Buying From Japan

The ultimate beginner’s guide to buying Japanese fashion on the web

Getting into Japanese fashion is tough.

There’s a whole world of confusing terminology, broken Google translations, and brands-you’ve-never-heard-of to navigate. And often, getting the items to your doorstep without having to travel to the other side of the world is the most daunting part of all.

The keyword is that it’s daunting, not difficult. If you’ve ever seen an item on Yahoo Japan Auctions or a Japanese web store and wished you knew how to get it, this guide is for you; we’ll arm you with the knowledge you need to start importing items today.


What makes this so hard?

There are two key elements that make buying from Japanese stores, brands, and independent dealers (such as on an auction site) so difficult.

Firstly, and most obviously, the sites and descriptions are written entirely in Japanese. This one can be addressed somewhat competently on your own; Google Chrome has a great inline translation feature that will automatically translate pages from one language to another of your choice. This, combined with some common sense, can take you pretty far on its own.

The second element is that most Japanese dealers won’t ship outside of Japan. Forget shipping – just trying to create an account on most Japanese websites is near impossible, due to the incredibly high level of personal information required to do so. Without a Japanese address or ID, it’s often impossible.

The solution is to use a shopping service to handle your orders for you.

What’s a shopping service?

A shopping service is a business located in Japan will pay for and receive the desired item on your behalf (for this reason, they’re also often referred to as proxies). You communicate your order to the shopping service, and they follow through on it and forward the package onto you.

Here’s how it generally works:
  • Once you’ve found an item you want, you send an amount equal to the item’s cost to the shopping service, generally via Paypal. This amount acts as your deposit.
  • You contact the shopping service via whatever method they prescribe and communicate the item details, such as the URL, size, color, etc.
  • The shopping service completes the order on your behalf. Once they receive the item (or in the case multiple orders, all of the items), they will notify you and send you a bill for your total.
Additionally, shopping services can often do more than just process orders: they can provide accurate translations, ask sellers questions on your behalf, and even go buy items in person. Each shopping service has a unique set of amenities, so be sure to ask.

The two types of shopping services

While not officialized in any way, shopping services can generally be split into two groups: Personal and Commercial.

Personal services are more personable and flexible than commercial services, because they’re generally just a single person living in Japan. They’re great for going to stores to catch the latest releases before they sell out, or for hunting bargains in second-hand shops. Personal services are especially useful for lolitas; there is a large swath of services that specialize in lolita clothing and are knowledgeable enough to track rare items down.

Commercial services are full-blown companies that can process any type of item, not just clothing. They typically have self-service websites, so they’re great for people who are comfortable with managing most of the shopping experience themselves and want to shop online. While commercial services can often do in-person shopping or answer questions about items, their expertise is not as strong as more specialized service providers.

How much does it cost?

Item Cost ¥30,000
Shipping Within Japan ¥1,000
Bank Transfer Fee ¥300
Commission (10%) ¥3,000
PayPal Fee (5%) ¥1,500
Shipping to You ¥3,000
Total ¥38,800

The difference between the item’s original cost and the final cost to your door is can be startling; the above example shows a roughly 30% increase in the final item cost. Stay aware of how your bill can add up. Some clarifications on a few terms:
  • Bank Transfer Fee: Most purchases in Japan are paid for via bank transfer, and the buyer (that’s you!) pays the transfer fee. This fee is between ¥200 - ¥500.
  • Commission: Shopping services make money by charging you a commission for the items you purchase, be it either a percentage of the item cost or a flat fee per item. Typical commissions range between 5 and 10%, but some services offer significantly lower fees – more on that shortly.
  • PayPal Fee: The odds you’ll be paying for your purchases via PayPal is pretty high. If you do, you’ll be paying an extra 5% to offset the fees PayPal deducts from payments. More on this later.

Which shopping service should I use?

The popularity of Japanese goods combined with the difficulty in having them shipped abroad has resulted in a massive number of shopping services cropping up, from the hyper-specialized to powerhouse generalists.

If you’re looking for something very specific, feel free to ask for it in the comments on this article. For most shoppers, however, I wholeheartedly recommend ZenMarket. There are a few things that make ZenMarket a great service for new and experienced shoppers alike.

