Buying Games in Japan: An Overview of the Consumer Landscape

I first came to Japan four years ago as part of my graduate school trip. The resulting article from my experience made it into our first book, and remains one of my favorite pieces of work.

Now, I’ve lived in Japan for over two years as a JET Program teacher. When I was a teenager I learned that Japan was the source of so many awesome videogames. That sparked my curiosity, and I’ve studied the language and culture since then. Before coming here, I wondered what it was like to play games in Japan. Various articles and reports down the years have added to that mystique. The problem is, they only focus on one part and miss the whole -- they look at one specific place and not the entire, varied spectrum of game stores in Japan.

While Akihabara is great, it’s far from the only place to get games in Japan

While Akihabara is great, it’s far from the only place to get games in Japan

I touched on this topic once before in 2010 when I visited Tokyo -- the enormous, neon-lit megalopolis that’s the heart of contemporary Japan. With more than one-quarter of Japan’s entire population, Tokyo has just about everything, with little corners of the city dedicated for each of those things. Games and electronics are found in Akihabara.

Of course, Super Potato and other shops in both Akihabara and Osaka’s Den-Den Town are landmarks for nerds, and they have all sorts of gaming goods. If you want to track down the rarest of the super-rare, those are the places to go. I’ve read a few different articles about these places, but few discussing the rest of the country. Focusing on these landmark locations in the two big cities is very inaccurate. That would be like calling the Seattle’s original Starbucks location the only place to go get coffee in the United States.

The pink AEON signs are a familiar sight nationwide in Japan.

The pink AEON signs are a familiar sight nationwide in Japan.

For the rest of us gamers in Japan, reality is a bit different. A mix of stores provide games for the masses in Japan. There are four different kinds of stores, the first of which are the department stores. Often two stories or more, the most common chain, AEON, reminds me of a slightly classier Sears or J.C. Penney. You can get just about anything in AEON’s departments, from vacuum cleaners to home bedding, groceries to glasses. Games take up a small part of the electronics section, and variety is limited. Because they’re often near or along with the toy section, you often get a decent collection of kid-oriented gaming goods (from plush toys to Nintendo 3DS cases) as well.

Similar in scope are the electronics chains, which are like Best Buy on steroids. Yamada, Best, Yodobashi and Bic Camera have locations that range in size from small in the suburbs to multiple city blocks. The Yodobashi in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district is one of those monsters -- a web of interconnected buildings spans a few blocks, with one of the stores dedicated just to games. Even in the smaller city of Fukuoka, though, the Bic Camera is spread between two city-block locales. Out in my part of the countryside, these shops are about the size of a common suburban American Best Buy. At the denki-ya (electronic stores) the game selection is often better than department stores, but the price is still high, and they don’t deal in used games.

Bookstore chains are the third group, and these are where you start to see more game support. These chains, specifically Tsutaya and Geo (pronounced “gay-o,” for the record), feature new and used books, music, comics, magazines and games. Their department for games is much more fleshed out, with some locations dedicating an entire floor to new and used titles. You can even find much older used games from time to time; I’ve seen NES and SNES games at Tsutaya locations. Tsutaya and Geo are the two mainstream choices, and would be similar to Barnes & Noble selling videogames. Tsutaya is one of the most common places to buy games and hardware in Japan, if only because the chain is ubiquitous nationwide. Renting movies and CDs is still very common in Japan, so there’s also a shade of Blockbuster Video visible. Renting games is illegal, yet renting CDs is still legal and Tsutaya also sells blank CDs near the register. Read into that what you will.

The rare, stand-alone suburban Tsutaya.

The rare, stand-alone suburban Tsutaya.

And lastly we have the specialist shops, the game stores dedicated solely to our hobby. Surprisingly enough, there doesn’t seem to be a national chain. There is no GameStop for Japan. This leaves a series of mom-and-pop stores to fill the void. The one that I go to, Famicom House, has a wide swath of current games, as well as a healthy supply of used games and lots of previous-generation titles. Most of the small stores I’ve seen have games all the way back to the NES available. So compared with GameStop, the availability of games and accessories is much better. However, new titles are much more market-driven in price than in the U.S. The most popular titles can be released to price tags of 8000 yen or more -- equivalent to $80 or $90 depending on the exchange rate. Due to the pricing structure, those prices tend to crash down sooner than with most new titles in America. Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance came out last year for over 6000 yen, or $60, but I saw it used at a secondary shop for 1600 yen this month.

This makes the secondary market a much more vibrant place. Remember, there’s no renting of games allowed in Japan, so people have to sell used if something’s a real dud. Some of the places I go aren’t just new game stores, but also what are called “recycle shops.” Recycle shops are an offshoot of the mom-and-pop stores -- while they have sizeable gaming sections they are not dedicated entirely to games. A large national chain, Book-Off, is dedicated to books, movies, games and more. One nearby is a treasure trove for old games. One of my gamer friends down here in Nagasaki found a Game Boy Advance Micro and a number of rare GBA games recently. Personally, I’ve picked up a stack of old PlayStation games for about 150 yen each -- roughly $1.50 or $2.

Manga Soko’s “My Final Fantasy” pack — yours for a cool 29,800 yen!

Manga Soko’s “My Final Fantasy” pack — yours for a cool 29,800 yen!

But there’s more. There is also the nerdy recycle store near me. It’s called Manga Soko, which roughly translates to “Manga Warehouse Store” and has tons of used stuff including quite a few rare and strange old games like Earthbound or a boxed copy of Dr. Mario, dating from the NES on up. Do you want a store-assembled set that has every Final Fantasy game through Final Fantasy XII, plus a “Famiclone” and PlayStation 2 to play them on? I saw that just this week for about $300. When I brought gifts to Nick and Aaron at Christmas in 2012, I got them each a couple of unique titles in boxes from there. Hunting for goodies at the recycle shop is a hobby unto itself.

The Japanese market is much more multi-faceted than it would appear at first glance. Much like in America, where there are major titles at Wal-Mart while GameStop has a wider selection, except with the added benefit of the availability of games from the 1980s and 90s. What I appreciate the most about buying games in Japan is that nod to heritage -- the old games at my local game store may not take up a ton of space, but they’re there, hanging out while new titles attract all the attention. It’s a reverence for, and access to, gaming history that American game stores have abandoned.

Imagine picking up a Genesis or NES from the local strip-mall GameStop now! In Japan, that is a dream within reach.