial when being a freelancer in Japan. There are many businesses and company owners that will try to take advantage of professionals with low self-esteem; these professionals often get tricked, lowballed, used, and even mistreated. On the other hand, if you know your worth, understand that your ideas and talents are valuable and that not everyone shares your unique talents and experience, you can use this to your advantage. There is a reason why companies are always seeking creative people and have a hard time finding them. Before starting your services, build a strong portfolio, and discover yourself through self-development, mediation, and spirituality. Start offering your services to companies for free and then develop something extraordinary for them. Let's say you make a couple of websites for a local supermarket, manage the social media account of a college athlete, and design banners for English schools. After those six months to a year of developing and refining your style and craft that gets results, you can start charging for your services.
Please remember that after you develop your style and get positive feedback, it is vital to start charging and stop doing things for free. Working for free helps you build a portfolio but kills creativity in the long run. As mentioned in the prologue, if someone asks you to create content out of the blue or needs creative assistance, you show them your price table. In this beautiful capitalist society, no one should work for free.
Unpaid internships are also quite dangerous, so do not take one if you already built a strong portfolio. Many companies love using interns for free labor, and that is unacceptable. They lure you in with the "promise of working on projects and getting experience," but they use you for free labor. Once again, creativity is a god-given gift, and you should not give it away for free. If you know your value as a professional and stand up straight with your shoulders back when you pitch an idea, people will see that you believe in your art. If you do not know your value and internalize other people's limiting beliefs, you will never become a successful freelancer in Japan.
When we are born into this world, we are blank canvases, crystal clear water. We are born without fears, limitations, or judgments. Children live in the present moment and dream with no restrictions. When we start growing up, we absorb all of our parents' fears, and we grow up with a scarcity mindset. We start comparing ourselves to other people and as we get older we develop more and more “reasons” to conform to the status quo, we cut our metaphorical creative wings and become part of the masses.
Our minds start creating filters of scarcity to adapt and protect us, which will stop us from becoming our ideal selves. As we become company workers, our scarcity mindset is at full throttle, and we shoot down any person who acts differently from the rest. "Creativity? That is too much work." "Taking risks? That is too dangerous."
Since scarcity becomes part of our lives, we start to have a distorted sense of reality. Some of us get trapped into believing “there are a limited amount of jobs and a limited amount of opportunities” or “only the lucky ones can rise to the top, and the rest of us need to survive like the Hunger Games.” Other common limiting beliefs are: "I'm not good enough," "I'm not an expert yet, I cannot charge the price I want to charge to my client," and many more. I would say that too many people on this planet have this mindset. The reality is that once you change how you look at things, the things you look at change.
When I started freelancing, I would come up to a client with limiting beliefs such as "I am not enough," "my experience is not good enough," "my Japanese is not business level" and "please pay me because if you don't, I won't be able to pay my rent." These limiting beliefs really held me back at the beginning of my journey, I believe it's because I never had a proper marketing training or a university degree, I was just a former English Teacher with ideas. This caused me to lose many prospective clients and to put insane amounts of efforts into pointless pitches and meetings.
When I hit rock bottom, I found spirituality and saw how my toxic limiting beliefs were holding me back. Instead of going to meetings with a "please pay me" attitude, I was going to meetings with a healthy ego and a "here is much it will take me to help you achieve your vision," attitude. Beliefs are everything, please listen objectively to your self talk, are you kind and understanding with yourself? Or is your self talk negative?
Time is the biggest asset that we have, and we cannot take it for granted doing freelance jobs in Japan. Valuing your time as a freelancer is crucial for creating work and life balance and to protect yourself from burning out. When I started freelancing, I made the mistake of spending weeks preparing to pitch ideas to clients who were unwilling to commit. I would spend a couple of weeks doing market research, coming up with branding ideas, developing buyer personas, brand archetypes, and more. After my pitch, many potential clients would often tell me that they would "think about it," "they have no decision-making power," or that they were "waiting for some loan from the government to start their marketing efforts." They got to see a deck with more than 70 pages of ideas and strategies, and I got $0. I do not blame my potential clients; I take full responsibility for the situation since I did not know how to define expectations.
