The Beginners Guide To Buying Retro Games In Japan (Without Knowing The Language)

Ultimate-Guide-to-Buying-Retro-Games-In-JapanShopping for video games in Japan can be a wonderful and exciting experience, but the language barrier and incredibly wide selection can make it overwhelming, intimidating or even frustrating for some. If you have you heart set on something, it can be difficult to know where to even start. With this in mind it's time to put your minds at ease and provide the ultimate guide to finding the bargains and retro gaming gems in Japan.

Step 1: The Basics

Do your research before you leave the house. I’d highly recommend taking a smart phone with you, as even without an internet connection, you can save photos of box art and the Japanese names of the game. For the latter, the easiest way to do this is to find the game on Wikipedia and then click to view the article in Japanese. Generally, the name of the game will be displayed on the spine of the game in Japanese so even without understanding what the characters mean, you can eliminate most of the games by focussing on the the first two or three characters.


It can also be handy to have a little knowledge of katakana, or a chart to work from. Without going too far into the basics of Japanese, katakana is one of the phonetic alphabets in Japanese which is often (though not exclusively) used for loan words. Many English words won’t be written in the roman alphabet, but rather transposed to the Japanese sound system using katakana.

You may see マリオ (Ma-ri-o) or コントローラ (co-n-to-ro-ra, controller), for example. If you’re just going to be picking up a few games, it’s unlikely you’ll have the time or motivation to learn the 2000+ kanji that high schoolers know, but with katakana you’ll be able to work out a lot of the genre labels, some of the game names and some of the terms used within games.


Step 2: Know your genres

So you have the name of your game, but you’re now standing in front of a wall of thousands of games scanning to see if they match a character you can barely read. To narrow down your search, you’ll want to head into the right section.Here are a few labels you will typically see, most of which are pretty self explanatory.

  • ロールプレイング Role playing games.
  • シミュレーション Simulation games.
  • アクション Action games.
  • 音楽 Music games.
  • シュティング Shooting games.
  • アドベンチャー Adventure games - You’ll find your visual novels here.
  • スポーツ Sports games.
  • レース Racing games.
  • テーブル Table games. Card games, board games and everything inbetween.
  • パズル Puzzle games.
  • トレーニング Training games.
    • In the west we had Brain Training and a few imitators, but here you’ll find many different kinds including English tests (following the standardised qualifications) and games to help you practice your kanji handwriting skills.
  • ポケモン Pokemon
    • Pokemon games and spin offs usually have their own section because they are massive sellers with a lot of used copies floating around.
  • 任天堂 Nintendo (sometimes written in the katakana ニンテンドー ). Nintendo often has it’s own section so if you’re looking for Mario Kart in the racing section, you’ll probably be wasting your time.

The exact varies from shop to shop so this is hardly an all encompassing list, but those are the ones you’ll mostly come across.


Step 3: Find out the condition & contents included

So now you’ve found your game or console, but you’re not sure of the condition or what it includes. If you're buying a console or handheld at somewhere like, Book Off here’s the kind of thing you will see.

The label on the front shows you what you can expect the condition of the system to be. You can see four different categories where it is graded;

  • 汚れ Yogore - Dirt
  • 箱 Hako - Box
  • 説明書 Setsumeisho - Instructions
  • キズ Kizu - Scratches

For each either 有 (has) or 無 (doesn't have) is circled to let you know what to expect. So from looking at this sign we know that this Pikachu GBA Micro isn’t dirty, doesn’t come with a box or instructions and has no scratches. And is a bit overpriced because it has a Pikachu.

Dedicated game shops will go one step further and grade the condition from A-C for games as well as consoles.


  • カセット Cassette - Cartridge.
    • This is the quality of the cartridge (known as cassettes). As A is the highest, you can expect the sticker to be intact with no discoloration or scratches.
  • 箱 Hako - Box.
    • Like the console, this one refers to the box. This one looks great, but there are some scratches on the top and sides and the residue from an old price tag which stop it from getting the top grade.
  • I説明書 Setsumeisho - Instructions.
    • For this one, they have been graded a C, which will probably be fine for most collectors but for those who are more particular than most you can usually check this out before handing over your money.
  • The last section “備考bikou” is notes, of which there are none for this.

Here’s one for a Game and Watch system which is mostly the same except the first category has been replaced with”本体hontai” which is the body of the unit itself.


Step 4: Profit!

Hopefully with this insider knowledge you'll be well equipped to go hunting through the thousands of Famicom cartridges out there to find a bargain or two. With all this in mind it's also worth noting that the prices shown also do not include sales tax which is added at the counter. Right now it’s 8% though has been planned to raise to 10% for several years, with plans being pushed back each time. In some stores you can buy things tax free if you produce a passport with a tourist visa, so if you’re travelling and you’re not sure, it pays to try your luck.

Whether you know no Japanese and are just looking for a fun novelty, or are looking for something to motivate you to practice your budding Japanese skills, don’t panic or get frustrated, it’ll all be fine in the end.

Last Updated ( 22 June 2016 )  


(Link to this comment) Icedcream86 2016-06-29 19:21
A very helpful guide indeed. I went to Japan recently and got a few good things! The grading system they have in trader stores is very similar. Good places to check out are Super Potato in Akihabara and any Hard-off / book-off store you can find.

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