Archives for category: Opinion

Our local bar is a small Irish pub, a two-floor place converted from a traditional soba noodle restaurant that generally attracts only those living in the vicinity. It lets us bring our dog in, so we often end up there for quiet drinks. One recent night, we headed upstairs and there, sat in the corner, were four new people, two Japanese women and two British men, one heavily tattooed. The guy with ink looked like a dubstep producer or some other sort of young creative, new in town and here for a limited time, getting shown around by assistants that would later take him to his gig. The Japanese women were behaving like assistants.

When we sat, our dog, Baz, kept wandering over to be fussed, and it became clear they were not creatives in town for a gig, or whatever, but tourists, plain and simple. The women had met them in a bar in Shibuya, presumably a Hub, and invited them to go for a drink in an area off the general tourist circuit. Here they were, in what I assume the women thought tourists would consider the Real Japan … a suburban place for foreigners to drink in an Irish or British sort of atmosphere.

Me and my wife kept to ourselves as the evening continued. The other guy, the one who didn’t look like a dubstep producer, became increasingly vocal, in an accent that can only be described as student — definitely British, but of an indefinite place, with elements of northern, southern and public school, likely the result of the diversity of kids from all over the country who get together at the same time at the impressionable age of 18 or so.

His voice grew in proportion to the number of pints he had drank. He began describing his favorite comedy to the two women, complete with quotes of parts of the script he had memorized. We had a warning against this in the late 90s, when the Fast Show’s I’m an Alien Guy made everyone aware of the dangers of quoting their favorite TV shows. Tragically, by 2016, the Fast Show’s message has been lost. These are the dark times we live in.

Tourists such as those I endured in my local have brought to me revelation: I have given in to the sort of Not In My Back Yard thoughts that I once associated with only Daily Mail reading Brits and the whitest of white America. Those conversations I once sneered at, about saving the British sausage and serving only the freedom fry, I am now having. The tourists have arrived in Japan, and they brought me out in a rash of nimbyism.

We left the bar, commented on how annoying the tourist was and wondered what motivated the women in bringing the two guys there. Would a Japanese place not be better? Whatever. We were moaning about tourists coming into our area and disturbing the peace and quiet. We are not alone. Japan is finally on the tourist map, not somewhere that simply talks about attracting visitors without ever bringing them in, and all residents face the consequences.

About 20 million or so visitors are coming through Japan’s airports annually, and that is the beginning. The government aims to attract 40 million tourists a year by 2020. This is having effects that with hindsight should have been predictable.

Ginza, once a shopping district for the well-healed, today throngs with Chinese seeking out bargains; coaches for shipping the tourists in and out line the bottom of its main drag. Other areas face a similar fate. Golden Gai, which has been a “secret” place to go for a drink since at least 2002 when I arrived (do people think because the bars are small they are secret?), increasingly is talked about by long-term expats lamenting the decline of the area. Business hotels, once the refuge of stinky middle-aged businessmen in town for short stints, are now tourist spots as beds at higher-end places are snapped up early.

Dragging out the old cliche that Tokyo is changing really isn’t enough to explain what is happening this time. Tourists are revolutionizing the city. This is touted as one of the few policy successes for the current government. That’s fine, but if the rise to 40 million is to happen, there are a number of areas where improvements in policy will be needed.

In tandem with the growth in tourist numbers, Airbnb and other minpaku (unlicensed short stay accommodations) have emerged. They operate in a legal not-so-gray area. Any residence in Japan accepting people to stay for fewer than 30 days needs to get a license by law. Most landlords are ignoring this rule, which has led to a problem of enforcement: How do you shut down so many places, or choose which ones to put out of business? Do you want to be the person that does that? Where will all the people staying in these places sleep instead? Osaka recently prohibited one apartment from accepting tourists. Weather balloons fielded to the Japanese press have suggested that Airbnb residences will be able to operate legally for 180 days per year. 

