Originally written: February, 2005. Latest update: Thanksgiving, 2010.
Nihon de hatarakitai desu ka? (Translation: "So you want to work in Japan")
More often than you might expect, I hear from game biz hopefuls who aspire to work in Japan, usually for one of the triple-A companies there (usually Square Enix, and usually to work on the Final Fantasy series). So this month I'll finally discuss how to pursue this fantasy. (^_^)
You might expect that this is going to be an uphill battle. But Teddy Roosevelt fought one and won - so it's possible, if you do things right.
You absolutely need to live in Japan, if you want to work in Japan. You can't email some Japanese game companies from the United States and get a job offer and then move. See Stupid Wannabe Tricks #6 and #20. If you don't live in Japan yet, plan to move there as soon as possible. If you are a teen, and your parents are going to send you to college, they probably can't afford to send you to college in Japan. So you'll have to wait until you're out of college to move there. If you're finished with college, and not too old for graduate school, seriously consider taking your graduate studies in Japan.
A lot of people get work as an English teacher in Japan. That's a great way to earn some money while adapting to the culture. And looking for a "real" job.
I can have a conversation in Japanese. I can write a simple sentence in hiragana and katakana - but I suck at kanji. I can't read a Japanese newspaper, game magazine, or manga. If I listen to a Japanese newscast, I have no idea exactly what they're saying - I catch a word here and there, I see the news footage, I know what they're talking about but not exactly what they're saying. I was in Japan in 1989 and saw the Berlin Wall coming down on TV - and had to wait until I got the English newspaper the next day to learn details. You have to be much better at Japanese than me.
I don't know if it's necessary to major in Japanese for your Bachelors degree, however. I only know that you need to be able to converse fluently, read anything, and listen to a newscast or talk show with complete comprehension. That doesn't mean you need a degree in Japanese.
To get a game job, you need a degree in, like, you know - programming or graphics, stuff like that. Unless what you want to do is design or write. If you want to design, see FAQ #3. If you want to write, see FAQ #32, and add Japanese literature and Japanese mythology into your curriculum. Since your fantasy is to do this work in Japan, and if you are going to get your major degree in the U.S., you should probably minor in Japanese, to prepare you to...
Most American kids aren't able to move to Japan until after finishing undergrad school. If you can move sooner, more power to ya. The point is, though, if you want to work IN Japan, you gotta BE in Japan - and the earlier in life, the better. Language wiring in the brain ossifies after a certain age (I didn't start learning Japanese until I was in my thirties, which is why I suck at it so bad), so the younger you move there the better your chance of fluency.
At a Japanese university, get a graduate degree in something game-related... management, advanced programming, anime, business customer relations, marketing, etc. I don't care what degree it is - every person is unique, and you should study subjects that interest you (see FAQs 25, 34, and 44).
You can begin here in the U.S. Go to Game Developers Conference - lots of Japanese developers attend.
If you live in a large city with a Japanese club or even just an anime fan club or something, seek out and join. You can also participate in online otaku forums. My friend's daughter is into certain manga characters and writes fan fiction. There are cosplay events at most sci-fi and comic conventions. Be active!
If you're already fluent in written Japanese, why not join Japanese-language online otaku boards or something - that'll not only immerse you in that world but also make you better at written and conversational Japanese. Of course, you'll have to time-shift. Adjust your sleep schedule so you can be online at the same time the Japanese are online.
When you live in Japan, you can attend local IGDA events, Tokyo Game Show, and any other game-related activities. Go to Akihabara and become known as an obsessive player of the latest games (you can play them on the demo machines on the street, or you could last time I was there). Get out there. Make contacts! And of course visit Japanese cultural and historical sites while you're there. Go. Do. See. Learn.
Another way into the world of Japanese game companies is through the U.S. office. Several Japanese companies have offices in America. You should still study in Japan and spend time there before applying, though. Konami has an office in Hawaii - and there's Square Enix (southern California), Namco (northern California), Sega Sammy (southern California), Sony (northern California), and Nintendo (Redmond, Washington)... You can also use gamedevmap and gameindustrymap and listings sites like Wikipedia to locate other game companies. Click the Game Biz Links link in the nav frame at left. On my Game Biz Links page, look for the Listings of Game Companies section. Do your research!
This section is not important if your dream is to work at a game company in Japan - but you might enjoy checking out these links.
I've played mah-jongg in Japan several times...
And I play mah-jongg with Japanese friends here in Los Angeles, too...
In this article, I haven't discussed whether or not Japan will continue to be (or even still is) the #1 hub of the video game world. That's a subject for debate, and goes beyond the purpose of this article. There are apparently lots of folks who want to work where their favorite games are made.
