One of the biggest problems with extensive reading for people studying Japanese is that having ample amounts of reading material is the cornerstone of the whole experience, but it’s hard to get that reading material for those of us not in Japan. Particularly at the beginning stages of learning a language, there’s the twin demons of scarcity and expense: at the moment, if you don’t have a teacher who’s into extensive reading or access to a well-stocked library, there aren’t too many alternatives to buying books, probably online, and that’s an expensive proposition.

I’m going to write more about ways of getting books, but for now I’m just going to write about the best methods I’ve found:

Buying used books

The cheapest possible way I’ve found to get books so far is to buy them used, have them sent to a friend’s address in Japan, then have your friend box them up and ship them through surface mail.

There’s two sites I’ve used to order books so far: and book-off online. Amazon has, by far, the larger selection, and many books are quite cheap used; however, there’s a shipping fee of ¥250 for all used books. If they’re new, the shipping is free. Book-off online has fewer books, but its major advantage is that shipping is free if you buy more than ¥1,500 worth of books. So for books that you want, look them up on both sites; add ¥250 to any used book price you see on Amazon, then compare prices. As far as I know, you can’t combine shipping for used books through Amazon’s resellers. (Drat.)

This requires knowing what books you want, which is tough if you can’t see the actual text… That’s why I’m particularly interested in finding series of slightly old books, books with multiple stories in one volume and books that are particularly long for their level.

The books should be sent as printed matter, and there’s a 5 kg (11 pound) weight limit (2 kg, or 4.4 pounds, for books sent to Ireland or Canada). Sent through surface mail, which will take 1-3 months, it should be around ¥2700 for a package right at the weight limit. Emmie was able to send sixteen books in one package to me in this way, but it will depend on how heavy your books are — a lot of the ones she sent me were picture books, so were relatively thin. (That package arrived in about a month and a half.) For repaying the shipping fee, you could use PayPal or buy an gift card.

Of course, there’s always the problem of finding someone who’ll help you with this. I’m lucky that Emmie is kind enough to do this for me, but even though she’s got a heart as big as a house I can’t exactly volunteer her to everyone learning Japanese! It’s a big favor to ask of someone, and if Emmie hadn’t initially offered, I’d probably still be just thinking about it as a potential plan. I wonder if there’d be a possibility of one of the Japanese buying services out there like J-List or White Rabbit offering collections of cheap used books at various difficulty levels, or about collections of subjects?

Buying new books

If there’s a new book you want, it seems that it’s usually just about as cost-effective to buy it from Kinokuniya as it would be to buy it on, because the markup isn’t generally too bad and shipping is reasonable (and is even free if you buy more than $100 at once). (Shipping new books directly through is pretty darned expensive: ¥2,700 per shipment of books/videos to North America, plus a ¥300 handling charge per item.) YesAsia is also a possibility; their prices are usually higher than Kinokuniya’s, but they offer free shipping starting at $39, so depending on how much you’re ordering it could even out.

I’ve found Kinokuniya’s website to be a little hard to navigate. For example, you can get free shipping if you order $100 worth of books at one time, but those books all have to be from the same store. So if you ordered $50 of books from the Seattle store and $50 of books from the San Francisco store, you wouldn’t get the free shipping. However, you can’t search for book availability by store, so if you were bent on getting that free shipping you would have to keep directly searching for books you wanted until you found enough of them at the same store. Luckily, regular shipping isn’t horribly expensive. You can also special order books, and as I understand it, you can direct them to ship all of the special ordered books at once, meaning you should be able to combine the shipping. However, I haven’t ordered anything from Kinokuniya online yet; when I do I’ll write more about it.

Kanjiguy suggested bk1, which is based in Japan and all in Japanese; it offers more shipping options than Amazon does, and there’s no handling fee. Read through the shipping options before placing an order, if you go with them, because shipping overseas seems to be calculated only after your order is complete, so you can’t compare the final price effectively.

I’ll leave it there for now; if I’m missing something about either of these methods, or if there’s a cheaper way of getting books that you can think of, please let me know!


4 Responses to Buying books online, part 1 (of, undoubtedly, many)

  1. kanjiguy says:

    I wish I’d thought of trying to order used books. I’ll definitely try that next time. I’m also looking for short story compilations, I have a few short story books for 二年生 and 三年生 that are pretty good.

    One site I have just recently tried out is: bk1 the book prices seems to be a little cheaper than Amazon, and the shipping is also cheaper. I think depending on what you order, kinokuniya can sometimes beat them out. Although on the order I just placed, kinokuniya didn’t have some of the books I wanted. One drawback is that they don’t tell you what the shipping is gonna cost till you place the order.

    I wish Japan would embrace ereaders as I have a kindle, that would make buying books much much easier.

  2. Liana says:

    Here’s the shipping information for bk1:
    It looks like you have a little more choice about your shipping then you do with… you could go with surface mail if you wanted. Was there anything like a handling fee?

    • kanjiguy says:

      I had to ask someone that orders from them frequently, they only charge for the books plus shipping.

      I went with FedEx though, I’m too impatient to wait for surface mail.

  3. e_dub_kendo says:

    Children’s stories read aloud. But the real treasure are the 1 in 5 or so books that are basically animated picture books. I can’t quickly describe these in a way that does them justice, but please check them out.

    ☆。.:*:・’゜ヽ( ´ー`)ノスキ~リ♪