Other issues include the use of credit cards. When and where can they be used and when is cash necessary? Most of us long-term Japan residents know to carry a couple of ten thousand yen notes if going out for a big night, but tourists do not. They are used to living in places where cash long ago lost out to plastic on Friday night drinking sessions. One moaning person on the Internet was berated by most of Japan’s foreign social media community when he complained about a bar in Kyoto not accepting credit cards nor his foreign currency. Of course, the guy comes across as a stupid tourist, trying to hand over dollars to pay for a bill in Geisha Central, but his problem is real. How many times have I come unstuck over the years because of the weird rule that bans ATM transactions on Sunday nights? And the reality is, the increasing number of tourists in no way means that small and medium size businesses will be moving over to plastic payments any time soon. They will still be run by the same older people. And tourists will still feel uncomfortable wandering around with hundreds of dollars in yen stuffed in their wallets. Old habits die hard.

Tourists also face issues with communication and accessibility. Shibuya Station was in the last couple of years refurbished and now is as difficult to navigate as a complicated level of Donkey Kong or an MC Escher painting. Locals find it difficult to get around the station, and despite apps offered, tourists also struggle. Taxi drivers often do not know their way around the city as well as their London counterparts, strictly tested on The Knowledge, do. This is all on top of the language barrier that is impossible to overcome during a year or two in the country, never mind a short stay. I wrote about recent efforts to improve accessibility and the potential for going further here and here. Still, the city is not there yet though. It can, and will, do more to open up to tourists, but as it does, the intangible contours of Tokyo will change and residents will feel the effects.

Back to the bar and my nimbyism. I was a douche. Anyone should be able to drink where they want. But we all feel it when our places are visited by outsiders. Is it the start of a coming invasion? And like me, we all know we need to calm down when we start fretting about these things.

Tokyo though, is made up of tens of millions of people who manage to get by in spite of the complicated nature of the urban space they reside or work in. I love the city in part because the way it manages to function defies the odds. But tourists are slowly eroding Tokyo’s smooth operation and leading many areas of the country to show an uglier side. Handbooks teaching foreigners what not to do are among the worst manifestations so far of the increasingly difficult relationship between locals and visitors (it is noteworthy the plenty of Japanese people violate the national etiquette and always have, just as people do anywhere in the world). Complaints about bakugai — the act of buying up everything in sight — come a close second. Improve your logistics and leave the tourists alone. 

Japan’s bureaucrats have an answer: omotenashi. This catch-all term describes the way Japanese are supposed to act around tourists. Roughly, it translates as a combination of politeness and hospitality. A celebrity called Christel Takigawa used the term to describe why Tokyo should host the Olympics, media spread the word and bureaucrats decided it was a solution.

What is omotenashi in real life? The mind boggles. Officials have tried to explain it to me, in both English and Japanese, and ended up confused themselves. But as one admitted, Tokyo does not have the cash to become the sort of accessible city that the Olympic Games and tourist boom require without all chipping in and helping others in need. Public transport facilities outside the center of Tokyo cannot all be upgraded, for example. So omotenashi it is.

The omotenatshi solution has a problem. At root, it relies on the majority of Japanese accepting a request from officials and following it blindly for as long as the tourists keep coming. It needs people to buy in to the idea of a visitor-heavy Japan and accept that this comes with duties. It also requires people to look at what their government has done by attracting the tourists in droves, and view it is good for them and good for the country. Even in their own back yards.

Japan is by no means Afghanistan, tourists here face no Taliban. The police are not going to start asking backpackers for bribes. And the pickpockets of Europe are unlikely to emerge. But as visitors grow in number, so will the nimbyism. More and more will tire of being welcoming to tourists as they effect their everyday lives.


One of the most tedious aspects of managing a rotation curation account for Tokyo, as I help to do with this Twitter feed, is the age-old controversy of what foreign people are doing as a community, what they should be doing and how they are treating each other.