If you've read my other articles, you know that it's already challenging enough just to get into the game industry in the first place -- even if you don't layer on the added challenge of breaking in within a different culture. But it can be done, if you play your cards right (or your tiles).
I have worked at a game company in Japan - but my employer was an American company with an office there. And because I'm not fluent, my stay there was short (7½ months). So the story of how I got my "in" isn't necessarily one you can expect to replicate, nor is my path recommended. I've known other American guys who've worked in Japan - each one has a different story to tell of how he got his "in." If you want to work for a Japanese game company, in Japan, I've offered some suggestions for ways you can go. You might well find a different way to finally realize your fantasy. There isn't just one sure path to that goal - even if you do take the trail I've shown you, you'll still have to blaze your own way. Ganbatte kudasai!
In July 2007, "J.C. Barnett" (not his real name, I gather) wrote an in-depth feature for Gamasutra on how to get your "in" in Japan. http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/1531/working_in_japanese_game_.php.
Are you a student who wants to study in Japan? Check out http://www.jasso.go.jp/study_j/sgtj_e.html (thanks to Ashley Ainsworth for the link).
From the bulletin board...
>Name = Robert Ota Dieterich
>Email = nobunagaota...
>Age-Ed-Occ = 26 -- BS, Comp Sci. -- Programmer
>Date = 2006-04-16
>Comments = Dear Tom,
>First of all, I'd like to say thank you for having a such a great site. Your lessons are straight-forward and no-nonsense and have many a time managed to give me the motivational kick-in-the-rear to get back to work.
>I'm writing in today because, as of last week, I have finished my probationary training period at a game development company in Japan called iNiS and have now become a full regular employee. I've read your articles for a couple years now and found many of them to ring true in my case, so I thought I'd share a bit about how I managed to end up working as a game programmer in Japan.
>As anyone will tell you, the first step to get a job making games is to be interested in games. This is easy and probably already true if you're considering working in this field to begin with. Myself, I've been an avid game player since elementary school, cutting my teeth on the NES and whatever I could get running on the family PC at the time.
>More important than just loving games, however, is to be able to enjoy working on games and working on games alot. Game development is hard work and the hours are long. Our standard week weighs in around 60 hours with more during crunch-time, of course. There's a lot decidedly non-fun work that needs to be done and, if you can't find satisfaction in a simple job well done, you will probably have a hard time making it to the end of a project.
>But, I digress. More to the point of how I got to this pointin my life. Naturally, I wanted to create video games since I was a kid (I think it started with a particular issue of Nintendo Power.) When I first encountered programming in school, I immediately tried to think of ways I could make games with it. My first exposure was probably in Jr. High to BASIC and I immediately tried, rather fruitlessly, to create my own text adventures with branching if statements. My interest in programming, lacking any external input, waned for a few years until I managed to convince my parents to get me a copy of Visual Basic 3.0 for my birthday. Over the next several years, I played around with it and basically taught myself the rough fundamentals of programming by creating simple (and UGLY!) games. I would basically decide on a project (a space-invaders clone, a game about killing roachs) then figuring what I needed to make a game from there (Ok, I need to have a picture on the screen, how do I do that? Ok, now I need to move it around, where's the section in the book about keyboard input... Etc.)
>In college, I began studying programming formally (a bit over-confidently I might add, since my informal training gave me a leg up on many of my peers. There are still some classes I wish I hadn't skipped as much as I had.) I also studied Japanese for four-years while I was there. While in college, I always kept a game programming project on the side to allow me to practice different environments that I hadn't worked with before (programming a DOS game, using DirectX, etc.) During my senior year, my roommate introduced me to a fellow that he had met while studying abroad in Japan. The fellow he introduced me to was a budding game journalist by the name of Chris Kohler. Being that we both liked video-games and had similarly caustic senses of humor, my roommate thought we'd get along.
>After graduating from college, I went to Japan on the Japan Exchange Teaching (JET) Program. While I was teaching English by day, I was also (surprise, surprise) doing game programming for myself on the side. Naturally, I still wanted to work as a game programmer, whether I was able to find a job in games or if I'd be forced to start my own company, I knew I wanted work in games. Conincidentally, Chris Kohler, the fellow my roommate had introduced me, having just graduated himself, was living in Japan for a year on a Fulbright scholarship to write about games. We spent a fair bit of time hanging out together, terrorizing Western Japan as only a couple drink-happy gaijin can. Incidentally, A lot of the research that he did at this time ended up in his book, Power-Up : How Japanese Video Games Gave the World an Extra Life, you might want to give it a read.
