Are you planning a trip to Japan now that the border are open? While you’re thinking about all kinds of sights, activities, and culinary delights, you may also want to do some shopping – including manga aka Japanese comics.
If that’s so, this guide will help you with your shopping adventures. Much of it combines my travelling experiences to Japan four times and additional research. Through it, you’ll learn how to make buying manga in Japan an easy experience, how to plan ahead, and discover heaps of tips you might’ve not considered.
For your reference, I’ve written this guide from an English-speaking perspective. Much of it will apply to other languages too, but you might need to tweak some of it for your own use.
Table of contents
- Why would you buy Manga in Japan?
- Setting your expectations
- Planning ahead
- Where to find manga in Japan
- The purchase experience
- More manga shopping tips
Why would you buy Manga in Japan?
There are many reasons why someone may want to purchase manga in Japan, even if there is a language barrier. It will be different for everyone. However, here are some of the more common reasons why:
Discovering what can’t be found elsewhere
Manga has been a staple of comic book publishing in many markets for decades. However, what gets translated into other languages (e.g. English, French, and more) is a drop in the ocean compared to what’s available in the Japanese market. As a result, many readers like to track down series that are either long out of print in their language of choice or never made their way out of Japan. These could be in-demand series tied up in licensing issues. Other times, it could be a release that’s more esoteric and not likely to be translated any time soon.
Some readers want to add the Japanese edition of a manga series to their collection – even if they’ve read it in their native language. It’s another way to experience the manga you love and a great way to expand your collection.
An appreciation for manga in its original form
Some manga series get chopped up when they get translated. While this is rarer today, there are some releases that get edits to sound effects and lettering that some readers don’t enjoy. Some people will invest in the original Japanese editions to see the differences or to experience the stories as they believe they should be.
As an aid for learning the language
Once you’ve learned the basics, the best way to learn a language is to immerse yourself in it. Many people purchase the original Japanese editions of the manga with the intention of using them as part of their language study. It’s a fun way to learn the language and exposes students to it in different contexts.
Setting your expectations
It’s best to set some expectations before we go deep into how and where to buy manga in Japan. This will help avoid disappointment and help you be prepared before you do your manga shopping while abroad.
The manga will be in Japanese
This sounds like an obvious thing to say, but manga sold in Japan is in Japanese. It makes sense, with that being the native language.
That’s not to say you can’t find manga in English. Some bookshops in major cities (I saw this in Tokyo and Kyoto) have a tiny shelf allocation to English manga, which is made to capture some tourist dollars.
However, it’s not worth buying these books in Japan. They’re far more expensive as they’re imported from an international distributor and need to accommodate for exchange rates. So unless you find an English edition of something you can’t find elsewhere – unlikely as the selection usually plays it pretty safe – you’re better off getting it at home.
Can you get Western comics in Japan?
Yes, but they will be in Japanese. In my travels, I have seen many Japanese editions of Western comics. They’re not found everywhere, as there isn’t the same demand for them as the domestic product, but they’re not impossible to find.
The kinds of series I saw there tended to be based on franchises and characters familiar in Japan. This included Marvel characters such as X-Men and Deadpool; DC series such as Batman and Superman; The Walking Dead; Apex Legends, and others based on video games.
These hardcover and trade paperback editions usually have different covers from their native counterparts.
There are two formats
There are two manga formats that you will see throughout Japan:
- Manga magazines
- Collected manga volumes
The magazines are where most manga series get their first run, with the volumes collected later. This is worth noting as the magazines are not prevalent outside of Japan and may be a great addition to your collection or a method to discover some series that haven’t been translated yet.
Many stores wrap books in plastic
Japanese stories will often wrap the books and magazines, similar to a comic book shop in the West sealing trade paperbacks and back issues. For manga magazines like Weekly Shonen Jump, this stops people from reading popular series in the bookshop or convenience store and then not purchasing them. For books and volumes, plastic wrapping also keeps them in new condition at the point of sale.
This is worth noting because it means you can’t browse the pages of a book or magazine. However, there are workarounds that I will discuss later.
The shopping experience can be overwhelming – especially in another country. Help yourself out by planning ahead as much as possible with these suggestions. Your future self will thank you.
