How I defined Success in Japan

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Before I explain this so-called success in Japan, let’s give my wife and few close friends a moment to finish laughing.

Finished yet, guys?


My wife is laughing because when most people define “success in Japan,” it involves a swank apartment in Denenchofu, Kamiyacho or somewhere similar, and a bankbook with lots of zeroes in it. That ain’t me. I do not have vast wealth (or narrow wealth), and our savings is nowhere what it should be for having two kids. Keiko and I both worked long hours in Tokyo, and earned enough that our family accountant (that would be Keiko) allowed us to eat out occasionally, buy a few toys (computers, cameras) and spend a week on a beach somewhere every year. It was plenty, but not on a level that this narrow definition of success would approve of.

So I’m not rich, nor am I one of those visionaries who eschewed monetary gain to follow his creative passions. I make the bulk of my income writing brochure copy, ferchrissakes. The few close friends I mentioned earlier may be laughing at this dubious claim of  “success” because they’ve heard me complain about my life and my career in only the way a close friend can tolerate. We’d have a few drinks, the conversation would get deep — usually something about life, creativity, or artsy-fartsy kinda stuff — and by my fourth beer I’m whining about not going “far enough” with my life and career, whatever the hell that means.

But now, with a little time and distance away from my Tokyo life, I’m reminded of what I have been able to do:

  • I’m a freelance writer covering art, music, food, parenting and other fun stuff.
  • I’ve worked for a Japanese ad agency for over ten years. My main client is Nikon. If you’ve looked through any of their camera or lens brochures in the last 10 years, then you’ve probably seen my handiwork. I’ve worked with a great team and have a boss that I would call a friend.
  • On occasion, I’ve also managed a location shoot or edited a commercial film for Nikon, usually with some really impressive photographers.
  • In 2009, I directed a small contemporary art fair in Tokyo, with galleries from Japan, China, Hong Kong, Italy, South Africa and the US.
  • For 8 years, I managed a team of writers that reports live from Japan’s most famous music festival.

So cool! So glamorous, right? Ha.

It’s been fun, but this isn’t bragging because these are not huge accomplishments. They haven’t made the world a better place or left me with a bigger bank account. However, they can be a lot of fun. Every so often I meet someone who reminds me of how lucky I’ve been. They’ll ask what I do, and once I tell them, they ask me what kind of training, privilege or motivation it took to pull it off.

But here’s the thing: I’m not that smart, talented or connected. I’m just a preacher’s kid from suburban Atlanta. And I’m not fluent in Japanese, either, nor one of those type-A, hyper-assertive go-getters (ask my wife, she’ll tell you).

I did, however, play a few cards right and then made some incredible memories during my decade in Tokyo. I got involved in things I was interested in, and made lifelong friends who were doing the same. I’ve been thinking about how I was able to pull it off, and how I might be able to help someone do something similar. Below are three things I did to eventually get the jobs I enjoyed. They haven’t led me to riches, but they did make for an interesting decade. If you’re an expat banker living in Roppongi Hills, you can stop reading here — you may not to be interested in this. But if you live in Tokyo and want to break out of English teaching or some other dreary job and find more rewarding work, or if you live elsewhere and have dreamed of moving to Tokyo, there is a way. My path went through writing and writing-related jobs in Tokyo, but there may be parallels to other cities and other types of work. I did these three things:

Step forward and say yes:

Put yourself out there. Ask around. There are lots of jobs and small, low/no-paying ones. Some of these can lead to high-paying ones. I’m not suggesting long-term unpaid internships. Some of those jobs are just plain wrong. Beware.

Meet deadlines:

This is how you prove reliability, and reliability translates into all types of work. Whatever the job, budget your time and get it in when requested.

Leverage previous accomplishments:

Take a writing job. Publish it and then use it to get the next writing job.

Now here’s a little breakdown of my Tokyo arc:

When I arrived in Japan, I started teaching English (again) and I hated it. It just wasn’t for me anymore. An old college roommate put me in touch with the guy who ran the official website for the Fujirock Festival, and I asked if I could report for them that year. The pay barely covered food and beer for the 4 days, but it offered free entrance, lodging and transport (hundreds of dollars added up) as well as staff access to the best music festival in Japan. I contacted the site’s manager several times until he met me. It took a while, but it turned out that he wasn’t putting me off. He was just unorganized. He let me join the team (and later became a good friend).

Also on the Fujirock team that year was the music editor for the Japan Times. He saw what I was writing for the site and mentioned that he was looking for more people to write music reviews for the paper. I volunteered myself.

