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The Great Big How To Shop on Japanese Online Sites Guide

Image of a packing carton

I have written online shoppings guides for Japanese sites in the past on both Just Hungry or my dormant Funassyi fan site, We Love Funassyi. Since the information on both those sites is outdated, I thought I would do a general shopping info article here, which I will try to keep updated.

Warning: this is quite long and detailed, so skip ahead if needed:

Update: I have now started a Page of Links, for places where you can get various items I recommend. It will grow rather slowly, so check back on it periodically.

Also: there are absolutely no affiliate links or whatever on this page (except for the Patreon links). All opinions are my own.

Part 1: Introduction and assumptions

Japan has a lot of attractive merchandise that isn't necessarily available elsewhere. Fortunately, there is a demand for such merchandise from consumers, and there are companies that cater to that demand. Originally they existed to serve Japanese expats living around the world, but in recent years they have become more responsive to other customers too, with multilingual sites, staff and more.

The assumptions I am making on this page are that:

  • You really want to get stuff from Japan. that you can't get in your country.
  • You speak little or no Japanese, so you need English instructions and customer service, and perhaps someone to help you purchase stuff from companies that don't speak English.
  • You are aware that you will have to pay a service charge, customs and international shipping.
  • You are aware that Japan is not in China or South Korea and companies there generally do not have Japanese products; or if they do, they are marked up over the Japanese retail price. (I know this is rather silly, but some people confuse East Asian countries with each other. For example, Alibaba does not sell Japanese products, since they are a Chinese company.)

When is it advantageous to shop directly from Japan?

It makes sense to go to the effort of getting stuff directly from Japan, for made-in-Japan and/or only-available-in-Japan merchandise that you can't find the same or similar items locally or at least domestically.

Take stationery for instance. A lot of big Japanese stationery companies do sell their products overseas. It doesn't make a whole lot of economic sense to get the same or very similar version from Japan. (Unless you just have to have a specific model or color or something, and you want NOW, since new colors and so forth usually get introduced in Japan first. I know the feeling.) For example, Tombow's popular brush pens are marketed primarily outside of Japan, and you won't find them in Japan. There are also several companies these days importing Japanese stationery directly and in most cases selling it at a reasonable markup by which I mean, they aren't charging 3-4x the Japanese retail price). In those cases it makes better sense in many ways to purchase from a company in your country.

On the other hand, shopping for Japanese merchandise from a company that imports them, from another country, does not make any sense economically. Not only are you paying for international shipping anyway, you are also paying for the import-markup from Japan to that (still foreign to you) country.

Part 2: Shipping info - What can't be shipped, shipping costs, and customs

Prohibited items

There are certain items that cannot be shipped overseas without special permissions. These include:

  • Perishable food including frozen food (with the exception of some things from Rakuten to Taiwan, South Korea and Hong Kong)
  • Aerosol spray cans
  • Fireworks and anything that can go boom
  • Highly flammable items - nail polish, perfume, lighters, high alcohol beverages, paint thinners, etc.
  • Caustic or poisonous products like bleach, some detergents and cleaners; hair dye products
  • Radioactive materials, firearms

Lithium batteries used to be banned entirely, but that seems to be changing. Check first if you want to ship anything with a lithium battery, such as a camera.

This page on Tenso, one of the major package forwarding services, has an easy to read list. In addition, every country has their own restrictions - this page is for the United States for instance - so be sure to look up the specific requirements for your country too, preferably from an official site. For example, the U.S. prohibits "almost anything containing meat products, such as bouillon, soup mixes, etc." which means you can't ship instant ramen there, since most of the time the soup mix has meat in it.

Shipping costs

In a nutshell: The faster and more reliable a shipping method is, the more expensive it's going to be.

The vast majority of Japanese merchants and shippers use the Japan Post (which, by the way, is a private company), with a few exceptions. The other domestic shipping companies like Yamato and Sagawa aren't that active in international shipping as of yet, and the international ones like UPS and Fedex don't have much of a presence. So your shipping choices are basically what Japan Post offers. There are usually 4 choices for packages (there's another list for documents).

  • EMS is the fastest, most reliable, and most expensive. It is trackable. Note that many Japanese merchants will only ship via EMS because of its reliability and trackability.
  • SAL is the next fastest, very reliable, and not as expensive. Also trackable for most countries.
  • Airmail small package is not trackable, is pretty cheap, and fairly reliable depending on the destination country.
  • Seamail is slow, not trackable, and well - I have lost more shipments or had them ruined when shipped this way than all the other methods combined. It is the cheapest however.

(A couple of notable companies who don't use Japan Post as their first choice shipper: Amazon uses DHL (aka "Amazon Global") for international shipping, and may use a private no-name courier over land, or the local postal service. Bento&co uses Fedex, and they have free shipping if your order is over US$79.)

