Q&A: Tao Lin, freelance journalist in Japan

Tao Lin is currently based in Tokyo, Japan, working as a freelance journalist and writer. She was previously a business reporter for Stuff. Here, she shares her insights into life as a freelance journalist in Japan.

How long have you been in Japan?

This is my third year in Japan and I came here because I've always wanted to live and work in a large, international city. In addition to that, I wanted to go somewhere unfamiliar and a bit challenging. 

freelance journalist in Japan

Tao Lin previously worked as a business reporter for Stuff.

What is the journalism landscape like?

This is hard for me to say as I don't have a lot of first-hand experience being immersed in the journalism industry in Japan, but I do know that English-language publications have been struggling. In terms of going digital, the progress in Japan is slower compared to New Zealand. If you visit the websites of the top Japanese news platforms, they're still very text-focused and there doesn't seem to be a lot going on in terms of multimedia or visual storytelling.

Do you need to be able to speak Japanese to work as a journalist there?

You definitely need a good level of Japanese if you want to work for a local news organisation or for the likes of Reuters, Bloomberg, etc. If you think about what you need to do as a journalist — calling people for information, conducting interviews, building contacts, research — there is no way you can do your job properly without knowing the language. Some editor roles with publications that use English may be a little more flexible with the language requirement, but you would still need to be able to read press releases and other information in Japanese so having no Japanese skills at all won't cut it. It is possible to write purely for English-language publications, but there are only a small handful of those around and they don't generally have many staff writers. 

How easy is it to make contacts, as a freelancer? Is the freelance scene very competitive?

It is very difficult if you do not speak the language, although there are networking events in Tokyo where English is used and there is also a community of Japan-based freelancers who speak English. I don't personally feel it's super competitive as publications are always looking for good stories and like anywhere, if you can develop a good relationship with editors and prove your worth to them, you will get work. FYI — pay rates are pretty low, though! 

freelance journalist in Japan

A good level of Japanese is necessary for journalists, Tao says. IMAGE: Tao Lin

Tell us your favourite story you’ve worked on, and why?

I have to say one of my favourite stories so far has actually been the one I wrote for the Asia Media Centre on Catherine O'Connell, the first non-Japanese female lawyer to set up her own law firm in Japan. Until then I hadn't really written much about New Zealanders in Japan and it was really exciting to meet someone who is such a pioneer in her field AND is a Kiwi. 

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time over there?

I'm involved with an international volunteer fitness community where I teach dance and take part in regular fitness and sports activities. I also try to explore different parts of the country, go on hikes, work on my Japanese language skills and spend time with my friends.

What advice would you have for other Kiwi journalists hoping to make a career in Japan?

Learn to speak, read and write Japanese to a business level, or at the very least, come to Japan with a good foundation of Japanese language skills that you can commit to improving while you're here. 

Main image: Pixabay

- Asia Media Centre