Whenever the Japan Times writers met for drinks I would go, and through them I found other writing jobs with Japan-based publications. The pool of English-language writers in Japan is smaller than in the West, obviously, so it’s easier to get your foot in the door if you keep sticking it out there. Like the Japan Times work, these other writing gigs didn’t pay much — in fact, one of them didn’t pay at all, but I liked it because I wrote film reviews for them, and could go to the press screenings for new movies, sometimes a month before the film was released.

One night, the publisher of this magazine threw a small party for his writers. Over drinks, one of the guys at the party told me that he was working at an advertising agency, but was leaving Japan to follow his Romanian girlfriend to Bucharest (no kidding). He needed to find someone to replace him, so I immediately volunteered myself.

He brought me in to meet the creative director of the agency, and I showed him some of my favorite pieces I’d written for Japan Times over the last year or so. They hired me, and even factored in a few days off every summer so I could continue to go to the Fujirock festival.

I was hired as a copywriter, and that’s what I still am. But back in 2004, the agency had so many projects going on that the photoshoots and other production schedules began to overlap. The creative director couldn’t be in two places at once, so he asked me if I could handle one of the photoshoots. Of course I said YES. This led to more photoshoots and more work editing video. It allowed me to interview Sandro near Austin, Texas, and James Balog in Boulder, Colorado. It led to working with Corey Rich for this amazing video (the behind-the-scenes video is even more interesting), and allowed me to work with Moose Peterson in Costa Rica.

Step forward and say yes

Now a few of you are thinking: “Stop name-dropping” (Sorry. I was making a point), and then thinking: “Wait, if it wasn’t for your old roommate, this entire chain reaction wouldn’t have happened. Ha! You were connected! You’re a goddamn hypocrite!”

To this I would say: Hey, mind your language. This is a family site. But I’d also say OK, you got me: I would have never worked for the Fuji Rock Festival and started this chain reaction of “successes” if it wasn’t for an old friend. It’s true: I wouldn’t have done it, simply because it would have never occurred to me that I could have done it. It was later on that I discovered that I could have just approached the guy running the site about the job myself. In my ten years working for (and eventually managing) the Fuji Rock blog team, there have been many years where we had writer spaces open. Some of those spaces were filled by friends-of-friends, (like me), while others were just people who contacted us out of the blue. What was the criteria for hiring all of them? “Show us your writing.” Show us you can produce on time. The same goes for the Japan Times, Metropolis and other Tokyo-based publications I’ve written for. Even CNN and Bon Appetit. These guys don’t pay very much. In fact, it often feels like an insult, and those with dreams of becoming a writer should learn this now if you haven’t already. Writers do it because they love the topic, they love the access, or because they love to write. They also do it to prove to future employers that they’re dependable. You can too. Which leads me to point #2:

Meet your deadline

Was I hired at the ad agency because of my broad camera knowledge? Nope. How about my extensive marketing experience? I didn’t have any. Hell, I wasn’t even hired because I was a great writer. No, I was hired because I proved that I could meet a deadline.

It reminds me of one late-night cocktail session with one of my editors. This editor was complaining about another writer we both knew who consistently turned in sloppy work. Then the conversation shifted to another writer who many in town considered to be a talentless shmuck. “Yeah,” the editor sighed, “but they both turn it in on time.”

That’s what mattered. Some editors would rather have it on time and fix it themselves than have it late and almost perfect.

I am by no means endorsing crappy writing. Nor am I saying every editor is like this. What I am saying is that delivering on time means a lot.

Leverage your previous accomplishments

I started out writing because it was something new. Then I realized I could use it to my advantage. As I mentioned above, I wasn’t hired because of an illustrious education or career — I was a B-minus student at a state school trained to be an elementary school teacher. I got the job because I put recent work in front of them. That’s how I was hired, and that’s how I hired the two new guys who are replacing me in the office: both of them write a lot, and I could see their work on the web all the time.

That’s how I ended up directing the art fair as well. I had recently started covering Tokyo galleries for the newspaper, and when I was asked if I knew anyone who could direct the fair, I immediately volunteered myself. My production experience at an ad agency and my (limited) knowledge of contemporary art  — as was seen in recent Japan Times articles — were the factors that got me the job. It was more than a little terrifying: I was thrown into a world where I felt like the least knowledgeable, least sophisticated person in the room. I felt like the hick from suburban Atlanta that I really was.

But I was in the door. I had proven myself to someone, so I went with it, and learned as I went along (that’s me bloviating at the opening in the picture above).

So when I say that you can do what I’ve done, it’s no exaggeration. I could teach a proboscis monkey to do what I’ve done. It may take time (took me a few years), but it can happen. The key is to put yourself out there. No one else will do it for you. Success in Japan doesn’t happen by itself.