For starters, you can search Rakuten, Amazon, and Yahoo Japan Auctions from the same site, with a clean, natively-English interface. It will even take your English search queries and search for them in Japanese — not a fool-proof method, but it generally works well.

If the item you wish to purchase is from one of the aforementioned services, you can bid on or purchase the item without ever leaving ZenMarket’s website. Power-users may prefer to still use each site’s native interface, but this is a great feature for beginners.

For stores that can’t be searched or purchased from through ZenMarket’s own interface, buying an item is as simple as inputting the item’s URL and making note of any options like size and color.

There are also many, somewhat less consequential features that nonetheless make ZenMarket very easy to like. It's just an incredibly well-designed site, with a smoother buying flow and more-complete account history than any shopping service I've ever used. Shopping services can be daunting and labyrinthian, but ZenMarket works in relatively self-explanitory ways. And when it isn't self-explanitory, the omnipresence of the ability to send messages to the staff should assuage any worries.

With many other shopping services, getting in touch with a human can be an arduous task, and when you do manage to get in touch with someone, they’re not always very helpful. But ZenMarket’s team have been consistently accommodating and speak fluent English.

And of course, the cost: a flat ¥300 per item. This is a little more than From Japan's legendary ¥200 per item, but personally, I've found the higher level of service and better user experience to be worth the price of a nice coffee per package.

Finding stuff to buy

Now you know how to buy things from Japan. But shopping services are the second half of your shopping story; the first half is, of course, finding stuff worth buying.

If you know the brands you like: When searching for stockists of specific brands, always search using google.jp – you’ll often find stockists in the top results. You can also try appending 店舗 (store) or 取り扱い (handling – referring to boutiques or “select shops” that stock the brand) to the brand name. A great way of discovering new brands you like is to check out stores that stock brands you know you like – their other selections will likely be in line with your taste.

Worth noting is that a lot of Japanese brands that are popular abroad – lolita brands in particular – don’t actually have stockists, because they sell directly to customers. In situations like this, your options are to:
  • order from the flagship website
  • find a shopping service that can buy items in-person at their physical locations
  • buy second-hand items from sites like Yahoo Japan Auctions, Mbok, Rakuten, etc.
If you know what kinds of clothes you’re interested in, but don’t know any specific brands or shops: There are resources on Harajuju to help you find what you’re looking for. The Definitive J-Fashion Shop List contains a huge assortment of stores big and small, and is sorted by style archetypes and gender. You can also ask the community here to help you find things that fit your aesthetic.

Buying from auctions

If you’re looking for great bargains on new and used clothes alike, Yahoo Japan Auctions (referred to henceforth as YJ) is your holy ground. If you’ve ever used eBay before, most of the functionality of YJ is obvious. In terms of how to search for things, the same rule from using From Japan’s search applies: it's important to know how the brand is usually referred to, be it in Latin characters, Japanese, or both.

A typical item on YJ. This item is available for either bidding or an immediate purchase. Translated in Chrome.

The three key pieces of information you need are at the top of every auction page: the current price, the remaining time before the auction ends, and the total number of bidders. All the typical concepts from eBay are carried over – some auctions can be bought immediately with the Prompt Decision (Buy it Now) price; some auctions will allow you to make a lower offer on that price; and some auctions have a reserve price, meaning the seller is not obligated to complete the sale unless bidding reaches that price.

Mbok.jp is not as popular as YJ, but you can find gems there and bidding is typically less competitive. It also has better brand categorization than YJ and will provide brand suggestions based on your search query. Like YJ, some items on Mbok can be bought immediately; unlike YJ, you can’t make lower offers, and sellers can’t use reserve prices.

Some general auction tips:
  • Make sure you understand the description. Auction descriptions contain critical information like measurements and item condition. When in doubt, ask your shopping service; it’s their job to help you.
  • Just like on eBay, there are scammers on Japanese sites. Don’t bid on items with only stock photos, nor homemade lucky packs (bags of items of a specified worth – but you don’t know what’s inside). Shopping services will generally not be held responsible for being scammed by a seller.
  • Sniping – bidding on an item at the last second – isn’t possible in the traditional sense. If you bid within the last five minutes, most auctions will extend back to five minutes remaining. That said, bidding as close to the ending time as possible is generally advantageous.
  • Even when bidding during the last five minutes, it’s best to bid the maximum you’re willing to pay rather than making consecutive, incremental bids, which will often trigger a bidding war. Bidding a large amount is a solid strategy for discouraging potential competitors.

