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Japan's freelancers shun salaryman tradition

Emma Wallis
February 3, 2018

Japan's economy could benefit from a reform of its strict working culture. Now a growing band of Japanese are breaking with tradition and embracing a new model to combine life and work: freelancing. Emma Wallis reports.

Poeple walk through a concourse in Tokyo's metro
Image: DW/E. Wallis

"They thought I was crazy," explains 28-year-old Sayumi Fukushima about her parents' reaction to her decision to quit her teaching job.

That attitude is hardly unusual in a country which, until the global credit crunches, saw the "job for life" model as the only way forward. Today though, only 60 percent of employees enjoy such an arrangement, according to business magazine Forbes. For Sayumi Fukushima's generation, job security is ephemeral.

Read more: Japan kicks off 'Telework Day'

Nevertheless, Fukushima had studied assiduously to get her dream job. She was aware that teachers worked intensely, she said, but that knowledge didn't help when she found herself exhausted after working from 7 am to 11 pm. "Teachers are responsible for everything in Japan," she confides. "Some parents even call you at night on weekdays or at weekends." Fukushima resigned after a year. At the time, she hadn't anticipated how negatively her decision would be seen.

"I think I was really young when I quit being a teacher. I was really naive. Everybody thinks that [it] is taboo to quit after just one year. But quite recently, quite a lot of young people have been doing it."

Sayumi Fukushima
Sayumi Fukushima took her cue from her British boyfriend and set out on her own career as a freelancerImage: DW/S. Fukushima

And so she joined the growing crowd. Inspired by the example of her British boyfriend, a freelance filmmaker, she realized that it could work. Now she is training to become a freelance patent translator while doing translations remotely for a large Japanese firm from wherever the mood takes them. Last year that was Thailand, Europe and several cities in Japan.

Choosing the freelance route

Indeed, more and more young people, like Sayumi Fukushima, are choosing a freelance route into the job market. The Japanese Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) has acknowledged as much, quoting statistics from crowdsourcing company Lancers that indicated that 11.2 million people worked as freelancers in Japan in 2017, up by nearly a million over the previous year. Lancers estimated that freelancers brought in about 18.5 trillion yen of revenue (around €137 billion, $163 billion) per year.

The Japanese government appears to have recognized a need for change. A working group has been investigating new employment models since 2016, while METI expects freelancing to expand.

Read more: Search for work-life balance to worsen Japan's labor shortage

The country has a constant need for innovation to maintain progress in the economy, says Mari Hirata, a public relations expert who works with the Freelance Association Japan. Technology has made it easier to outsource back-office services to freelancers, while crowdsourcing platforms, like Lancers, make it easier to find those freelancers.

Society geared toward employees

Now 34, Hirata herself began freelancing when she had her first child. Although she loves the freedom it affords, she is very conscious of the downsides. The reality is that, without the backing of a big company, life can be difficult in Japan's rather regimented society, from finding childcare to getting a mortgage.

People paddle in boats on a lake near Kyoto
Japanese workers are accustomed to taking little vacation and only snatching relaxation time now and thenImage: DW/E. Wallis

"In Japan, most systems, including the social security system, are designed with [full-time,] regular employees in mind," she said. "To be precise, freelancers do not benefit from what regular employees at a company would normally benefit from."

To try and address this problem, the Freelance Association has set up its own social insurance plan to provide a safety net for freelancers. Even so, before lending money, most banks will judge an individual's creditworthiness on their workplace, rather than their personal record, so without an employer many freelancers have zero credibility, Hirata added.

Young people who have spent time living and working abroad and have seen more flexible models in action are typically those who strike out as freelancers. Born in Kyoto, Ai Kojima went to high school and university in the US. When she completed her degree, she explains, big companies in Japan tended to prefer graduates with no experience so they could mold them.

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After more than 10 years working as a salaried employee in corporate affairs for family-owned Japanese firms and big western multinationals, she realized she could design her job around her life. She began freelancing as a baker before finally opening her Kyoto bakery. She has recently set herself up as a freelance yoga teacher too.

Standing in her small kitchen, accompanied by the hum of an industrial oven and two huge fridges, Kojima busily packages up her trademark American-style baked goods — heart-shaped brownies and perfectly cooked deep-dish apple pies — while she talks. Kojima still works long hours, but her business is growing, with new baking commissions on the books. She recently moved the bakery to a bigger, brighter property with a room where she can offer yoga classes.

Lord and samurai model

Long hours are one of the hazards of being self-employed, Mari Hirata points out. In some industries, 100 hour weeks are considered normal.

Ai Kojima poses behind a stack of brownies she baked for a wedding
Ai Kojima got into freelancing as a baker and now has her own businessImage: DW/H. Albisser

There's also the risk of being exploited by clients. "Japanese companies tend not to follow clearly defined job descriptions," Hirata said. "This results in them looking at freelancers as cheap labor, instead of regarding them as highly skilled professionals."

Read more: 'Dye your hair black!' – Is Japan against individuality?

Getting paid can be a problem, too. Oral promises are the norm in some areas, which can make it difficult for contractors to back up their claims for outstanding payment. The Freelance Association and companies like Lancers are working with the government to change that. Hirata is hopeful that they can have an impact on both the world of work and society as a whole. 

"Currently the [employee-employer] relationship is more of a feudal and paternalistic 'reward and service,' like that of a lord and samurai; many employees blindly follow what they are told to do. I hope that society becomes a place where [an individual can] flexibly choose how to work. I think that this is the way Japan can overcome its problems … and realize the 'dynamic engagement of all citizens.'"