It is a subject with no real end that does not appear to serve much of a purpose. However, it is a subject that bitchy expats like to discuss all over the world.

In Japan, one term comes up again and again when discussing the non-Japanese community: gaijin. Coming from the kanji 外 (soto or gai) and 人 (hito or jin)*, the term means foreigner. However, there are a couple of points of controversy.

Firstly, the two kanji read literally mean “outside person” and can thus be take to mean something a lot more pejorative than is perhaps intended when used in certain contexts. Secondly, the need to Anglicize this word is questionable. “Non-Japanese” works just as well. “Foreigner” is also fine, though it is worth pointing out that this term comes from the latin for… *drumroll*… outside.

When the term is used, most of the time those causing offense are doing so unintentionally. And those being offended are perhaps on the oversensitive side. The term does not bother me, per se, but it annoys many so I try to avoid it.

Adding a further complication to the issue is the huge number of non-Japanese that have some involvement with the country and use the term to describe themselves and others within the community.

So what should be done? Probably not a lot, but if you are thinking of using the term, be aware that it offends some people and try to justify using the word to yourself. If there’s no justification, don’t use it. This should not be difficult, so why is it?

Possibly, the answer lies in the society we are becoming, globally, in which identity politics is taking on an increasingly powerful role and social media has led to a sort of “policing” of attitude and language. This has not all been for the bad, but it has had some negative effects.

In comedy, Chris Rock has spoke of how this plays out in comedy, where often performers will be publicly shamed for crossing lines in their acts:

The thing about comedians is that you’re the only ones who practice in front of a crowd. Prince doesn’t run a demo on the radio. But in stand-up, the demo gets out. There are a few guys good enough to write a perfect act and get onstage, but everybody else workshops it and workshops it, and it can get real messy. It can get downright offensive. Before everyone had a recording device and was wired like fucking Sammy the Bull, you’d say something that went too far, and you’d go, ‘Oh, I went too far,’ and you would just brush it off. But if you think you don’t have room to make mistakes, it’s going to lead to safer, gooier stand-up. You can’t think the thoughts you want to think if you think you’re being watched.

Does this have much to do with using the term gaijin? Rock’s example — and please take the time to read his entire, brilliant interview — may be extreme, but there are instances of people on social media arguing, refusing to talk to each other and closing off discussions over the word. That means less conversation. And that’s never a good thing.
* Most Japanese kanji characters can be pronounced in at least two ways, depending on the context they appear in.

Everybody by now knows that David Bowie has died. And everybody knows this was a global event. Everything that can be written about Bowie by now probably has. I don’t have much to add, anyway.

One string of questions keeps going through my mind though: Who expected the outpouring of love, respect and grief that Bowie’s death caused? Who has caused that level of mourning before? Who will do so in the future? And what is the quality that these people possess?

Within my lifetime, the standout people that have died and led to outpourings of grief are Steve Jobs and Princess Diana. I felt no grief for either and still get a bit irritated about their effect on people. It isn’t jealousy, I bear no ill will to either. I just get annoyed that people loved them. I did not.

I see what was there. Diana managed to convince the British, and later global, public that a “commoner” could enter royalty. After divorce, she became the underdog until her death, when she inspired conspiracy theories (yawn). Jobs, meanwhile, played an instrumental part in the IT revolution we are now experiencing. But I always felt Evgeny Morozov got his character down better than our popular consciousness ever managed to.

Bowie, though, was different. At least for me. He represents something a little like a superhero. I feel shocked by his death because he felt transcendent of us all, immortal. His body of work led to me feeling like that. All the generations of my family love him. My grandmother remembers her daughter’s loud music, and how she learned to love some of his more accessible tunes. My mother and father remember being there at the time, seeing the effect Bowie had on their peers, and feeling and sharing it themselves. I just don’t remember life without Bowie. He was there and he was good. As I got older, I listened to his records more carefully and found a lot of value in them. And now he is dead.

