Due to Japan’s national shibboleth, indecision, pulling extra overtime during crunch is sadly unavoidable. Changes are requested with scant regard for deadlines and if it means you have to work a few weekends to get it done, rather than move the deadline back a few days, then so be it. Not so much because the Japanese are meant to be polite but rather the mortal fear of “causing a ruckus”, people generally go along with this and you’ll see many colleagues take off sick days or half-days to cope with their inevitable exhaustion.
I reiterate that as a foreigner you have the means to break this pattern and I highly recommend you do so. Working at a western pace following Japanese hours is a sure-fire route to mental and physical collapse.
What should be more worrying to those considering the move is the onerous matter of wages. The salaries paid to game developers are low compared to the West, especially the US. Even in more leading roles you’ll be lucky to expect half of what your western counterparts are earning.
Wages are based on age, rather than experience, and though there is a very slight edge the programmers have over other disciplines it is far less pronounced than in the West. Graduates with no experience earn wages hardly better than fast food workers, and seniors will have to take quite a pay cut for the “privilege” of working in Japan.
There seems to be a glass ceiling, which I’ll draw here with broad brushstrokes, at around the 5 million yen per year mark (US$41,000, EU 30,000). If you ask for more than that most companies will start sweating profusely around the collar and fewer still will happily pay out. It is possible to earn more than this figure but you will be limiting our options and you may have a fight on your hands during the negotiation process.
Stories have been told of exuberant bonuses though, but again the full story remains hidden from view. Bonuses are, in a strange cultural twist, taken from your monthly salary and paid out once or twice yearly in one chunk. Different companies have different systems: some count 14 months to a year, others more, as high as 16 or 18. What this means is that your yearly salary is divided into, for example, 14 parts, one part of which you get as your monthly wages and two parts which are given as bonuses in either one chunk of 2 months’ wages or two chunks of 1 month’s worth. Of course, these bonuses can go up, if the performance review system allows it, but also down, but hardly ever more than in single figure percentages. In short, your company keeps part of your salary sitting comfortably in its banks until it pays it out at fixed dates in full or in part.
Now you may think to yourself “hey, if I just negotiate a good monthly salary I can see the bonuses as extra, as they should be. Then the differences are purely semantic.” Well, not quite. When you first start your work it is likely you’ll be given a probationary contract, or “keiyaku”, a contract for a fixed time, usually three or six months. Should you be successful you may be given one more of these for the duration of the project, or one year, or some such arrangement.
These contracts usually exclude bonuses, though they should provide all the usual benefits. After the successful completion of your first few contracts you may, if you so desire, ask to be made “seisha'in”, or full employee. There are benefits to this. For example, more job security; it makes you equal to your Japanese colleagues and it can help your status as an alien in getting permanent residency. However, these contracts do include the bonuses, if the company works that way. The yearly salary you had as a contract employee is now suddenly divvied up into smaller chunks and your monthly income could drop dramatically. It is therefore imperative, if your aim is to become a full employee in the long run, to ask your company during the interview about its bonus system. You may then want to base your desired salary on that, rather than an acceptable monthly income you are paid as a contract employee.
To offset these low wages Japan's cloud does have a few silver linings. The tax rate is quite favourable, all things considered, and the health insurance very good. Since you pay a percentage of your previous year’s earnings, newcomers to Japan can enjoy a year’s worth of cheap health insurance. Companies send their employees out on a yearly basis for rigorous health checks that examine you more thoroughly than you could imagine. One major annoyance of mine is the fact you have to pay residence tax but are not given residence papers, but that can hardly be blamed on the game industry. Japan’s government has a lot of little obtuse bits of red tape that can make you feel as welcome as a cow at a lactose-intolerance awareness picnic.