Models Work from Home as Side Gigs Take off in Japan

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Model Chika takes a selfie with a product for an advertisement in a “remote photo shoot.”

To overcome financial difficulties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, many people are seeking and developing new business opportunities. This is the first installment in a series about surviving in the age of the novel coronavirus, with creative ideas and tactics from people and companies taking on new challenges.

■ Photo studio at home

Chika, 50, is a model working from home. She sets up a smartphone on lighting equipment she bought to take selfies for advertisements and operates a self-timer on the phone.

“Three, two, one…” She smiles at the camera and strikes poses while adjusting the angle of her face and the way she holds a bottle of skin lotion.

Chika takes dozens of photos using a selfie system called Remophoto. She uses the six-tatami-mat lounge in her home as her studio, where she is surrounded by a TV, bookshelves and other furniture.

On weekdays, she works as a nurse at a clinic in a company building in Tokyo. She transforms herself into a model during her free time in the evenings and on weekends. On average, she works twice a month as a part-time model, appearing in advertisements for homewares and lifestyle products such as cosmetics and pillows.

It was more than a year ago that Chika came across Monokrom Co. in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo, an advertisement production company that operates a smartphone app mediating between companies and models. She learned about the company after watching a TV show that showed women her age actively working as part-time models.

Chika contracted a modeling job through the app for the first time in November 2019. Now she regularly works out to tone her body, such as her upper arms and stomach. She also tries out various cosmetic ideas.

Due to the virus outbreak, photo shoots in studios disappeared from her diary from April. She feared she would receive fewer modeling offers, but the system was launched for remote photo shoots in May and she was able to continue working as a model. Now she earns tens of thousands of yen every month and hopes to work as a senior model in the future.

■ Tough times bring opportunity

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Makoto Tsutsui, right, the president of Monokrom Co., meets with an employee in Shibuya Ward, Tokyo.

Monokrom started a weekend model program in 2017, and about 5,000 people of all generations, from teenagers to those in their 70s are now registered with it. Companies can choose from a portfolio of the models wishing to appear in ads.

“I sensed society was beginning to promote side jobs and thought that could be made into a business,” said Monokrom president Makoto Tsutsui, 41.

He was involved in the introduction of models for monthly magazine Koakuma Ageha, which was enormously popular among young women. The magazine, which was launched in 2005, had a peak circulation of more than 300,000 copies.

Tsutsui started the weekend model program to directly connect companies with women who wanted to work as part-time models.

At first, it was difficult to recruit people. After some trial and error, however, the program gradually got off the ground, and sales figures in January last year had roughly tripled from the same period in the previous year.

Then came the pandemic. Following the state of emergency declaration in April last year, sales plunged to 10% of the previous year’s at one point.

Having spent two years working hard to build up the program, Tsutsui was determined to get results. He racked his brains and came up with the idea of remote photo shoots, which he named Remophoto. Companies send the products they want to advertise to models’ home addresses, and Monokrom gives them advice on how to take selfies using a smartphone camera. The advertisement photos are delivered in only about three days as there is no need to book a photographer, hairdresser, makeup artist and stylist or to adjust their schedules and that of the model. Monokrom won praise for this quick delivery and its sales recovered in no time.

The selfies undergo scrutiny by Monokrom to maintain a high quality. According to the company, requests from apparel and mail order companies are steadily increasing.

■ Digital skills

Another growing side business is “skill share,” which is about connecting companies and specialists, such as illustrators and computer programmers, online.

Ayaka Fuji, 25, works at a Tokyo company producing digital educational materials. Making the most of the skills she has honed through her job, such as preparing materials and editing images, she sells her work through Skill Market, a skill-share program run by online service developer and operator coconala Inc.

In January last year, Fuji saw a tweet from a person who said they had earned ¥1 million by preparing such materials.

“It’s like what I do in my job. Maybe I can do it,” she thought and registered with the program, writing, “I make website banners for ¥2,000 each” in her profile. A week later, she received a request to make a publicity image for an event. She completed the image and delivered it in one day. She received a perfect review of five stars for her work.

The pandemic forced her to start telecommuting in March, and ironically this increased her side job income drastically. She did not have to commute, which meant she could spend more time on her side job at home. She thought earning an extra ¥50,000 or so would be enough, but it turned out that her earnings reached about ¥300,000, which is more or less on par with her monthly income from her main job.

“If I had no side job, I would have just played video games at home because I couldn’t go out due to the virus,” Fuji said.

With her side job getting off the ground, she has started the process of quitting her main job. She is also eyeing the possibility of moving to New Zealand, which she loves dearly, and working online only.

■ Pros and cons of gig workers

The pandemic has forced an increase in telecommuting and other styles of working that require no specific workplace. In this environment, side businesses for earning extra income are drawing attention. The government also included the promotion of side businesses in its growth strategy plan, which was adopted at a Cabinet meeting in July last year.

Recent years have also seen a rise in gig workers, who receive one-time contracts online. According to an estimate by Lancers, Inc., a middleman company for subcontracting, there were 10.34 million gig workers and other freelance workers in Japan as of February last year, which is about 15% of the entire workforce. Half of them have another job on top of their main job.

More and more companies are allowing employees to have a side job. According to a survey by Recruit Career Co. in 2019, 30.9% of companies who responded allowed employees to have a side job or dual employment, an increase of 2.1 percentage points from the previous year.

In contrast, freelance workers are in a precarious position. For example, they are ineligible for employee insurance and protection under labor regulations, in principle. There is also the risk that they may be unilaterally forced to change contracts by companies that use their superior position.

“In Japan, freelance work did not become prevalent because many people still have a strong belief in lifetime employment,” said Kim Myoung-jung, a research fellow at the NLI Research Institute. “In the wake of the pandemic, working styles free from the constraints of time and space will probably spread more widely.”