Who remains in our cultural royalty after Bowie? Who commands the respect Bowie did? Who has his back catalog? Some people have to have the credentials to match Bowie’s, surely? So who are these people? Bob Dylan? Quentin Tarantino? Madonna? Dr. Dre? Thom Yorke?

If Bowie is irreplaceable, what does that tell us about our culture and the place we have arrived at? Is it an Internet thing? Do our stars no longer have the cultural power they once had? I don’t know, but life without Bowie is strange, the reaction to his death was strange, and that huge gap he has left behind is strangest of all.

It has been a strange year in music for me. At 35, I seem to have admitted to myself, at last, that I am maybe getting a little too old to be going to clubs on a regular basis. Hopefully, something will happen that brings the sort of DJ bars to Tokyo that made England such a pleasure to visit earlier this year, but for now, my vinyl is gathering dust and my disco trousers are at the bottom of the wash basket.

This year also brought streaming to Japan in a big way. As a subscriber to Apple Music, I have found myself wondering what people are talking about when they sow disdain for the service. It’s great for listeners and can hopefully help revitalize the music industry. Having access to basically any album I want to listen to has reacquainted me with a lot of indie, jazz and rock sounds that had sort of fallen of the radar in favor of techno in the last few years.

I also started listening to Gilles Peterson regularly, because my dog loves the show. The Awl’s daily music recommendation has also been a pleasure to follow.

Anyway, in short, my music taste sort of changed. So I made a list of favorite albums and a mix of favorite songs. Here they are:

This album started off unlistenable and irritating, but for some reason I kept listening to it. It has shades of Frank Zappa, and I feel like it should still bug me as some sort of hipster homage to earlier music, but it doesn’t. I really like it.

It’s always nice to see a band revisit their older music and come up with something new. Here, Mercury Rev have made an album that sounds like “Deserter’s Songs,” but in 2015, and by an older and wiser group of musicians.

It’s probably my age, but a lot of the directions electronic music has taken in recent years strike me as self-indulgent noise with little evidence of melody. This album, though, is full of nice pop music, which is what most of the electronic scene was about at one time.

A good stoner album. I have heard people say they find it repetitive and bland. I don’t at all.

There’s not much groundbreaking about this album, but it has some very danceable jazz tracks on it. Sometimes sticking to standards works.

The two tracks on here appear to have been fully sampled from sounds off of YouTube, as that’s what this guy usually does. It’s a quality afrobeat/funk EP, but as it lasts about half an hour, I decided to call it an album.

Also a bit shorter than an album, this includes a couple of songs — “Lone Wolf and Cub” and “Nobody Knows” that are among my favorites of the year. Thundercat became more prominent because of his work with Kendrick Lamarr (see below) and deservedly so. Can’t wait to hear new stuff by him this year.

“Don’t Take My Soul” released in 2014 was beautiful. The entire album takes a similar line, with shoegazy guitar and electronic beats. Hardly anyone seems to have heard of Jane Weaver, which is a shame, because she deserves commercial success.

The keyboard/organ guy from Kendrick Lamarr’s album, Bilal has a bit of a Money Mark feel: His album is at times a bit inconsistent in tone, but somehow it works. Another artist who feels like he is at the start of a flourishing career.

Four Tet is Four Tet. He is good. Listen to him.

Most of these sort of lists I have seen do not have “To Pimp a Butterfly” as the No. 1 album, which is weird. Maybe everyone thought everyone else would put it at the top. It will probably end up being the album of the decade. Hip hop had hit a bit of a dead end because of people such as Kanye West, who seemed to think it was some sort of comic book style genre in which people had to be parodies of themselves and show off. The old ways of rap (Guru, KRS-ONE, Tribe called Quest etc.) seemed dead. Lamar brought them back. He put together an album that musically and lyrically is deep, textured and stands up to repeated listens. And thankfully, there is not a single EDM sample on there.

