So You Want to be a Professional Writer?
One of the things that Westerners can do well with in Japan is becoming a practioner of English - especially copywriting and editing. Finding yourself a niche can give you a satisfying and secure job for as long as you want to stay in Japan.
There are 3-4 areas of writing that can yield you a viable living: i) bulk editing of translations, company reports, and presentations; ii) PR and marketing development; iii) market and financial research; and iv) copywriting and magazine editing. Of these, the bulk editing is probably the starting point for most people. It isn't well paid and the quality of the originals is sometimes so bad that it can drive you to desperation. However, as boring as it may be, you can use bulk editing jobs to learn the business and earn a name for yourself. I personally started out this way.
Upgrading from bulk editing, which just about anyone with a modest knowledge of grammar and spelling can do, to professional level writing jobs is not easy. I find that in the writing industry, professional pride is high and some publishers/ad agencies won't let you in for even an interview unless you have a degree in journalism. However, there is a way: which is to offer your services on a freelance basis, keep your prices low, and provide outstanding quality. The entire ad industry is under huge cost pressures right now, so the opportunities to get in are there.
Being able to deliver decent quality is hard when you're trying to break into the field for the first time. The way I did it, over ten years ago, was to teach myself a particular subject - in my case cars and industrial electronics - then learn the writing style that sells in Tokyo. I learned my writing style by asking companies for their Corporate Guides and Annual Reports, and copied out vocabulary and phrase lists from the best of these. I would then extract words/phrases from these lists in future jobs. This worked great and the clients were always happy - of course, I was simply serving up a style that they were already familiar with - but at a fraction of the cost of the incumbent writers.
PR and marketing development is quite different from regular copywriting. The format of a press release or other purpose-specific document is quite rigid, as are the rules for content and what you can and cannot say. Thus, the "apprenticeship" in graduating from an editor role to that of a writer takes quite a bit longer. Generally, too, it helps a lot if you are bilingual, so that you can form a personal relationship with the client. Writers in PR agencies are as much account managers as they are creators of corporate messages.
Another highly structured and rigid job is that of a writer in a research department of a bank or market research company. These people have highly developed rules and regulations on how data is to be prepared and presented. In financial writing, again you need a long apprenticeship and need to be prepared to learn terms and concepts that you can't afford to be unsure of. Bilingual skills are useful in research - especially market research, but in a foreign bank, another skills set in high demand is DTP capability and so English-only speakers can also thrive in this kind of environment. Needless to say, all foreign investment banks in Japan are cutting their teams to the bone right now, so jobs in this area are not plentiful. But you could try to lowball your way into a position...
There are urban myths of copywriters for major agencies in Tokyo making huge salaries for seemingly insignificant input - and it is true that in days gone by, you really could make JPY100,000 for an hour's work writing headlines for posters and catalogs. But those days are gone and nowadays the reward structure is based on what kind of work you do. At the low end, bulk editors get paid per page, and generally make JPY3,000 - 5,000 per hour. This may sound good, but remember that it is typically freelance work and is irregular. Full-time magazine/newspaper editors have a wide band of salaries: all the way from JPY4m a year through to JPY15m per year, depending on the size and prestige of the publication. High-end copywriters make about JPY8-12m a year, as do PR/research writers. Financial writers can make a tad more, but generally top out at JPY15m a year. To go beyond this level, one needs to work as an analyst - which is the natural progression for a lot of writers.
If you are considering a career in the recruiting industry, you can drop Terrie Lloyd an email for more advice at email@example.com. You can also see his weekly newsletter, called Terrie's Take, at www.terrie.com.