Graphic Designers Part One: English-language Subset
It follows that a country as different and interesting as Japan would attract a high proportion of people in creative careers. I frequently get mail from fashion people, artists, and graphic designers wondering how to find work here. While I believe there is work in all 3 areas, the space that is most accessible is that of print and computer (including web) graphic design.
There are already plenty of graphic designers in Japan, in fact there are probably way too many. So why would companies want to employ a foreign designer then? In my experience, foreigners are wanted in several special niche areas: firstly, naturally, in English-language design, secondly, in online and computer graphic design --particularly technically difficult web work, and thirdly for situations where the client is looking for a different look. Typically this work is with agencies, web design companies, and publishers, either as a regular employee or more commonly as a freelancer.
The state of English-language advertising and marketing in Japan is not great, especially since much of the work is being done by Japanese designers with little sense for English-language design. The cultural disconnect is in many cases quite obvious and everything from font selection and character spacing through to lack of white space and selection of non-subject specific photos is different and strange to the eye of the intended audience. While strange or different can sometimes be a selling point, more often than not the result looks amateurish and disorganized - especially when the designer cannot relate to the meaning and atmosphere of the copy.
Unfortunately, although Japan is a land of famous brands, the number of companies that really value their customer image is few. Therefore, most foreign designers are reserved for higher-end English-language work, such as Corporate Annual Reports, company web sites, and expensive consumer product marketing materials such as autos. Typically these projects come under the control of a Japanese art director at a major agency, such as Dentsu or Hakuhodo, then the actual work is subcontracted out to one of the many smaller specialist shops around Tokyo (you won't find much of this work outside Tokyo).
Creating English-language marketing material in Japan is both tedious and frustrating. You'll find that agencies and their customers often appoint older, unmotivated staff to look after their English-language work. These people lack stimulation and market contact and thus can get fixated on meaningless design details, all the while letting problematical copywriting get through - thus destroying any quality left in the design.
When I first came to Japan 23 years ago, I did a lot of copywriting and worked with many designers. Together we would try to fix things by working on a customer and/or their agency to pay more attention. Sometimes it worked, but often as not, the changes had been suggested by someone senior in the client company and we were forced to follow their requests. The results were often embarrassing and disheartening.
Furthermore, even when we could educate a client so that they would trust us, the "tanto" (contact person) would change after 3 years anyway, per Japanese custom, and the process would start all over again.
So while you may feel that working in the international (English-language) ad industry in Japan sounds glamorous, and for some companies it is, I'd suggest that in reality such companies are more likely to be the first step into something perhaps less prestigious but more professionally satisfying. More next week on what that might be.