Two 20-year-old women, twins, are behind this album. The songs are just joyous. The simple beats, minimal jazz, beautiful voices and innocent lyrics suggest Ibeyi are having a good time without a care in the world. It’s just nice, which seems rare these days.

There’s also a mixtape of some of my favorite songs from 2015 here.

One of the main policies Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he would push upon assuming office was the reform the country’s employment law. As things stand, companies that grant seishain permanent status basically find it impossible to fire their employees. Sound great? In some circumstances it is. By giving employees jobs for life in the postwar period Japan Inc. boomed, instilled a loyalty in its workforce and created the salaryman.

Then came the bursting of the bubble, economic ennui and the “Japan in crisis” that we have come to know through media over the last two decades. The scale of Japan’s crisis and role of permanent work in exacerbating it are points for debate. But the risks of permanent employment are there. Here are six:

An illiquid job market

Many Japanese go to university, search for work, enter companies and that’s it. Those that choose a different path often suffer. The nation’s biggest corporations believe in the jobs-for-life structure of the workplace, and therefore mass hire every April. This means grabbing the grads fresh out of university and keeping them.

The cost for this on an individual level for Japanese youth will be clear to anyone that has traveled or partied as a part of their adult development. For society, it has the additional cost of creating generations unable to compete in a globalizing world.

A stagnant workplace

If a person has permanent employment, that person is under no obligation to do their best. They can do as they choose in the workplace, with little fear of the consequences. This is obviously not a problem with younger, ambitious workers.

But what happens when a person gets overlooked for a position they feel they deserved? How do people react to being transferred to positions they do not want? When departments become tense because of personality clashes, is everybody expected to react with a professional attitude?

Of course, these problems are rampant in Japanese companies, and have been for decades. That has led to tense offices, stress and a lot of people working at less than 100%. Job satisfaction falls.

In such circumstances, many will lose their ambition and coast. Those coasting along have a negative effect on the more ambitious young employees and a downward cycle starts.

Falling wages

Recessions in countries without a jobs-for-life system lead to dismissals and employment falls. In places where permanent employment exists, wages stagnate or fall during difficult economic circumstances. If prices rise, that adds a further problem. The seishain, in other words, move through their careers without seeing any reward for experience gained or skills learned unless the national economy is in good shape.

New employees are often paid less than those in companies, which creates a further problem: Those unfortunate to have had to join the workforce during testing times cannot expect to receive the same compensation for hard work as those lucky enough to have entered the company during good economic times.

A two-tiered society

One of the ways Japan has coped with the end of the bubble era is to loosen labor law and allow companies to employ temporary workers. These staff who are not guaranteed employment give companies an opportunity to hedge against the possibility of a recession. When shockwaves from the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers hit Japan, companies didn’t hesitate to lay off temps, leading to suffering for many in this new underclass of contracted workers.

In better times, there are other problems. In workplaces, temps may be treated differently to permanent workers because of their job status. They shouldn’t be, and this shouldn’t happen, but society being what it is, a contract can be as much of a status symbol as a sports car in certain circumstances.

HR ennui

Japan’s work system guarantees jobs for life, making the work of those in human resources looking to dodge hard graft easy. People that enter companies are likely to be there a while. The consequence tends to be the erosion of meritocratic company HR policy in favor of a seniority system.

One clear advantage of that system for the lazy is that it means nobody has to think about performance. But the disadvantage, that those with the best skills go ignored, is much more worthy of attention. Koichi Tanaka of Shimadzu Corp. was promoted to management only after winning a Nobel Prize.

Service values get eroded

Japan has long been admired for its service. And any resident will tell you there are still problems. The restaurants and shops are great: They employ people on loose contracts. The Internet providers, cellphone networks and manufacturers supplying products? Not so much.

