Last updated: May 8th, 2008
I often get emails from hopefuls with an eye cocked at the Japanese game industry. The questions, though I usually try my best to answer them if I can, usually follow the same lines, which reminds me that my blog is probably not the most user-friendly. I promise that I'll think of (yet another) redesign, with a blogger template with better emphasis on categories and such. A lot of the things people are curious about are mentioned specifically or in passing in earlier blog posts, but I understand these can be difficult to find. So here are a few of the most common questions I get sent my way, and I'll tag this post with the title, so it'll show up on the "categories" list in the sidebar for future reference.
Q: Do I need to speak Japanese to get a job in the Japanese gaming industry?
A: The easy answer is "no", hurrah! There are a few companies that are willing to overlook this requirement, as they have realised the potential value of a foreign employee, especially if they have previous experience that is useful to the company.
The answer you don't want to hear is "yes", it's imperative! Let's face it, you'll be living life as a social cripple without basic Japanese skills, and communication with your team will be tiresome or impossible. If you make the slightest effort to learn Japanese your chances increase exponentially, you'll have many more companies to choose from and you'll become a far more attractive prospect. Your colleagues won't speak English, your boss won't, your contract will be in Japanese; if you can show you can handle all this you'll find very few obstructions in your way to becoming a game developer in Japan.
So, really, just learn the language, and start now!
Q: How well do I need to be able to speak Japanese?
A: This very much depends on your role. Some jobs will obviously require near-native level skills, where others will be perfectly doable with only basic communication levels. The more managerial you go, or the further into producing, the more meetings you'll have and the more documents you'll need to write, so obviously you will need some good language ability for these. Down in development, say programming or art, basic communication is the very minimal but often also all you really need. For planning (design) again documents need to be written. For localisation there are a variety of roles, from proofreader or rewriter, for which Japanese really isn't required, to actual translation, which obviously requires native-level skills. So it all depends on what job you are going for in the end, but needless to say, the better your Japanese the better your chances. As a minimum requirement you should really at least be a confident conversationalist.
Q: But isn't Japanese so very difficult to learn?
A: This is what the Japanese themselves would like you to think, but no, not really. Grammatically it's simple enough. You'll need to lean your vocab again from scratch, which is a pain, but generally with a bit of effort, especially if you're in Japan already, you can quickly go from nothing to something, to a level where you can ask the shopkeeper for extra plastic bags or to tell the police you didn't steal that bicycle.
The real pain is kanji, of course, which the Japanese themselves learn from age 6, and even they have trouble with it. The best advice here is to get started as soon as possible and cram several of them a day for, well, the rest of your life. But overall, apart from the kanji, no, it's really not that difficult. More problematic is some of the cultural etiquette but even that can be learned or avoided. So don't stress about it.
Q: Is it, like, nearly impossible to get your foot in the door?
A: No, this is one of those persistent fallacies, that the industry is a closed shop and that it's impossible to compete with the Japanese for job openings. It's bunk. Mind you, if you don't speak the language, don't have any previous experience and don't have any marketable skills then, yes, you won't get in, but that isn't uniquely Japanese. Working in game development requires certain skills that not everyone has, so just thinking it's a nice idea for a job without putting in the study is simply not going to cut it.
Q: Should I do/continue/finish my study in (Subject X) before moving to Japan?
A: Yes, absolutely. Personally I'd recommend it anyway, because, even though the skills you need you'll probably only learn doing the job, getting a degree is a valuable experience for any young mind, both in training and knowledge as well as social contacts and alcohol consumption. You’ll spend the rest of your life chained to a cubicle, so why rush into it early?
Mostly, though, having a degree will ease your way into a working Visa for Japan. I'm sure companies willing to spend money on lawyers could find a way around it, but a degree is a requirement for Visa applications. The more relevant your degree the more useful it'll be but in the red-tape of Japan's bureaucracy any old degree will probably do.
Q: Should I get some experience at home first?
A: It would certainly help. Like in any other situation or country the more experience you have the better a candidate you are, the more chances you'll have getting a job. With Japan specifically I'd recommend it, as learning your required skills whilst also dealing with a culture and language barrier my slow down your growth as a developer, taking too much on at once. The better you are at doing your job without the need of tutoring or supervision the better your chances at landing that job.
If you have no experience at all you are pretty much at the mercy of the employer, and you'll probably end up amongst the new graduate hires, working hard for very little money until you can prove your worth. In this sense Japan us no different to any other country, but at least in your own culture you might be able to learn quicker and easier.
