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First, be warned: Japan is very weird. I have family there, and every time I hear from them it turns my hair a little whiter. The Japanese have big huge sticks up their collective asses about things like success, social position and reputation. But if you can tolerate the workaholic Victorian atmosphere, here's what the smart guys do when they go to Japan:

Step one: Bring many pairs of jeans, the more rough-looking and worn the better.

Step two: Sell said jeans in the streets. This is not hard; genuine American jeans are a big fashion statement that the rebellious youth of Japan use to piss off their parents. Depending on your jeans and where you are, you can sell them for as much as $200 (remember to convert to yen) a shot.

Step three: Use jean-money to buy anime, which goes for the equivalent of five to fifteen bucks a video.

Step four: Sell said anime back in the states for $30-$50 a video as what it is--a genuine import.

Well, that's the official instructions, but I would add two things here:
1. You might want to research the specifics about the street value of your jeans in the area you're going to, and also the U.S. resale value of the anime you get, and
2. For god's sake, keep some of that anime for yourself--or better yet, give it to me.
PureDoxyk is right about the blue jeans, but wrong about the anime. Videotapes (And CD) in Japan are insanely expensive; I found that the equivalent of $70 was not at all unreasonable for two episodes of anime. So this probably wouldn't work. Laserdiscs are cheaper, sometimes, but the US market for them just went from small to nonexistant.

Another lucrative way to visit Japan is to teach English. Not as risky, and it does work.

The real lucrative way to visit Japan is to be female, pretty, and willing to (ab)use this a little. The glory days of English teaching are over, nowadays they get paid shit and treated worse. Many a disillusioned English teacher has realized that instead of speaking English to a bunch of nitwits trying to get into her pants in a classroom, she can speak English to a bunch of nitwits trying to get into her pants in a hostess bar and make at least four times the dough. And yes, that and pouring your beers really is all that Japanese bar hostesses do; unless you're at a really low-class joint, your odds of actually getting into her pants are almost zero -- and should you succeed, odds are she will be fired.

Those not satisfied with 4000 yen an hour (a typical wage for a hostess, not including tips and bonuses) may wish to explore other options. Many women, including quite a few who would never qualify for the role in the West, model or become TV tarentos. An umfriend of mine was, in addition to all of the above, an exotic dancer: at the end of a good night she might have over 100,000 yen stuffed into her G-string. Now I know that the word "stripper" conjures up certain mental images, but she wasn't particularly tall, her long blonde hair was a wig and even her cup size was a lowly A (which still sufficed to outrank 90% of the locals). A cousin of a friend of a friend (half-Swedish, half-Italian), on the other hand, was a male prostitute who, according to whispered rumors, earned around 1,000,000 yen per gig.

Do note that the inevitable downsides include constant on-the-job drinking (not as fun as you might think), having to put up with jerks who would never get that close to a woman without money, the horrendous expense of living in a big city that will instantly swallow up most of your earnings, big gaping holes in your resume, and warped perceptions of human sexuality and the availability of money. Not many escape unscathed.

Exporting Japanese anime releases is not lucrative; new DVDs cost about 5000 yen ($40) a pop and often contain only one or two episodes. And even for used goods, the street value in the US is relatively low due to the lack of subtitles and the availability of relatively cheap US releases.

Something that does work (I did it myself) is to buy used doujinshi at shops like Mandarake, which can be sold or auctioned for obscenely inflated prices in the US and Europe. The reasons:

  • Doujinshi are basically violating copyright. They're tolerated in Japan as a pool for recruiting fresh mangaka, but would likely not be tolerated by foreign license holders.
  • For fan works, there are no official bulk distribution channels that professional importers could use.
  • yaoi and hentai stuff - sex sells.
  • Doujinshi attract the most rabid fans that will pay just about any price for something they really want.
A 90% profit margin is quite possible for some of them. I made about 6000 Euro this way over the course of a year, with not all that much work. I might have been able to live comfortably on this alone had I turned it into a fulltime business. But it would not have scaled up - I wasn't paying taxes, the niche market may not have supported a larger supply, and most of the stuff qualified as pornography and would have been siezed by customs in my main market (Germany) - the private-looking packets I sent were not checked.

If you want to try it yourself, you'll have to know what anime and manga are popular among doujinshi collectors - it doesn't always correspond with general popularity. And you'll have to be able to recognize those from the covers of the doujinshi, which are often drawn in a style quite different from the originals. Finally, to get really good prices, you need to give your customers a summary of the content, which requires you to recognize individual characters and sit through stuff you'd rather not see (like Piccolo and Son Gohan marrying and having kids).

Oh, and for the opposite direction, designer goods like Louis Vuitton handbags may yield better profit, but require a lot of capital.

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