Recently, my business coach taught me a great way to define expectations and filter undesirable clients. During the discovery session, you should start by asking them what their challenges are. After consciously listening and paying attention to their pain points, you can ask the magic question: "If I can help you solve that problem, how much would that be worth to you in terms of money?". With this magic question, you can determine not only how much money they expect to spend but also if they are serious or not about working together with you. Once you know their budget, then you can tailor your business around it. If they give you a shaky answer like the ones I mentioned above, your best decision is to walk away politely without burning bridges.
Instead of trying to convince people to work with you, spend it working with people who are passionate about your brand, and respect your creative vision. In this world, nothing should be chased or forced. Something that has spiritually helped me is applying Deepak Chopra's Law of Least Effort, in which I will go deeply later on the next commandment.
A common mistake that aspiring freelancers in Japan make is trying to convince potential clients that their product or services are good enough. While it is important to remain customer centric and empathize with a client's pain point, your job is not to seek their approval and to pursue them to set a "next meeting to move to the next step." A client rarely goes into a meeting with a "let's see what happens" attitude. When a potential client books a discovery session with you, they already have a set intention and your job is not to persuade them. Your job is to kindly show them what you offer and how your services can alleviate their pain points. If a client has a wishy washy answer or wants you to do something outside of what you can provide, you kindly stop the meeting, thank them for their time and walk away. In the time you spend crafting a pitch for a client that can't pay you, you can attend networking events, create content, spend some quality time with your loved ones and take care of your mental health.
This Commandment will vary depending on your work field, but I believe it applies to all freelancers in Japan. The sole desire of becoming an independent entity usually comes from a place of Ego. "I deserve better," "They do not appreciate my work, that is why I will do my own thing," or "I need to stop following the Herd and start pursuing my true purpose," are some of the common reasons why freelancers decide to go solo. Our Ego is the voice in our head, telling us that we deserve better; it is advantageous at the beginning of your journey since it pushes you to new heights. According to Nietzsche, the Ego is what makes you rebel when you are a camel (See Nietzsche's three metamorphoses) and helps you transform into a determined yet aggressive lion.
Sometimes we have a powerful vision regarding our products and services; we believe they should be a certain way, and if other people don't like it, they can take a hike. As a freelancer in Tokyo, if a client does not like your idea and wants a more vanilla approach, that will hurt your creative Ego. The best way to solve this problem is empathy. I believe that the best kind of freelancer in Japan is the one that knows how to balance creative vision with the needs of the client. From my experience, freelancers in Japan are sometimes self-absorbed in their vision and cannot empathize with clients.
On the other hand, they are people pleasers who have no spine and do everything the client says without any creative input or confidence. The key is in the balance, have your creative spine while being empathetic and mindful of your client's needs and pain points. It is crucial to understand clients' pain points before coming up with a proposal. In our western mentality, we put a lot of value in free speech but not a lot of value in listening and being present.
There are three ways of listening. Most people listen only to respond. They're not interested in what the other person is trying to communicate, and are merely waiting their turn to speak; this is called "listening in a first way." A genuine interest in what someone has to say requires our full attention. Distractions must be cut out, or we risk getting lost in our inner monologue. When we listen to understand but are not fully absorbing what was said, we're "listening in a second way." However, in freelancing, "listening in a third way" is the key to understanding our clients. This an active, reflective listening that requires not only our undivided attention but also access to our emotional intelligence. Active listening, paraphrasing, and taking notes are practical tools that can help you step up your listening game. Last but not least, always be present and mindful. Clients appreciate a professional who can listen, be present, and be empathetic; this will make you an outstanding and rare freelancer in Tokyo.
Freelancers in Tokyo who know how to be successful by being themselves, will see a world of abundance with infinite possibilities and opportunities.
In Exodus, Moses was told by God to go to Egypt and free his people. Perplexed by God's command, he asked him how an ordinary shepherd could accomplish such a task. God replied: "My presence shall go with thee, and I will give thee rest." If you have a divine force behind you, a conviction, the universe, why would you not have a mindset of abundance? Why would you not be yourself?
