Graphic Designers Part Three: Getting In
Most of the successful foreign graphic designers in professional agencies that I have met in Tokyo gained their jobs through personal relationships rather than answering newspaper ads. This isn't to say that agencies don't advertise jobs, but you'll find that with the sheer flow of people out of the design schools being connected directly into design firms, there are just not that many jobs being advertised. And those that do come up usually have a catch - they're either low-paid, part-time, project-based, or want some impossible skill ( i.e., advanced software skills, plus design). This doesn't mean that ad agencies don't want good design people, it's just that within this specific field they're not expecting experienced people to apply off the street. And thus the reality is that you will need to think of an entry-level employer to start with, before graduating to the real thing.
So on those occasions when ads do come up, no matter how humble the opportunity, they represent your door in. These jobs that do appear in ads are typically for trading companies with imports or exports requiring brochures and spec sheets, or foreign specialty IR agencies with finicky table-heavy financial reports, or foreign and Japanese publishers with disorganized international projects, or web businesses that need a stand-in for a sick/holidaying designer, etc. Well, you get the picture...
While none of these may seem particularly attractive at first, especially if you are already highly experienced back home, they can provide you with the brand and product domain experience that may get you in to a leading international ad agency later. For example, working with an IR company can jump-start you into a bank, while import/export brochures will create a local portfolio for a future agency recruiter looking for someone to join a customer account team in the same sector.
If doing an apprenticeship is not for you, then you need to really work your personal network and remember that it's all about numbers. The more companies you try to get some part-time work with and get to know the hiring team of, the more likely it is that you'll find someone with a need and a will to let you in. The best way forward is to pick your sector and job type, then focus on this only. Learn the local "design code", talk to mentors at larger agencies, and get to know the sector really well - to the point where you can talk about the business not just the art. At the same time, be realistic. You can't expect an IR company to want you if you've never worked with financial reports before - even though you may have read a lot of them!
This brings up the point of whether you really need to have a local portfolio, versus one from back home. The answer to this is basically, "Do you feel lucky?" You'll probably get better odds with Clint Eastwood than with ad agencies by showing them a portfolio of materials from overseas that they can't relate to. Unless what you have is drop-dead outstanding, they'll be thinking, "Oh, we can't get this gaijin to listen to the client and the way we do things - he/she will be too hard to train."
So, get cracking with some local projects, while you look for a way in. Find some volunteer or "arubaito" work and do a bang-up job, so as to impress the next company you apply to. Be sure to work in both English and Japanese, and use some good quality ideas to show that what you can produce is competitive with a purely Japanese in-house designer. Also, like I said earlier in this series: if you have the ability to do both print and web work AND can do some of your own coding, then your chances with a web agency will increase substantially.
Lastly, you are living outside of Tokyo, you have no choice other than to use your gaijin "shock value" to get a job. Don't be shy, apply for ads that are published in Japanese only. Although you may not speak much Japanese, show the portfolio and offer to work at local rates to start with. Most smaller regional companies are looking for a secret weapon to fight off the big Tokyo agencies with. Having a gaijin on staff may be just the thing the company you have applied for needs to graduate from user manuals to brochures, then on to ads and IR.