buying doujinshi: a crash course

doujinshi and importing: a primer

This guide will help you navigate the practice of buying doujinshi, or any other exclusive goods, from Japan!

Doujinshi are simply self-published works. To clarify some things about doujinshi:

The best way to support an artist directly is to buy their doujinshi while they’re available to purchase directly from doujin shops. The big three are Toranoana (Tora), Melonbooks (Melon), and Pixiv BOOTH (BOOTH). Tora and Melon have multiple locations in Japan alongside online storefronts, while BOOTH offers a combination of in-house printing, warehouse shipping, and facilitating orders shipped from the artist’s home rather than any physical storefronts. Herein lies the problem: these shops do not directly ship internationally, so you’re going to need a little help in the form of a proxy buyer or fowarding service.

proxy vs. forwarder

In order to use a proxy service, you send them links to the items you want. They purchase and receive the items, then mail them to you. With a forwarder, you do the ordering yourself. The forwarder will provide you with an address to fill out your order form (along with a guide on how to fill in the address fields) rather than place the order for you. Once they receive it, they ship it to you.

Importing is not cheap. Pandemic life has only driven those costs up more due to higher shipping prices globally as well as less shipping options, but the currency exchange rate counters this depending on where you are in the world. The cost breakdown will look like this:

Item(s) + applicable tax if not already included (currently 8% in Japan) + domestic shipping to proxy/forwarder + shipping to you + proxy/forwarder fee + other fees*

*The most common applicable fees are deposit/money receiving (covering the fee for transfering the money to the proxy, based on payment method [credit card, PayPal, etc.]), followed by fees for bank transfer/COD payments (although these generally do not apply to doujinshi purchases). Generally, proxies will consolidate multiple packages for free, while forwarders will charge for this. Other fees may include taking photos of the item, extra secure shipping, repacking the parcel after it has been prepared to ship to you (usually splitting to get a lower shipping fee), etc. Outside of deposit and consolidation, extra fees are usually easy to bypass entirely.

“so which do i choose?”

As a long-time doujinshi and merch collector, here is my annoying but honest advice: it really benefits you to have at least one of each. If you're simply buying from Tora/Melon/Booth then either works perfectly, but if time is of the essence and/or you're buying secondhand, there are times when one simply won’t work out so you’ll have to use the other.

my experience

The following contains affiliate links and my personal experiences; your mileage may vary.

This is the first proxy I ever used. Mostly pros – very personalized attention was the best part. Nahoko-san always worked with me and made suggestions to get my items shipped cheaply (the only proxy who offered me SAL Printed Matter, which is like Media Mail in the US) and always packaged everything with care. The downside was somewhat ridiculous: I ordered an item from Animate, and I was told that it was on backorder. Animate took down the product link – usually, from what I’ve noticed, this means it’s never being restocked. So over the next few months I kept using TJ service as usual and receiving the usual flawless communication, but whenever I asked about the Animate item, I was outright ignored (to be clear, I didn’t spam the question or anything obnoxious like that). Japanese shops usually have a no-cancellation policy that I adhere to, but at my wit’s end I asked for the order to be cancelled… and was refunded minutes later. TJ offered excellent service, but being ignored for months left a bad taste in my mouth. I think it was probably a one-off incident though, so I won’t completely discount them; their service was pretty stellar otherwise, and they're one of the few proxies that will handle Mercari shopping (this is very rare).
PROS: personalized service with lots of care, long business hours for a proxy, able to purchase from Mercari
CONS: says they cannot purchase adult products which must be a new policy (though I find that when services say this it usually means if adult goods are illegal in your country and the package is rejected, they can't help you after that)

One Map by FromJapan
FromJapan is THE BEST for Yahoo! Japan Auctions. Other than that, I hate them. I used their service for years until I got tired of their dumb shenanigans.
A proxy making that much traffic probably has enough boxes on deck to package my small items, but they started charging me ¥500 for new boxes and yet, when I started using my accumulated points to pay for said boxes, they stopped charging me for them. On one of those new-box occasions, they gave me a box that could only be sent by EMS. When I received it, the box was way too big for the items and was half empty – they didn’t even bother to center the items in the box either. A few times I got my package with the shipping label hanging half-off even though the box had plenty of surface area. I could honestly go on and on because they screwed with me THAT much despite being a loyal and frequent customer for years, but – I’m serious about the Yahoo deal. Their system allows you to do the bidding, and right away no less (most services require advance notice to bid FOR you). But other than that, I’ll never use them again unless I'm in a pinch.
PROS: bidding system lets you do your own bidding on Yahoo auctions
CONS: dodgy in all other aspects, terrible customer service