As I come back from my morning workout, I grab a cup of coffee and start posting content on LinkedIn. In the sea of calm blue, I noticed a red dot with a number on my inbox. Once I accessed it, I noticed that my inbox is filled with emails from recruiters. "Dear...", "I hope this email finds you well," "Our client is looking for a digital marketing specialist," and the usual cookie-cutter vanilla bullshit that you get from recruiters spamming your inbox. This prompted me to ask my community of professionals about how they viewed recruiters in Tokyo. I would say 80% of them told me that they had some good people but that their treatment was usually horrendous. If you approach someone with a cookie-cutter message that you sent to 200 people, the people who get the message feel like a quota you have to fill out rather than a human being with feelings, hopes, and dreams. As companies get bigger, they become faceless corporations that only care about that mula and not so much about the people. Can you tell me the difference in the branding strategy of major recruitment firms? They all look the same to me. As a freelancer in Japan, you have the chance to be a shining light in an ocean of gray suits. When everyone is a gray mule wearing a suit and putting a front, you become a fucking unicorn.
How can you replace someone like Kanye West? Joe Rogan or Elon Musk? You cannot because they build a brand around their God-given gifts. If you are an English teacher and develop a niche brand around your services, start a YouTube Channel or podcast and develop a story behind what you do, you will be irreplaceable and unstoppable. When I was looking for a new teaching job years ago, I noticed more than 1200 people applied to the school I wanted to work at. In that situation, the company has all the decision power. However, if you build your platform and people start following you and loving your content and personality, you will stand out from the other 1199 people who applied for the job. You do NOT have to fit a company's mold to be successful or put up a front. By becoming a unicorn, people will use your services because of you. Once, I applied for a company that did not continue my application because I used too many "slangs." Shine bright by being you, do not let other people tell you how to do it; you do your own thing. Stay true to yourself.
In episode 1309 of the Joe Rogan Experience, the great Naval Ravikant wisely said: "The kind of wealth creation that I talked about is about creating timeless principles and adapting yourselves that make money won't be an issue, and you can do it by doing what you love right as we get into this model of I must work for other people work my way up the ladder I must like do what that person is doing to make money but really in today's Society you get rewarded for Creative work for creating something brand new that Society didn't even know yet that it wanted that doesn't know how to get other than through you. So the most powerful money makers are individual brands people like yourself or Elon or Kanye or Oprah or Trump, right. These are the personal brand's eponymous name brands. You have a unique set of skills." could you reword the part by ravikant.
That's why influencers are so popular because they bring their flavor into the mix. Instead of complaining about not being able to find a job, do your own thing. Start creating content around the things that you like and share it with the world through social media. Go out there and get what's yours! Do not let other people's limiting beliefs distort your reality; you are the master of your destiny.
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Act III : Stone Tablets
Often, people have this erroneous notion that to become successful; you have to put in 16 hour days into your business. On the internet, you have famous influencers such as Gary Vaynerchuck that advocate this type of lifestyle. When you open the Instagram app, you might see the typical influencer account where they post quotes such as "work hard, play hard," "work 24/7," and "sleep is for the weak, work until you die." I used to have the same mentality. Before I started working as a freelancer in Japan, I built my portfolio by creating content for a couple of English schools. At that time, I was working seven days a week, nonstop; I had a false belief that I had to work extremely hard to achieve what I wanted. Nothing was ever good enough, and I had to stop spending precious time with my family or relaxing to benefit someone else. The companies got all my ideas and designs and benefited from my creativity while I was always tired, depressed, and unrested. My connection to the Universe and God was nonexistent; I worked hard to work hard. I was always swimming against the current of the river.
However, once I reconnected with my spirituality and God, everything changed. In Deepak Chopra's book: "The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success," he talks about the Law of Least Effort. According to Chopra: "In Vedic Science, the age-old philosophy of India, this principle is known as the principle of economy of effort, or "do less and accomplish more." Ultimately you come to the state where you do nothing and accomplish everything. This means that there is just a faint idea, and then the manifestation of the concept comes about effortlessly. What is commonly called a "miracle" is an expression of the Law of Least Effort. Nature's intelligence functions effortlessly, frictionlessly, spontaneously. It is non-linear; it is intuitive, holistic, and nourishing. And when you are in harmony with nature, when you are established in the knowledge of your true Self, you can make use of the Law of Least Effort."
He also says: "If you observe nature at work, you will see that the least effort is expended. Grass doesn't try to grow; it just grows. Fish don't try to swim, they swim. Flowers don't try to bloom, they bloom. Birds don't try to fly, they fly. This is their intrinsic nature."
The Law of Least Effort has three main components: Acceptance, Responsibility, and Defenselessness.