Make a list
If you’re reading this guide, you probably already have some manga series in mind. I highly recommend listing the titles you want to track down. This could be written on paper, in a notes app on your phone, or even in a spreadsheet.
It makes your search much easier – especially if you’re looking for multiple books. The last thing you want to do is forget a specific title or volume. It also avoids having that moment where you only vaguely remember a book’s name and need to look it up in the shop.
You could go even further in your list-making by including the Japanese publisher and an image of the covers as a reference. While it might take more preparation, you’ll save time in the shopping experience.
Familiarise yourself with manga publisher logos
Being familiar with some of the publisher/imprint logos can make locating the books you want easier. By no means do you need to be an expert, even if you take note of a handful of major ones.
If you’ve made a manga wishlist, note down the publishers and then do a quick google search for their logo. This modest bit of research will come in handy when you’re browsing packed shelves or trying to get your bearings as to which section you’re in.
Understand how much you can take back with you
It’s wise to understand how much manga you can bring back. This comes from not only a weight allowance but also considering how much luggage space you have. From there, you can work backwards to figure out how many books you can purchase without having logistical headaches at the airport.
The alternative is to take a trip to the post office and arrange for the books to be shipped home separately. It was a lifesaver on my last trip. However, I did pay a hefty premium, as shipping from Japan to Australia is not cheap. (Long story short, it was when seamail was not a shipping option. However, it should be something you can take advantage of now.)
Again, it’s best to research your options in advance and work it into your holiday budget – international airmail isn’t cheap! Japan Post has a calculator you can use.
You’ll need to dedicate some time to visit the Post Office if you choose to ship your shopping haul. This could take more than an hour, so allow plenty of time.
My wife and I have used Japan Post twice, where the staff were friendly and helpful. On one occasion, there was a staff member who knew English. However, we had to rely on my wife’s language skills and speak into the Google Translate app for the other visit.
Check out some common phrases that will be handy at the post office.
Expect to discover manga you didn’t know about
Unless you are very attuned to Japanese manga releases, you’ll likely discover plenty of books you didn’t know existed and not on your list. This will lead to unplanned purchases of exciting titles you didn’t know you needed.
Accommodate some budget and packing space for any discoveries. The last thing you want is to find a manga title and then have no money or room for it.
Plan when you will do your manga shopping
From experience, unless you’re staying for a prolonged period, trips to Japan are usually jam-packed with sights and activities. You’ll also likely travel between cities, which occupy significant sections of a day. Because of this, you’ll want to ensure you allocate time for manga shopping. The last thing you want to do is run out of time due to everything else you’ve been doing.
I also recommend doing it towards the end of your trip. The last thing you want to do is cart a heap of books between cities. The exception is if you happen to come across something that you’re not likely to find later in the trip.
Plan where you will do your manga shopping
This guide will recommend the best shops and chains to purchase manga in Japan. However, once you’ve discovered which places you want to go, you should do further research about their location. Where are they located in proximity to accommodation? Will you be visiting something else nearby? Consider these things and plan ahead. Otherwise, you could miss out.
On past trips to Japan, I created a Google Map with all the locations I will be visiting pinned. This includes accommodation, attractions I planned to experience, and potential shops to purchase manga. It helps to visualise it all and allows you to make the most of your trip and – in the context of this guide – your manga shopping.
Set yourself rules
With any shopping trip, it’s best to set rules. This is so you don’t blow the budget or waste your money on things you don’t want/need.
The rules can be simple, like setting a budget for how you are willing to spend on manga. Others could be based on what you will buy. Here’s an example of one of my rules.
Example: Unless there’s a compelling reason, I didn’t purchase any manga in Japan that I can get in English (e.g. has been licensed in English and is still in print).
It’s up to you what rules you set for yourself. Just make sure that they’re not too restrictive and that you stick to them.
Where to find manga in Japan
As you’ll soon discover, manga is not difficult to find in Japan, with many shops to purchase from. The places I have listed are not the only locations where you can find manga, but the ones that are easy for international tourists to discover and are located in cities such as Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka.
I’ll start with the most obvious place to find manga – bookshops. Manga takes up a significant piece of real estate in most bookshops, where they stock a lot of different titles.
