Ian Lynam
Ian Lynam
Oct 29, 2015 · 18 min read

20 Steps to Working in Japan

What follows is a transcription of a lecture that I gave in Vilnius, Lithunia for the Made in Japan conference on October 24, 2015. It is about strategies for figuring out how to work in Japan in the creative industries.

The name of my presentation today is “20 Steps to Working in Japan: A Choose-Your-Own-Adventure”. I really, really hate it when presenters read exactly what is on-screen because I have to sit through a lot of presentations.

Also, I will not show you stock photography of Tokyo, images of Kitty-chan, photographs of sushi, or snapshots of Akihabara. That being said, I promise to show you one image of an insanely hot woman in a kimono at one point.

Also, perhaps most importantly, am I allowed to swear?

(Audience: Yes!)

OK, great. I promise only to use swearing to punctuate certain points.

Let’s dive in, shall we?

Hi! My name’s Ian Lynam. I am a designer and a whole lot of other things, and I am here today to chat with you about strategies for working in Japan. That being said, I’d like to share a bit about me, who I am, and what I do first.

I am from a very, very small town in Upstate New York, about 3 hours from New York City called Averill Park. My graduating high school class was less than 20 people. It’s a really beautiful, but culturally terrible place and pretty much the exact opposite of Tokyo.

I was born in New York, moved to California, moved to Oregon, then back to California, then moved to Japan.

Americans don’t travel very much anymore, so this final move is viewed as a bit odd socially when I go back to the US.

I went back to school at age 26 to study graphic design when I lived in Portland. I had a really amazing teacher who is shown here, holding one of my student projects. She asked us to design a book around an essay about semiotics — the study of signs and symbols… and of course, what has more symbolic power than a monkey riding a unicorn?

This teacher, Elisabeth Charman, instilled a love for design in me, as well as viewing it through a lens that is both academic and strange. I owe my career to her. She encouraged me to go to graduate school.

So, I went to graduate school for graphic design in Los Angeles at CalArts.

The United States is primarily a culture framed by the automobile windshield. With the exception of New York City, most Americans drive. I started driving when I was 14 years old, and this has helped shape my experiences.

I hate driving.

I moved to the San Francisco area and Portland when I was younger because they were cities where you did not have to own a car. When I was growing up, my parents commuted a half-hour to work every day. This disconnection between work and home was something that I did not want. I knew that from a very early age.

One of the big reasons that I live in Tokyo is because you do not have to drive.

I loooooooove living in Tokyo! It’s a terrific city for cycling and skateboarding, the public transportation is awesome, and everything is designed at an urbanist human scale. This is a random street in my neighborhood in Hatagaya shot by my friend Patrick Tsai.

I kind of have a weird and sprawling graphic design practice.

I view all of the actual graphic design work that I do through the lens of identity. It is my springboard for work — I try my best to create work that is original, authored, and genuine to both myself and my clients.

This is a project from 2 years ago — it is the interior graphic design scheme for Google’s Tokyo offices.

I designed thousands of meters of custom wallpapers, super graphics, and tons of signage for this project. Their offices take up a few floors of one of the biggest buildings in Tokyo and I created work that was based on hidden gardens and a modular, hyper-color Tokyo of the future.

I also created tri-lingual signage and a wayfinding system for them.

It was really fun and a career milestone for me — to be able to influence the daily aesthetic of a place where hundreds of the most influential people in Japan work.

I have done a number of projects for Adobe, including type specimen websites for Typekit, their font management software. This particular website introduced support for Chinese, Japanese, and Korean fonts—a world first in terms of loading speed.

I design identities for restaurants and hotels, as well. This is the identity for a Basque restaurant in Daikanyama in Tokyo.

I’ve done design work for NASA, particularly exhibitions.

I’ve created typefaces for the American supermarket chain Whole Foods, the leader in health foods in the US.

