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Working In Japanese Game Development: The Facts

In the first part of an informative two-part Gamasutra series, pseudonymous Japan-based game creator JC Barnett looks at exactly how Western developers can enter Japanese game development, with tips on how to apply, visas, savings, language prerequisites, and more.

July 26, 2007

20 Min Read

Author: by JC Barnett

[In the first part of an informative two-part Gamasutra series, pseudonymous Japan-based game creator JC Barnett looks at exactly how Western developers can enter Japanese game development, with tips on how to apply, visas, savings, language prerequisites, and more.]

If you work in game development it is likely you enjoy playing games yourself. If you have that passion for games so many developers advertise for in job listings it is also quite likely you’ll have an opinion on Japanese games. If you are like the vast majority of people that inhabit our internet it is also quite likely that opinion is fairly positive, bordering on idolatry and adoration.

As such I wouldn’t be surprised at all if you have, at some point in your life, considered the possibility of moving to Japan to be part of the Great Japanese Development Machine. You may have only toyed with the idea, dismissing it as too radical a move, or maybe you’ve been put off by the many obstacles you perceived standing in your way. Well, I am here to tell you it doesn’t have to be a pipe dream.

Moving to Japan and breaking into the industry here is absolutely possible and a lot less difficult than you may imagine, but you need to be informed; you need to know what you’re getting into and, if you still decide it is something you really want to do, how to go about it.

There are foreign developers in Japan, quite a few actually. I keep hearing of other foreigners working in other companies, and aside from my own circle of friends and contacts who meet up occasionally to blow off steam over expensive beers, there are a few groups that stay in touch. That said, there aren’t many of us. Most foreigners I know are the only foreigner at their company and if they’re not they’re usually the only Western foreigner there.

There seems to be a fair influx of Korean developers, a lot of whom are strongly involved with games, anime and manga. Chinese too are represented, but also in low numbers. Companies with whole groups of foreigners are the exception and even if you count all non-Japanese nationals as foreign, as you should, our numbers are still ridiculously small. But we’re here and we may be increasing our membership. I, for one, hope we will.

Whatever the reasons we happy few have for packing up all our belongings and moving to a different country, away from friends and family to start life anew, there is no single overriding factor. Be it an unrequited love for manga, a significant other (escape from, acquiring or placating thereof) or simply being desperate to work in the industry responsible for so many of your good memories, your reasoning had better be resolute; it is quite an undertaking that will take up a lot of time and effort. What are some of the better reasons to consider such a drastic move?

For one, you’ll be learning another language and experiencing a new and vastly different culture than your own. This kind of cultural exchange can broaden the mind. You’ll see a bit of the world, or at the very least experience clock-watching in an open-plan office in a country other than your own. You’ll add valuable experience to your resume which can help you stand out from the crowd should you ever decide to move back home. Apart from anything else it’s a bit of an adventure.

On top of that, life in Japan can be pretty rewarding, with delicious foods, relatively low crime rate and an open mind when it comes to tobacco and alcohol consumption. Where else in the world can a drunk man fall asleep in the middle of the street and wake up with his clothes and wallet in tact? And though some things can be more expensive in Japan than elsewhere, with a decent tax rate to offset the non-existent bank interests, it doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg to carve out a comfortable existence.

There are also some reasons for moving to Japan I cannot recommend. They may well be perfectly valid for some, but they present some dangerous pitfalls. Some, for example, are so enamored with Japanese culture they intend to totally integrate. I can confidently tell you that this is absolutely impossible! You may speak Japanese fluently,, you may know six thousand kanji, you may have lived here over half your life and acquired the Japanese nationality, but by mere virtue of your skin colour you will never be accepted as Japanese.

Such is the homogenous nature of Japan’s society that you will immediately and for evermore be clocked as an outsider. People who insist on going down this difficult path of integration invariably leave Japan bitter and twisted and full of hate. And besides, it is the fact that you are foreign that sets you apart in the job market; it is something you should remember and take note of. No, full integration is impossible, don’t even try it.

Another dubious reason is probably the fact that you “love Japanese games.” A lot more titles get released in Japan than you’ll ever get to know about in the West, despite the internet, and surprisingly, not all of them are great.

Japan’s video game market is as diverse in both genre and quality as the western one, and to base your opinion on Japanese game development as a whole on a small sample of great games is as ludicrous as saying all western games are fantastic because of games like The Sims, Gears of War and, er, Tetris.

You need to be aware that yes, you’ll get a shot at making one of those great titles that fans in the west go ape over, but there is also a very real chance you’ll end up a small cog in a big machine working on a derivative cash-cow game rushed out the door for budgetary reasons. You’ll need to shop around quite a bit before you find the company you’ll be happy at – and as such it is no different than working in game development in the west.

In summary, Japan is not some wonderful, candy-coloured anime and manga, video game paradise; it is just a country no better or worse than any other. It has its good points and its bad points. You’ll enjoy life’s highs and you’ll get deeply frustrated. If you keep realistic expectations you can have a comfortable life over here both in work and in private.