Sony’s struggles over the last few years are well documented. Reverence to the boss was all too clear when Michael Woodford blew the whistle on his fellow executives at Olympus. Tepco’s lack of reverence to the customer should be obvious.

In an initial office environment where the person sat next to you will probably spend more time with you in the coming decades than your spouse, how can the customer always be right?

This post originally appeared on Medium

I celebrated a decade in Japan on July 23. I faced the anniversary pretty much indifferent, but thought it worth writing some notes down on what I suppose is quite an important landmark.

I arrived in the country at the age of 21, pretty much still a kid. Through the last decade, the country has probably shaped me more than I would like to admit.

Ten years in, I wonder where the time went, what happened, and why I never left. I have few grudges with the country, though I am not afraid to criticize aspects of Japanese society. Japan functions quite well, even if from time to time there are events that can stun (I’m looking at you TEPCO).

Unlike some foreigners that live here, I have an indifference to anime, the domestic movie industry, gaming, the music scene, and just about every other aspect of the “Cool Japan” project. In other words, I’m a pretty normal foreign Japan resident.

There are few “real Japan” things that thrill me. Beyond the highlights, the traditional architecture does not particularly move me. The history of the place before the Meiji Era is not something I am particularly interested in. The religious traditions – Shinto and Buddhism – have no more appeal to me than Christianity, Islam, Sikhism, Judaism or any other archaic practices. I can find philosophy I like – and dislike – in the old traditions. But the country does not have a religious hold on me.

So why am I here? Why do I stay? And more importantly, why do I want to continue living here?

The truth is, I don’t know the answer to those questions.

I have good friends in the country and I would miss them if I left. But I could always come back to visit. And I miss my friends that live elsewhere in the world.

I’m happily married, but my wife would happily leave. I have a healthy social life, but I always have had a healthy social life.

Is it work? In a way, perhaps yes. Over my time in the country, I’ve managed to build a career that certainly feels like it is on an upward trajectory: My pay continues to improve, and my responsibilities too.

This underlines a conundrum about the country, or at least my perception of it. My Japan is a place that does not conform to the things said about it. That might be where its appeal lies.

Data shows us Japan is declining, but my experiences don’t. Perhaps it is because I live in the capital, Tokyo, but my experiences in the job market are also those of my friends. We all have better working conditions now than we did earlier in life. The financial crisis and the Great East Japan Earthquake brought some pain to our wallets, but in general the economic and professional lives of those that surround me seem to have improved.

In a way, looking for an answer to this questions brought about by this prosperity in the face of decline keeps me in the country. If the country is declining, why do I find few signs of it? Yes, there are dilapidated hotels, abandoned villages and numerous other signs of economic change, but do they constitute decline? Perhaps I see things the wrong way, but they don’t for me. Nothing I see seems unique to Japan, it’s the same sort of decline I see in other countries.

And there are reasons I am happy here. Many aspects of the culture attract me.

Before arriving in Japan, I had worked supporting challenging adults with learning difficulties. My job, at an NPO, was to devise schedules, teaching strategies and communication patterns for clients with extreme cases of conditions such as autism and epilepsy. I left having learned a lot. At the age of 21 decided I would try to write a book (forgive my immaturity on this next bit) that tackled learning disabilities and modern mental health issues in a Dostoevskian manner. A couple of months into my time in Japan, I borrowed “A Personal Matter” by Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe from the library. The book tackles learning disabilities and modern mental health issues in a modern manner.

I was hooked. Over the course of the next few years I tackled the works of the great (or simply popular) modern Japanese authors – people such as Junichiro Tanizaki, Natsume Soseki, Osamu Dazai, Ryu Murakami and Kobo Abe. The authors suggested a different Japan, one that I had never imagined existed. I asked friends from the country whether they liked the authors I was reading and got a wide array of answers. Beyond the surface, I found a level of political and cultural awareness among friends and acquaintances that made the “Japan is passive” mantra seem wrong.