And I’ve done work for big businesses in Japan, like the amusement park Huis Ten Bosch, where I designed identities for a whole new wing of their park devoted to health and wellness.

One of my favorite clients is the Los Angeles pop band YACHT. I designed their logo and we do a lot of projects together.

I designed two families of typefaces for their latest LP. Here’s a shirt that shows one of the fonts in use. It’s a weird font — it’s based on the idea of being ‘unstuck in time’ — there is no direct historical reference. It’s both right and wrong.

This is their new LP with the type in use.

And here they are on a billboard installation in LA.

And here they are in use in the first full music video for their new album.

I also curate occasional exhibitions.

This is a show of expressive typography by designers from Japan, the US, Korea, the UK, and France that I curated called “Letterfirm”. I’ve had a number of solo exhibitions in the US and Japan, as well as collaborative exhibitions with other designers. I love curating graphic design exhibitions and hope to do more of it.

I am also a design educator. This is a big part of my practice, as well. I work at Temple University Japan in their Art department, teaching graphic design and motion graphics. I also teach at Meme Design School, a weekend typography seminar course in Tokyo.

I try really hard to be a good teacher and do unexpected things. I design my syllabi like small zines, offer the students tons of variation, engage them emotionally and intellectually, and I try my best to be a friend to them. I am not interested in “top-down” education — I try to flatten hierarchy and treat my classrooms like laboratories instead.

I am currently the Chair of the MFA Program in Graphic Design at Vermont College of Fine Arts in the U.S. We are a “low residency” program. We meet for 2 weeks a year, once in April and once in October for our residencies. It’s kind of like boot camp meets summer camp, but for graphic design. The residencies are complemented by 6 month semesters of independent study. I work with 5 students, meeting up monthly online to guide them. I really love that I get to lead a MFA program in the U.S. while living in Japan, but not just any MFA program.

Our work at VCFA changes peoples’ lives in a way that is more profound than I have experienced in any other graduate program—students are able to connect with their work in a deeply emotional and intellectual way. We are a progressive and rigorous program unlike any other out there. I invite you to check out our program blog to get a sense of our culture.

I write a lot. I started self-publishing when I was 14 years old, publishing “zines”, small personal punk rock magazines. I’m 42 now, so I’m rapidly approaching 30 years of publishing…

This is my new book of essays about graphic design. It is called Parting It Out.

Does anyone here know the term “parting something out”?


It’s used by car thieves about the disassembly of stolen cars for component resale. I know this because as a teenager, me and my brother used to do this. I used this term because my writing is about taking culture apart.

It’s a weird book. It has essays about graphic design, homework assignments for students, and a ton of other stuff.

I also write for Slanted Magazine in Germany.

And I am a contributor to IDEA, Japan’s oldest and best graphic design magazine.

I also co-edit Néojaponisme, the world’s leading site on contemporary Japanese popular culture.

OK, so that is who I am, where I am from, where I live, and what I do. Let’s jump into the reason for me actually being here!

I’ve been working in Japan for 10 years now, and I get emails a few times a week from people asking how they can work in Japan in creative fields. I am here today to share some insights about this with you.

Another thing: I just lied to you — I am actually going to share 23(!) strategies for working in Japan as a foreigner. It’s a big thing to do — investing yourself in working abroad. So, let’s dive in!

Let’s start off with a big suggestion from my dear friend Chris Palmieri of the amazing Tokyo/Paris design company AQ:

The key is to identify which of your skills Japanese clients or employers will find uniquely valuable, or seen another way, what types of employers or clients clients value your unique combination of skills. (Obviously, this is a fruitful exercise whether you come to Japan or not.)

Your unique skills could be your ability to work with non-Japanese content, a unique, recognizable style that works in the market or your direct participation in the (largely English-language) global conversation around the practice of design.

Japan is not like Lithuania. Japan is not like the United States. It is very, very, very, very different. Be prepared for that.

