It's a regular occurrence. Open my email, and time after time, there the question is, staring me in the face: How do I work in Japanese gaming?
Heck, I dunno. I don't work in the game industry, but rather, cover the game industry. If you want to ask me about that, do it. Fire away! I'm all ears and one open email account. Everyone else, read this.
I asked four Westerners who have worked in the game industry here in Japan for advice about working in The Land of the Rising Sun. They possess a range of skills that range from localization to writing to management to programming. But, most importantly, they have experience — and they were generous enough to share that with not only me, but you. How kind.
If you've ever thought about working in Japan, there are some pearls in here. Even if you have no interest in making games, but perhaps, just perhaps, you are thinking about moving to another country (not necessarily Japan, even!), there are, likewise, helpful tips that can start you on your journey.
And now we start on ours...
Former Tecmo/Team NINJA assassin and Tomonobu Itagaki aide-de-camp Andrew Szymanski is credited with everything from designer to director on nine titles in the Ninja Gaiden and Dead or Alive franchises. Now a freelance design and production consultant for the game industry in Tokyo, he brings his 6+ years of experience to bear in guiding Japanese developers and publishers to success in overseas markets. Andrew can be contacted at: andrewszymanskiATmac.com
Game developers are a unique group of people. While it goes without saying that being memorable is important to landing any position, it is particularly essential in this field. When you get far enough into any interview process, you're going to come face-to-face with a studio manager or executive producer, and you'll have to make an impression that will make them want to spend more time with you and hear more of what you have to say.
While in college here in Tokyo I applied to Tecmo during the peak of the Japanese recruiting season and attended the corporate hiring seminar. I was one American in a blue shirt amongst a sea of 200 or 300 Japanese applicants in dark suits. During a break, I went up to the company president and said, point-blank, "I want to make games in Japan." Two perfunctory interviews later, I was in. To my knowledge, I am one of the few (if not the only) examples of someone getting a job in the industry through the traditional recruiting methods.
That may not be an option for many, but there is always a way to get yourself noticed. Make a statement with fashion (without being inappropriate, of course), tell an amusing story, or recount a memorable life experience. Something that still comes up to this day amongst the teams I've worked with is the fact that, on my application, I had written that when I was a child I wrapped a black rag on my head, made shuriken out of cardboard, and ran around the house playing ninja. Find a way to tie an indelible part of yourself to the job, and they'll be sure to remember you.
I can't stress this one enough - you have to bring something to the table that only you can.
It may have been the case that, 5-10 years ago, simply being bilingual and having an interest in games could land you a cushy job here. Now, while language ability is still important (and you'll be expected to have a respectable command of written and spoken Japanese), it's crucial that you have fundamental skills and abilities that developers want. Even if you don't have prior experience in the industry, find a way to show what you can offer in a way that's simple and easy to grasp.
Like to draw? Bring a sketchbook portfolio or 3D render. Developers always want good artists. Want to be a designer? Show them some sample concepts and game ideas, or do a "what-if" scenario with their intellectual property: "This is my version of a Lost Planet RTS." Have a management background? Discuss some thoughts you had about effectively managing schedules or budgets.
Even if some of your offerings are a little off-base, you will have shown that you can grow inside the team to fill a necessary role, not just be the go-to guy for English e-mail exchanges or developer blogs. And, if you can prove that you have knowledge, drive, language ability, and growth potential, then you will be an impressive candidate in this world of global markets and overseas outsourcing.
Once you get the job, make sure you continue to grow and stay indispensable. As you show that you can perform duties that no one else can and have carved out a unique niche for yourself, your "indispensability factor" will grow, leading to more authority and responsibility inside of the team.
I've been fortunate enough to play key roles in over ten AAA titles, but I've also been on projects that were stalled, rejected, or canceled. Go into it with your eyes open, and know that, no matter how skilled you are, you won't be lead designer or producer on a multi-million dollar project your first time out.
Maybe your first job will be second- or third-string designer on a DS title, or artist on an XBLA or PSN game. Embrace these duties. Working on a smaller team can be incredibly rewarding, and you'll find more satisfaction in saying "I designed this entire game mechanic" or "I modeled this entire level background" than you will in saying "I came up with hit point values for the enemies" or "I modeled the trees in this level," which is what may happen when first working on a huge team.
Many people in the industry here never work on a "true" AAA title, but that doesn't mean that they don't create great games and have a blast doing it.
Even if you do reach the plateau where team sizes are in excess of 100 people, you still have to be flexible.