How to pay for it all

Most shopping services accept PayPal as the only method of payment, and will charge an additional 5% on the final price to make up for the transfer fee that PayPal collects. Some shopping services – such as From Japan – will accept a bank transfer payment, and by doing this you can avoid the PayPal fee. However, bank transfers are generally not worth the trouble. Not only are they expensive, they’re slow; you’ll have to go to your bank in person, fill out a gigantic form, and wait a week or two (or more) for the service to receive your deposit. By the time they get it, the item you wanted may be gone – and forget about having your deposit refunded if you do it via bank transfer.

Basically, use PayPal.

Shipping options

Typically, you'll be offered two shipping options: SAL or EMS. SAL stands for Surface Air Lifted, meaning it's treated as surface mail in the origin and destination countries, but is transported by air in-between them.

EMS stands for Express Mail Service, and as the name would imply, it's about getting the package to you as quickly as possible. Compared to SAL's shipping time of 2-3 weeks, it's not unusual for a package shipped via EMS to arrive in 3-5 days. Not only that, but unlike SAL, EMS is traceable; you'll always know where the package is, and tracked packages are far less likely to end up in courier limbo.

EMS costs more than SAL, but not by much – only 10% or so. The added benefits of EMS mean it's almost always the wisest choice. As an aside, don't accept standard airmail or surface mail as shipping options. The former is both pricier and slower than EMS, and the latter can take months to arrive.

Dealing with customs

Your country’s customs department will reviews items coming into the country to see whether or not to levy a tax on them. Depending on where you live, customs charges can either be a pittance or they can cost over half of the declared value on the package, and you’ll have to pay up before they’ll relinquish your item. Many shopping services will allow you to decide for yourself what value to declare for the package. The lower the value, the lower the potential tax. Not only is this illegal, but you’ll be out of luck if the package gets lost or damaged; insurance will only cover the declared value of the package.

Anecdotally, items that are marked as gift appear to be levied less frequently, but again, falsifying customs information is illegal. Inevitably, you are going to to have to pay customs on some items, so make sure to consider this before ordering.

Some final advice

Now you have all of the practical knowledge you need to start buying stuff from Japan. With all of the great clothes and styles to discover, it's easy to lose yourself to the fun of shopping online and getting great deals. Before you embark on the journey towards your fashion future, some word of advice:
  • Start slowly and focus on building a wardrobe of items that you really love.
  • Keep your eyes open for good deals, but don’t buy things just because they are cheap.
  • You will make mistakes. You will get items that don’t fit, or don’t suit your style the way you had hoped. It’s inevitable. Don’t get discouraged!
Happy shopping!

If you have further questions or comments, feel free to post them in the comments below. This article will be updated to reflect new information.

Cover photo is © Agustin Rafael Reyes.


Hey everyone,

A big thank you for reading this. Note that this article is a living document that will be updated with new information periodically. If you have any comments or suggestions for additions to this guide, please post them here. Thanks!

HARAJUJU founder, admin

Quick day-zero update to the article to explain the different shipping options.

HARAJUJU founder, admin

i don't know how useful this may be, but i had a list of translations saved along with some links to categories

The world needs more people who appreciate and not just consume

❁ (◡‿◡)

Thanks Shah!

They won't go into this article but I'll find some way to use this.

HARAJUJU founder, admin

that is some really good article brad. such wow

(November 27, 2012 11:56 PM)galism said: And with that, Synthese can go click himself.
Fuuma said:The reasons I have for buying Rick are deep as fuck, in fact it isn't a choice but a realization of the ultimate goal of history through dialectical materialism (and bitches + dope).

look mom im writing again..

Worth noting that FJ offers FedEx option to Asian countries, and for parcels over 1 kg, it's cheaper than using EMS.

Very well-written Brad. Thanks for taking the time to do this.

(October 16, 2013 09:52 PM)Rosenrot said: Worth noting that FJ offers FedEx option to Asian countries, and for parcels over 1 kg, it's cheaper than using EMS.

Very well-written Brad. Thanks for taking the time to do this.

Thanks for the info! It's true that I should have mentioned FedEx as quite a few proxies will offer it.

HARAJUJU founder, admin

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