So you wanna be a freelancer in Japan?
If you’re reading this article, there’s a high chance that you have experienced — or at least heard about — the horrors of working for a Japanese company. Rigid hierarchies, resistance to new ideas, aged-base superiority, sexism… the list goes on. Being a foreigner can earn you leeway, but your “gaijin smash” card might also be your one-way ticket on the career ladder straight into the novelty box.
Perhaps I am overly dramatising, and I can already hear the “not all Japanese companies…” protests. But either way: isn’t being your own boss a whole lot more fun? As a freelancer, you earn the freedom to do the jobs you want to do, the right to reject difficult clients and the privilege of going on holiday without asking permission.
You may have heard that freelancing in Japan is notoriously difficult due to the sticky issue of obtaining a visa. But getting any kind of visa in Japan can be a challenge because…. See aforementioned description of archaic Japanese companies above and multiply that to the power of bureaucracy.
The fact is that many, many internationals are freelancers in Japan and what is obtainable for them is obtainable for you.
To make sure that I give you the best advice, I’ve consulted with Marie Yakura, an administrative scrivener from Aricia Ginza Law Office to learn the ins and the outs of the freelance visa process.
What You Should Know
1. There’s no such thing as a freelance visa.
Yes, I know it’s in the title, but did you search for “freelance visa” in Google, which brought you to this page? There’s a common misconception that there’s some kind of specific visa for freelancers.
In any case, a freelance visa is a useful shorthand for a work visa acquired by freelancers, i.e., people who are not registered as a full-time company employee and therefore entitled to company benefits and enrolled in Japan’s social security system.
There is a common misconception that this visa somehow differs from other work visas. It is, in fact, the same as the two most common work visas — engineer or specialist in humanities, which covers “scientific engineers, IT engineers, foreign language teachers, interpreters, copywriters, designers” and basically any other job that doesn’t fall into one of the other official categories, like actor, journalist or instructor.
As a quick aside, there are two other options if you want to be your own boss in Japan.
- You can acquire a business manager visa and start your own business, or if you score enough awesome points (or what the Japanese government thinks is awesome),
- You can acquire a highly-skilled professional visa and forever look down on everyone else as lowly skilled peasants.
Both of these have their own sets of requirements, which aren’t covered below. Jump to our interview with freelancer #1 to understand why he decided against getting a business manager visa even though he was starting his own company.
Your other option is to marry a Japanese person and acquire a spouse visa. I wish you happy partner hunting.
2. The word “sponsor” is misleading.
When I hear the word “sponsor,” I think of money changing hands. I think of my high school years when so-and-so was going to run 5 km for a charity and asked for people to sponsor them on their online fundraising page, while I silently cringed at my lack of income.
You’ll often hear that you need a company to “sponsor” your visa. While as a freelancer you will need one or several clients in order to prove your income, there’s no money changing hands… at least, from your clients’ hands.
Most importantly, your clients are not liable or responsible for you in any way. As Yakura-san kindly explained, immigration is keen to understand that the company providing your income is legitimate. It’s essential to explain this properly to any clients you ask to cooperate in providing documents as they are more likely to help out knowing this a formality that entails no responsibilities.
But one final word on money: there will be some costs incurred by you.
Whether you are applying from overseas or from within Japan, it’s strongly advised to apply through a lawyer, which will likely cost 150,000 – 200,000 yen in legal fees. However, if you are applying as a Japanese resident looking to change your visa status and want to battle it alone, all you will need is 4000 yen for a revenue stamp (usually available at immigration).
3. If you get rejected, it may count against you in the future.
Your immigration history is like credit history. If you get rejected, Yakura-san warns it could have an impact on your future applications.
According to Yakura-san, the most common reason for rejection is that the documents you have submitted aren’t enough to convince the immigration examiner that you can earn enough money to afford to live in Japan. Apparently, they apply a “ten-year” benchmark of whether a person could continue this job / these jobs / this line of work for a decade and support themselves.
If your application is rejected, Yakura-san says you won’t be told why in detail. In some cases, they will notify you that a certain part of your application lacked information, and you may have the chance to add extra documents.
What You Need to Prepare
If you already have a Japanese visa:
You’re going to need documents. So many documents. It’s best to check the official government website to confirm the requirements, but here’s a quick summary (correct as of May 2021):
- An application form
- Passport photo taken within six months (Tip: if you’re going to use an older photo, make sure you cut the printing date off before turning up. Been there, done that, got the “take another photo, faker” T-shirt)
- Employment contract(s) for the company(-ies) you’re now working with or are going to be working with*
- If leaving a full-time position, you’ll need a taishoku shomeisho (退職証明書), or “proof of retirement”; basically, a document that shows you’re no longer employed by that company
- For when you renew your visa after going freelance, you’ll need a kakutei shinkoku (確定申告), an income report, as you’ll be filing your own taxes.
