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Various Japanese craft books, some translated. Image by the author.

For the whole month of August, I've been talking about amigurumi: a style of pointedly adorable crocheted or knitted toy, developed in Japan, that has become popular among English-speaking crafters. It could never have happened without two things: the availability of design-conscious Japanese craft books in other countries, and the Internet's ability to spread trends -- and make those books even more available.

Japanese craft books in general have become hot in the English-speaking craft scene. Until recently, translations were mostly limited to books that were released in the US by the publisher Ondori, usually about beading. Things are changing, as books like Fleece Dog and Sock and Glove (aka Sock Monkeys and Glove Dogs), and various offerings from Aranzi-Aronzo, have hit stores in the last few months. But there are still many cute, interesting books that will never be translated into English.

The good news is that, with only slightly more effort than buying them from your local bookstore or Amazon, you can get the best in Japanese craft books for yourself.

Find out how after the break! Don't worry: you don't need to be able to read or speak Japanese.

I see the objection coming: you can't read Japanese. That's fine! Neither can I. Most Japanese craft books are extremely visual, with gorgeous photography, and very clear diagrams to show a project's steps. If you're willing to engage in a little bit of trial and error, and you're not an absolute craft beginner, it should be easy to complete a project with the help of the photos and diagrams alone. There are also some websites that can help you along; I'll discuss a few later in this article.

The basics:

Japanese books and magazines usually read, in comparison to English-language books, "from back to front." However, most craft books of this kind that I've seen are double-sided: color photos are in what would be the "front half" of an English-language book, and the instructions are in the "back half," but often start with the "back cover."

Most yarn-related projects are charted out, with the symbols for the necessary stitches on the chart. One of the first things to investigate, in a knitting or crochet book, is the stitch key. This will usually be a page of very clear drawings of stitches being made, and a symbol beneath to tell you how each stitch is represented in the charts; if you want to use one of these books, you'll probably need to refer to the stitch key frequently. Photocopy it or print it out. The ability to read the chart is all you need to use the patterns for most amigurumi and small accessories.

Remember that the measurements in the books will almost always be metric.

To help you get started, check out Makewrite, with this page of terms and the kanji or kana (Japanese writing) for them. You can be on the lookout for those terms, both when you shop and when you make things. Also see My Little Mochi's downloadable list of terminology that you'll find in the books themselves. (You will notice links to these pages elsewhere in this article.)

Finding books to order:

When you're talking about books from another country, in a foreign language, how do you begin to decide that you want to order them? Well, there are several ways.

If you live in or near a city with a Kinokuniya, you're in luck: you probably won't need to order anything. Kinokuniya is sort of like a Japanese Barnes and Noble, selling books, magazines, cds, stationery, and so on. You'll be able to browse the shelves and choose what you like. Most Kinokuniya shops in the US seem to be on the East or West coast, and most have good, current craft book selections.

You may also have a smaller independent Japanese bookstore in your town, depending on how large your local Japanese community is. The craft books in these bookstores might not necessarily be very new or "hip." It depends on who's choosing the stock of the store and how often they get new stuff.

If you have no local resources, check the following sites, particularly Crafting Japanese and the Crafting in Japanese Flickr pool, to see lots of images from books that people have purchased, used, and liked. You will notice that almost every book mentioned has an ISBN listed with it. Take note of the ISBN of any craft book you're interested in buying: you'll need it.