Learning Japanese is really important. It’s really difficult to get by in Japan without it. Some other invaluable tips from Chris Palmieri:

Learning the Japanese language will change the way you see and the way you think. You will learn new words to describe beauty that you wish existed in your mother tongue.

Designing for Japanese content will stretch your design vocabulary in ways that you’ll carry for the rest of your career.

Once you nail the basics of Japanese business customs, you can look forward to some extremely rewarding professional relationships built on mutual interest and respect.

This is huuuuuuge!!! A lot of students from abroad come to Japan to have their “otaku moment”, and they love their time in Japan, but the differences can often be soul-crushing. You may think you will know what it is like, but you have noooooooo idea.

Visiting once is really not enough — if you’re thinking about moving to a locale based on an awesome vacation you had there, go back and stay for a while before making the big decision to move.

Find a community of people to involve yourself in. More and more design-oriented events keep popping up in Tokyo, including:

This is pretty obvious — how can what you do for work in your city or town apply to the Japanese context?

And this is the even more important question — every move you make is a chance to reinvent yourself. Think about your dream job — if you perceive a gap that seems to be missing in Japan, go for it!

Work life in Japan is very, very different than Europe or the US. If you work for a company, the hours are longer, the pay is less, and the customs are completely different. It’s much, much easier to job hunt in Japan than it is to job hunt from abroad for jobs in Japan.

Your best bet: save up a good chunk of money — say a year’s salary, and use that nest egg to make your first year in Japan easier.

OK, so I’m a graphic designer, and I am approaching this whole presentation from the perspective of a graphic designer, right? I moved to Japan wanting to work at a company, but every experience I had working at ad agencies and design studios was terrible!

I realized that I had to just continue freelancing and run my own studio. I made more money that way, the hours were healthier, and I was happier. I had about 20 clients in the US when I moved to Japan, and I did something that I recommend: I didn’t tell any of them that I moved.

I had pre-established relationships, and we just talked on the phone or emailed back-and-forth about work. I had very, very few meetings in-person in L.A. other than initial client meetings. So, I just moved. I didn’t tell anyone until 6 months later.

In the meantime, I hit all my deadlines, was proactive, got the work done, and nobody noticed. During that first year, I also hunted high and low for Japanese clients so that when I lost an American client, I had a Japanese one to replace them. I recommend this strategy if you are freelance.

Working with Japanese clients is great, but it can be mysterious. I had an amazing meeting with a chain of restaurants to design their websites about a month ago. The meeting was super-positive. We were in complete agreement about every aspect of the project and it seemed like it was a go…

…but they never called back.

This kind of thing happens ALL. THE. TIME. Get used to it. You will pitch and pitch and pitch, but often you won’t get the work, and there’s a reason for it:

That reason is that you are not Japanese. You will forever be an outsider to most Japanese folks. They will encourage your language skills and be deferential until you become fluent, then they will disparage your language skills for every mistake that you make. This sounds mean and xenophobic, but it is just the way it goes in Japan. You will never be accepted as a fully integrated member of Japanese society by the majority of the populace, so if you can own that and use it to your advantage, I recommend doing so.

And this is the biggest point: have empathy. Try to think about the people you encounter in Japan from their perspective.

You are the outsider, and if you understand where they are coming from, it makes life a whooooole lot easier.

I lectured in Korea with one of my old teachers from L.A. last year. He’s British and he’s been living and working in the US for 20+ years. He asked me if I’d ever move back to the US, and I replied, “Probably not”.

He then asked me why I think I’ve been able to maintain a career in Japan while so many others have tried and failed.

I replied, “I’m lucky?”

He countered with, “No, Ian, you are organized”.

I never thought about it before, but I actually am super-organized. Shit, I teach at three schools, run a design studio, a type foundry, a publishing imprint, distribute Japanese design publications, swim 2K nearly every day, write books, have an awesome relationship with my wife, play in a band, and do a ton of other stuff. I am organized. It is fucking important to be organized.