* Don’t have these? Read the next section.
If you’re applying without a Japanese visa:
If you’re applying from overseas without holding a Japanese work visa, you’ll need a lot of extra documents as your burden of proof is higher. You’ll need to show:
- What university you went to
- What kind of job you have had until now
- Why you want to work in Japan
- What are the benefits of you working in Japan
These documents all need to be submitted in Japanese.
Become a Document Detective
I honestly wanted to say be a Shorui Samurai (shorui is “document” in Japanese), but samurai are fearless warriors and there is no boldly slicing your way to victory here. Equally, you can’t be a ninja, as they are sneaky and do things secretly. That is strongly not advised and could get you deported.
You are going to need to be a document detective and construct your past and your present through a thorough paper trail.
Remember: the more documents the better, and be prepared that you’re probably going to have to acquire documents that you don’t already have.
Immigration is interested in two things.
1. Do you have the skills to do the kind of job(s) you are claiming?
If you have a degree in medicine but you’re going to work in marketing, immigration officials are going to be confused. Usually, a general degree in the general area will be enough. For those wanting to be translators or interpreters, you’ll need to show you did a few language studies.
2. Can you afford to live on your own without government assistance?
You’ll need to demonstrate that you’re earning or will earn around 200,000 yen a month. The reason why this figure is not fixed is that it’s based on the cost of living for the area in which you apply (so, for Tokyo, it will definitely be 200,000 yen or more. Aim for more!)
As a freelancer, depending on your field, it can be difficult to obtain employment contracts when your work might be one project at a time, or there is no written formal contract, just an invoice upon completion.
This is why you need friendly companies on board with your plan (having reassured them they bear no legal or financial responsibility). You’ll need to show the likelihood of future work. Get companies you’ve worked for to write a letter detailing your earnings so far, and say that they intend to use your services in the future. There is no set format for this. It’s up to you to demonstrate to the best of your ability that you’re earning a stable income. The more documents the better.
Three real life experiences (Yes, real freelancers! No fakes here!)
We spoke with three freelancers to find out more about their experiences. Their responses below can give you an example of just how different situations can vary. Also, as in the case of Freelancer 2, never assume you are employed.
(Names have been changed to protect their privacy.)
FREELANCER 1: FRED
Freelancer Fred runs a software development company that he set up himself and subsequently sponsored his own visa. But before that, he managed to get a freelance visa from the outset without a degree.
“I have never been a company employee here in Japan. Right from the start, I used freelance contracts to sponsor my visa. But I don’t have a degree, so that made things much more complicated — I had to prove ten years of experience instead.
Well, I was in high school ten years ago, but I was working on IT systems then. My resume didn’t specify whether I was full-time or part-time, so I realized I could make it to the ten-year mark. But they forced me to go to every employer I’d had and get them to sign a document that proved I had been working for them on the dates on my resume. That was ten years’ worth and I think maybe seven companies?! Some didn’t even remember me.
In the end, I think it all comes down to contract. My very first visa was through a large gasoline company that employs a lot of overseas staff.
Later, I wanted to set up a Japanese branch of my U.S.-based software company. In order to set up a business in Japan as a foreigner, typically you need to acquire a business manager visa. In order to do that, you need to have 5 million yen in capital. You also need a private office with a door you can lock. But you’ll likely end up with an office cheap enough you can afford it, but crappy enough that you never want to go there anyway.
Also, the business manager visa is only valid for one year. I already had a three-year engineering visa. Why would I give up my three-year visa for a one-year visa?
So, I decided to hire a Japanese CEO to become my company CEO on the paperwork. There are several businesses that provide these services and the monthly costs are less than paying for an office you are not going to use. Getting a Japanese company on board also helped with opening a corporate bank account. We spent a year getting denied by banks but as soon as we had a Japanese guy on board, we went to a bank and got approved within an hour. I then got my company to hire me and I effectively sponsored my own visa.
My advice for freelancers would be that you don’t want to make a mistake. This is why I hire lawyers for everything. For $400–600, they can ensure you don’t make a mistake. It’ll give you peace of mind.”
FREELANCER 2: ASHLEY
Ashley is working in the arts in Tokyo and has been working mainly for one company for the past four years.
“Until recently, I thought I was employed. That was how it was explained to me in person and in writing at the time and my contract is entitled: “Employment contract.” But I have since discovered that is not the case. I am being treated like a self-employed worker with no health insurance or pension provided through the company. My contract states I get paid a monthly kyuryo (salary) but on my payment record at the end of the year, it says: hōshu (remuneration).
I initially came to Japan on a study programme which supported my transition into my job. As my Japanese was not strong at that time, I had to rely on those helping me and so I didn’t question my contract. I didn’t realize paying your own health insurance and welfare is an indicator that you actually aren’t a company employee. I was really happy to have found this job and I still am, but perhaps I was a bit too grateful as I didn’t think to double-check anything.