  • Crafting Japanese - The most complete page about Japanese craft books, compiled by Maitreya of Craftlog. See cover scans, ISBNs, and projects people have completed. Browse by date or topic, and don't miss the special resource pages linked from the sidebars that can help you decide where to shop and how to puzzle out the instructions once you get the books, including downloadable stitch keys. Maitreya hasn't been updating this in 2007, but it remains valuable.
  • Google Translate and Japanese Craft at Makewrite - A short guide to using the Google Translate bookmarklet to find Japanese craft sites. Includes a list of kanji, kana, and romaji versions of relevant words like "zakka" ("general merchandise," but the connotation is more along the lines of "stuff," as in, "small stuff to make": hair clips, tiny animals, book covers, small accessories, and so on). The author also compiled a list of links to topic searches on Amazon Japan. Don't miss this one.
  • Crafting in Japanese - The Flickr answer to Crafting Japanese: a group where people upload pictures of things they've made, as well as information about the craft books they used (including ISBNs). If they're having trouble figuring out how to do parts of a project, they may upload a scan of those particular instructions. This group will give you a good overview of what the books are actually like to use, and will help you decide whether or not they're for you before you invest in them.
  • Inspiring Images from Craft Books - This Flickr pool is for any craft book you can imagine, but images from Japanese books often end up in it.
  • A downloadable list of terms that you will find in Japanese patterns, from My Little Mochi. This may help you figure something out, if the diagrams aren't clear enough.
  • This "Japanese Craft" blog post by mk carroll has a few more details, and was helpful in writing this article.

Ordering books:

If you're planning to order some books, you should make sure that your browser has Japanese language support installed. You'll be writing in romaji - spellings of Japanese words using the English-language alphabet - but pages will display better with Japanese support, and you might be able to do more sophisticated searches.

The reason the ISBNs are important is that they will help you order the books yourself. If you can't read kanji, you probably won't be able to figure out the title of the book or the name of the author, but the ISBN is an individual number that identifies a given book just as accurately.

If you want to browse, you may be able to look a term up on a site without using kanji or kana, but it depends on the site (for instance, at YesAsia you will get results for "amigurumi"). You can also use a page like the one at Makewrite to copy and paste relevant terms into search windows at Japanese-language sites.

Remember that overseas shipping is expensive: it's not unusual to pay US$20 to ship a book or two from Japan to the US. It can take a while for books to arrive.

Places to buy books online (generally high shipping):

  • Amazon Japan - Set up basically like the American original. If it's in print in Japan, you can probably get it here. Use the resources in this article and the other links to streamline your experience. This site has an English-language option, but that mostly means that you'll be able to do searches and check out -- you won't be able to read any reviews, aside from their star ratings. Enter the ISBN for the book that interests you, and you'll be taken to the book's page. Just like on the original Amazon, you'll also receive suggestions for similar books.
  • YesAsia - A pan-Asian superstore that offers a wide variety of products, including Japanese craft books. You can do an English-language search here.
  • Fujisan - Similar to YesAsia, but Fujisan has a Japanese focus. Be sure to click the "English" button; look around in the categories (crafts are under "hobbies"). I have ordered from them in the past with no trouble.
  • Etsy - look around; some sellers have a selection that they try to keep in stock, others just sell books they want to pass on to someone else.
  • EBay - comments about Etsy also apply here.

A few English-language sites that are more specialized offer Japanese craft books and products, which they import themselves:

  • Sasuga Books - Located in Massachusetts, with good reputation.
  • Kitty Craft - I have been very happy with purchases from this seller. Seems to mostly deal in fabric these days, but keep your eyes open. Ships from the UK.
  • Superbuzzy - Books, fabric, kits, yarn, zakka, and Clover-brand supplies. Ships from the US.
  • Modern Craft - A newer shop, similar to Kitty Craft and Superbuzzy. Ships from the US.

Finally, there are plenty of Japanese-language sites that offer free projects: all you have to do is find them. The translation page at Makewrite should help you. There's also a Free Pattern category at Crafting Japanese. You might enjoy Omura, though you'll have to click around if you don't use the trick with the Google Translate bookmarklet. You might also enjoy Clover's site.

That's all the information you need to get started with Japanese craft books! If you make (or have made) something cool, why not share it in the comments?

This article focuses on modern crafts, but if you are interested in more traditional Japanese stuff, it should be just as helpful. Those books aren't as trendy, but they are out there.



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