>After my year was up, I returned to the States and worked for a year-and-a-half as a programmer at a goverment contractor. It was decent enough a living, though the work wasn't terribly exciting. As always, I plugged away at side-projects. At this time, I also began applying for game programming jobs over the internet and putting together a portfolio. While I took a few tests and got some phone interviews, I didn't get any job offers. Indeed, one of the phone interviews with EA made me realise how much I still had to learn about programming.
>Later, I left the contracting job to work with a couple fellows at a start-up to make a dance arcade game. Things seemed to be going well, we even had funding from another company. Suffice to say that trying to launch a product into a market already dominated by Konami was a bit beyond our means. Suffice to say, our sources for financial support soon began to dry up as the Konami legal team started making their rounds.
>After that, I went to live with my girlfriend who had moved to Japan (ironically, also on the JET Program and even being assigned to the same prefecture.) Noting I was in Japan, Chris Kohler suggested that I meet him at the Tokyo Game Show so we could catch-up on old times. He also managed to get me invited to a game journalist party, hosted by Tokyopia.com. There, I got the chance to shmooze here and there with journalists and developers, ocassionally using my Japanese to strike up a conversation with a native-speaker who seemed uncomfortable in the mostly English-speaking crowd. There, Chris introduced me to my now-boss, Keiichi Yano. Half-jokingly, I asked him if iNiS needed any programmers seeing as I was, at the time, freelance (read: unemployed.) He said they did, and to give him a call next week.
>I returned to my girlfriend's apartment with business card in hand. Trying not to expect too much, but hoping-beyond-hope, I gave Yano-san a call the next week. He said they might be interested and that I should come in for an interview! I was ecstatic, but still reserved. There was always that nagging part in the back of my mind that said there was no way this was going to work. My Japanese was OK, but would I really be able to work at a Japanese company? And I was hardly a genius programmer. Still, I decided to give it my all, and spent some time gathering my portfolio and hacking up some quick demos to fill in some of the technical gaps.
>I went in for the interview the next week. I took a couple tests, answered some questions, and showed them my portfolio, made up of past game projects and demos. In all honesty, I think they were more impressed with the work that resembled nearly complete games from previous projects than the more technical demos I had prepared specifically for the interview. I think, like many companies, they were looking for people who would be able to last the duration of a project. Once the interview was over, I left some of my code for them to review and went back to my girlfriend's apartment (which was, incidentally, on the other side of the country.)
>Several weeks later, they had made a decision and offered me the job. I was thrilled! I read and re-read the job offer multiple times to remind myself that it was really happening. It may have been the lowest salary I had ever been offered, but it was a game development job! From here on out, there was just the matter of getting an apartment in Tokyo and a visa so I could start working (and being paid.) That, however, is another story about which I wouldn't mind answering questions.
>Phew, that was quite a keyboard-full. So, what are some of the key points here?
>One, networking is important. I didn't become friends with Chris in order to get in the industry. We became friends because, well, we got along. But, he was absolutely crucial in helping me be in the right place at the right time. So, make friends. Once you have them, don't be a jerk to them. They might be in a position to help you someday and, hopefully, you'll be in a position to help them someday too.
>Two, once you get the interview, you need to be a skilled and diligent worker. No bones about it, developing games is hard work that requires incredible dedication and nothing says dedication like a college degree, a good resume, and a full portfolio.
>Three, you have to keep trying. You need to bounce back from rejections and figure out how to make yourself a better candidate for the next application. Game development is a craft and, if you have no interest in improving your knowledge and handling of the craft, then you'd probably be better off in another, less-involving, industry.
>So, in short, work hard, learn hard, but don't wall yourself up away from people in the process. Contacts and social skills are important, as game-development is a team-activity. And, most importantly, don't give up! As they said in Penny-Arcade: When life gives you sh*t, make... well, you get the picture. Good luck and good hunting. Oh, and don't forget to play games once in while too! ^_-
Wow, that's a great story, Robert! I'm going to append it to FAQ 48. Thanks for sharing, and がんばって下さい (ganbatte kudasai).
Tom Sloper (トム·スローパー)
Los Angeles, CA (USA)
April 16, 2006
>Date: Fri, 9 Jun 2006 22:47:46 +0100
>From: "Jan Gillison" [slayedkin
>Subject: Game Industry Q+A
>I understand that, in order for you to give me the best answer suited to my unique situation, you need to know that...
