Updated February 4, 2023
Freelancing in Japan: Opportunities and Challenges [2023 Guide]
For many, leaving corporate life behind is the ultimate dream.
Who doesn’t want to become their own boss? After all, it should be you who gets to decide when you work, where you work, and how you work.
Many people want to achieve a stable, sufficient income from freelance work. But how achievable is that while freelancing in Japan?
Is it even possible as a foreigner? Can you get a visa as a freelancer? How would you handle taxes?
These are all valid questions that confuse many expats in Japan, and that’s why I decided to prepare an extensive guide on freelancing in Japan.
In today’s post, I’ll answer all of the questions above and guide you through the process of becoming a freelancer in Japan.
Buckle up, and let’s go.
The Concept of Sole Proprietorship in Japan
As a foreigner, if you want to become your own boss in Japan, you have two options: becoming a sole proprietor or a business owner.
Becoming a business owner means that you’ll need to start a business of your own. This entails starting a company from scratch, registering your business, and most importantly, sourcing or raising the minimum amount of capital needed.
As you can probably guess, setting up a Japanese corporation can be complex and costly. So starting your own business isn’t always a good option if you’re a foreigner in Japan.
I already talked about it in great detail in my post on starting a business in Japan, but considering all the paperwork and the costs, you don’t want to go down that road if all you’re looking for is to work independently.
This is why your second and best option is to become a sole proprietor, which is what I’ll mostly be covering here in this post.
Sole proprietorship, or kojin jigyo (個人事業), essentially means that you’re working as a one-person business. This isn’t like starting your own company, as you won’t be the owner of a company but rather a “small business.”
Therefore in this post, I’ll mainly explain how you can become a sole proprietor, or in other words, a freelancer, in Japan.
Working as a Freelancer in Japan: The Visa Requirements
Now that I made the distinction between a sole proprietorship and a business owner, let’s start from the beginning and explore what the visa situation looks like for a foreigner who wants to start doing freelance work in Japan.
Is There a Japan Freelance Visa?
Unfortunately, the answer to this question is a simple “no.”
There’s no way around it. If you want to move to Japan strictly for freelance work, there isn’t a visa type that will support this pursuit.
As there isn’t a freelancer visa in Japan, your best bet is to find a job in Japan with a proper contract, get a work visa, and get settled. Then, you can finally act on your dreams of becoming your own boss.
I know that it isn’t exactly the quickest way, but it’ll get you there. Besides, you can make the process easier on yourself by applying for a Humanities/International Services/Engineer visa. This is the most common type of work visa foreigners obtain to move to Japan, which means that the process is very much streamlined.
The flexibility of the engineering visa also provides you with a wide range of options for when you want to do freelance work. Since you need to stay within the same field as your visa when you do freelance work, this will come in handy.
If you want your visa to be renewed once you switch to being a freelancer, the work you do has to stay within the same field as the visa you obtained to enter Japan. I explained this visa type extensively in my post on how to get an engineering visa. You can check that one out to learn more.
Changing Your Field
As I explained, coming to Japan on a specific work visa doesn’t exactly allow for a complete career change. However, if you happen to change your specialty and want to do freelance work outside the scope of your visa, that’s not the end of the world, either.
Even though there’s no guarantee, you can apply for “permission to engage in an activity other than those permitted by the status of residence previously granted.” It’s a mouthful and doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue, but at least it’s self-explanatory.
This application is approved on a case-by-case basis, which means that you’re taking a minor gamble, but it’s still better than having no options. You may want to consult with a lawyer that specializes in immigration for the application process.
With this out of the way, let’s now move on to how — and if — you can do freelance work if you’re in Japan on some other visa types.
Freelancing in Japan on a Student Visa
As I mentioned, if you’ve managed to obtain a visa and enter Japan, it’s possible to become a freelancer. A student visa is no exception here, as you can do freelance work alongside your studies, but there’s a small caveat.
A student visa only allows part-time work, which shouldn’t exceed 28 hours a week. The logic here is that as a student, most of your efforts should be reserved for your education, which is the main purpose of your stay in Japan. Therefore, your freelancing gigs shouldn’t have a negative impact on your studies.
This might sound arbitrary, but if you fail your tests, don’t show up to classes, or fail to deliver assignments, your visa might be revoked.
In short, as long as you stay within these guidelines, there’s nothing stopping you from taking on freelance work in your downtime as a student visa holder.
If you’re considering studying in Japan, I also recommend checking out my post on the best universities in Japan for international students. It’s a comprehensive guide that also covers the most commonly asked questions on the subject.
Freelancing in Japan on a Working Holiday Visa
A working holiday visa is a special visa type that allows you to work for a certain amount of time as you visit Japan. The idea is to give you the ability to support your travels and set a little bit of money aside, too, if that’s what you're after.
To be eligible for the working holiday visa, you need to be between the ages of 18 and 30, which further implies that this visa is a temporary solution and should be approached as such.
Unlike the student visa, there isn't a weekly limit to how much you can work. The only limitation is that you can’t work jobs that’ll affect the public morale, like a bartender or a dancer at a nightclub, but that shouldn’t be much of a problem for a freelancer.
Other Options: Marriage, Permanent Residence, and Self Sponsorship
In addition to the visa types I mentioned above, you also have a few other options to start working as a freelancer in Japan, but these aren’t exactly guaranteed as they involve requirements that may not be available to you.
Firstly, if you’ve worked in Japan long enough to become a permanent resident, that means that you no longer have to work in a specific field or job to stay in Japan. You can freelance to your heart’s desire, and no one will stop you.
Another way you can start freelancing in Japan is to marry a Japanese citizen or permanent resident, which will allow you to get a spouse visa. As I said, these are all based on circumstances you might not have control over, but there’s one more option.