Customs

Just about every country has import tariffs, aka customs. And in most cases you will have to pay a customs fee when you order things from outside your country. Every onnce in a while your package may get passed through without incuring a customs fee because the declared value is too low or something. But it is always a hit or miss proposition, so you should always be prepared to pay customs.

Note: when you shop from Amazon and they ship you stuff directly, they also precharge you for estimated customs. They usually over-estimate the cost, and refund you the difference later. So you aren't getting a 'no-customs deal' or anything. However, in some countries shopping from Amazon may mean that you aren't paying a base service charge to the customs office, which can save you a lot. (In France for instance there is a minimum fee of 21 euros to just get customs to sneeze on your package.)

In my experience, EMS packages are always charged a customs fee. SAL can be hit or miss. Airmail small packages are rarely charged customs. Seamail is usually charged customs - but I haven't used it for years due to losing so many boxes in the past.

It is not a good idea to ask shippers to mark your package as a "gift" to try to avoid paying customs. Legitimate companies in Japan, whether they are package forwarding services, proxy agents or merchants themselves, will not do this.

It is not the shipper's fault if your customs and/or shipping charges are high

I often see people complaining about shipping/customs fees as if they the shipper's fault. They are not. International shipping is by and large much more expensive than domestic shipping. If you can't afford it or find it somehow objectionable to pay, then just don't shop from other countries.

Part 3: Amazon Japan and Rakuten

The two biggest online shopping sites in Japan are Amazon Japan and Rakuten (more about Rakuten later). Amazon is the Amazon you probably already know: it sells a lot of items directly, and also list items sold by third party sellers. Rakuten is mostly an online mall, consisting of thousands of individual merchants. They do sell some things (such as books and media and non-perishable food) directly, but compared to Amazon the percentage of direct Rakuten sales is tiny. But unlike Amazon, the variety of individual merchants is huge, and each one is allowed to show off their personality as it were, unlike on Amazon when it can be a bit hard to tell Amazon and third-party seller listings apart.

Amazon

The big plus of shopping on Amazon is that there's a good chance you've shopped from your home country's Amazon already, so you may already be familiar with their interface and reputation. The other advantage is that you can use your home country's Amazon account credentials to log into Amazon Japan or any other Amazon (you will have to re-enter them to start, since your browser recognizes them as separate sites).

Once you log on to Amazon Japan, you can switch the language of the site by scrolling all the way to the bottom of the page.

Image: bottom of the Amazon Japan homepage

Scroll down to the bottom of the Amazon Japan home page to change the language.

Switch to English, and if you intend only to shop for stuff shipped directly to you in another country, change the country too. You don't need to do this though, since you can just select an overseas shipping address (your default ones should already be in the system, if you logged in with your current Amazon credentials) when checking out. I recommend not switching your destination country if you might use package forwarding services at some point.

Note that the language is only changed for the generic parts of the site, not the product descriptions, which remain in Japanese. But at least you can see how to do basic Amazon things like browsing and adding to a shopping cart.

Amazon Japan ships a limited selection of items to a limited selection of countries. Most items will say if they can be shipped to your selected address on the listing page, but sometimes that information is wrong and you only find out if something can be shipped when you try to check out.

A note for anyone in Switzerland: only the EU Amazons ship there anymore. Amazon US, Japan, etc. will not ship anything, which really sucks. (This is due to some tax nonsense in Switzerland...but Amazon obviously doesn't care much about the Swiss market at all anyway.)

There is only one international shipping option available from Amazon - Amazon Global. (See Part 2 above.)

Note that most Amazon third party sellers will not ship directly overseas. And even Amazon itself does not ship everything they sell directly overseas. If you encounter that snag, you will need to use a package forwarding service.

Rakuten

(Note: I'm not including the localized Rakuten sites in the US, France and Germany here. They are really re-branded versions of online shopping sites that already existed in those countries, and don't sell Japanese items at all other than the stuff available anywhere.)

There are two parts to Rakuten. The first is the main Japanese Rakuten site, which is all in Japanese. The other is the Global Rakuten site, which is available in English, Chinese and Korean (you can switch these as well as your preferred currency on the home page). Unless you can read Japanese you are probably going to need to use the Global site.

The common parts of the Global site are perfectly fine. However, for better or worse - mostly worse - they are using machine translations for the product descriptions, and they are often hilariously awful. You have to guess what they mean in many cases. Rakuten works best when you know the name of the product(s) you want, and can use the search box judiciously.

