Home Culture A Practical Guide to Finding and Accessing Japanese E-books

A Practical Guide to Finding and Accessing Japanese E-books

Hey you! Do you want to read more Japanese books but don’t fancy paying international shipping fees? Or maybe you don’t want to wait for them to come in the mail, or would simply rather not acquire tons of dead trees you’ll have to lug around next time you move. Lucky for you, we have technology, which means you can get your hands on all that literature in a less ancient manner.

E-books give you immediate access to Japanese reading material, are often cheaper, and sometimes even offer handy tools like highlighting and built-in dictionaries — pretty convenient for Japanese learners! The best e-reader and service for you will depend on your preferences, device, and Japanese learning needs — not to mention how hard you want to work to acquire your electronic tomes. So we tried to save you some precious time by doing the research for you.

In this article, writers at Tofugu looked into multiple e-book marketplaces, apps, and readers and picked ones that work well for Japanese learners, including those who live outside Japan.

You’ll also learn tips for how to choose an e-book retailer/reader, and how to take advantage of their features to improve your Japanese. Hopefully, after reading, you’ll feel good about downloading some Japanese words into your eyeballs through one of these services!

By the way…

We also recorded a podcast episode about buying Japanese e-books, and discussed how we love Japanese e-books (basically). Keep reading to find out all the details and recommendations in this article, but give this episode a listen if you want to hear real humans talking about buying and using Japanese-books.

How to Choose an E-book Retailer

Okay, you’re hooked on digital phonics and ready to dive into the tantalizing world of Japanese e-books. But where to begin?

Well, first you’ll have to decide where you want to get your e-books. There’s no shortage of 電子書籍ストア (denshishoseki sutoa) — literally “e-book stores,” or services that sell Japanese e-books. There’s nothing wrong with dipping your toes into multiple services, but you’ll probably want to stick with one or two to start. Having all your e-books in one place tends to make the reading experience smoother anyway.

So, how should you choose your e-book platform/reader? Here are some criteria we used to puzzle out whether a service was any good or not:

1. Can you buy books from outside Japan?

Buying e-books sounds like a great idea, especially if you aren’t living in Japan, right? Not so fast. E-books could be as hard to get a hold of as physical books depending on the e-book retailer — some require a Japanese VPN , a Japan-issued credit card, and so on. And even if you are located in Japan, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll have access to all these resources. So make sure you choose a store that is foreign-resident friendly.

Check to see if they require:

  • a Japanese address,
  • a Japanese VPN,
  • and/or a Japanese credit card.

Having fun isn’t hard when you’ve got a Japanese credit card, but what if you don’t?

We’ve included several e-book retailers that don’t require a Japanese address, VPN, method of payment, etc. so you can join in the fun no matter what!

2. Do they have books you want to read?

Available selections and genres can vary depending on the retailer. You can check to see if the service offers:

  • manga (漫画),
  • novels (小説),
  • light novels (ライトノベル or ラノベ),
  • literature (文学),
  • lifestyle/practical use (暮らし・実用), etc.

Some stores focus on certain genres, so if you have a specific preference, that’s something to consider. You certainly don’t have to limit yourself to just one store, but using multiple platforms means you’ll have your books in different places, which could be a nuisance.

3. What usability features does the service have?

Reading in your non-native language can be tough, so for Japanese learners, having certain e-book tools and features might be a priority. Does the service have:

  • a built-in dictionary,
  • bookmarks,
  • a highlighting tool,
  • zoom in/zoom out,
  • a way to leave notes,
  • search capabilities,
  • or text settings (font, size, vertical/horizontal display)?

For Japanese learners, a built-in dictionary feature can be a game changer. Simply by selecting text on your e-reader, you’ll get the option to look up words using your device’s built-in dictionaries. For example, with iOS devices, you can download and use any of the built-in dictionaries, so you can use a Japanese-Japanese dictionary (like スーパー大辞林) and a Japanese-English dictionary (like ウィズダム和英・英和辞典) to conveniently look up Japanese words and see the definitions in both Japanese and English. If your native language is not English, you can add other languages as well. On top of that, many e-reader apps come with features to look up selected text on Google or Wikipedia, too.