As a freelancer, if you have enough contracts and a large number of clients, and if you can manage to find a big, reputable client to issue you a sponsorship letter, you might be able to get a working visa as if you’re employed. Let me explain.
While it’s true that you need an employment contract to apply for a working visa, there’s also a less-known concept called “self-sponsorship.” For this, you’ll need to submit contracts from clients that’ll provide you with regular jobs, and you need your biggest client to sign on as your sponsor when you apply for your work visa.
If your contracts add up to the minimum required amount (200,000 JPY monthly income), you might be able to move to Japan as a freelancer. As I said, this is tricky, and it may or may not work, but it’s worth a shot when you’re out of options.
How to Start Freelancing in Japan
If you’ve managed to obtain a visa and arrived in Japan, the actual process of becoming a freelancer isn’t that complicated. The only tricky part will be finding clients to do freelance work for.
If you’re currently employed in Japan, you can also read my guide on changing jobs in Japan, where I talk about how to end your contract properly in addition to the steps I’ll explain below.
Without a portfolio of clients, you won’t have much luck supporting yourself as a freelancer.
Speaking from a visa renewal standpoint, it’s better to find clients from Japan. This isn’t to say that you can’t have foreign clients, but if the majority of your clients are not from Japan, this might complicate your visa renewal process.
To find clients in Japan, I recommend learning Japanese as soon as possible. Since English isn’t as widely spoken here, you’ll unlock a significant number of job opportunities if you speak Japanese. Here’s a guide I prepared that includes the best tools for learning Japanese if you’re interested.
While I can’t tell you how exactly you can find clients, I can give you another vital tip. If you wish to have some sort of financial stability and a safety net for when things go downhill, I recommend finding as many clients as possible as opposed to a few big ones.
For one, if your sponsoring client falls through, you’ll still have plenty of options. Also, more clients allow you to earn more, preferably more than the required 200,000 JPY a month, allowing you to put some money aside for hard times.
Applying For Sole Proprietorship
Once you make sure that you have clients you can work for, the actual application process for sole proprietorship (kojin jigyo) is simple.
To apply, all you need to do is fill out a form that can be found on the official website of the National Tax Agency. Once you’re done, simply print it out and send it to your local tax office via mail.
Be careful, though — the form is in Japanese, and you’ll need to fill it in Japanese as well. You might want to get help from a native speaker.
Also, don’t forget to send proof of ID alongside your application form. This can either be a photocopy of your “My Number Card” or another card that has your personal ID number, like your resident card.
Once you become a sole proprietor, you’ll need to get your health insurance sorted out, which you’ll have to handle yourself.
Luckily, you can easily join the national health insurance system as a self-employed individual. All you need to do is visit the city hall, and you don’t even have to get an appointment. Just show up and apply; you don’t need to pay anything, either.
After you register, you will receive your insurance card in the mail. How much premium you’ll pay will be calculated according to your earnings from the previous year.
Working as a Freelancer in Japan: The Taxes
As you’re now self-employed, taxes become even more important than before because you’re the one who’ll be doing them.
As employees’ income taxes are handled by their employers, as a freelancer, you’re going to be responsible for your own income tax now.
If you’re not well-versed in the Japanese tax system, you’ll need help, which you can get from the tax office employees. However, this isn’t guaranteed, and you should sort this out before the tax season approaches.
Alternatively, you can have an accountant handle your taxes for you. This usually costs around 50,000–100,000 JPY,and it takes a day or two, but it’ll be worth it as doing taxes can be a pain.
Should you decide to do your taxes yourself, I recommend applying for the blue tax returns, which provide you with various tax breaks. It can ease up your tax bills as a new freelancer, and you should submit it by March 15 of the year you’ll be making a blue tax return claim for.
If you start your freelancer journey after March 15, you can also apply for the blue tax return in the first two months of being approved as a sole proprietor.
Here’s a list of the general documents you’ll need when submitting your taxes:
Your residence card and “My Number Card,”
Tax withholding slip (Shiharai chōsho) from each of your clients,
Receipts of your expenses you want to be deducted, and
Your bank book or bank account information.
Working as a Freelancer in Japan: The Benefits
Before I go, I also want to talk briefly about the perks of working as a freelancer in Japan.
Freedom and Flexibility
You’ve probably heard this countless times, but Japan is a beautiful country, and it would be a shame if you didn’t get to enjoy and explore it on your own terms.
Luckily, as a freelancer, you’ll have the autonomy to work from anywhere, anytime, and in whatever conditions you like. This allows for plenty of freedom and plenty of time to discover the beautiful sights and hidden gems of Japan.
For instance, Japan is one of the best countries for winter sports. You can check out my guide to snowboarding and skiing in Japan to find out about the best pistes in the world.
Being a freelancer also means that you’re the master of your own schedule. If you’re someone who thrives on working at night instead of during the day, you can adapt your schedule accordingly. After all, it’s all up to you.
Diversifying Your Income
Another perk of being a freelancer is having multiple clients. As you’re no longer reliant on a single company to make a living, you can start taking risks as you’ve never been able to. You can choose to only pick jobs that will benefit your career in the long run and help you develop new skills.
You can also experiment with how you approach and handle clients. This will give you the leeway to act with principle, and you can develop a specific communication style with your clients that suit you the best.
Building a Personal Brand/Business
Last but not least, being your own boss means that you’re working for yourself and under your name.
When you’re working for yourself, the possibilities are endless. You can choose to build your brand however you like, and since you’re no longer working under a company name, all of your efforts will be recognized as yours.
Besides, since it's your business, you get to decide how much you make.
In theory, there’s no limit to how much you can work. You can choose to take on more work when you need to earn more. As an added bonus, you can also adjust your rates when you want to, which means that you no longer have to wait to get a raise when you need it.
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