If you can figure Rakuten out though, they have a huge selection and they charge Japanese retail prices with no overseas markup. You do have to pay for shipping and customs of course. Also watch out for items where a forwarding fee is added, if you want to avoid that charge for whatever reason. (Rakuten haUnless you can figure out the Japanese product descriptions on Amazon, Rakuten may be easier to use. Plus, they are constantly offering coupons and double-triple and more points promos and so on.

Note that many Rakuten merchants will not ship directly overseas. If you encounter that snag, you will need to use a package forwarding service.

Part 4: Package forwarding services

If the merchant you're interested in buying from accepts non-Japanese credit cards and/or PayPal, AliPay or other international payment options, but does not ship directly to an overseas address, a package forwarding service is your best bet.

Package forwarding services provide a Japanese address where your purchases can be shipped. The best ones will then consolidate your packages, lightening them if you request them to, re-package them and ship them to you, using the method you select. They charge a small fee for this service. The fee does vary, so shop around first.

Most if not all package forwarding services us Japan Post for overseas shipping (see Part 2 above).

There are many package forwarding services in Japan, indicating that there must be a lot of people who want to shop for Japanese items. I have personally used three of them: Tenso, BaggageForward and Goyokikiya. The last one is my go-to service, but unfortunately they only have Japanese and Chinese language options.

Tenso is by far the biggest and best known one, and their English help pages gives you lots of information on how package forwarding works. Even if you go with another service, I recommend you go to their site and take a look through.

Rakuten also has their own package forwarding service called Global Express, which you can use for purchases from non-Rakuten merchants too.

One thing you do have to do before you use any of these services, besides registering, is provide proof of your identity and current address. This is a mandated by the Japanese government. Your passport and/or driver's ID, a utility or rent bill, etc. should be do.

In summary, package forwarding services are great if you know how to make your way around Japanese shopping sites, don't want to bother a friend or relative to ship your purchases (which involved making a proper packaging slip and other rather bothersome things), and don't mind paying the service fee.

How I use package forwarding services

I used to ask my mother to send me my Japan purchases if I was elsewhere, but she's getting older, and I don't want to bother her too much. So I have been turning increasingly to forwarding services. (As mentioned above, my go-to one is Goyokikiya, but all of them work in the same way.)

I usually make several small purchases over several days, from different merchants. They are all shipped to my unique address at the forwarding address. I then go to the site, insert the right descriptions and prices for each item (although the service will insert some values for you when they get the package in) and have the packages consolidated and lightened to reduce the weight. A day or so later, the service sends an email that everything is re-packed and ready to ship. I check the weight, and choose the shipping option. You can insure your package for a small fee if you like too. Then you pay the shipping fee, and that's it. In the case of Goyokikiya, they usually ship the same or next day, with the paperwork all done properly. I have never had anything get lost when shipped via Goyokikiya, or Tenso or BaggageForward, and the only times something has gotten stuck in customs was because of customs, not the paperwork.

Part 5: Proxy buying services

A proxy buying service or shopping service works like this:

  • You tell them the URL of the item (s) you want to buy, with the cost
  • You pay them in advance for the item, with a handling/service fee, plus estimated domestic shipping
  • They order the item(s) for you.
  • From this point it works just like package forwarding. The service will consolidate packages if needed, and then the international shipping charge is calculated. You pay them for this and your package is on your way to you.

I have a rather dated post about using one such service, White Rabbit Express, to buy some Funassyi items. (Note: the Funassyiland site now accepts overseas credit cards, so nowadays I just have my stuff shipped to a package forwarding service.)

I have tried two such services personally: White Rabbit Express, as mentioned above, and Buyee. Buyee is operated by Tenso, the big package forwarding service mentioned in Part 3.

Buyee has a handy browser add-on which allows you to add items to your Buyee shopping cart directly from the item's listing page. It's even smart enough to prompt you if there is a color or size choice to make. It's so handy, it's the one I use when I need a proxy buying service. It's especially handy for bidding on auction items.

However, Buyee can only be used on certain sites; essentially, if the add-on tool doesn't work on a site, then you can't use it.

Buyee popup

Whenever you are on a site where you can use Buyee, this pops up in the right top corner. If it doesn't, you you probably can't use Buyee on that site.

Buyee also has iOS and Android apps. I have not used the apps yet, so I can't comment on them.

White Rabbit Express on the other hand offers a more hands-on service. You can essentially shop from any online merchant, and you can even ask them to shop for you at physical stores in central Tokyo. Their website is very pleasant to use too. (White Rabbit Express also operates a forwarding service called Black Ship, but I've never used it.)

There are lots of other proxy buying services; just try searching for 'Japan shopping service'. I just haven't used any others myself so I can't comment on them.

So that's it. I hope it's helpful to you, and if you have any unanswered questions, let me know on the usual social media places. I will also have a list of online merchants that I have personally used and recommend soon.

Last updated December 18, 2019.

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