But when would be a good time to make the move? In absolute terms there is no time like the present. Usually companies get their new staff from the massive pool of graduates that flood the job market every spring.

They get them young, keen and cheap and grow them up in-house. Japanese people don’t job-hop so much and often stay at one company for many years. And what with the current growth of technology in the western industry Japan is finding it hard getting new, qualified and experienced staff. A westerner with next-gen experience could find himself in favour.

In relative terms, I’d guess it is a move best made early on in your career. The way the Japanese system works, something I will expound on in more detail in the future, career advancement goes along with age and longevity within a company, as such, lead or managerial positions are very much harder to come by if you’re foreign.

And what with the working conditions and pay structures, again something that will be covered more deeply later, it is best suited to the young and keen. Do get some home-grown experience first, though, as that greatly improves your chances. Employers will be taking a gamble on hiring outsiders already so having to worry about educating them in game development as well may be too much to bear for some.

Once you have made the decision there are four fairly obvious ways to go about getting your first job:

1. Apply from abroad and get a company to sponsor your Visa

2. Move to Japan and find a job while you’re here.

3. Get alternative work in Japan that sponsors your Visa and switch to the game industry when convenient.

4. Join an international company back home and ask/hope to be relocated to the Japanese office.

From anecdotal evidence I can positively say these four methods all work as I have known and met other foreigners in Japan whom have all made their way here following one of these routes. They all have their drawbacks though.

If you apply from abroad you are in for a long wait. Correspondence is already notoriously slow in Japan and putting extra distance between yourself and your desired place of employment will slow things down even more. On top of that you won’t be able to come in for interviews in the short term.

Do not expect companies to fly you out to Japan for the privilege of interviewing you, as that most probably won’t happen. The best you can hope for is to gather a few favourable responses and try to schedule a series of meetings and interviews in the same week. Then you fly over to Japan out of your own pocket and hope for the best.

Alternatively you could move to Japan first. Holiday or student Visas give you some time, though limit your working hours. Being on the ground though makes the whole thing a lot easier and quicker. The main drawback is that it’s expensive!

Without an income to support yourself you’ll need a pretty decent nest egg to wither away. Also, should you land a job and apply for a working Visa you’ll need to re-enter the country to validate it. Luckily a short trip to, say South Korea isn’t expensive but it is an added hassle.

Easier is probably getting a different job in Japan. Many English conversation schools hire aggressively and sponsor Visas. Working conditions can be harsh and the wages low, though not for the hours you’ll work. Be careful where you apply, though, as some schools have the smell of scandal around them. Once you have a job and a Visa you have all the benefits of being in Japan and applying locally plus the added bonus of an income. Your new company will only have to transfer your Visa, which requires some red tape but not so much as acquiring a new Visa from scratch.

The last and possibly longest route is to join an international company and asked to be relocated to the Japan offices. For a start you’ll need to land that job at home first and even then you’re not guaranteed a transfer. But if you do your wages will probably be better, your company will sponsor or help you with the move and take the brunt of most of the expenses. It’s absolutely the safest route to go, but it is only for the patient or patently lucky.

Before you start applying there will be a few minimum requirements.

Learn The Lingo

This is fairly obviously the number one stumbling block for most people and also the most important aspect of your move to get right. A simple rule to live by is “NO Japanese people speak English!” This is not entirely correct, but near enough to make it workable. During the application processes, during the interview and at work Japanese will be the language used. There are a handful of companies that have English speaking employees or that will hire an interpreter for the initial stages of negotiations, there are even companies that will pay for your Japanese study, but these are extremely rare and relying on them will severely limit your options.

Don’t rely on self-study, a Japanese spouse or osmosis to learn the language. It absolutely requires the minimum effort of a language course. Of course, once you’re in Japan and you’re surrounded by people speaking Japanese you’ll find your skills increase tremendously, but for the initial steps you’ll need some study. The level of Japanese required differs for each position you could be hired for, but a bare minimum would be “conversational”. In a future article I’ll go more in-depth on this, but you should at the very least be semi-competent in daily conversation.

The good news is, though, that despite the dire warnings from certain people, not least the Japanese themselves, Japanese is not impossible to learn. In fact, grammatically it is surprisingly simple and straightforward. Sure, you’ll need to start your vocabulary from scratch and wrap your mind around certain constructs but as so much meaning relies on context and the Japanese love rules you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how quickly you’ll pick it up if you really try.

The real heartache comes, of course, from the infamous kanji, one of the four scripts used in Japanese, this one using thousands of intricate pictograms that not only have different meanings depending on context but also different readings depending on how they’re used. The first one hundred of them are deceptively easy to remember but soon you’ll be staring at a mess of lines with your head in your hands.

The Japanese themselves are slowly forgetting their kanji, studied from age 6 onwards, as computers take over most of the difficult tasks when writing them. Kanji will be the bane of your life for the duration of your stay in Japan. But kanji is not required to be able to speak and learn Japanese, however I do recommend starting hitting those books as soon as you can; it’s a long road.

