Assistants — something only available to CEOs, fashion photographers and Kardashians. Or so I thought until I was asked to trial a service called Virtual Assist Japan, an online platform that connects users to a Japanese-English bilingual person who will act as their remote personal assistant. While catering to all types of foreign residents in Japan, from business owners to English-teachers to students, the service is primarily designed to support users with administrative tasks — a gap in the market partly brought about by Japan’s love of form-filling, though assistants are also able to help with personal stuff too.
As someone who is not currently running a company, knows embarrassingly little about fashion and looks constipated attempting to pout, the idea of having my own virtual assistant seemed extravagant. Plus, I’ve been in Japan long enough to be well practiced at gaman-ing through situations despite a shamefully low-level language ability. What could I ask an assistant to even do?
As it turns out, quite a lot.
An email from my virtual assistant for the week arrives in my inbox first thing.
“This is Nagisa and I am an assistant at Virtual Assist Japan. You can simply send tasks to me by replying to this message,” she writes, adding a smiley face.
It’s sweet but sounds like a bot — enough that I feel marginally better about having a slave do my every bidding.
I don’t want to throw either of us in the deep end of servitude, so I ask her for help with booking a restaurant. Although I learnt the formula for making a reservation almost as soon as I arrived in Japan, if there is any deviation from the script, bookings will end up under “Chewbacca” instead of Rebecca.
“So sorry to bother you but please could you book a table at a vegan restaurant for tonight for two? Sorry for the short notice. I hope that’s ok. Sorry again, so sorry. Thanks so much,” I reply and then try to distract myself by cleaning up my desktop. Should I wait for her to reply? What if she has a question? What if she hates vegan restaurants and is judging me? I click: Empty Trash.
Less than three minutes later she replies; “I booked a table for two at 7 p.m. They will arrange a special dessert plate for your friend. Enjoy!” and another smiley face. She’s also included a little table that shows how much time I have left: “180 – 5 = 175 minutes.”
That night I have dinner with my newly pregnant friend and she’s totally surprised when the Congratulations on Your Baby dessert plate arrives. “This is so nice of you!” she says. I think of that “Success Kid” meme but with my face photoshopped onto it.
Fresh from an evening as the bestest friend ever, I’m feeling more relaxed about delegating the next to-do. Today is hectic as all hell, so I reach out to Nagisa for assistance trying not to sound desperate. I need help with research in Japanese; finding out where you can purchase a version of a sought-after product before its release, and getting accurate location information for a small festival in a remote village. By that afternoon, she’s made several calls and listed out all of the things I need — meaning I can go home at 6:30 p.m. “Please let me know if there is anything else I can do for you,” she signs off.
With all the free time I have that evening I do something productive and watch Netflix’s Set it Up. Suddenly, I’m Lucy Liu and my assistant Nagisa has set me up on a date with the CEO of Rakuten.
Two pieces of post are on my desk and despite my best efforts, honestly, I have no idea what either of them say. The first is definitely the report from a recent company medical check up. The inoffensive-looking but always offensive form with its cryptic grading needs the VA treatment — yes, we’re now on acronym terms seeing as I’m about to let her in on all of the gory details of my current health status. You can’t get more intimate than reading someone’s urinal analysis.
Nagisa translates the whole page, which kindly informs me not to gain weight, oh, and to drink less. OK, it’s the same as every year but at least I can keep it to myself instead of having to ask Yuki from admin. The second piece of post is an invite to the dentist for a free check up. Yay! Though actually I am long overdue. Nagisa books me an appointment for next week and doesn’t say anything about my drinking.
Chatting to my coworkers about the new person in my life and everyone wants to meet her, even though she’s not real. Well, she’s a real person but we’re not in a relationship. Which reminds me: Tinder. I wonder where the boundaries lie in what virtual assistants can and can’t do. Could they create a winning dating profile? Replicate witty repartee? Deflect the occasional unsolicited pic of a man’s nether regions?
Curious, but not quite yet dead enough inside to ask any of this, I question Nagisa the craziest request she’s ever received. Surprisingly, she’s yet to come across anything shocking but she did have a guy ask her to find a present for his girlfriend’s birthday (he attached a picture of her for reference).
Some of the requests come from people in a panic, she says; clients bumping their car or losing their phone/watch/house key. Some have asked her to pacify angry acquaintances by making a formal apology in Japanese. Once in a while does “online detective work,” the details of which she mysteriously can’t divulge.
I’m about to email her a big task, translating a CV into Japanese, when my colleague sends me a google chat: “PENSION CRISIS: NEED HELP.” She’s received a bill from the pensions department at city hall that she thought she paid and needs to call them to check what’s happening. The last thing she wants to do is pay a visit to the dreaded CH (the soul-sucking administrative center that must not be named), she tells me.
Happily, virtual assistants are able to help clients’ friends and family as well, which, Nagisa writes, is one her favorite parts of the job.
“Some clients assign me to assist family (clients can add users), and I like this relationship of trust. I enjoy communicating with clients’ family,” she mails, after having called the pension office and determined that my colleague hasn’t paid the bill yet, but not to worry as she arranged for it to be re-sent.
My colleague, relieved, promises to make me coffee for the rest of the month.
It’s my last day and I have 20 minutes left with my VA. I need to get all of my trial’s worth before the end of the day. I ask Nagisa to book me an appointment at the eye doctor, a beauty salon and an English-speaking hairdressers (haircuts are just too difficult and dangerous to explain in bad Japanese). I also ask her to book me a taxi to the airport, a ludicrous extravagance that is way out of my price range — clearly, having an assistant has gone to my head.
“Anything else?” she mails me, as the bookings took all of five minutes.
I decide to finally sign up to the gym. She does the research, arranges everything, and all I have to do is drag my lazy butt there and pay. Maybe she could find me a photography course. A language exchange? The image of the better version of me of the future starts to take shape. It’s like my VA is a guardian angel, or something more millennial like a motivational wellness coach. Visions of giving TED talks, winning awards, moving into a swanky new apartment and driving an open top sports car start to form before me.
I get a mail from Nagisa, “I’m sorry, Rebecca, our time is up.”
Dang. I hope I can sneak in one more request; I need to cancel that taxi.
A minute later she replies: “Done! :)”
How Virtual Assist Japan works
Sign up to the service and choose from a different set of plans. They offer a one-hour free trial for you to test the waters and is helpful to decide which option might work for you.
- Personal: ¥7,500 per month for 3 hours of task work (personal only)
- Business Lite: ¥12,000 per month for 3 hours of task work (personal and business)
- Business Basic: ¥35,000 per month for 10 hours of task work (personal and business)
- Business Pro: ¥90,000 per month for 30 hours of task work (personal and business)
You’ll then receive an email or chat (if you’re using LINE) from your Virtual Assistant, introducing themselves and starting the task request process. They’ll stay the same and will keep track of the information you’ve sent them (like phone numbers, office and home addresses). You can send the VA tasks one by one as they come up, or in a batch in advance. Your VA will keep a timesheet of how long you have remaining out of the hours you’ve paid for.
Virtual Assistants are available Monday to Friday, essentially on call during regular business hours. Nagisa replied to all of my emails within ten minutes, so I was able to rely on her for urgent as well as less pressing tasks.
Tasks are unlimited, based off of what your assistant can do remotely. VAs don’t usually do in-person tasks, but they are able to make purchases online and arrange delivery, as well as fill out documents and post them to the client to sign.
Virtual Assist Japan offers free one-hour trials for anyone interested in the service. For more information, and a free consultation, check out their website below.