Tenso is honestly smooth as butter. They’ve always been lightning fast about everything, and offered great support when I had a situation with one of my parcels. The downsides are that you will need to verify your identity via your driver's license/government ID card/passport to use their service (so you can't just sign up and use their service right away if time is of the essence) and they charge consolidation fees on top of weight-based commission (not ideal for very heavy purchases).
PROS: very fast, efficient, helpful
CONS: weight-based commission + consolidation fees can add up fast for big/heavy purchases, you will need to send a picture of your ID to use their service

This one's weird. Buyee is the proxy portion of Tenso and they’re the polar opposite. Technically I’ve never used them, but the sheer amount of horror stories I’ve heard about them, up to this day, is enough to guarantee I will never use them as long as I can help it.
PROS: ???
CONS: everyone has a horror story, so…

BiginJapan is a webshop for figurines and some goods, but they also offer proxy and forwarding services. I haven’t used their proxy service because the price is a bit steep, but their forwarding service is great – a flat ¥500 for a single parcel or ¥1500 to repack/split or consolidate up to 10 parcels. They’re my current forwarding go-to.
PROS: simple flat forwarding rates, will let you undervalue your parcels (good if you have to pay customs/VAT)
CONS: proxy service is on the steep side (¥500 + 15% of total price)

ZenMarket was my proxy go-to when their fee was ¥300 per item. As of November 2023 the fee has been raised to ¥500 per item, which is too steep for my (doujinshi) needs. Communication/order speed can be a bit laggy at times. On the flip, they probably have the widest selection of shipping services. If you use their service often spend a lot, they will automatically extend a credit line to you for making purchases, starting at ¥5000 and working up to ¥500,000! (This has to be paid off before they ship anything, so don’t get any ideas!)
On the topic of shipping services, if you use their ZenExpress (Joom) shipping service, be sure to add insurance. Anything undelivered is returned to Joom and disposed of. I had a long fiasco where my parcel was returned to Joom without a redeliver attempt/notice and ZM was pretty much "they will dispose of it, we can't help or compensate you." Someone realized their error and sent the parcel back to me, but in-between that time was several weeks of stressful back-and-forth between me, ZM, and Joom.
PROS: Lots of shipping options, credit system for high spenders, can buy from Mercari, periodic discount promotions
CONS: Commission is now ¥500 per item - great for a single item, terrible for a long list of items (note that the fee is per item type - 5 of the same item is still ¥500). Service speed varied greatly from time to time (can sometimes take days to process orders) but supposedly the price increase comes with improved service.

Anime Otaku Carry Service
Toranoana has their own in-house proxy called Anime Otaku Carry Service (AOCS). It’s solid and works like a hybrid of a proxy and forwarder, and is actually very easy to use. Once you make an account on AOCS (with an email address NOT attached to a pre-existing Tora account) it will set up a special account for you. This account will have AOCS as the shipping option, so no need to enter any address info - just add to cart, apply any applicable coupons, click the purchase button and done! Also, you do not have to pay right away – once your goods arrive at AOCS, you can choose your shipping options and pay the cost of your goods + handling fee + shipping (remember to add .2kg to account for packing material!) as one combined payment. The commission is weight-based and just slightly higher than Tenso, but the free consolidation makes up for it. Storage is 30 days, but you can apply for a 30-day extension once.
PROS: Currently no domestic shipping fee, free consolidation, pay everything in one go, has their own points system (on top of Tora’s in-store points!)
CONS: You can merge shipments but you can't split them!

There are plenty of other proxies and forwarding services not covered here. Check out myfigurecollection or reddit for reviews to choose which one is right for you.

eBay and middlemen shops

You can sometimes find what you want on eBay. The problem is, if it isn’t from a follow collector who isn’t trying to recoup their expenditures, it will probably be overpriced. Regardless of what you’re looking for, I recommend eBay as one of your last resorts as it’s more luck-based than anything.

Middleman shops are shops that offer either new or secondhand goods in a storefront, but in reality they don’t have anything in stock. You place an order, and they buy it from somewhere else, then charge you an arbitrary amount. The price for a single doujinshi usually covers book price, tax, domestic and international shipping, plus whatever amount they tack on. Even if this works out to be a reasonable price for a single book, it’s absolute trash for two or more, as the included fees/shipping just stack up. As for secondhand goods, ideally you should aim for buying directly from someone who has it in-hand and can assess the quality, or even if it is the correct item. In terms of doujinshi specifically, avoid the OtakuRepublic/DoujinRepublic/GoodsRepublic family of shops. I have seen doujinshi artists call them out specifically because they blatantly look to profit off of both new and secondhand doujinshi. The Republic shops responded to this by blocking Japanese IPs.

extra tips

This guide may be updated in the future, but I hopes it helps you get started, or simply offers new insights in your importing adventure. ☆(・ω・*)ゞ