Of course, today, we all see the mask of passivity eroding. While many have tried to pin the protests in light of the Fukushima nuclear disaster on leftist elements, a lack of understanding of the nation’s needs or simple idiocy, it is clear there is something at work in Japan that we rarely see. People are angry, and not just the professional protesters and leftist old guard. Salarymen, old ladies, young families and prominent celebrities of a conservative creed are beginning to voice their concerns. Japan’s passivity does not withstand simple probing.

Before arriving in the country, the only literary figure I had ever heard of was Yukio Mishima, the man who chopped his head off to protest something or other. How, I wondered as I read the books I borrowed from the library, had Mishima achieved popular recognition, while many of his peers were largely ignored? I have come to believe, through my experiences here, that it is because of the enduring image of Japan as a wacky country.

As many in the foreign community will know, one of the most popular gripes with Western media in this country is that Japan is presented as wacky. There is a truth to that perception, but the wackiness has to be sought out. Living here, the country feels no more or less wacky than anywhere else. I grew up near Barnsley in South Yorkshire, and I’m sure there are more odd stories per capita in that town than there are in Tokyo.

When I see Tokyo wacky though, and the easiest place to find it is Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park on the weekend, it makes me smile. It makes me want to stay here. But it isn’t really Japan, when all is said and done.

What I believe really defines the country really I do not know. The relationships I have, the drinks I enjoy, the travelling and the constant learning are all rewarding, and at least in part shape my idea of Japan. But none of these things add up to the whole.

I still do not understand large swathes of the country’s cultural, political and economic landscape. I may be getting there though.

I know that I do not see this country through the rose-tinted glasses that some do. But equally, I do not buy many of the argument’s about the nation’s decline. And I’d hope I have not fallen into the trap of bitterness about life here.

But I still see the country with some form of bias. I’d like understand what my bias is better.

I suppose that’s why I stay here.

After almost three years, this week will be my last as a freelancer. From next Monday, I will be heading into an office to work full-time for the foreseeable future.

With this in mind, I thought I’d set up a blog and make the first piece thoughts on freelancing, and why I am leaving this style of work.

The first thing to say is that freelancing isn’t really a valid definition of what I have done over the years. Freelancing, as a job, doesn’t really exist. The freelancer is essentially a contracted worker.

The word has romantic connotations. Freelancers supposedly get to write what they want, pursue investigative stories for a long time, and have the independence to work as and when they please. While all three of the above advantages do, to some degree, exist for freelancers, the reality is a little different.

Freelancers are only paid for what they produce, and receive no rights in terms of health, pension, holidays and the like. Regaining these rights in exchange for losing the odd sleep-in is really the main reason I’ll be heading back into an office.

In terms of day to day life, freelancing is really about balancing the projects you want to do against the work you have to do. Over the years, I’ve written a few stories I’m quite proud of, but on a daily basis, I earned my keep by editing and writing copy on restaurants, metals, economy and other subjects not particularly close to my heart. Rather than reading like a work such as Tokyo Vice, a memoir of my time freelancing would be closer to the diary of a bean counter.

The subject I found myself writing on most of the time essentially paid my (relatively low) wage, and extra work added additional cash to pay for holidays, nights out and the like. However, the problem was that the “extra” work was more interesting, and often ended up taking more time than my more regular gigs.

This inability of mine to manage time properly often led to pile-ups of work, and thus, an end to free time.

And then came the March 11 earthquake. The combination of the lack of interest in stories on anything else from many media organizations, and the difficulty of getting information needed for economy-related pieces on the earthquake and the increasing strength of the yen combined to make freelancing a struggle.

While things had picked up in recent months, the lack of financial security between the earthquake and autumn proved stressful. Supplementary work also proved problematic because of the strength of the yen. While the dollar weakening by ¥1 or ¥2 is insignificant for a single contract, over the course of a six-month period it can cost tens of thousands of yen.