>My approximate age is: 19
>The level of education I've completed is: High School Graduation (A Levels in the UK)
>My occupation (if student, enter 'student') is: Student
>My game biz question is: You stated that an office for a game designer is like a cubicle, but an office for the same position in Japan is completely different e.g, they don't get a private cubicle. Could you give us a more detailed description of what this type of office would be like in japan. How else is it different apart from getting no privacy?
Hi Jan, or should I say konnichiwa, you wrote:
Could you give us a more detailed description of what this type of office would be like in japan.
Big room. Lots of desks. Computer monitors, TVs, game machines (often open with wires running to the computer).
How else is it different apart from getting no privacy?
Whoa, that's a big question. You can buy any book on doing business with Japan. The main things are to go with the flow, don't be a nail that sticks out too much, be very aware of the hierarchical system, use respectful tone with those above you (the whole kohai/sempai thing, as mentioned in the Crichton book Rising Sun), come in on time, stay late, don't turn down offers to go out partying with your coworkers... for starters.
Edu: High School Graduation (A Levels in the UK)
So that's what A Levels are! Thanks.
I hesitate to ask: which kin have you slayed? Your mother? Your father? A sibling?
Good luck and have fun!
Tom Sloper (湯姆スローパー)
Los Angeles, CA (USA)
You make it sound impossible unless it's done exactly the way you say
>Sent: Thu, November 25, 2010 2:39:43 AM
>Subject: game job in Japan article
>Just wanted to give you some feedback on that article you have on your website. It's a little discouraging as it makes it sound impossible to get a game job in Japan without living there first, and preferably knowing the language. Let the record show that I just acquired a position with [COMPANY NAME DELETED] over there, and it didn't require a trip to Japan to do it. I do have a number of years experience in the game industry here in the US, specializing in what they needed for my position. I can also speak a small amount of Japanese, but not enough to help me much in the workplace. I've visited Japan four times in the past, so at least they're comfortable that I'm serious about wanting to live there.
>Most definitely it's better to live there first if you really want to work there, but I would add that if you build up enough desirable skills outside of Japan, you still have a decent chance of making it in. Also, I had worked for [COMPANY NAME DELETED] here in the US for many years, but still couldn't get them to hire me in Japan, as I don't think they were that interested in English-speaking foreigners at the time. Certainly the online application and job posting was not at all English-friendly.
>Sent: Thu, November 25, 2010 2:57:03 AM
>Subject: Re: game job in Japan article
>One more thing, as I hadn't previously noticed your declaration to post all emails from non-friends on your site, although you may not apply that to me since I wasn't asking for advice.
>For professional reasons, if you do post what I said, I'd prefer not to have my name or email shown, and would be more comfortable if you omitted the specific company that my rant applies to. Thanks, and sorry for bothering you if you really hate unsolicited emails. Cheers,
You make it sound impossible unless it's done exactly the way you say
The typical reader comes to me and says "I'm in high school and I love Japanese games and manga, I've been emailing my game ideas to Japanese game companies and they haven't offered me a job or even replied, what am I doing wrong?" You're telling me that I should not tell them "get a degree, have part of your studies in Japan, immerse yourself in Japanese culture, and don't email in English but apply through the Japanese job application process from a Japanese address." I also already told them:
Another way into the world of Japanese game companies is through the U.S. office. Several Japanese companies have offices in America...
...I've known other American guys who've worked in Japan - each one has a different story to tell of how he got his "in." If you want to work for a Japanese game company, in Japan, I've offered some suggestions for ways you can go. You might well find a different way to finally realize your fantasy. There isn't just one sure path to that goal - even if you do take the trail I've shown you, you'll still have to blaze your own way.
So I kind of figure that the above excerpt, along with my other many articles on breaking into the industry, says pretty much what you said. "Dumb kid, you can't get a job with a Japanese company by emailing them from the US in English. Work hard, work smart, work long time."
But if I'm telling it wrong, what exactly should I tell them?
トム·スローパー / 탐 슬로퍼 / 湯姆 斯洛珀
Los Angeles, California, USA
November 25, 2010
(earthquake and tsunami)
Dark times in Japan
Dark times in Japan
Even so, natsukashii!
I wish I was there.
March 30, 2011
Expat in Japan
> From: Jonathan B
> Sent: Saturday, July 27, 2013 12:35 AM
> Subject: Expat in Japan wanting to transition to become Game Designer
> Hi Tom,
> I'm an American expat who's been living in Japan for over 7 years, and I've recently rediscovered myself. I want to become a game designer.