Accept the situation and reality as it is.
No one is at fault for your situation; if you take personal responsibility, you permit yourself to improve the already accepted situation.
According to Deepak: "Your awareness is established in defenselessness, and you have relinquished the need to convince or persuade others of your point of view." When you try to convince someone to hire you as a Freelancer in Japan and meet resistance, you are going against the universe's natural course. You do not need to spend hours of your precious time trying to convert atheists into believers, if they are not convinced or doubt your abilities, politely end the meeting and walk away.
People spend so much of their lives trying to get other people to like them and to agree with them. You cannot force someone to hire you or to agree with your company mission. Do your best to market your services and ideals, but do not spam people. Be as natural and defenseless as possible. Once again, nature does not "try" to do anything; nature "is."
As I mentioned earlier in this article, Ego is what allowed us to metaphorically free ourselves from Egypt and wander into the desert for a better life. It is that voice inside your head telling you that you deserve better and that life can be improved. It certainly works at the beginning, but it is something that we have to let go of to create healthy communities with a clear purpose. The Ego tells us that we do not need anybody, that we are the best, and that we are better than other people. Because of this belief, we live in a constant state of competition with the world, like real-life hunger games. Everyone is competing for scarce resources; only the best can rise to the top while the great majority is destined for failure. In other words, others have to fail for me to succeed. Reality cannot be further from the truth.
Successful freelancers in Japan do not operate with this low-level frequency. Instead, we work to serve and collaborate with other people; if you can solve your issues, you can help other people solve theirs. With this mentality, you go from a one-person army who does everything themselves and gets quickly burned out, to a loving, caring, and empathetic leader of people who loves contributing to Society. I always feel so humbled and happy when I connect people in my circle with people who can help them solve their problems or achieve their dreams. I do it without intentions; I do not need favors in return; all I want is for them to get a chance to become their ideal selves. The only thing I ask them is to pay it forward.
Our professional community: NIGHTCRAWLERS, has grown dramatically in the past couple of months. Contrary to popular belief, I have not spent a single dime promoting the content. The only two things that are helping NIGHTCRAWLERS are LinkedIn's insane organic reach and word of mouth. If you want to be a successful freelancer in Japan, you have to be part of or create a community of like-minded people with similar goals. My father told me recently that to make a change in a country, 1% of its people need to be aligned with a clear purpose. If three hundred thousand people in Venezuela united to defeat the communist dictatorship destroying the country since 1998, my country would be a very different place.
You cannot change the world alone; you need talented professionals and dreamers to help you along your path. The best way to gather exceptional people like this is to detach yourself from Ego and interact with people in the present moment. At this stage, the pain of the past won't distort your vision, and you will be able to ease the suffering of the people around you. Metaphorically speaking, this situation would be Moses getting rid of his Ego, helping people cross the desert, and unite them all with the ten commandments.
As I mentioned in the previous Commandment, the only way you can make an impact is to connect with like-minded people by detaching yourself from Ego. This allowed me to create NIGHTCRAWLERS; our mission is to create people who create, empower people to become successful by being themselves and create a Japanese business world full of empathy, mindfulness, entrepreneurship, and creativity. Also, we are developing the ULTIMATE BUSINESS GUIDE IN JAPAN. Last but not least, we have weekly live shows where you can interact with the most exceptional Japan-related entrepreneurs or Japanpreneurs! The best way to learn about business is to learn from the best.
Networking in Tokyo is crucial for success. All my clients, business partners, and collaborators come from having mastered the art of networking. If you are a freelancer in Tokyo or plan to start your own thing, I would love to connect you to the right people. Join NIGHTCRAWLERS and serve Japan with your unique talents. Once you have become a successful freelancer, you can give back to Society by helping other people. Like Moses, make your ten commandments and guide people out of slavery and into the promised land.
Angel Guevara is a creative dedicated to improving society through branding, marketing, storytelling, and personal development. Born in Caracas, Venezuela, he is the founder of HYPERMILK – a creative agency that helps brands successfully localize in Japan through empathy, strategy, and design. Angel also runs an internet community and website called NIGHTCRAWLERS, with a goal of becoming the ultimate business guide in Japan by providing weekly webinars with influential professionals, insightful blog posts, and a powerful network of entrepreneurs and creatives.
Angel currently resides in the urban jungle of Tokyo, Japan.