Visa Eligibility

Despite the enormous Gray Pension Bomb that hangs over Japan’s immediate future like an uninvited elephant at a cocktail party that everybody is politely trying to ignore, Japan can be a little strict in who it lets into its homogenous country. There are a variety of Visas available for different jobs and qualifications and I recommend reading up on it on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan’s website.

Most likely you’ll come in on a 1 year specialist’s Visa. For this you require a degree, so if you’re a student thinking of moving to Japan at some point it will be worth your while sticking it out until graduation. And try not to get a criminal record – that can put a damper on things.

Organising a Visa can be a bit of a pain and is usually in the hands of your employer. Not many game developers have experience with this or want to avoid all the hassle by adding “must have valid Visa” on their recruit pages. Of course, if they really want to hire you you’ll find them helpful and receptive, but you’ll increase your chances of landing your first job if your potential employer doesn’t have this particular bit of red tape to worry about. Savings

It is highly recommended that you have some savings to live off of for your first few months in Japan. People like to say Japan is expensive, and I suppose it is but it isn’t as bad as you may have been led to believe. The reason you need savings is because it will probably be a while before you get your first paycheck. The typical Japanese system is to be paid your month’s wages on the 25th of the month for either that whole month or a month-long period starting and ending during that time. Some companies, though this is rare, pay a month in arrears. There are no hard rules on this; either way you should prepare for a few months without an income, in the worst case.

If you plan on organizing your own accommodation, as few companies will provide one for you, you’re in for another shock. Between advance rent, deposits and the un-refunded “gift money” you are looking at a bill of 6 month’s worth of rent before you can move in. You’ll also need a guarantor, for which you’ll probably be forced to use your boss.

When it comes to applying, the situation is not much different than in the west. Some magazines, like CG World or the recruitment-only B-ing have job listings, but your best bet is to scour the internet and the homepages of the companies you are interested in. Most of these will have recruit pages, some even in English, which will be a good indication of their attitude towards hiring foreigners.

Some companies have a pre-application application system in an on-line form to fill in. These usually contain the usual resume information, like name, address, age, experience and specializations but probably all in Japanese. If you pass this kind of application you’ll be contacted and asked to send in your resume and show reel. It makes sense from the employer’s point of view, allowing them to quickly separate the chaff from the wheat early on, but it can add time to your application.

Also check web pages for application requirements. They’ll usually list what they want to see and how they want it delivered. On-line portfolios and e-mailed resumes aren’t yet the standard here, though sometimes these can be used, so be prepared with some paper portfolios and printed curriculum vitaes.

Alternatively you can try recruiters. There are several companies that take on foreigners but as game development isn’t a high-paying gig you may come across some apathy from headhunters. There aren’t many game development recruitment specialists so you may want to apply at technical or creative agencies and specify your needs.

On the subject of resumes, there is a long and tedious tradition of hand-written forms that you can purchase at convenience stores and stationers. These are pre-formatted sheets on which you fill in, by hand and in Japanese, all your relevant details. You must also attach a photograph, head on, pulling a serious face and wearing a recruit-suit. The Google-fu master should be able to find himself a pre-formatted Microsoft Word document or two on-line, but for the more conservative corporations you really should do things the Japanese way.

If you are invited for an interview, either by e-mail, return mail or telephone it means you’ve made a good enough impression. Japan is still very much a country where business is conducted in suits and though the game development world is a lot more laid back, you will show your conformity and understanding of Japanese culture if you turn up to the interview in a shirt and tie.

If you want to dazzle them with your Japanese skills, rehearse a little self-introduction speech as it is very likely you’ll be asked to give one. Other than that there is no real difference between interview techniques with the west, except that a reply can take a while. If you don’t hear anything back it’s probably due to the obtuse chain of command where emails and requests are sent back and forth within the company hierarchy before an official offer is made, so don’t panic.

Promissory notes are not the standard in Japan, a country where a gentleman’s word is still worth something. You can, however, specifically request one if you want and most employers will comply. Contracts are usually, though not exclusively, delivered during your first few days or weeks at work.

Do not panic if you’re not sent one before you start. Japan doesn’t hold much truck with signatures, so get yourself an “inkan”, a stamp with your name on. It’s extremely unlikely you’ll find your surname in perfect katakana in the rack at the 100 Yen shop, but there are many small custom inkan shops around where you can order one. Be the envy of your colleagues who’ll coo over your cool katakana name stamp.

That pretty much wraps it up for the preparations. Remember that life and work in Japan are what you make of them; no two people will experience Japan in the same way. You’ll find as many people who’ll agree with the advice written above as people that will vehemently disagree. But one message should be clear: working in Japan isn’t impossible and if you really want it, with a little effort you can make it happen.

In the next article I will tackle in more detail the different roles in game development in Japan, the development and business culture and some ways on how to survive them.

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