Interview With Grace Lee

This interview was originally featured on the Desktop Magazine website

Grace Lee, a freelance illustrator originally from Sydney now living in Japan.

What brought you overseas and how has that move shaped your career/life?
I had been wanting to go to Japan ever since I was a teenager and became friends with a homestay student who was staying with my sister at the time. It wasn’t until after my first trip to Japan in 2007 that I decided to move. I also had some time constraints, as 31 was the cut-off age for working holiday visas. Initially, I didn’t really have a plan, I was working as a designer for Inside Out magazine prior to moving, so I half set out to try to do design if I had the chance. It turned out to be more difficult than I had expected. Mainly due to language barriers and also having to hold down a regular job to make enough money to keep living here. In hindsight, everything worked out. Japan has had a huge impact on the shape of my illustration career. If I hadn’t had those early knock-backs in design, I probably would never have thought to try illustration.

Illustrations for Stella magazine

Was there anything good or bad that surprised you when you moved overseas?
That I’ve been here for three years! For day-to-day things, the taxes in Japan surprised me, as did the initial cost of renting my own place. In terms of illustration, I was surprised by how much it is used here in Japan. It’s everywhere – from the most mundane items like utility bills and kitchen cleaning goods, or the use of illustration/animation for corporate branding. I was also surprised by how honest this country is. I’ve lost my phone and wallet a few times, and not once has it not been handed in. I’m not the only one with the story. (bike lights might be the exception however).

What are some of the main challenges you’ve faced as an ex-pat creative?
The first was trying to get work. I came here with only a very basic high school level of Japanese. I have enough Japanese to get around day-to-day, but in terms of finding work and being able to apply (and read about jobs on offer), it was quite difficult. In the first year of living in Japan, I did some work at a design studio here in Tokyo, it was a great way to be involved in a creative environment, but because I didn’t have the language skills to be properly briefed in, I ended up doing a lot of deep-etching work. There are opportunities out there, and I have heard of and do know people who have managed to get work without a native level of Japanese, so it is possible. The other challenge has been finding a balance between working a day job and trying to do creative work as well. I teach three days a week, and whilst it’s a lot less than when I first arrived, I still find it a little challenging to juggle both (especially during deadlines!).

Illustrations for Slow magazine

Tell me a little about your work situation at the moment, where you are working from, what sort of work, what a typical day might be for you.
I work from home. I basically sit at a little table with a printer, my laptop and a heap of textas. The bulk of the work I’ve done has been for magazines, but last month, I had a few really great opportunities to work on book illustrations, packing and… a small window display. Since the illustration work hasn’t been full time, I don’t really have a typical sort of day. It depends on how busy the month is. Most of the days that I work from home, I’m either drawing or scanning, or deep-etching or laying something out. I do most of my work at night.

The creatives I’ve met over here are incredible. The standard and the talent makes me want to try harder. I had a table at the Tokyo Art Book fair this year and was blown away by how clever, cool, and cute the works were. The artists, illustrators and creatives I’ve met are so committed to their work, really focused and hardworking. Incredibly humble and I’ve never heard anyone complain.

What’s the perception of Australian creatives and Australians in general in Japan?
I’m always greeted with a really positive response when I say I’m from Australia. The perception varies though. I’ve had questions about whether Santa rides a surfboard and others based around stereotypes, but these have been few. Most people want to know more about Australia and are really interested. There’s a lot of American influence here, I’m yet to find a cafe that serves flat whites! As for Australian creatives, my Japan agent was the one who told me about Lost at E Minor and how it was started by Australians. I’m not really sure if people automatically associate Australia with creative but there’s definitely a lot of interest and respect, from my experience.

Nidi Natsumatsuri Exhibition

Any advice for creatives thinking of making a similar move?
Go for it. Seriously. I wouldn’t change anything about the last three years I’ve had here. I wasn’t ready to have this career two years ago, as much as I wanted illustration work (and thought I was ready). Even if I had the language skills, there would’ve been no guarantee that I would’ve found work. I came here not knowing how long I’d be here for. I half feared I wouldn’t last six months, but, I’ve now been in Japan for three years. I think back on then and now, and so much has happened through timing, meeting people, putting yourself out there.. oh and having some form of online presence. I am hopeless at updating my blog (let alone actually writing anything in an entry) but having some kind of easy access link for people to look at really helps.

What’s the most important thing you’ve discovered about yourself living abroad?
Whatever you think you can’t do, you can do.