Between August 2009 and February 2012, the dollar’s value went from around ¥95 to ¥80. With it, every $1,000 earned lost ¥15,000. Stories generally pay between $200 and $800.

But beyond money and the lack of rights, there’s a lot to be said for freelancing. The learning curve one takes when going freelance is more dramatic and enjoyable than anything I’ve ever experienced.

Here’s, basically, what I learned:

1) The editor is generally right: Writers generally hope to specialize in creating between 600 and 1,200 words of content for a page that fits into an overall narrative they are trying to present. But the truth is, editors generally don’t care about this narrative. Take a writer who, for example, is trying argue that actors are exploited by studios through a series of interviews that are published by multiple outlets. Here’s the dilemma: One publication believes corporations give actors a great deal, but wants to use the writer. What is the writer to do? The answer is pretty simple. Compromise or walk away, because the editor is constructing a narrative made of many more stories than any given writer can tell. Why would an editor care that corporations’ treatment of actors angers a single freelancer. If you want to tell your story, and not contribute to an organization’s larger narrative, start a blog.

2) Social media helps: Without Twitter and Facebook, my time as a freelancer would have been very different. It may have been better in many ways – it would certainly be easier to present a “trend” from Japan that had been extensively written about elsewhere as an original story, for example. But beyond the short cuts lost, it’s a constant source of news and a way to construct your own story about subjects you are interested in. If you can find a way to do this, your efforts will be recognized, work will come your way, and perhaps more importantly, you’ll make friends that share similar interests and help you develop.

3) Neither online nor print: Print is not going to die anytime soon, and online is not going to take off in a way that brings in big money. Essentially, it’s an economics thing. For one, ad departments have a more difficult time justifying paying big money for online promotion than they do spreads in magazines or newspapers. With print, there’s the balance sheet: Newspapers are often expected to make losses, so they are a great place to hide bad results from other divisions of a parent company. Print publications are also often a source of vanity for their wealthy owners, meaning they aren’t likely to disappear in the near future. And online, the reality is that companies want to push the idea of unprofitability. Why would a site tell it’s freelancers finances were going great? It would only mean they needed to pay them more. In other words, in both worlds, there are grim prospects of super paychecks, so there’s little reason to turn down any work on grounds of prestige or preferring to be a specific type of journalist. 

4) Dull work isn’t dull: Anything a freelancer does deals in information. If information looks dull, you are looking at it through the wrong eyes, and probably missing a story. The first “tedious” story I could find on my feed while writing this involved Chinese rapeseed production. It sounds dull, but check why you should care and you probably will. It turns out rapeseed is essential for oils and grains we consume every day, that China is increasing output for its population, and that this will likely impact prices elsewhere. So here we have a story: “China stats show food prices to avoid sharp rise globally.” Nice news in a depressing world.

5) Fun work isn’t fun: Anything a freelancer wants to do probably involves their own attempt at creating a narrative (see point 1) that is unique and connected to their passions. That narrative will likely clash with the ideas the editor has, for one, but worse, will likely turn out difficult to argue. Writers gravitate to stories that have been told many times before, and often hope to tell the story in a new way. If that’s what you are looking to do, get ready for a lot of research. It isn’t easy to prove that what everybody thinks is white is black.

6) Money can’t be everything: I’ve learned over the last year that photographers want cash for their pictures every time they are published. They should. And writers should always be paid for their words too. But the reality is, both photographers and writers do a huge amount of legwork that is unrecognized. Pitching, finding stories, maintaining contacts, developing an online presence, researching, and handling invoices are just a few of the unpaid actives a freelance journalist has to do to stay afloat. Add all these into your end paycheck and think about money and you will quit on the spot. In terms of hours put in, freelancing is as difficult as it gets.

The reason for this blog is that if money isn’t an issue, then perhaps, paradoxically, I will be able to write the stories I always wanted to. Hopefully, this is the place I will write without the worry of constraints.