I've had countless ideas shot down, entire game concepts denied, and months of work put into design documents vanish at the blink of an eye because of changes in a title's focus. Remember, games are a business, and you might have the best idea or greatest character design in the world but if the market doesn't like it, it's not going in.
It's not always about creating what you think is the "best" game (or even what you would necessarily choose to play). It's about making something that will sell, and sell well. I can't count the times that a junior team member has complained that management "doesn't get it" and swears that the game would be 100 times better if only their idea had made it in. It is the creative director's job (or producer's, in some teams here) to establish a clear direction for the title with management and make sure that all game content meshes with that direction.
The larger the team, the more individual compromises will need to be made. Learn to take it in stride and you'll begin to see the big picture.
This one is deceptively simple but harder in practice. You've got to strengthen yourself both physically and mentally to endure the rigors of a career in game development here in Japan, where the language contains a word meaning "to die from overwork" and many normal salarymen don't even get home until close to midnight.
All development teams around the world experience what is known as "crunch time:" the period right before a title is released to certification where everybody on the team is in a mad scramble to finalize all of the content and iron out the last few pesky bugs.
Some Japanese developers, however, seem to have made it a goal to elevate the ridiculousness of crunch into an art form. Obviously it varies from team to team and title to title, but I've had crunches on two-year titles that have lasted six months. That's six months of having no social life and no free time, limited time with loved ones, and long periods in which you forget what the inside of your apartment looks like because you've slept at the office for five nights in a row.
While I certainly don't condone this practice — in fact I've made it a goal to alleviate it as much as possible — there is just no way around it on Japanese teams and you'll have to accept it as a fact of life. Learn to adapt: make your colleagues your best friends (they should be anyway), because they'll be the only company you have on many a long night spent testing or debugging. Practice living your entire life (food, work, and sleep) at your desk for a month and you'll be on your way.
Learn to be thick-skinned mentally as well. At first you will be demoralized because of perceived failures and because your ideas or designs were rejected.
Know that this happens to everybody, and don't take it personally. Japanese developers, for the most part, take a very strict and regimented approach to dealing with other team members. It's not because they are not kind (you will grow to learn that they are) or are out to get you, rather it is part of a long-standing tradition in production industries to codify relationships in a master-apprentice context.
So when the lead designer takes the paper containing what you believe is your best game mechanic ever and throws it into the trash (yes, I am speaking from personal experience here) or the art director has you redo a render for the 100th time because the sheen on the shoelace holes of a character's sneaker are not perfect, know that they do these things because they truly believe that you will learn and become better as a result. Hang in there and you may gain a wonderful mentor with whom the bond of friendship and camaraderie is not easily broken.
Last, but certainly not least, is patience. You must realize that things won't always move as quickly as you'd like them to. This advice works on both a micro and a macro level.
On a smaller scale, you will no doubt wonder why your feedback is not carrying as much impact as you would like it to, particularly when you are new to a team or the project is in its infancy. You may feel (with good reason) that you have great ideas and designs and they are being brushed aside with nary a second glance.
I've talked already about becoming indispensable to a team, carving out a niche for yourself, and earning the trust and respect of team members. All of these things take time. To quote a Japanese figure of speech, most developers here prefer relationships that are "narrow and deep" rather those that are "wide and shallow." In other words, they intend to connect with fewer individuals on average, but when they do, those connections are profoundly strong.
If you persevere in your duties, remain dedicated, take criticism whether you feel it's deserved or not, and show everyone that you are a harmonious member of the team, you should find that your feedback and ideas will gradually carry more weight with those around you.
On a larger scale, realize that you may not initially advance in your career as much as you might hope from project to project. Japanese companies are notoriously difficult to move up in, and it will take a mountain of hard work and a great track record to convince team leaders that you are ready for an official promotion.
You will, of course, be asked to take on more and more responsibility without an change in title or increase in salary, and you must learn to work through these hurdles, just as you must overcome the "glass ceiling" that still hampers foreign developers at some companies.
You may feel that your contribution to a title was astronomical and that you fully deserve more say in the creative process, but don't be surprised if you find yourself in a similar position when the next project rolls around.
Just know this: if you have chosen the right team to work for, I will guarantee that someone is silently watching and observing your endeavors. You may not get much feedback or indication of an impending expansion to your role in the team, but it will come in due time and it will feel great because you will know you have truly earned it.
With a diverse background in languages, design and entertainment, the Welsh-born Dewi Tanner arrived at NanaOn-Sha in 2007 with a remit to aid in the company's rapid internationalization. After ensuring the smooth release of the games Musika and Major Minor's Majestic March through overseas publishers, Tanner took on the role of Director of Development where he now overseas all aspects of games development; from concept prototyping through to funding, management and PR.
