Columns > Published on August 26th, 2013

Big In Japan: 12 Japanese Covers of Popular Bestsellers

Village Vanguard image via Skvora Limited. All other images by Joshua Chaplinsky

Konichiwa, bitches! I am recently returned from a glorious three-week sojourn in the Land of the Rising Sun. (I'm sure you all noticed the distinct lack of my editorial presence while I was gone, right?!?!) Anyways, even though my schedule was packed tight with mountain climbing and monkey frolicking, I still found time to visit the myriad book stores sprinkled across the country like so many fish flakes. I can't read a lick of Japanese, but that didn't stop me from crowding the aisles like the dirty gaijin that I am. The main reason being the covers—oh, the covers! Like everything else in Japan, they are weirder and cooler than our own. It was like a game: I would seek out Japanese versions of novels popular in the West and snap pictures of them in as inconspicuous a fashion as possible. (Despite a stereotyped reputation as a nation of shutterbugs, many Japanese retail establishments frown on picture-taking, and have posted signs stating thusly.) But before I share my pictures with you, a few points of interest:

What with the shuttering of many brick and mortar retailers here in the States, the Japanese book chains thrive in comparison. Kinokuniya is by far the largest, with some fifty-plus locations throughout Japan. They even have stores in New York and LA. (When the hell did this happen? It's like Pearl Harbor all over again!) Just kidding. Other chains I visited: LIBRO (which means "book" in Spanish); the used book emporium, Book-Off (which also has locations in the US); and the super cool Village Vanguard, which is like the Kim's Video of Japan, selling all manner of esoterica, bric-a-brac, and erotic novelties in addition to books. You've also got your Yurindos, your Maruzens, and your Kumazawas. How is this flourishing ecosystem of pulp purveyors possible, you ask? It might have something to do with the fact that in Japan, "online retailers...are constrained by laws prohibiting deep retail discounting."[1] Take that, Amazon!

Also, you will notice that many of these books are cute and pocket-sized, much like the Japanese people themselves. They are called bunkobon, and are basically the mass-market paperback of Japan. Many bunkobon releases are broken up into multiple volumes, to further ensure their pocket-siziness and price point (although, they also do this with hardcovers). Sometimes the multiple covers can be put together to form one giant cover, like Voltron. Most bunkobon come with detachable dust jackets, like their sturdier-covered brethren. They also come with this quarter-page dust jacket thingy, which gives back cover info on the front cover (even though in Japan the back cover IS the front cover), so as not to clutter the front cover design or require lazy shoppers to turn the book over for additional details.

Actually, I'm not 100% on that part. I could just be talking イカのたわごと.

Also also, you almost always see Japanese readers wrapping their books in additional, plain-looking dust jackets. Kind of like when your mom covered your textbooks with brown paper bags from the supermarket. Is this because they are extra anal about the condition of their books? Or is it because they are all reading lolicon and don't want anyone to notice? (Man, I can't believe that shit is legal over there.) Usually these dust jackets are given out by the bookseller, and are emblazoned with the store logo. So if anything, it is yet another attempt to inundate the populace with incessant advertising. This seems counterproductive to me. I don't know why anyone would want to deprive nosey strangers of the sight of these cool-ass covers. That being said—to the covers!

A Song of Fire and Ice by George R.R. Martin

Each installment of Martin's epic series is so long, it's divided into approximately 137 1/2 volumes in Japan. I'm not sure which book is which in the accompanying photo, but it's fun to try and guess. It's also fun to guess which characters are on the cover, because they all look like they're from a Dragon Ball Z cartoon. Second book on the top features what looks like Daenerys, and is probably A Game of Thrones. If a cover features a duodenary character like Giblets the Pig Slop of Hildensquare, it's safe to assume you're looking at A Feast for Crows.

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The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien

These are some classy covers, with a style much more appropriate to the aesthetic of the series. Probably because the Tolkien estate has a Nugent-like stranglehold on their properties. Also, you've got to love the little Hobbit diorama in the display. YOU SHALL NOT PASS... this endcap without going awww...

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Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James

The Japanese have the dubious distinction of not only being one of the most repressed cultures in the world, but one of the most perverted as well. So I'm not sure what to think of their embracing of James' patented brand of mummy kink. Just like it did in the states, I'm sure the trilogy struck a nerve with sheltered housewives, who felt emboldened by its mainstream acceptance to go out and flaunt their sexuality by reading it in public (covered by a handy bookstore dust jacket, of course.) But to everyone else in Japan, Fifty Shades is a Saturday morning cartoon. I wonder, how do you say puckered love cave in Japanese?

