Comments on Japan Career Question from Comments
commentson 5 August 2003 : 19:52, justin sez:

Per I tried to give the long view above - I'm not sure if I'll be freelancing forever, or employed tomorrow. Thanks for your series of questions and a clarification - I'll work to answer them here, probably multiplying further the available areas of unknowing:

When I lived in Japan, I got some freelance gigs because I was stationed there. Were they better than the gigs I would have gotten if I stayed at home and networked my butt off in Northern California? Or if I'd parlayed a fourth-grade enthusiasm for ancient Egyptian tomb architecture into a grand metaphor for the military minds of the Middle East? There were an infinite number of possible courses of study open to me. And twice that many possible outcomes. How do you measure better freelancing?

There was, and still is (though to a lesser degree), some good money in writing about mobile phones. While I was stationed in Japan, the mobile phone industry there was leading nearly all of the world. They still are, though the technology gaps are closing pretty rapidly. So that was good freelancing, definitely.

But there was a constant pull there, towards the Middle East, where the romantic journalist might make their name amidst bombs and confusion. And I saw more than one reporter stationed in Tokyo bid goodbye to the Foreign Correspondents' Club (FCCJ) in favor of a posting to China. Because all the time I was working as a writer in Japan, the action was really happening in China. I was living amidst a nation that seemed to be slowly diminishing in global importance. I found that kind of compelling to watch and participate in. And next door was the largest potential market in the world, bursting with a billion schemes. A great place for an eager young writer to grab a hold of a upward bound rocket the world would want to watch! It was too dizzying for me to imagine; the media culture and efficient reserve of much of Japanese culture was attractive for me as I considered living abroad; I pictured myself arrested or permanently confused living in mainland China then.

Do I get better freelance gigs now because I am associated with having lived in Japan? Because I post offbeat stories on my personal web site? Because I published a 'zine-like Guide to Tokyo that sold well over 100 copies? Because editors still think I live amidst electric lights and squiggly script?

I still write about mobile phones, but I don't explicitly cover Japan. I do have that context to lend to some of the articles I write. Maybe I get better gigs because I had access to some writing opportunities while I lived abroad and I did a decent job of following up on them. So I proved myself when there was easier pickings, and now I'm coasting off that. But this life is varied. Some of my current writing gigs come from old associates at Some of my writing gigs come from people who read my words on my web site back in the 1990s and want to find a way to pay for a piece of my perspective. Many of my writing gigs come from people who want free text and don't care where it comes from as long as it reads hot.

The one steady gig that came out of Japan was writing/editing, a site for Japanese interculturals. I was living in Tokyo when Chanpon's boss Mimi Ito was looking for someone to take over the day-to-day operations of the web site. My web fluency served me there. I pushed the site from a static format into a weblog format and opened it up to a different set of contributors.

I met a few foreigners who had jobs around town - teaching English, serving drinks, breaking stocks. One of the guys at the FCCJ had a job following around the wives of famous Japanese athletes for a tabloid. There's all sorts of gigs out there. For the last few years, I've had a few different assignments, some are long term, some are one-offs. Some stem from being in Tokyo, some stem from being associated with Japan. The longer I’m alive, the more my professional life seems to be about studying meaning, context and media - wherever I live.

Moving to China would have put a different constellation of people and projects on my horizon. Maybe I would have been hired on as a transcontinental media handler trafficking electronic media between the PRC and Paris! There was a glow of unusual opportunity there.

Learning Japanese now, with the population steadily shrinking, and the console fortunes of Nintendo seemingly on the wane, would seem to be a bit like learning Elvish shortly before the rise of men in the worlds of Tolkien. Sony is mostly international, so is Honda. The smartest of Japan, perhaps lead in part by Joi Ito, are increasingly identifying with a global community, while the rest of Japan is locked in an unsettling torpor ringed by blaring right-wing loudspeakers, growing legions of elderly homeless and cannibalistic fin de siecle culture. (Three recent NYTimes articles articulate some of these problems).

If I was to give any advice to a potential freelance writer, I would say pay attention.

Recently I read a verse from the Lao Tzu’s Tao Te Ching (rendered neatly by Ursula K. Le Guin, a gift from Howard), number 47, Looking far:

You don’t have to go out the door to know what goes on in the world. You don’t have to look out the window to see the way of heaven. The farther you go, the less you know.

So the wise soul
doesn’t go, but knows;
doesn’t look, but sees;
doesn’t do, but gets it done.

Her footnote illuminates: “We tend to expect great things from ‘seeing the world’ and ‘getting experience.’ A Roman poet remarked that travelers change their sky but not their soul. Other poets, untraveled and inexperienced, Emily Bronte and Emily Dickinson, prove Lao Tzu’s point: it’s the inner eye that really sees the world.”

Whereever you go, there you are. You want to be a writer? Write. Japan is a mixed bag, a load of preconceived notions you can cash in on, and some loneliness that will force you to look at yourself, or chase the dawn as you would anywhere if you didn’t like the sound of silence. You can be a writer anywhere, if you are attracted to Japan, or China, Cameroon or Kansas, follow your instinct and bring your pen. Success is not contingent on your location, it’s contingent on your purpose and perseverance.

February 2005 - comments are closed on Thanks.