When arranging my first work visa I submitted my contract and evidence of previous work experience in Japan, and because the company I am working for is a large corporation, the application went straight through. But after several conversations with other freelancers and learning that they were paying individually for their welfare, I began to get a bit confused.
So I consulted with a lawyer. Apparently, it is very common and an old-school practice in this industry to have a contract that makes it look like you are employed (to help at immigration) but they told me I should set up as a kojinjigyousha (sole proprietor).
It turns out that it is in my interests to be self-employed as – unless I choose to sign a contract saying otherwise – this should allow me to own my copyright and have more flexibility. For example, my current contract states I am required to be in the office daily 9-5 but, in reality, I work from home or go to other locations as required for the projects I’m working on.
However, I had been laboring for years under a misapprehension. I wasted lots of time not looking for additional work and worrying about asking to take time off. I also have years of back-dated returns to file and expenses I can’t offset against tax as I didn’t know to keep records.
This process has allowed me to claim tax rebates which help pay for the legal fees. And knowing that my copyright should automatically belong to me unless I sign it away otherwise is a big relief.
My advice to anyone in a similar situation would be: “If you are worried, seek advice straight away!” If legal advice isn’t an option, some firms offer free consultations and do what you can to become better informed: your peace of mind is worth its weight in gold.
FREELANCER 3: BETTY
Betty is working as a freelancer in digital marketing, writing, and food. She explains why and how she took the plunge.
“I decided to go freelance because my passions fall very much across a few different areas, and I wanted the freedom to develop them all. I wasn’t sure if I would hone in on one in the future, or keep them as complementary, but I needed the space to be self-directed in my skill development and to explore future possibilities.
At the company I was working for full-time before going freelance, I couldn’t see a lot of career development, so I saw my options as to make freelance work in my own path, or I go back to my home country to a wider job market. (Or, if a dream job came up in Japan along the way, then that was also an option!).
Also, living in a foreign country, if I’m catching a train for an hour each way and working a nine-hour day (or often longer), I felt like it was cancelling out the benefits of living in another country… I wanted a more flexible working schedule.
After spending a lot – LOT – of hours researching online, talking in circles with anyone who would hear me out, I reached out to a lawyer. Of course, it’s more expensive, but I needed a clear path and less time in internet wormholes.
As for requirements….
- You need a contract (or contracts) to say you earn 250,000+JPY/month. I don’t know if people have secured the visa in other ways, but this is my understanding of the fundamental requirement. I had two contracts, one for a permanent part-time position, and one as a contractor to an agreed monthly fee (ongoing).
- Aside from the 250,000+JPY/month, one of the companies will need to back you. This means the company will need to provide company data – commercial registration, financial records, the company seal.
- On the documents side, you’ll also need to provide your resume, certificate of tax payment and certificate of residency from your ward office, and ideally, proof of resignation from your old job. I didn’t have this as I didn’t photograph the paper before I submitted it (rookie error – always make records before submitting anything!) but thankfully, I had done it within the required two weeks after resigning so if my record was checked it would show this (in theory!)
- Plus the other regular visa renewal documents like zairyu card, passport, and a passport-sized photograph.
- I’ve heard it’s best to set up your kojin jigyo (sole proprietorship) at your ward office prior, so you can take the registrations of this, although this wasn’t required of me at the time. I applied for a visa mid-year, and applied for my kojin jigyo at the end of the year.
As for whether to go freelance or not… while your nerves may be shot at points from the uncertainty, and you’re going to learn to function on not much sleep, being self-employed can be extremely rewarding. You feel more in control of your path and able to grow in the ways that feel true and fulfilling to you.”
Final Advice from Our Helpful Attorney Yakura-san
It’s best to let Yakura-san have the final word.
“Of course, I think it is best to talk to an expert before applying. But if you are worried about the cost, and you want to look it up by yourself and apply, get as many documents as possible, get companies you are on friendly terms with to collaborate, and submit many documents that will add to your case.
Sometimes, you might get a phone call to ask you about your application, but in Tokyo, there are so many applications, they are likely to only assess from the documents.
Sometimes we wonder why strong applications are rejected, and ones we had doubts about are accepted. This is not just for freelancers, but for all visas. The result can depend on whoever is overseeing the application, and it can really differ.”
Legal services can cost between 150,000 and 200,000. If you’re looking to employ an attorney to ensure the best chances of achieving your dream of living and working as a freelancer in Japan, we highly recommend contacting Yakura-san to get your visa process started on the right foot!
Marie Yakura, Administrative Scrivener
Aricia Ginza Law Office
Asako Ginza Bldg 9F, 2-6-5 Ginza, Chuo-Ku, Tokyo, 104-0061