Be realistic about your expectations
Recently, Japanese companies have been laying off a lot of staff, so why would they take you on?
Try and make a list of what would make you an appealing candidate, and also be aware of your unappealing aspects. Despite many companies recently pedaling a rhetoric focused on globalization and driving overseas sales, there is barely any evidence here of an increase in foreigner employment. For many hiring managers, an application from a foreigner is synonymous with hassle, so the more of these issues that you can remove the better.
An example of some classic hassle issues include...
*You are not in Japan and you want them to support your visa application: Unless you are an experienced, skilled and/or bilingual developer, don't even think that some Japanese game company will sponsor your visa application. Also don't come here job-hunting on a tourist visa. A much better route is to come here on a teaching visa, as English conversation schools are happy to dole out visas. Once you are in Japan and settled you can then start looking. The closer you live to downtown Tokyo the better!
*You speak little or no Japanese, although you plan to become fluent: The games industry is a professional industry with lots of money at stake. Very few Japanese speak competent English, or have the desire to learn.
Put these two factors together and you can see that there are huge miscommunication risks. Trust me, unless you can understand at least 90% of whats going on, they will occur.
About two years' experience of working in an all-Japanese environment is ideal. Lacking that, a level two certificate in the Japanese Proficiency test and some travel experience in Japan will help.
Apply Like a Pro
Sending an email in English with your resume attached (even if it's translated) attached will probably get you ignored. A succinct resume, standard format employment history (there are templates for this) and covering email all in decent keigo definitely helps.
Be humble, mature and willing to learn
Applying for a job in Japan is almost as drawn out and frustrating as actually working here. Japanese business culture and western business culture clash badly in many areas. Despite your best intentions to "modernize" Japan, things aren't going to change here anytime soon. So, a lot of the time you'll have to grin and bear it. Try to keep your passion on a leash and know when to bite your tongue. Patience, respect and a reluctance to complain are valued over more western business virtues such as passion, never-say-die and individualism. If you can develop an internal buffer to deal with these contrasting styles then it will hold you in great stead when dealing with Japanese companies in the future. Better yet if you have this diplomatic skill already!
Target your applications like a veteran sniper
By all means look at the websites of game companies and apply for the positions that seem to match your skills. Some of them will even explicitly mention English fluency as a requirement. Tweak your resume and covering email showing your suitability for the position, the things you have done to make hiring you easy (you live in Tokyo, have a full working visa, speak Japanese, etc.), and also why you respect that company. Also, don't be afraid to send direct applications to smaller companies, even if they aren't advertising. You will find that they are much more willing to take risks than the bigger companies, who often have foreign staff forced upon them from their foreign branches.
It's not what you know, it's who you know
Personal recommendations go a long way here. Try to meet Japanese developers at GDC and try to keep in touch. Introduce yourself to speakers after their session has finished, and after exchanging business cards send a simple follow up email a few days later. Things are a whole lot easier when you know someone on the inside.
Before going to Platinum Games, Jean Pierre Kellams cut his teeth at Capcom, where he worked on the localization of titles like God Hand, Monster Hunter and Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney: Justice for All. Kellams also did early story work and script drafts for Bionic Commando. In October 2007, Kellams joined Platinum Games, where he has worked on the localization of Bayonetta, as well as additional writing/editing on MadWorld.
Japan(ese) Is Not Optional
Be in Japan. Speak Japanese. If you plan on getting your foot in the door, you need to create an environment where you can make contact and interact with a Japanese company on their terms. Speaking Japanese and already being in the country helps that immensely.
Work Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger
For a Japanese company to hire you, especially if you are living outside of Japan, they have to go through hell. Getting a job at a developer can encompass multiple interviews and tests, and then comes getting the visa. If you don't already have one, it takes months of paper work, a certificate saying you are eligible to get a visa, and then actually getting the visa itself.
With that in mind, you need to be realistic as to what you are asking a company to do. For a company to go through all that extra effort for you, you have to be a markedly better hire than someone they could hire more easily. Japanese people are crazy-dedicated and equally talented. You may have a leg up because your cultural background gives you a different insight into things aesthetically, technically, and linguistically; however, you need to complement that with skills equal to or better than a similar Japanese applicant. Ultimately, it needs to be worthwhile for the company to take on the added work and risk of hiring you.