Q: Can I intern in Japan?
A: Probably. I actually don't really know this. I've come across one or two Japanese interns so far in my career here, and I have heard of foreign ones here and there but that is where my knowledge ends. I'd say it is not impossible, but it is not common and you'd probably have a better chance as a cheap graduate hire.
Q: Are the salaries really that low?
A: Well, yes, especially compared to the industry in other countries, like the US. Developers generally get very little pay and there is a glass ceiling you won't break until you get promoted into director level positions, but even then, don't expect to be buying Ferraris left, right and center until you start your own company and become famous or successful (or both?).
There are two points of note though. Firstly, as a foreigner you can bargain better. Part of the culture is to not be too aggressive or arrogant in these matters, but foreigners are exempt and expected to be difficult, so you can and should try hard to fight for a better wage. You'll still hit that glass ceiling but you're likely to hit it quicker than your Japanese peers. Secondly, the salaries aren’t specifically bread-line bad. Sure, you won't be able to afford a penthouse in central Tokyo, but most people can't afford that ludicrous luxury. The cost of living isn't as astronomical as you may have been lead to believe, and if you're prudent you can even save some cash. It is absolutely better than an English teacher's wage or that of a McDonald's worker.
Q: What is the working atmosphere like? Is it strict, formal, hierarchical?
A: There are too many different companies with too many different working cultures to give a single definitive answer to this. You know those films you've seen or those stories you've heard, of scary bosses, tight suits, deep bowing and all that? Yeah, well, no, the game industry isn't really like that. Your relationship with your boss pretty much depends on what type of boss he is, and though you're unlikely to call him by his first name, you can expect to have a laugh with him down the pub. Job interviews could require a suit and tie, which is perfectly reasonable, but again, not always. Generally decisions are passed on down from up high, what the boss says goes, but that doesn't mean you have to bow deeply when he gives his orders. In short, don't stress it, the game industry is a lot more relaxed than most types of companies. This is especially good in the hot and humid summers when you will be the only one in shorts and sandals on the busy train stuffed full of suits.
Q: Is it really as much of a game/manga/anime paradise as I hope it is?
A: There is indeed a lot of it about, but it becomes less fun buying all that tat if you're using your monthly salary rather than a holiday budget, so you'll find the novelty soon wears off. There is also this anticipation that your otaku tendencies will be blindly accepted by the Japanese, because manga, games and anime are much more part of everyday life. This is only true to an extent. People that like these things a little too much are still shunned as sad geeks, and remember "otaku" is derogatory.
Q: Where do I start?
A: There are many avenues you could choose from, most of which have been discussed previously on this blog. Check the links below for more information. But generally, if it's something you want to do, move to Japan and work in the game industry here, my best advice is to just go for it. It's certainly not impossible, though you will need to work at it. More and more foreigners seem to be able to make this jump these days, so things are looking up. Don't be dissuaded by the naysayers who say it's impossible - they don't know what the Hell they are talking about. Good luck!
Previous posts on moving to Japan here.
Previous posts on different job descriptions here.
Q: Is it worth it?
A: That totally depends on your reasons. For someone early on in his development career Japan could offer some interesting opportunities, but for someone more senior the salary and working conditions may be a little too much of a step down. Living in Japan is great, so if you simply want to work to live it can be a nice life. If you're a Japanophile you may have high expectations that probably won't be met; integration is impossible, the Japanese are as rude and ignorant as everybody else in the world and otaku are not revered, as so many people seem to think. I'd highly recommend spending some time here first, a few holidays, a homestay or a few months as a teacher or whatever, just to get your expectations back to a realistic level, and then decide. The industry itself isn't in the best of states right now, and any experience as a developer you pick up here might not translate well to Western development should you ever move back, but that could change.
If your expectations are realistic there is a lot to get out of a move to Japan and a job in the game industry, so yes, it could be worth it.
Q: Who do you work for?
A: Because I feel it is unfair for my employer and projects to possibly suffer unduly from anything I write I have decided to use a penname. As such I won't be forthcoming with any further details regarding my identity or place of employment. Trust me, it's nothing to do with adding a veneer of mystery or feverish speculation - there is no big reveal here. I certainly hope my posts will be useful, insightful or distracting enough for readers not to care I am a nameless schlemmel.
If you have any specific questions, don't be too shy to email me directly, as I do always try to answer my mails. Making the move to Japan is always a lot easier if you get a few nudges in the right direction, which is what I'll gladly do if I can.
Last updated: May 8th, 2008