Speaking of my wife, here she is, the amazing Yuki Kameguchi, boogieing down the street in a vintage kimono headed to her new job at a kimono shop. I miss her. She’s never been to Lithuania and I think she’d dig it a lot.

And speaking of friends… I talked about the notion of ‘community’ earlier, but friends are different…

At its base, the definition of a community is a localized economy. Friendship is different than community — friendship represents an economy of communication, caring, and love. You will need friends in Japan.

Yuki was one of my best friends in Japan before we started dating. Two other presenters here, Uleshka Asher and Ryotaro Bordini Chikushi, were some of my best friends in Tokyo, too. We all need friends, especially when we are far from home.

Citizenship. And by this, I do not mean becoming a Japanese citizen. What I mean are these things:

  • respect
  • kindness
  • deference
  • manners

If you come to Japan, you should act with all of the politeness of Japanese people. Act like a citizen, not a drunken barbarian or a tourist. You will have a much easier time if you operate from a position of respect.

A lot of things we take for granted are not available to you in your native language. You will have to hack together systems to sustain yourself while living in Japan. This includes friendships, therapists, communicating to doctors, lawyers, accountants, and even stupid stuff like ordering at restaurants unless you’ve had a few years of Japanese language study.

This is another big thing. I have American clients and I work at Vermont College of Fine Arts. I have Japanese clients and I work at two Japanese schools. I work for people in two different countries, so I have to pay taxes in two different countries. Because of this, I have two very different accountants. It sucks, but it’s reality. The last thing you want is the tax department of any government auditing you, either at home or in Japan.

I am a different person than I was 10 years ago. I am more focused, more quiet, I enjoy the small things more, and I am extremely patient. This is not because I am 10 years older. It is because I have allowed my time in Japan and participating in Japanese culture to change me.

Finding an aspect of Japanese culture that you really like and studying it will make your respect and affinity for Japanese culture infinitely more deep and satisfying. I love Japanese design history, and I actively study it. I write about it. I spend hours and hours in dusty, musty bookstores. I gave away almost all of my English language design books to my universities in order to make more room for my collection of Japanese design books. If you study a part of a culture, you will grow to love it more, and you will feel like a more intrinsically active member of Japanese society.

It’s not hard to find inspiration in Japan. There is at least one book on nearly every subculture, microculture, craft, hobby, activity, or place. That is huge for me — if I ever need inspiration, I hop on my bike and hit the three used bookstores near my home. The wealth of information that Japan offers is overwhelming. Take advantage of it!

This lecture is not enough. You will have to do the research if you want to work in Japan. You will have to work incredibly hard to make it happen if you truly desire it, but Japan will reward you. You will not find a country with better people, food, literature, and such an amazing history. There are plenty of amazing countries out there, but I love Japan. Well, actually, that’s not true. I don’t love Japan. I love Tokyo. I will not live anywhere else in Japan.

I love Tokyo’s amazing mix of cultures, that it has more Michelin-rated restaurants than anywhere else in the world, its amazing parks, its often-boring architecture, and so much more about it. It is my home now. If you’d like to come to Japan, I invite you to find out as much as you can about it.

I put together this post on the Q&A website Quora, explaining much of the ideas I have expressed here. If you are in the creative industries, I recommend starting here in your path to Japan.

Remember these guys from the beginning of the lecture?? They’re back! The band YACHT.

They have a song called “You Can Live Anywhere You Want” and I agree with that. You can. And you should.

I really hope that this presentation was helpful to you. Please feel free to grab me and ask me any questions after this. I am here for that reason.

The person talking to you right now and waving his arms around is not an act. There is no artifice. I am here to talk to you.

I would like to thank the Made in Japan team for inviting me here. I am extremely excited to be in Vilnius amongst friends. Thank you!

Ian Lynam

Written by

Ian Lynam

is a graphic designer, design teacher and writer residing in Tokyo. More: http://ianlynam.com