(The exceptions to this are highly skilled programmers. A lot of research and new techniques are developed in the West, so it seems Japanese companies are more open to hiring top-flight western programmers despite any minuses. The pay scales are different, so I don't know how much success the Japanese industry as a whole is having attracting top foreign coding talent, but Japanese companies are probably on the lookout for more skilled, experienced programmers than any other field.)
Life Isn't What You Expect It Will Be
Living in Japan requires that one bit of tacit knowledge to be remembered at all times. No matter what your passport says, no matter how much you know about the people, the country, or the language, you will never be Japanese. A trip to the bookstore will not have very many books in your native language, if at all. A trip to the store will always have that awkward moment when the clerk wonders if they can communicate with you (or, if you look Asian and can't speak Japanese, the awkward moment when they realize they can't). Your differences will be the starting point of conversations in the office, whether you feel you are different or not.
This isn't a bad thing. In many ways, it can lead to an invigorating rush of new experiences. Yet, it can also become mentally tiring. If you can't deal with being away from home in every sense of the word, you probably won't be able to handle things here.
Otaku Need Not Apply
Many people think that being as Japanese as possible is going to help them get a job here. It is not.
No matter how much you love anime, j-pop, Japanese film, etc., there is a Japanese person who knows more about it than you. It is just common sense. They grew up surrounded by the stuff, absorbing the cultural influences of their parents and grandparents as well.
If your main selling point to a company is how you are going to bridge cultures and knowledge, bringing something new to a room full of people with similar backgrounds, you aren't going to do it by having a voluminous knowledge of Naruto, or presenting a portfolio filled with anime-style designs. You are going to do it by knowing how audiences connect with things differently based on their backgrounds, or having a portfolio that shows varied influences and range.
Embrace Difference, Strive For Sameness
You will be expected to be different, but also the same. You may be allowed some leeway because of your different background, but in general, what is expected of Japanese employees will be expected of you. A maze of etiquette and rules that can sometimes seem "wrong" will need to become "right." Things like the order you pass out papers in a meeting, to the amount of documentation required to buy supplies, or even the manner in which you apologize (never explain why something went south unless asked directly, just apologize) will all need to be tailored to the cultural expectations of your superiors.
However, you must also embrace difference. You are not Japanese, and that is what they want from you. Don't be afraid to state your opinion as a different viewpoint. Just don't act like you are speaking for the entire rest of the planet. They knew you were not Japanese when you were hired, so make sure to retain elements of your cultural identity.
Dylan Cuthbert is the founder of Kyoto-based developer Q-Games, best known for its PSN PixelJunk games. Cuthbert began working in the game industry in 1989, when he joined Argonaut Software. He would later work in Kyoto, Japan on titles like Starfox and Starfox II. During the 1990s, Cuthbert was a lead programmer at both Sony Computer Entertainment of America and Sony Computer Entertainment in Japan. While at Sony, Cuthbert designed Ape Escape for the PS2.
Kick Back With The Locals
Go out of your way to hang out with the Japanese staff. Go drinking with them. Go for dinner with them. Make them your best friends. This is one of the most important tips. Too many gaijin come over and then stick to gaijin friends which just creates a divide, especially in mutual understanding.
There is no excuse, and there are tons of aides on the internet, a lot of which are free. It's so easy nowadays to learn Japanese compared to back in the pre-web days.
Whenever possible, speak Japanese and then speak it more. Go get drunk and you'll find yourself able to speak it fluently!
Have an Open Mind
Japanese culture is very different to the West, and in lots of small little ways that might not be that obvious at first. People say that the Japanese don't say anything directly, but in a casual games development environment this simply isn't true (that is only relevant to business discussions). The Japanese language is the master of being absolutely direct, quite often just one word in Japanese expresses a sentiment that takes a whole sentence to express in English.
Don't Constantly Compare
Never complain that anything should be more like the West, a lot of gaijin fall into this trap. Japan has lots of cool things and is an amazing unique culture because it isn't more like the West. Always remember that balance. I would say the same thing to people from Japan going to live and work in America and lamenting that it should be more like Japan. Each culture and country to his own, we don't a homogenous worldwide society, that would be boring.
Print this out. Bookmark it. Memorize it. Save it.
These are tips to maybe help you get your foot in the door, or maybe help you through your day once your foot is in the door, so you can pry the damn thing open and not have it hit on your ass.
Working is hard. Working abroad is harder. There's a different language to grapple with and a different culture. But for those who make the plunge and who stick it out and stay for the long haul, there is personal satisfaction in pushing oneself in new directions.
Those who do decide to work abroad (in the game industry or elsewhere), more than anything, you won't learn more about Japan, but rather, your home country. And yourself.