Last updated November 18th, 2020.
As someone running a small business in Japan, I’ve hired several Japanese virtual assistants to help me with various small tasks. Especially if you’re not a fluent Japanese speaker, knowing where to look for one can be tricky, so I’ll share my tips for finding one.
Decide who you’re looking for
The first thing to do is figure out what you need help with. For myself, the primary thing I was looking for was someone who could do first level Japanese customer support for Doorkeeper. I had been doing it myself, which had mixed results. On the one hand, some customers were glad they could talk directly to the founder. On the other, my Japanese ability leaves a lot to be desired, so composing responses was time consuming and they weren’t even in proper Japanese (to the point sometimes people replied to my emails in English).
The person I was looking for obviously had to be a native Japanese speaker. I also wanted someone who could be regularly available, as opposed to in short bursts, so that replies went out to customers quickly. English comprehension was also important, as I’m much faster and accurate when communicating in English. Finally, I wanted someone who could work largely independently with minimal instructions, and so I thought a single individual that would get familiar with the product and the processes over time would be better suited then a team.
Finding Japanese virtual assistants
Once you have an idea of what kind of person you’re looking for, there are a number of different services that can help you find someone.
Japanese virtual assistants agencies
Rather than directly hiring someone yourself, there’s a number of companies that offer Japanese virtual assistants. The main advantages of going with a company are that they handle the screening of assistants and can also ensure continuity so that you don’t need to deal with things like your assistant taking time off or quitting.
TokyoMate offers bilingual virtual assistants for a monthly fee, starting at ¥15,000 per month for 3 hours of task. The service is headed by Jay Winder, who’s been a pillar of the international tech community, organizing events like HN Tokyo.
In addition to their assistants, they offer a virtual mail service, where you can redirect your mail to them, and check it online (they have options to translate mail and pay bills). Even if you understand some Japanese, paper mail is especially challenging, as it’s not easy to look up any kanji that you don’t know, so this could be a time saver.
The also offer the ability to register your business at their address. In Japan, a corporate entity needs to have an officially registered address. While you might be able to use your home address, rental contracts often have a clause prohibiting this. Additionally, even if you were to register your home address, when you move, you’ll need to update the business’s address, which both takes time and costs money (¥30,000 within the same jurisdiction, ¥60,000 in a different one). So having an address like this that you can use indefinitely is attractive (the flip side is that it does lock you into using their service).
Virtual Assist Japan
Virtual Assist Japan provides dedicated bilingual virtual assistants on a monthly basis. Their lowest tier plan is ¥7,500 per month for 3 hours of tasks, however it is restricted to those personal in nature. For business tasks, prices start at ¥12,000 per month for 3 hours of tasks. They also offer a 1 hour free trial so you can evaluate their service. The service was established by Nagisa Uchiyama in 2017, who runs the company with a small team of assistants.
And Assist allows you to hire bilingual virtual assistants on a monthly basis, starting from ¥15,000 per month for up to five hours of tasks. They got their start targeting Japanese businesses who needed bilingual support, and have recently expanded their offering to do the reverse, supporting international people and businesses as well. One of the challenges in hiring a Japanese speaking assistant is that if you aren’t a native speaker yourself, it is hard to evaluate their Japanese ability. That they have Japanese clients is a good sign that their assistants are able to communicate professionally in Japanese.
Kaori-san is the first service I saw advertising bilingual Japanese virtual assistants. The latest update to their site was in 2016, and they didn’t respond to my inquiry of whether they were still active though, leading me to think it’s no longer operating.
Freelancing platforms are services that make it easy to find and pay individuals to perform specific tasks. They’re not limited to virtual assistants, though this is usually one of their major categories.
International Freelancing Platforms
There’s a number of freelancing platforms that make it easy to hire individuals on a task basis. The most popular of these is probably Upwork. While these can be a great way to find an English speaking virtual assistant, finding a native level Japanese speaking one is much more challenging. Searching for virtual assistants in Japan only yields 18 results, of which based on their name, only 12 appear to be native Japanese, and only 9 of those have earned over $1K through the platform (which is an indicator that they’re active to me). These freelancers charge between $6.25 and $45 per hour, with a median of $25 per hour.
Domestic Freelancing Platforms
There are several freelancing platforms targetting the Japanese domestic market, including Crowdworks, Lancers, and Shufti. The platforms themselves aren’t as mature as their international counterparts, but they do have lots of Japanese talent on them. All the domestic services only have Japanese user interfaces, so to use them, you’ll need to at least have enough Japanese skills to navigate their user interface. However, I’d suggest making the job posting itself in English, as it will help you stand out among all the other postings and will attract bilingual candidates.
In 2014, I tried posting a job on Crowdworks, and had about 20 replies to my posting within a day, several of which were good candidates. The person who I ended up hiring through it is still with me six years later in 2020, so it worked out well for me. I initially paid her by time, at a rate of about ¥2,500 per hour. However, I ended up switching to a monthly retainer agreement where I’d paid her a set monthly fee for up to a couple of hours of work per day. This provided her more stability, and guaranteed me a certain amount of availability.
Gengo is not a virtual assistant service, but rather a translation platform. With it, you post translation jobs, and from their pool of screened translators, someone will complete it. There is no selection process, so you can view the service like artificial machine translation: put text in, a translation comes out (sometimes the translator will ask you questions though).
I tried them a couple of times, but found because translating a web application requires a high amount of context, we didn’t have such great results. Because Gengo pays the translator per word, I don’t think the incentives are aligned properly for something like translating a two word button, where a couple of paragraphs of text are required to describe the context.
On the other hand, if you have lots of content that can stand on its own, such as a product catalogue for an online shop, they could be a great option.
Evaluating a Candidate
Once you’ve found someone you want to work with, you need to evaluate them. In our case, we had most success with giving several promising candidates the same task. For instance, in our case, I sent a sample customer inquiry, gave some notes about what I thought should be included in the reply, and asked the candidate to draft a sample reply.
If a candidate didn’t understand what you wanted them to do, disqualify them immediately, as likely their English abilities aren’t good enough. Asking questions to clarify something is fine, but the candidate should be able to at least get the gist of what you want.
If you’re having the assistant do something like translation or customer support, you’ll also want to evaluate their Japanese skills. I’ve found that even if someone is a native Japanese speaker, if they haven’t had previous customer support experience, they likely won’t use the standard phrases used when replying to a customer (and Japanese culture values doing things in the standard way).
As a non-native speaker, it is basically impossible for me to evaluate someone’s Japanese. I got around this by showing sample responses to several Japanese friends, and asking them which was best. Their feedback turned out to be invaluable, because the person I was initially leaning towards happened to be almost a native level English speaker, but didn’t use the proper customer support expressions. Instead, I went with my second choice, who came up with a more natural reply, and has since turned out to be great.