Some of us have quirky fascinations with new lifestyles, new cultural experiences and new countries. Fascinations that we’ll never act upon. Not copywriter Kady Potter. She loved Japan from an early age, taught herself Japanese, and moved to Osaka. No half-measures there.
I wrote a lot of stories and poems as a child (published twice!), but by the time I was a tween choosing GCSEs, I’d gotten very into video games. I decided I wanted a career in graphic design.
I picked a graphics GCSE and an art GNVQ alongside the standard subjects, and I got accepted into college to do a BTEC in graphic design after that. At college, it became obvious very early on that I’d made a terrible mistake. I’m not a designer, and I never will be.
When the course lecturers asked for a quick chat with me, I thought I was being kicked out… but no. It wasn’t a meeting about my work, it was about my writing.
Every project submission had to include a writeup: how I’d interpreted the brief, where the inspiration and ideas came from, why I’d chosen certain styles, typefaces and colours, how happy I was with the outcome, etc.
It was a ‘creative exercise’ that wasn’t marked separately, but it had the potential to strongly influence how the person assessing the project looked at the work.
We’d also been given an assignment on semiotics (signs and symbolism in communications), which was basically just analysing 4-5 existing print ads in the same way.
The lecturers told me, in no uncertain terms, that those written explanations were saving my butt. The way things were going, I’d probably pass the remaining design projects… but I needed to seriously think about what else to do afterwards.
I finished the course with a high enough grade to get into university. When the open days and applications started, the head lecturer not-so-subtly nudged me towards a combined design/marketing/writing degree. I applied, made it, and graduated with a 2:1 (including an A- for my dissertation and an A for creative writing).
The class of 2009 graduated into what felt like an economic black hole. I was unemployed for over a year out of university, and not for want of trying.
After finding out how much trouble I was having, a family friend threw me a lifeline: a full-time role creating new product content for their small business. That became my first ‘writing’ job, and it went well enough for me to keep going.
What would you have done in another life?
People used to tell me I’d make a great teacher, or a politician. Those weren’t intended as compliments – I was a precocious and bossy child, long before Hermione Granger made it cool – and I didn’t take them that way, either.
I reckon I’d be some kind of minor TV personality. A quiz team regular, a reliable compere on variety shows, or a talking head on daytime news. Definitely not an actress, I’m no good at that.
If I’d followed my Grandma’s advice, I’d be a lawyer or an accountant right now. She was thrilled that I’d made it all the way to university – right up until she found out what I was studying. A marketing degree! The shame! I might as well have stabbed her in the back and taken her life savings.
You used to work for a copywriting agency in London. What was that like?
It was… intense. It was a daily marathon on a content treadmill. I wrote an average of 5,000-6,000 words every working day for over two years solid. Unsurprisingly, I burned out.
I left without another job lined up, and with very little to show for my time there (most of the work was covered by NDAs).
Talking about it still makes me feel uncomfortable. I didn’t speak up at the time, or while I was job-hunting in the UK afterwards, for fear of bad references and being blacklisted by other agencies.
Calling it an ‘invaluable learning experience’ keeps my bases covered (and isn’t a lie) – but I regret not standing up for myself more. I wish I could give Past Me a pep talk.
Now, I remember when you were teaching yourself Japanese. What prompted that?
It was a photo of a Japanese temple in a magazine.
Yeah, I’m one of those Japan lovers who idolised the country before I found out what it’s really like to live there. I have way more life experience now, but that was a ‘love at first sight’ moment.
I was flipping through this magazine, sort-of-pretending to read it, and my eyes were drawn to this image that dominated a double-page spread. A traditional temple in Kyoto (so the caption said), with a tiled roof, surrounded by ornamental raked gravel and trees blazing with autumn colours.
I looked at that photo, and I knew.
“I have no idea where the hell that is, but I want to go there. And I will.”
Everything snowballed from there, including trying to learn Japanese. I’ve never taken classes or private lessons, which sounds like a boast but really means that my progress is slow and clunky.
And now you live there! What does your life look like now?
It’s reassuringly boring! I have a regular content-related job that lets me freelance on the side, and (what was) a decent social life (before COVID-19).
A caveat: this is my life now that it’s ‘back to (the new) normal’. 2019 was a bad year filled with health problems, and I spent most of 2020 stuck in the UK because Japan stopped letting foreign residents back in.
I live in Osaka, Japan’s second city. It’s known as ‘Japan’s kitchen’, a world-famous destination for foodies. There’s even a word in the local dialect for ‘eating yourself bankrupt’. Since I moved here, the food reviews on my blog have steadily outgrown the copywriting posts.
What do you enjoy most about Japanese living?
I have a much better standard of living in Osaka overall, compared to my time in London (city vs city). My rent has halved, my utility bills are lower, my commute is shorter and costs far less, and I’ve built up a healthy ‘rainy day’ fund. I think Tokyo life would be more expensive than Osaka, though.
Honourable mentions: convenience stores, all-you-can-eat dessert restaurants, heated toilet seats, cherry blossom season, vending machines everywhere, karaoke rooms, and new-year lucky bags.
Any gripes or culture shocks?
My biggest gripe: how long it takes to get anything formal and/or official done.
I call Japan ‘the land of the rising red tape’. For every new app and machine, there’s a process that still needs to be done on paper (or by phone, or in person), by following weirdly specific rules.
Highlights from my own life:
‘We can’t post you the information you requested, because you’ve written your middle name on the request form but not on the return envelope.’
‘You can’t sign this form: you have to use a name stamp. It must be registered as your official stamp at the local council office. Please also provide a copy of the registration certificate. Oh, you don’t even own a stamp? Well, you’ve got roughly a week to get it all sorted, so please do your best.’