In most shops, manga shelves will be organised by manga demographics (e.g. Shonen and Shojo) and then by publisher. However, there may be some that use a different system.
Popular bookshop chains that you’re likely to come across in major cities include:
There are many independent bookshops worth visiting too. These tend to be smaller in scale but are well curated and tend to have their specialities. Tokyo has plenty of them, but others can be found in most major cities.
Are you looking to do manga shopping on a budget? BOOKOFF should be your first port of call. This secondhand book chain has hundreds of stores throughout Japan and is ingrained into the country’s rich secondhand goods culture.
As you can guess from the name, BOOKOFF focuses on books. However, it has branched out into other goods as well. Manga has a huge presence and is a great place to find cheap and varied manga. Here you’ll find a mix of current and older series.
The price point for the manga at BOOKOFF varies and depends on several factors. Newly released books tend to be close to their retail pricing. Most series, especially older ones, are priced at roughly half what you will pay for new ones. Then there are the heavily discounted shelves. At the bargain price of 110 yen, these are a mix of low-demand (but sometimes interesting) series, excess stock, and books with minor blemishes.
I highly recommend checking out the 110 yen section first. You’ll find cheaper copies of plenty of books on other shelves, often in a condition that’s as-new or very close to it. (Japan is pretty good at looking after their stuff.) You’re likely to find a few fascinating oddities too.
Also, look out for the multi-volume volume packages. You can find some incredible bargains, which range from 2-in-1 packs up to entire runs of a series and everything in between. You’ll sometimes discover these at an even lower price than the 110 yen bargains on the discount shelf. For instance, I found a set of Young Saint Men volumes 1-10 for 500 yen.
It’s worth noting that not all BOOKOFFs are the same. They vary in size and, like most secondhand emporiums, what you will find depends on the quality of the trade-ins.
I’ve visited many BOOKOFFs in my travels, with my favourite being the Sannomiya Center-gai arcade store in Kobe. It had a massive selection and fantastic bargains.
BOOKOFF also differentiates from other places where you can buy manga, with most books not wrapped in plastic. This allows you to view the pages and check out the art, helping you better inform your purchase.
BOOKOFFs are everywhere, with most cities having multiple locations. Find out where you can find one over on their website.
Dubbed the “exciting book store”, Village Vanguard is a chain that dials into fandoms, subcultures, and the esoteric. The result is a place that sells books and other things such as fashion, snacks and confectionery, knick-knacks, music, and manga.
Village Vanguard differentiates itself from others places to find manga through its curation. Each store manager is given free rein to choose what they stock, which results in a more alternative-leaning selection, focusing on smaller publishers, interesting oddities, and genre-defining classics. That’s not to say you won’t find popular series in the mix, often alongside the franchises’ merchandise, but it’s less of a focus.
As curation is built into Village Vanguard’s ethos, the layout will differ at each. Some stores will organise the manga based on the publisher. Others by genre, with horror often having a large dedicated section. Sometimes it’s a mixture of the two.
Village Vanguards are always great fun, and you’ll likely discover a lot of cool stuff there. Check out this informative and high-energy video that goes deeper into the concept if you want to know more.
You can also find a list of locations on the company website.
Animate is the largest chain of anime, anime goods, and manga. They tend to be large stores that go over multiple floors, with an entire floor dedicated to manga.
The wide selection at Animate tends to lean younger, focusing on shonen and shojo manga. A lot of this comes down to the core demographics of anime fandom that’s seen in the rest of the store, which really leans into current and recent shows.
You might be disappointed if you’re looking for a series aimed at an older demographic or have been completed for some time. Animate tends to focus on new and current series. Some older series are stocked, but these tend to be series that have recent/current/upcoming anime or are perennial sellers like DragonBall.
Some larger Animate stores, such as the one in Akihabara, have a cafe and event space attached. You might catch a cross-promotional menu or exhibition if you’re lucky.
Learn more about Animate and find a store on their English website.
While Animate focuses on the new, Mandarake is the place to find secondhand and older goods. While it began as a pre-owned manga dealer in 1987, it has since transformed to accommodate all kinds of fandom goods.
