While the rest of the world struggles under the weight of high hardware prices, Japan’s domestic vintage synthesizer market is surprisingly cheap. The bad news is it’s something of a closed store. We tell you the best tips and tricks for buying synthesizers from Japan.
Buying Synthesizers From Japan
As I sit here writing this, I’m surrounded by vintage Japanese synthesizers. I have something like 50 in my studio and that doesn’t count drum machines, outboard gear, and other random things. I’m not rich though. Far from it. My only secret is that I live in Japan, where vintage hardware prices are surprisingly lower than in the rest of the world. Lucky me, right? Well, there’s no reason why you can’t be lucky too. If you like synths by Roland, Korg, Yamaha and other Japanese manufacturers, read on.
Low Prices, High Quality
How low are we talking? I recently picked up a Yamaha TG55 rackmount ROMpler for around $20. Granted, that’s not the most desirable instrument ever released but a quick glance at a popular used gear site shows it selling for about 10 times that. Past purchases include a Roland Alpha Juno-2 for $200 and a JX-3P with PG-200 programmer for $500. Not every synth is that cheap though. Your Jupiter-8s and CS-80s command lofty prices. However, they’re still significantly lower than overseas.
Anyone who has ever perused vintage gear listings has undoubtedly seen a well-kept Japanese instrument for sale. Original box! Manuals and gig bag! Immaculately clean! Only one owner! This is no exaggeration. One of the joys of buying Japanese domestic gear is how well it’s been kept. Japanese people value cleanliness and this extends to the things they own. They also like to hold onto the original packaging. Of course, not every item looks like it just rolled off the showroom floor. There are gigging musicians and plenty of smokers here too but the majority of gear is clean and working.
Japanese Market Factors
If gear is well-kept and working, why is it so cheap? The main reason is that the Japanese used instrument market is largely closed off from the rest of the world. While many other countries are interconnected through the English-language internet and used gear auction sites, Japanese sellers prefer to operate using their own, Japanese-language sites like Yahoo! Auctions and Mercari. Many don’t want to deal with the hassle of shipping overseas either. This restricts the buying pool to local Japanese speakers.
The other side of this coin is a glut of used Japanese-made instruments. Japan’s miracle economy peaked in the 1970s and 1980s, exactly the same time when Japanese instrument manufacturers were turning out some of their most famous synths and drum machines. This was Japan’s Bubble Era when people literally had more money than they knew what to do with. Think gold toilet seat levels of wealth. It wasn’t uncommon for suburban dads to buy a Yamaha DX7 or Roland Juno-106 for their kids to practice on at home. These days however local young people want guitars if they want an instrument at all.
It’s simple supply and demand economics. A large supply plus small demand gives you low prices, which makes buying synthesizers from Japan an attractive option.
Where To Buy?
The easiest way to take advantage of these low prices is by living in Japan – but that’s not realistic for most musicians and collectors. Now that Japan has opened its borders to tourists there’s nothing to stop you from taking advantage of the market. The yen is at a low as well, meaning your foreign currency will go even further when buying synthesizers from Japan.
Where do you start though?
Musical Instrument Stores
The easiest and most visible place to buy used gear is a used musical instrument shop. Tokyo’s Shibuya district is home to a number of stores, including Five G, a must-visit for synth nerds. They’re not cheap though. This is true for brick-and-mortar stores in general, although their prices may still be lower than what you’re used to at home. (Don’t forget to factor in the cost of shipping, which is expensive anywhere from Japan.)
Japan doesn’t have thrift stores or charity shops but it does have recycle shops, stores selling used goods of all kinds. For synths and drum machines, check out the inadvertently hilariously-named Hard Off. They have locations all over the country but if you’re in Tokyo, try the one in Akihabara as it has a good selection of musical instruments. For the best Hard Off deals, head to the Junk section. While some items are well and truly broken, this is where the store puts anything that they can’t guarantee. Sometimes gear just needs a new internal battery or other minor repairs.
By far the best deals for used synths you will find are on Yahoo! Auctions (yes, that Yahoo!). There is a bewildering amount of stuff on Yahoo! Auctions and a lot of it sells for very reasonable prices. As I mentioned before, you have to speak Japanese and actually be in Japan to get the best deals. However, there are middleman services like Buyee that will bid on your behalf and then ship it to you. They take a cut and of course, shipping is expensive, which adds to the original price. I’ve never used one of these services as I live in the country but friends have and they’ve never had a problem.
Tips For The Best Deals
For the absolute best deals in Japan, here are some tips.
- Stick to Japanese brands. Imported instruments from America and Europe are never cheap. The exception is gear that was manufactured domestically like Sequential and Oberheim, both of which had Japanese plants in the 1980s to service local demand.
- Buy unpopular gear. Prices have been creeping up on Yahoo! Auctions the past few years because more overseas buyers are catching on. However, some gear is still cheap, like PCM synthesis modules, which are never sexy, and old PA mixers, which are really heavy.
- Buy broken. I taught myself to do basic maintenance and repairs and it’s saved me hundreds of dollars. Usually, it’s just a battery that needs changing or maybe a few loose wires to be resoldered.
In case you can’t make it to Japan any time soon, here are some modern recreations of classic Japanese gear to tide you over.
Roland SH-01A grey
Korg MS-20 mini
What are some of your favourite vintage Japanese synths? Let us know in the comments.
More about Japanese synths:
- Roland SH-101: SMEM
- The Roland JD-800 programmable digital synthesizer (1991): Roland
- Korg MS-20: Wikipedia
- Roland System 100: Matrixsynth