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Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell

Hated the film? Don't let the horrible makeup and Tom Hanks' cartoonish mugging deter you from seeking out the source material. Look at how cool the Japanese edition is. What do you mean, Tom Hanks is on it? God dammit... Must he ruin everything?!?!

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Moby Dick by Herman Melville

Goddamn, that's a badass cover. Simple yet effective. It effortlessly conveys the terrible majesty of the White Whale. That's a book cover a metal band could write an album about.

In fact, I was so shaken by this cover that during a visit to a conveyor-belt sushi restaurant, when my girlfriend pointed down the line and exclaimed, Oh my god... whale!, I ducked under the table.

Yes, Japanese people still eat whale. That's why Melville's opus is so popular over there. And no, neither of us tried it. At that point we had already filled up on dolphin.

[amazon 4003230817 inline]


1Q84 by Haruki Murakami

The Japanese love them some Murakami. He's like a bona fide national treasure over there. I must have come across fifty different editions of 1Q84 in my travels (although I didn't see one copy of his latest), each one broken into smaller and smaller increments. These covers are a tad nondescript for my tastes, but to say so in Murakami's homeland is to show a reckless disregard for one's testicular health, because such comments will invariably be met with a swift kick in the coin purse.

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The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown

You might ask yourself, What's a polished turd like The Lost Symbol doing on the bestseller list in Japan? But the more appropriate question would be, Since when is this book about a literate dog solving crimes in the shadow of Mt. Fuji?!?! Because that's the Dan Brown book I want to read. Let's see you play that character, Tom Hanks.

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The Millennium Trilogy by Stieg Larsson

These are actually pretty similar to the American editions in their color scheme, but somehow they come across as edgier and sexier. I wonder if the first few chapters are edgier and sexier in Japanese, or if they're just as boring as they are in English. Zing! Take that, dead guy who never saw his own success.

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Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling

The bunkobon editions of the Harry Potter series I found were the worst. They looked like workbooks for accountants in training. Then I came across some hardcover editions in the Akihabara Book-Off. So much better. If it weren't for the Japanese writing, I might think they were printed in Eastern Europe in the 80s. I can totally picture myself with my MacGyver haircut, reading this in my room while rocking out to some 99 Luftballoons, like I did with the Prydain Chronicles. SHUT THE DOOR, MOM! THIS IS HOW I EXPRESS MYSELF!!!

I think of you and let it fly...

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Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs

How do you translate a book like this into another language? It doesn't even make sense in English. Cool cover, though. That's exactly what would happen to your brain if you translated the Japanese edition back into English and tried to read it.

[amazon 4309201857 inline]


Twilight by Stephenie Meyer

These electric anime-style covers make the Twilight books look way cooler than their American counterparts. Japanese Bella has a knowing gaze instead of Kristen Stewart's vacant stare. Edward is so tall it looks like he's sitting on someone else's shoulders under that trench coat. Nice try, Edward! That's the oldest trick in the Scooby-Doo book.

[amazon 4863320140 inline]


The Tommyknockers by Stephen King

I looked everywhere for some cool Stephen King covers, but all I found was a copy of On Writing and some bunkobon editions of Full Dark, No Stars, which seems to be his latest Japanese release. But then I came across these creepy used copies of The Tommyknockers in a Book-Off. Pretty sweet, although you'd think stores would have a bigger backstock of King classics, like The Stand and It.

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Congratulations to Max Barry, who, when he is not penning columns for LitReactor, moonlights as a best-selling author. You know you've hit it big when they publish you in Japan. Although, to be fair, the book is called Machine Man, and it does have a robot on the cover. Domo origato indeed!

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So what do you think, folks? Making room on your shelves for a giant Amazon Japan order? Check out the Japanese editions of your favorite books and post them in the comments.

[1] Some guy named Eugene's blog

About the author

Joshua Chaplinsky is the Managing Editor of LitReactor. He is the author of The Paradox Twins (CLASH Books), the story collection Whispers in the Ear of A Dreaming Ape, and the parody Kanye West—Reanimator. His short fiction has been published by Vice, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Thuglit, Severed Press, Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing, Broken River Books, and more. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @jaceycockrobin. More info at and

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