Big, traditional Japanese printing companies offer awesome quality printing at awesome (as in huge) prices. 30,000 yen for a set of business cards is not unusual. This is exactly why they are getting slaughtered by low-cost competitors. The ‘Lehman Shock’ (as it is known in Japan) also marked a big shift in the approach of many Japanese companies to their printing. Whereas before they were willing to pay high prices for flexibility, assurance and quality, now they were willing to sacrifice some of this for much lower prices.
Some Printing Basics (skip to the bottom if you just want the info)
Before we talk about printing in Tokyo, it’s important to note that not all printing is created equal and also to cover what exactly constitutes quality. There are two basic types of printing – offset printing and digital (on-demand) printing. Offset printing is the image you have of big printing machines with rollers spitting out massive volumes of printed materials. Whenever you start one of these machines, you need a specially made printing ‘plate’. Offset printing provides the best quality but this initial set-up cost means it costs more for small quantities.
You can think of digital printing as a big inkjet printer – although much better than the one you have at home. For small print runs, digital is cheaper but there is a quality trade-off.
So what does quality mean in printing? Basically colour, clarity, cutting and setting. Unless you go with Pantone or DIC (the Japanese alternative to Pantone) ink which is very expensive, colour can be quite imprecise in both offset and digital printing. As a rule, offset produces truer colours. For clarity and sharpness, offset wins hands down – the smudgy edges are usually the big giveaway that something has been printed digitally. Both cutting and setting are not necessarily related to the technique used. Poor cutting could include cutting in the wrong place so that the contents of the printed item are not correctly aligned or jagged, fluffy or chipped edges. Setting (or colour setting) errors are unacceptable no matter how little you pay for your printing. This is when the printer has failed to allow the ink to dry properly and it’s either become smudged or it has transferred onto the back of the item above it. Another (and one of the most important) determinants of quality is the paper that you choose. This isn’t really the printers fault though – it’s up to you to choose the right paper. Most printing companies – even the cheap ones – will send you free paper samples. It’s well worth doing this before you make the mistake of printing on the wrong paper.
So you probably came here looking for cheap printers rather than a lecture about techniques and quality! I have direct experience of using the following three printers. Graphic and Mojo offer English ordering while Printpac is only in Japanese
** September 2016 update – Graphic got hacked and all their customer data was stolen – including credit card information which was stored unencrypted – so use at your own risk **
We used Graphic to print the Tokyo Cheapo business cards as shown at the top of this post. The cost for 500 copies of 3 different cards with full colour on both sides was 7,000yen including delivery. We went for a 7 day turnaround – if you select a shorter turnaround, it costs more. The order process is available in English and is fairly straight forward – although a little idiosyncratic (a simple order generated 20 seperate emails!). You need to use the templates they provide, so if you’re going to use Gr@phic for your printing it might be an idea to use the templates from the start of your project otherwise you’ll have to do everything again. We made a slight mistake with our printing – we chose 180kg paper which is a little flimsy. Instead, we should have gone with the slightly heavier 220kg option. Still, it suits our image! Gr@phic will send you free paper samples, so we should have known better to print without checking the paper first.
They also have a good selection of promotional print goods – such as cardboard fans.
A large number of foreign owned and run companies in Tokyo use Mojo Print, which is an agent for King Printers in Osaka. They offer an English web site and their printing is actually quite cheap – especially compared to the traditional printing companies in Japan. However, it’s still quite a bit more than some of the cheaper printers. If we’d gone through Mojo, our cards would have cost 9,700yen. However, with Mojo, you get a polished English (or Spanish) interface and support – so that’s part of what you are paying for. Like Gr@phic, you use their templates for submitting your print data. If you want really cheap, you have to go local – which means either study up on your Japanese or hope you can use the Google Chrome Translate feature to get yourself through.
One such cheapo printer with no English option is Printpac. If the website doesn’t make you blind, you’ll find some good deals here. They have a range of pricing for each item based on when you need it. If you’re dis-organised and you need it tomorrow, you’ll pay more than if you give them a week. As a rule, printing always takes longer than you think.
The following were found through a combination of word of mouth and scouring ‘ni chaneru’ (2 channel) which is the only site on the Japanese internet where people will say (very directly) what they think about a company. It’s a bit like comments on Youtube though – reading too many will eventually reduce your intelligence.buyer beware and all that.
If you’re willing to take a risk, as the article I linked to at the start mentioned, you could try doing your printing offshore. Print100 is a company in Hong Kong that offers incredibly cheap printing and unlike the Japanese sites listed above, they have an English interface to their website. The one experience I have with them, they didn’t do such a good job on the cutting of some business cards – but it was so cheap it didn’t really matter. They also offer free worldwide delivery. Be aware if you order a huge volume of printing from overseas that it may face customs duties when it arrives in Japan.
Tokyo Cheapo doesn’t endorse any of the printers listed in this article, so if you have issues you’ll have to deal with them. Also, these are all what you might call ‘low service’ providers. If you’re used to sitting down with your printer over a cup of coffee and making lots of last minute changes, then these won’t be the right fit for you.