Business | Japan Pulse

Which e-reader will conquer Japan?

by Felicity Hughes

Contributing Writer

The news that Amazon Japan will be offering the first Japanese manga on Kindle will be welcomed by a small cadre of dedicated e-reader fans. So what took so long? Part of the problem is that the Kindle’s default font only supports Latin-based letters so that device owners either have to use a hack to view Japanese characters or be able to read English. As the text in manga is displayed as an image, this ought to eliminate one problem, though users will still have to negotiate English menus to buy a title and be satisfied with monochromatic pictures.

So why isn’t Amazon too bothered with tailoring their device to suit the local market? Perhaps an answer to that question can be found in 2004 when Sony introduced LIBRIe, their first e-reader for the Japanese market. ITmedia News’ article explains that the product failed to spark the imagination of the Japanese public, who despite enjoying reading titles from their mobile phones, felt the technology wasn’t particularly aesthetically pleasing.

Due to poor sales, the Sony e-reader was withdrawn from the Japanese market in 2007, clearing the way for Amazon and other players. Despite this, in the U.K. and U.S., Sony’s e-readers are proving themselves strong competitors against the Kindle, both in terms of price and applications.

Fujitsu’s FLEPia, launched early last year, has attempted to step into the breach. With an attractive color screen, consumers won’t be able to complain about the ugliness of the format. What is not quite so attractive, however, is the ¥99,750 price tag, more than twice that of the Kindle, which costs about ¥44,000. While the jury is out on how successful FLEPia will be, I’ve yet to witnessed a single Japanese person using any e-reader in public.

On the other hand, there’s no shortage of people viewing and paying for content on cell phones via digital bookstores such as Papyless, who offer novels and manga downloadable for a fee. And mobile manga?  Manga no Shinbun (Manga Newspaper), which provides topical cartoons on  a daily basis, has an iPhone app, perfect for commuters.

For now, the future for e-publishing in Japan might be limited to the smaller confines of cell-phone screens. That is unless Sony, buoyed up by overseas success, decides to take another stab at conquering the local market. But they better move quickly, before Japan’s techies blow their budgets on Apple’s sexy new iPad.