> How old are you? 30 with wife and 1 child
> What's your level of education? Bachelors in computer and electrical engineering. Minor in Japanese
> What's your current occupation? Field service engineer manager
> I'm planning my transition as I write this:
> I'll quit my very busy full-time job
> Get a high pay part-time English teaching job, study game development like crazy, and create a game or two
> Create a nice portfolio and join a game dev studio.
> I'm afraid of the Japanese work culture -- Long overtime, complex vertical relationships, and indirect communication, and the pressure to suck it up and be subservient. I've worked in a Japanese company before so I have some experience. I can't say that they are all the same though. I could try to find a foreign game development company is Japan, but they are rare....
> I've passed the JLPT level 2 exam and can communicate OK but not enough to read deep into what a Japanese person really wants to say or read what they really mean. Ex. Saying something but meaning something totally different or agreeing with you without understanding what you said. If I do join a team as a "game planner" I fear that I won't be able to get my ideas across or worse not accurately receive what my Japanese peers are trying to communicate to me.
> 1. Should I worry about working at a traditional JPN game company or find that rare foreign game company?
> 2. Is my communication worry with Japanese workers reasonable? If I wanted to become a programmer or artist I wouldn't be so worried, but a game designer needs strong communication.
> Maybe I shouldn't work in Japan, but since I am here already it is at least an ideal stepping stone.
> Please let me know what you think, I'd be very grateful.
> P.S. Do you have any twitter accounts from American expats working in Japan that you can share?
Konnichiwa, J.B. You wrote:
I want to become a game designer. [in Japan]
First you'll need to get a job at a game company in Japan. You need an entry pathway other than game design. Whatcha got?
current occupation? Field service engineer manager
Read FAQ 41 and FAQ 7, and see what game job you can most easily switch into.
Get a high pay part-time English teaching job
Really, those are high-paying? I didn't know that.
I'm afraid of the Japanese work culture -- Long overtime, complex vertical relationships, and indirect communication, and the pressure to suck it up and be subservient. I've worked in a Japanese company before so I have some experience.
I'm afraid of earthquakes -- not the shaking, but the damage it can do and the possible upheaval in my life and my finances. I've been in two really big earthquakes before, so I have some experience. Yet I still live in Los Angeles.
I guess you don't currently work in a Japanese company, even though you live in Japan and are working as a field service engineer manager. Dude, you can't let fear rule your life. Read FAQ 47, the wise quotes about fear.
The game industry has a bad reputation for overworking its people, and that reputation is not undeserved. The Japanese work culture also has a bad reputation, as you pointed out. What I don't know is how those two intersect. Although I worked in Japan, at a game company, I didn't work in a game studio (my office was a small overseas office of Activision, then "Mediagenic"). I imagine that the intersection of those two cultures does not magnify the problem, but rather the game culture is merely sort of reinforced by the Japanese work culture.
I could try to find a foreign game development company is Japan, but they are rare....
Rarity is no reason not to try.
I've passed the JLPT level 2 exam and can communicate OK but not enough to read deep into what a Japanese person really wants to say or read what they really mean. Ex. Saying something but meaning something totally different or agreeing with you without understanding what you said.
Your Japanese is undoubtedly much better than mine. I totally understand what you're saying. And I believe your "poor" mastery of the language makes you a poor candidate for a game design position in Japan. Communication is the most important skill of the game designer. You may not be able to attain the job you seek.
Should I worry about working at a traditional JPN game company or find that rare foreign game company?
No, you should not worry. Worrying is futile. And I hate compound questions.
Is my communication worry with Japanese workers reasonable? If I wanted to become a programmer or artist I wouldn't be so worried, but a game designer needs strong communication.
Right. I think it's a Quixotic quest.
Maybe I shouldn't work in Japan, but since I am here already it is at least an ideal stepping stone.
Ideal, really? That first step is a doozy. Maybe you need different stepping stones.
Do you have any twitter accounts from American expats working in Japan that you can share?
I'm not much of a Twitter user. I suppose broadcasting a Twitterer (Tweeter?)'s @name isn't verboten (だめ) like broadcasting a phone number or an email address is. So I'm stifling my impulse to chide you for making an inappropriate request. But honestly, no. I don't know of any American expats working in games in Japan. My expat friends in Japan are mah-jongg players, not game industry folk. I don't suppose those are of much interest to you.
Creator of the game advice FAQs -- donations appreciated.
Los Angeles, California, USA
July 27, 2013
Recommended reading: in December 2007, Andrea Rubenstein wrote a great article on GameCareerGuide.com about her successful effort to enroll in a Japanese game school, at http://www.gamecareerguide.com/features/468/my_search_for_a_japanese_game_.php.
JapanManship is also a useful read for those who want to know about "Life, work and video games in Japan."
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