UPDATED WITH 2013 INFO! If you have suggestions to improve this post, or have stores you recommend, please add a comment!
If you’re like me, and studying Japanese, you probably want to get your hands on some books in Japanese.
You may be tempted to just go to amazon.co.jp and buy from them. A lot of people do. But it may not be your best option. Read on, and I’ll explain.
This is the Japanese branch of Amazon. You can find just about anything you want here, but don’t expect to be able to get it, or to get it cheaply. Amazon Japan has a lot to offer, but you need to be smart about it.
First, you won’t be able to buy from the marketplace. You’ll have to use a shipping service to do that.
You also won’t be able to buy most non-book items. Again, you’ll need a shipping service to do that.
Even if you want books, shipping can be expensive unless you order a bunch of books all at once.
I’ll explain briefly.
When you buy from amazon.co.jp, you cannot select any shipping options other than their express service. That doesn’t sound too bad on the surface, until you start doing the math. The base charge is 2,700 yen, with a extra charge of 300 yen per book. So things get weird depending on how many books you’re ordering.
Say you just want the latest light novel. That’s 3,000 yen!!! Ouch!
But if you want 20 books, it’s 2,700 yen + 6,000 yen, hmm… 8,700 yen. Not great, but not terrible, either. That might not be a bad deal if they’re all heavy books. It depends on the weight of the books!
So what are the alternatives? Well, it turns out that there are quite a few out there:
If you live in the U.S., there’s the Kinokuniya bookstore chain. They have stores in New York City and along the West Coast. They have a ton of Japanese books, and somewhat current ones at that.
They won’t always have things right after they come out, but they usually get them in soon enough. (Usually 4-8 weeks.)
Some items may have to be special-ordered from Japan as well, and that will add a few weeks to the shipping time. Ordering isn’t too difficult, and English cues are available for those who can’t comprehend full-blown 日本語 yet, or haven’t bothered to install Rikaichan.
Shipping is where Kinokuniya shines– $7 to my house in North Carolina via UPS Ground, and usually arrives in 2 days. That’s $7 for the whole shipment. I’ve ordered as many as 5 books, and it still cost $7 for the lot. No handling fees, either. You usually have to order before 9:30 a.m. ET to get them to ship same-day.
They usually have special deals on orders/shipping. Usually, if you order $100 or more, you get free shipping. Definitely worth checking out.
One caveat: if the books you want are not all at the same store, you’ll have to complete orders for each store, and that means 2 x $7 for shipping, for $14. It’s still cheaper than the 2,700 yen + 300 yen from amazon.co.jp, though, and it will arrive pretty quickly.
Another caveat: Kinokunia tends to mark up prices over the price in yen. I’ve seen 390-yen tankubons marked up to around $5-6, or more if the yen gets stronger. So unless you desperately need a book right away, you may want to shop around, and read on.
The reason for the markup is that you’re paying for the freight for the book from Japan in the first place, and you’re also paying for the exchange rate. A strong yen means prices go up.
The Japan Shop
If you’re looking for textbooks, and are feeling really cheap about shipping, I’d also recommend the Japan Shop. The Japan Shop has a good selection of Japanese textbooks and other study guides. They don’t have everything, but they do have a good selection. Service is quick, and shipping is USPS Priority Mail. It runs about $4.80 to my front door, and packages arrive in 2-3 days.
The Japan Shop also marks up books over retail. It can’t be helped. Shipping costs from Japan have to recaptured somewhere, and that somewhere is in the markup. Take my 800 yen answer key for Genki vols I and II. It ran me a little over $15. Ouch. But it was the only place in the U.S. I could find it at the time.
YesAsia? NoAsia? I don’t know
I have not tried YesAsia, so I can’t say how good they are. If I ever do, I’ll let you know. They do appear to have a pretty good selection of movies, games, and books. I have no idea about shipping or markups.
BK1 is now Honto.jp
Note: BK1.jp is now Honto.jp. I’ve changed the review based on dealing with the new entity.
Finally, if the book you want isn’t available from any of these other vendors, then I would recommend checking out Honto.jp. Honto’s website is not for the Japanese language newbie. It’s all in Japanese. There is NO English help available.
If you’re at all hesitant, get Rikaichan, install it, and use it on this site. If you can parse out Rikaichan’s output, then you should be able to muddle your way through an order. If you have no clue, you probably don’t have any business buying any of these books, anyway.
What’s so great about Honto? First, it’s based in Japan, so they will get new books right away. Books are not marked up over retail. (Not appreciably. Maybe 20 yen here and there?) Also, electronic versions are available, although I’m not sure if they’re available outside of Japan.
Point club. Yes, those are magical words to anyone who has ever been to Japan. Point clubs are all about rewarding people who buy stuff. Honto has one. Join it. You get points for purchases that can be applied to stuff later on. You can also click on the あしあと daily to get a free point. 1 point = 1 yen. It adds up.
Finally, the best part about Honto– shipping costs. Make no mistake: shipping anything from Japan to the U.S. can be expensive if you’re impatient. But if you’re willing to delay that gratification, you will profit. Honto offers you a choice of 6 ways to ship: FedEx, EMS, SAL, 航空便 (airmail), and 船便( surface mail), and a mystery 6th choice of a courier-expedited service, which is inside Japan only.
So how much will shipping cost? Well… that’s one weak spot. Honto does NOT have a shipping calculator, and does NOT estimate it for you. It does charge you the actual cost of shipping, without handling fees. So if you want to estimate your shipping costs, go to the Japan Post website and check out their international shipment time/fee calculator (in English, too).
Since the switch to Honto in 2012, I have been getting airmail shipments in 2-3 weeks. That’s not exactly making me happy, considering how much airmail can cost. I’ve gotten shipments from J-List via SAL faster (in about 2 weeks.) It turns out that they’re printing address labels to the U.S. backwards, so the U.S.P.S. is having a hard time processing them. I hope they get their act together, because I’d like to use them, but this doesn’t particularly inspire confidence.
Another option for magazines, some manga, and light novels is J-List/JBox. They’re a company based in Gunma Prefecture that offers a wide variety of products. (If you don’t want to see the racier stuff, go to JBox.) They don’t stock a whole lot, but if you ask, they can probably get it for you. The downside is that there’s going to be a markup, because that’s how they make a living. It’s run by an American, so if you need someone who speaks English, J-List/JBox is a good place to try.
I use J-List for a monthly magazine subscription. (Ultra Jump) They’re excellent about sending it off on time, and I get it about 3 weeks later via SAL. The magazine is $10, shipping is $14. Can I do better? I don’t know. I tried ordering from Honto, and it cost 2,800 yen to get a magazine sent here via airmail. I’ll see how it is via SAL next month.
J-List recently lowered their shipping rates, so it’s something to check out.
They also added a point club, too.
All of these companies are legit, and will get your stuff to you. The tricky bit is figuring out the best deal. Is there one place to go for the best deal?
If you want just one new book that just came out, and you want it NOW, then Honto is probably your best bet.
If you want a bunch of books that have been out for a few months, then Kinokuniya is probably your best bet. (But check to see if it’s going to be cheaper to get them from Japan first!)
If you want a stack of new/rare books that Kinokuniya doesn’t have then Amazon.co.jp is probably your best bet. (Order a lot to make up for the shipping fees!)
If you want a monthly subscription, then J-List/JBox is probably your best bet. Or if you want other stuff that’s not a book. (Honto and Amazon also sell CDs!)
If you need a textbook fast, check out the Japan Shop.
I’m not even going to touch on the use of forwarding companies. That’s another post.