As with many aspects of living and doing business in Japan, there is no substitute for personal connections. For those just getting started in the field, these may take some time to develop, but word of mouth tends to spread quickly, and a reputation for delivering quality stuff will soon earn you a regular stream of work as a freelancer (sometimes regardless of whether you want it or not).
For those with few contacts, the following are good avenues to explore when attempting to break into the world of translation in Japan:
Translation Agencies Translation is an industry in Japan, and there are hundreds of agencies in Tokyo alone, ranging in size from individual freelancers who occasionally outsource their work overflows to coordinated networks of thousands of individuals. The advantages of working for an agency full-time are a regular source of income and benefits and the potential to receive frequent jobs in the same subject area, which can make large jobs easier to handle. The downside can include constant deadline pressure, lack of stimulation, and general monotony.
R&D Companies In the 1980s and '90s, science and technology industries--especially in the semiconductor, personal computers, telecommunications, and drug-development sectors--provided an almost limitless supply of texts requiring localization, ranging from technical specifications to user manuals to marketing presentations. Recent entrants into the field include pharmacogenomic companies and life science start-ups seeking to make the break into clinical applications.
Government Projects The Japanese government can offer many opportunities to experienced translators, as they produce an enormous amount of English content as part of the ongoing effort to internationalize Japan. Most government ministries and agencies regularly produce bilingual Web sites, reports, and public announcements. They are among the more discriminating customers, as most bureaucrats have received extensive education in English, and you can expect to have your work checked and edited. However, generally they pay generously and provide regular work.
Proofreading/Text-Checking People with an aptitude for writing and editing English-language scientific texts can make a living in Japan by proofreading, even if they speak little or no Japanese. For those with some background in scientific writing, there are agencies that specialize in polishing research written in English by non-native authors prior to submission for publication. Sometimes, however, wrestling a poorly written English text into publishable form can take longer than translating one from Japanese.
Pay Translation can be a lucrative business or sideline in Japan, which offers some of the best per-word rates in the world. Fees for technical translations from Japanese into English range from ¥3000 to ¥6000 per page (US$23 to $46); English to Japanese translations pay a little less. An experienced translator working with familiar subject matter can earn in excess of ¥10,000 (US$77) per hour, but few people are able to maintain that pace for a full 8-hour workday.
Computer-Assisted Translations Computers and the Internet have revolutionized the translation industry. Although computer software is still far from offering fluent full-text translations, applications such as electronic dictionaries, search engines, and databases considerably speed the translation process and eliminate hours of library time.