Unfortunately, manga (and some other forms of visual-based content) generally don’t work with features such as highlighting or dictionary search. This won’t be a problem if you’ll be reading novels or other text-centric content, but it’s just something to keep in mind if you’re going to be reading manga, primarily.

4. Is your device compatible?

You don’t want to go to all the trouble of buying books through a service just to have your spit out an error message. Popular Japanese e-book stores usually offer dedicated apps for reading their books on mobile devices and specific e-readers. However, make sure to check whether these apps work with your particular device. Also, be aware that those apps are usually only available in Japanese app stores, so you may need to create a new account and/or change the region settings in order to download them. (You should be able to find tips to work around this online!)

Some retailers also offer a ブラウザビューア, or “browser viewer,” which allows you to read in a web browser without needing to download an app. Not all books have this feature available though, so look for the 🌐 icon or browser ブラウザ, which means that the content is compatible with a browser viewer. However, the features you can use in the browser viewer are pretty limited compared to the app versions in general. So if you want to use features like a built-in dictionary, it’ll be worth downloading the app.

Many e-book retailers also list free titles, or 試し読み tameshiyomi (previews), available. This is a great option, not only for sampling a book before you buy it, but also for device compatibility test purposes before handing over your money!

5. Is the service reliable?

In the unfortunate event that the service ends, will your books be gone forever? There’s a lower chance of literary tragedies like this happening if you use a more reliable, stable service. Major e-book retailers tend to be owned by big publishers, printing companies, or physical bookstore chains, which are still thriving businesses in Japan compared to overseas. This stability might be a good sign in terms of reliability, so hopefully you won’t be losing your books any time soon.

With all those questions swimming in our minds and keeping us up at night, we writers at Tofugu tried out multiple Japanese e-book services so you don’t have to. We used websites with browser-based readers/apps, like BookLive, BookWalker, and Honto, as well as e-book devices that support Japanese text, such as the Amazon Kindle and Kobo. There’s even a special mention at the end for all-you-can-read subscription services, if you’re so inclined.

So without further ado, here are the literary fruits of our labor!


screenshot of the bookwalker landing page

BookWalker is an online e-book retailer featuring a wide range of manga, novels, and magazines. It’s run by the Kadokawa corporation, which started as a bookstore and is now one of the leading publishing companies in Japan. While it’s not quite as straightforward as some websites, BookWalker does a pretty good job of being easy to understand, even for Japanese learners. There’s also a subscription service, which gives readers access to a large library of either novels and light novels, or manga and magazines, with both subscriptions costing ¥836 or around $6 per month.

Compared to other comparable Japanese e-book services, BookWalker is more accessible to English speakers.

You can access the BookWalker online store to browse and purchase Japanese books without the hassle of connecting to a VPN, or entering a Japanese address. Additionally, a number of payment methods are accepted, from Paypal to Amazon Pay, making it even easier to purchase books abroad. Finally, BookWalker offers a large selection of free titles, particularly the first volumes in a series (presumably, to keep you coming back for more). This is a great way to get a lot of varied reading practice in, without paying a dime…or yen!

Although the site is not fully supported in English, compared to other comparable Japanese e-book services, BookWalker is more accessible to English speakers. For example, once you’ve found a book you want to purchase, the checkout process features an English language setting. BookWalker also provides a short English guide on how to purchase Japanese books through their FAQ page.

In addition to these features, there is also a “Global” version of the service which offers only English versions of Japanese manga and light novels. So if you are looking to purchase both the original and the translated versions, BookWalker might be the right choice for you.

If you want to read on a computer or your phone, it’s hard to beat BookWalker.

When it comes to the actual reading experience, BookWalker’s app is smooth, too, allowing you to look up selected words using your device’s built-in dictionaries, or on Wikipedia or Google. Like we said before, this feature isn’t available for manga, but that’s normal for an e-reader app like this. Additionally, you can purchase new books directly through the e-reader app, without having to visit the website first.

If you want to read on a computer or your phone, it’s hard to beat BookWalker. With its friendliness for international customers, large library, ease of use, and helpful subscription services, BookWalker is a great option for Japanese learners to practice reading.

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