At the bank: ‘You can’t open a bank account without a phone number.’ <-> At the phone shop: ‘You can’t get a mobile phone contract without a bank account.’
‘Yes, this is an emergency medical centre, but you’ve shown up without an appointment… and the consultant’s gone home for the weekend, so we can’t help you.’
It’s enough to make you want to tear your hair out, except then you’ll have more problems because you don’t look like the photo on your ID card.
Culture shock: the continued reliance on fax machines and paperwork.
‘For data privacy/security reasons, we do not have an email address.’ – the national tax agency’s website.
See also: local/regional councils, the pension office, most clinics and hospitals, and the job centre. Immigration does accept emails, but they publish all responses for transparency, so if you include any vaguely personal information, you won’t get a reply.
My current company still handles all customer orders by fax. It’s the main reason why we can’t work from home during a national state of emergency. There are no plans to change the system.
Closer to fluency than two-three years ago, for sure. I’m coping at ‘lower business level’ for now. Standard work and life conversations are fine, but every new industry-specific word I hear has me reaching for a dictionary.
The standard for evaluating fluency is the Japanese Language Proficiency Test (JLPT). There are five levels, and the highest one (N1) puts you at roughly the same ability as an 18-year-old high schooler. I was at N3 level when I arrived in Japan in 2016, and I’ve passed N2 since.
So is your USP being an English copywriter who speaks the local lingo?
More or less. Both full-time jobs I’ve landed here so far, I was offered mainly because they needed a native-level English speaker with writing experience. My Japanese skill is a plus, a step above ‘better than nothing’ but fluency isn’t essential to my work.
Who’s a typical client these days?
I tend to work with ‘niche’ freelance clients: people who know their specific industry/area inside out, but can’t explain it that well in lay terms. Some clients are companies who contact me directly, and some are creative agencies who don’t have an in-house writer.
And a typical project?
I do a lot of rewrites and rewording, rather than writing from scratch. It’s all web copy: product details or how a service works, project overviews, blog posts, sometimes a full website overhaul.
So can you write copy in Japanese?
Short copy, yes. I recently started managing my company’s social-media accounts, as a helpful way to broaden my experience. My draft ideas for upcoming posts get the once-over by a native speaker before I schedule them in.
I also translate bits and pieces of English copy into Japanese, to the horror of my friends who work solely in translation/localisation. You’re not meant to translate into your non-native language, y’see. It’s an improvement from shoving the whole thing into Google Translate, put it that way.
Do you ever see yourself coming back to the UK?
I will always be torn on this one… and with the state of the world, I get asked more often lately.
In principle, no. I worked damn hard to get to Japan, and to build a nice life here. I’m aiming for permanent residency, which means I need to stay for at least another five consecutive years. Something really bad would have to happen for me to pack up and return to the UK permanently.
But I do miss my family, and my old friends. I live as far away from them as you can get. That nagging feeling that I should ‘spend more time with them while I still can’ never goes away.
What’s this about comedy writing? Tell us more.
Comedy helped raise me, like an invisible Mrs Doubtfire. I grew up surrounded by classic British wit and wordplay – Monty Python, The Goons, The Navy Lark, Are You Being Served?, The Two Ronnies, Morecambe and Wise… I could recite the script of Monty Python and the Holy Grail off by heart…
On top of that, I’m a sucker for well-written comedy songs and parodies. I love Tom Lehrer, Weird Al Yankovic, and the Epic Rap Battles Of History series on YouTube.
When I was younger, I tried writing some comedy sketches and sitcom episode scripts. None of them made it past the eyes of my best friends (the other main characters) – it was more of an outlet.
Older me found a far better outlet on Twitter. Some of those tweets have won me clients (‘We were looking for someone who can put more humour into this copy, and we found you on here’).
From 2013 to 2017, I had a spot on the Funny Women editorial/social media team (plus the advisory board, for a short time). I wrote over 150 articles for their website, including reviews for a ton of comedy shows I’d never have managed to see otherwise.
I was given several chances to do stand-up comedy at open mic nights, as well – but when you’re only 4ft 10in, it’s hard for the audience to tell if you’re standing up or not.
LOL! What plans do you have for the future?
To be honest, the last few years have left me feeling like making plans – even three to six months ahead – is pointless. I almost don’t want to know what the future holds. I used to just hope it’d be positive, but right now I can’t invest any more mental energy in being even slightly optimistic.
In an ideal world, I’d like to end up as a self-employed freelance writer over here, assuming I can get that permanent-residency status. I should try and pass JLPT N1 in the meantime, too.
Got any favourite work – by anyone – that inspires you?
‘From childhood’s hour I have not been
As others were—I have not seen
As others saw—I could not bring
My passions from a common spring—
From the same source I have not taken
My sorrow—I could not awaken
My heart to joy at the same tone—
And all I lov’d—I lov’d alone—
Then—in my childhood—in the dawn
Of a most stormy life—was drawn
From ev’ry depth of good and ill
The mystery which binds me still—
From the torrent, or the fountain—
From the red cliff of the mountain—
From the sun that ’round me roll’d
In its autumn tint of gold—
From the lightning in the sky
As it pass’d me flying by—
From the thunder, and the storm—
And the cloud that took the form
(When the rest of Heaven was blue)
Of a demon in my view.’
Alone by Edgar Allan Poe
I’ve always been the ‘weird kid’. This poem struck that ‘weird kid’ chord with me.
Realising that we all feel this way about ourselves – that I’m more normal than I want to admit – hasn’t changed my appreciation for how well this is worded. Short and simple lines, but so deep and introspective at the same time.
And what do you have for breakfast?
A large mug of milky coffee. I can’t face food before 10am, so I get my caffeine fix instead.