English books aren’t that hard to find in Japan; the selection may be limited and the price a little excessive, but all in all English language printed materials are not uncommon. Even smaller Japanese bookshops may have a little corner with English books though they are usually of the trashy airport novel variety or the latest big hit, like Harry Potter or whatnot. If you’re the kind of person who really likes to read Dan Brown you can stop right here; the rest of this post is probably too verbose and sesquipedalian for you and will focus on getting real books in Japan.
So what if your tastes are a little more discerning? Well, there are still a few options out there before you resort to Amazon. Book1st, for example, in Shibuya has a sizable chunk of one of its floors devoted to English books. This includes a lot of guide books to Japan and Japanese language learning books, but also a fair amount of novels and non-fiction. Prices can be a little high, 1,200 to 4,000 Yen (US$ 10 – 33, EUR 7.6– 25) for paperbacks, especially if you compare them to Japanese books’ prices. Again, your choice is somewhat limited. Book1st also has a fair amount of magazines but these too are quite expensive, often rivaling paperbacks in price.
The cheapest magazines, though not entirely that cheap, I found at Tower Records in Shinjuku. Several of the Tower Records branches have fairly extensive English books selections, including the Shibuya one. These are good places to look for art and design as well as niche interest books. The Shibuya branch has, for example, an American comics selection; not only your superhero crap but also Crumb, Clowes and the like. If you’re looking for translated Japanese comics this is also a good place to check out.
Map: Full list, Shibuya and Shinjuku
If you’re aiming for a large volume of English books in the hope to strike it lucky, Kinokuniya in Shinjuku is probably your best bet. Located behind “Times Square”, next to the rail tracks, it is a fairly sizable store with part of one floor devoted to English language books and magazines. Prices are in line with the other options mentioned above.
For people on a budget there are two alternatives. One is book swapping; find a group of likeminded individuals and swap books around after you’ve read them. The commercial variety of this would be the second hand bookstore and though fairly rare in Tokyo they do exist!
One I know if is the Blue Parrot shop, which used to have a store in Akihabara but I guess business wasn’t quite good enough. Their remaining shop is in Takadanobaba, or “Baba” if you want to sound like you know what you’re talking about, which is a little bit out of the way. They take your old books in return for store credit and the stuff they have on offer is quite varied, though as with all second hand shops, the quality and choice available is usually the luck of the draw. You can, however, pick up fairly cheap raggedy copies of novels here, if you don’t mind them with smoke-stained pages and barely coherent spines.
I’m sure there are more second hand bookshop, in fact I know there are, but their names escape me for now. Don’t expect to run into them regularly as they are few and far between. However, if you fancy a day of book shopping I can recommend Tokyo’s equivalent of Charing Cross Road. The Kanda-Jimbocho area is littered with bookshops, from your regular ones, to specialty stores to academic bookshops; there is a lot on offer. The availability of English books is hit and miss, but it’s worth checking out. I know of one store there, all grand bookcases and leather-bound treasures, that had a fair amount of great novels in excellent editions, but for no less grandiose prices. It’s a great place to hang around and browse though. Seeing as it’s around Meiji University ou can expect to find a lot of students there as well as academic types. A good day out for any book lover!
Handy list of stores: http://www.geocities.com/Athens/4824/jp-kanda.htm
Then of course there is good old Amazon. Obviously the .jp version offers better deals when it comes to delivery, often totally free in fact, but like its bookstore brethren the English books on offer are somewhat limited. You’ll probably have more luck there than at any bookstore if you are looking for something terribly specific, but don’t be surprised if, in the end, you’re forced to rely on the .com one. Delivery will be a little pricey, around US$10 per package and they always screw you over. “Make the fewest number of packages” for them means it’s perfectly okay to send one book on a Monday and a second of a Tuesday, both with a separate US$10 P&P fee, the scoundrels! But when it comes to choice and ease, well, it doesn’t really get better than Amazon, does it?
So in conclusion: if you plan to move to Tokyo you don’t have to stress about shipping over all your books, there is plenty to be bought over here. If you’re a visiting tourist who did too little research, places like Book1st offer you the range of phrase and guide books you should have bought before coming over. Now the only problem remains: where the Hell are you going to store all your books in that tiny tatami apartment of yours?