How an Animation Line Producer in Tokyo Does Money

Photo credit: Balint Földesi, CC BY 2.0.

Sarah is a 32-year-old line producer at a CG animation studio in Tokyo.

So, Sarah, how much are you making?

Well, I just got my new salary information a couple weeks ago (in Japan, the “year” starts in April so that’s when raises etc typically happen). As of April, I will be making about 5,400,000 yen annually.

That’s about $50K USD — but does that mean the same thing as a $50K salary might?

Fairly similar I think, yeah. Obviously for the U.S. it would depend on what area you’re living in — but in terms of cost of living I think Tokyo is pretty similar to major U.S. cities. Rental prices, while high, are not NEARLY as bad as NYC or LA.

How much are you paying in rent, and what kind of place does it get you?

Right now I share a 67sqm two-bedroom apartment with one roommate, and the total rent is 134,000 yen. That includes water but no other utilities. That gets me a lot of bang for my buck, much more than if I was living alone.

My last apartment was about 28sqm, I think, and I paid around 85,000 yen for it, which was pretty much the max I could afford at the time. So this is much more spacious.

Where else does your income go? Are you paying off student loans? Dealing with taxes in two countries? Saving for retirement?

Fortunately I don’t have any loans. My family had a house down at the beach that they sold off before I went to college, and they put the money in one of those education-only accounts. That pretty much took care of my tuition, etc. so I am really lucky in that sense. And I never particularly wanted to go to grad school, so I never racked up anything there.

I do have to pay for taxes in both countries, but for the U.S. it’s hardly anything at all since I don’t earn any money there, so I mostly just have to file and that is it.

But I’m trying to figure out retirement stuff now, actually. I realized I have quite a bit of savings, mostly because I’m the sort of person who just doesn’t spend a lot of money, and I need to do something with it rather than have it just sit in a savings account. I’m trying to figure out how to start a Roth IRA or something like that, but all my money is in Japan and it’s really complicated to try and transfer that to a U.S. account.

So… you can’t just sign up for an online IRA and deposit money? (I apologize in advance for my ignorance!)

No, actually! And I didn’t know that either, until I started looking into it. As far as I’ve been able to find, if I wanted to use Ellevest or any of those other services, you can only transfer money from a U.S. account. And apparently I can’t just login to my online bank here and send money to my U.S. bank like you could domestically. I would have to use some sort of wire transfer or international remittance service, which is a pain to set up (at least here, anyway).

Right. And those services always seem to take a cut of the money.

Exactly. I’m trying to convince myself that it’s still worth it, despite the fees (compound interest!) but I just haven’t gotten around to it yet.

You said above that you don’t spend a lot of money. How do you end up spending (or not spending) your money, day-to-day? Do you have a budget?

I used to have more of a budget. My first few years working, my take-home pay was something like $1,700 a month (we’re paid monthly here) — so I had to keep an eye on my finances during that period. But now I don’t really have to think about it much. When left to my own devices, I’m not a “buy stuff” kind of person, so mostly my expenses go to food and the occasional drinks out with friends.

My transportation — train pass — is compensated by my work, which is really useful, and I don’t have to worry about car payments or anything like that.

And since I’m living with a roommate, my rent is also much cheaper than the 30 percent they say you should ideally be spending.

Nice of your job to compensate you for the train pass!

Yeah, comping for transportation is pretty standard in Tokyo.

Since Billfolders will be curious: how did you get your job? Was working in Tokyo your plan, or was it unexpected?

Working here was COMPLETELY unplanned. I studied Japanese for three years in college, not planning to do anything with it, but when I graduated I wanted to do some sort of gap year/abroad experience before starting in the working world. I was considering almost anywhere, but my university had a specific scholarship that would completely fund a year at a language study program in Japan, and I was lucky enough to get that.

After the year was over, I felt like I had gotten really fluent and it would be a waste to just go back to the U.S. and lose it all, so I decided to stick around and look for work here. Fast forward 10 years later… and I somehow still haven’t left.

Oh wow! That’s amazing. Did you have animation experience as well, or is that something you learned in Japan?