Mandarake has a massive selection and is a great place to go if you’re looking for cheap editions of popular manga titles, out-of-print series, and harder-to-find older series. Like most places, everything is sorted by manga demographic and publisher.
Discover all the locations over at the Mandarake website.
As you’ll soon discover, Japan has a strong convenience store culture. They’re everywhere! Along with lunch, snacks, drinks, and other food-related goodies, you can get some manga.
You’ll find the latest edition of the most popular manga magazines in the magazine section. Additionally, there is a small collection of volumes for sale. These are a strange assortment of older titles packaged in thicker budget editions.
Popular convenience store chains include Family Mart, 7-Eleven, and Lawson.
The purchase experience
The other daunting thing about shopping in a foreign country is the purchase experience. Luckily, most places mentioned above are straightforward, especially in the post-COVID landscape.
Most retail experiences have a screen that faces the customer. This will allow you to see how much to pay if you can’t converse in Japanese. Thanks to COVID, some of these screens are attached to a kiosk that handles the transaction. It’s not 100% self-service, with a store clerk still present to bag up your purchase, but it takes care of the money part and dispenses change and receipt.
The store clerk will try to enthusiastically communicate with you with exaggerated hand gestures. These will give a lot of context clues to what they’re asking, such as if you would like a bag or where to place your money.
One question may jump out at you, though: “Pointo ka-do wa omochi desuka?” Or in English, “Do you have a point card?” Essentially, the store assistant has asked if you have a loyalty card for that particular store/chain. All you need to do is shake your head to say “no”, and the transaction will continue. If you look like an obvious foreign tourist, then they might not ask. However, the question is so ingrained into the shopping script that you might get asked out of habit.
Another thing you might be asked that’s more unique to the Japanese experience is a book cover. I found this happened if I purchased a single book or if it was in a bookshop near/in a train station. Essentially, these go over the book, shielding the cover for those who don’t want to expose what they’re reading on the train or to keep it clean. The ones you will be offered tend to have a generic design and often sport the store’s logo. However, you can buy nicer ones too. Book covers are optional. It’s up to you if you want one.
To make the experience smoother, I suggest brushing up on common phrases you will hear and perhaps ones you might ask.
More manga shopping tips
Here are a few more manga shopping tips to help take your experience to the next level.
Look out for some English on the cover
Earlier in this guide, I set the expectation that the manga in Japan will be in Japanese. However, you will notice that there will be some English on the cover and spine of many books. This could be the title or the creator’s name, with it in small text and out of the way. It’s easy to assume that maybe the book is a bilingual edition, but that’s not the case. It’s part of a phenomenon known as kazari eigo or “decoration English”. Essentially, it’s a cheap way to add prestige to a book.
It’s handy for English speakers. Use whatever English is available as a prompt for researching a book, especially if you can’t look inside. I certainly did a lot of this when I discovered something intriguing. The English elements made it easy to google the manga on my phone.
Google Translate is your friend
There’s always Google Translate when English is not present. The app can use the camera to translate text in real-time or more accurately with a photo.
There are some limitations. It struggles with stylised or handwritten text and logos. However, it does the job for straightforward fonts.
Check out the preview booklets
One of the downsides of manga being sealed in plastic is that you cannot view the interior pages. This can make it hard to know what a series is like beyond the vibes of the cover. However, occasionally you’ll find preview booklets on the bookshop shelf that allows you to preview a part of the book.
Publishers print these to accompany some new series. In these cases, they promote new and lesser-known works that might need an extra marketing push. These are usually found next to a display of the full book for customers to read.
However, don’t expect to find these booklets for every manga series. It’s a selection of series, where their use appears to be at the shop’s discretion.
Manga cafes are another way to preview
Looking to have a bit of downtime on your trip? Manga cafes are sprinkled throughout Japan and let you read their manga library. Not only is it a place to have a bite to eat or have a coffee, but you could take advantage of them to preview a range of different manga. This could help you inform your shopping list.
Japan Guide has a great resource if you want to learn more.
Visit the Kyoto International Manga Museum
The Kyoto International Manga Museum is an excellent place to inform your shopping list if you happen to be in Kyoto.
Discover more in this extensive write-up of my experiences visiting it twice.