No, I had no idea what I was doing. I always thought I would wind up in NYC working as an editor at a publishing company, and my first job here in Tokyo was at a weekly magazine. It was a great first job, but the pay was awful and by the end my salary had been cut twice (10 percent and then another 20 percent) due to the company’s financial difficulties. So I was looking for something else — PR, translation, anything — and wound up getting hired as a translator/interpreter at the animation studio I’m still working for. I knew nothing about CG or animation, so it was a really steep learning curve, but a lot of fun.

After a couple years, I transitioned within the same company to the production management department, which is all about making sure the TV series/movies stay on schedule and under budget.

Very cool. And just to clarify: these are Japanese television shows/movies, not American shows being animated overseas?

Actually, the studio I work at does a little of both. Since we are CG animation, not 2D, it’s only recently we’ve branched out into the Japanese market — because the technology is such that you can make computer animation that really looks hand-drawn, which of course is necessary for the whole style of Japanese anime. But, being a bilingual person, I’ve mostly worked on the projects for our U.S. clients.

That makes sense. So what’s your long-term plan? Stay in Japan? (I’ve heard the citizenship process is daunting if not impossible.) Do you think about buying property or anything like that? Or saving up a bunch of cash and taking it back to the U.S.?

I’m actually planning (hoping) to get back to the U.S. sometime in the near future, say the next year or so. I never planned to stay here permanently, but up until recently it was always “not quite yet.” I think that Japan, more so than other countries, has this feeling of otherness that you can’t really ever escape. Even though I’ve lived here for almost 11 years — spent my entire working adult life in Tokyo, I’m completely fluent in the language, and feel completely comfortable living here — I know that I would always be the foreigner, even 20 years from now.

So this year I have started looking at job opportunities back in the U.S., and hopefully I will be able to find something and relocate back. I know it can be hard to job-search from outside the country, so I’m realistic that I may need to just pack up and leave without a job lined up at some point. Which, frankly, is a little bit terrifying.

For sure. But it sounds like you have some really great experience to add to your resume.

That’s the hope! That I’m at a point in my career where I can do a more lateral move and not have to start over again at the bottom.

Two more questions, then: first, how did your time in Japan change the way you interacted with money?

Ooh, that’s a hard one. I think for me it’s tied up in how my interactions with money changed as I became a working adult. The last time I lived in the U.S. I was still a student, on a meal plan, in the dorms… so I still wasn’t an adult in the sense of being responsible for paying for things myself. I experienced that whole transition while I was in Japan, so it’s hard to say if my relationship with money would be different, had that happened back home.

One big difference is that everything is such a cash-based society here, so it feels really strange for me to pay for things with debit cards. Also, the whole credit card system is completely different in Japan. It’s honestly more like a debit card — my credit card balance is automatically deducted from my checking every month, and that’s just sort of how everyone uses them. Plus, if you are in a store and buying something with a credit card, it’s totally normal for them to ask “Do you want this in one payment, or split up into two?” Even if it’s just like $80.

That is interesting. Do people get into debt because they split payments that their future selves can’t pay off?

In some cases, yeah. But more than anything I think it’s a pretty helpful system, since you can set it up that you’re paying for big purchases in installments, essentially, without it counting as being “behind” or not paying off your balance in full each month.

That does sound like a helpful system. No interest, then?

Not if you’re splitting payments like that. If you don’t pay off the balance and actually let things pile up, then interest does start to kick in, but that’s a separate function on the card.

Got it. Then I’ll switch over to our final question: what advice do you have for Billfold readers?

Umm… keep reading The Billfold? Haha. It’s one of the sites that first got me started thinking about saving and finances other than just “try not to spend all your money every month.” I definitely have come to appreciate the importance of knowing about different kinds of investing and savings accounts, even if I haven’t put much of it into practice personally yet.

I guess my other advice would be just to take a chance sometimes. Some of the most terrifying, anxiety-inducing experiences of my life were the things that paid off the most — especially when I just decided to jump and hope for the best. Like moving here in the first place.

Don’t be worried if you’re not sure what you want your life to look like or where you want it to go, because more often than not where you wind up is nothing like what you’d planned.

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