October 18


Aozora Bunko for Japanese Reading Practice: Is It Worth It?

By Charles Hoshino

October 18, 2020

Hey! Want to see more of Japan? Check out Walks from a Hat, our weekly photography dispatch.

When searching for ways to get Japanese reading practice, one common recommendation is the website Aozora Bunko. In this post, we’ll look at the pros and cons of the site and also suggest some (better) alternatives.

What is Aozora Bunko?

Aozora Bunko is an online collection of public domain books. You can think of it as the Japanese counterpart to Project Gutenberg. There are over 15,000 free books available for reading.

Like Project Gutenberg, the books are in the public domain and freely available. You can read the books in HTML format or download them to read on the device of your choice.

Monthly popularity ranking on Aozora Bunko. Notice the big names like Natsume Soseki and Dazai Osamu.

At first glance, Aozora Bunko may seem like a great resource for learners. After all, you need to read books to learn Japanese, and here is a website lets you read books for free! What more could you ask for?

However, there are some serious problems with using Aozora Bunko to learn Japanese. The site may be free, but—as with many other things in life—“free” usually comes with an associated price.

Why Aozora Bunko is not good way to get Japanese reading practice

The biggest weakness of Aozora Bunko is that the books are old. Until 2018, a book would enter the public domain 50 years after an author’s death. After 2018, books now become available 70 years after an author’s death. Considering most people publish well before they die, this means that many books on Aozora Bunko are over a century old!

Remember that just over a century ago Japan looked like this:

From Wikimedia Commons

The world is very different from what it was 100 years ago, and this applies to languages as well.

Old books are not good for language learning. Languages are like living systems—they constantly evolve and take on new forms. The Japanese of today is very different from the Japanese of a century ago. If you try to get Japanese reading practice from Aozora Bunko, you will be learning outdated Japanese and also likely be confusing yourself.

It doesn’t help that many of the texts available on Aozora Bunko are quite difficult, with kanji you probably haven’t learned. Here, for example, is an excerpt from the first page of Akutagawa’s Rashomon (the 2nd most popular book on the site):


I consider myself pretty good at Japanese and this is still a challenge to get through. And I bet that Eri (my wife), a native speaker, would struggle quite a bit as well.

As I point out in my books on learning Japanese, to get the best learning dose, you want to be able to understand 70-80% of what you are reading. If you can’t understand 70-80% of the above passage, then you should stay away!

So, to sum above the above, some reasons to stay away from Aozora Bunko:

  • Old Japanese is not the same as modern Japanese. You could be learning “incorrect” forms of the language. Some books will even have hiragana characters that are drawn differently!
  • You’ll learn words and phrases that are no longer used. This is similar to the above reason. Language learners need to focus on useful words and phrases, not ones that you will never hear or see again.
  • The books are hard. To optimize learning, you need your learning material to be “neither too easy nor too hard.” In general, Aozora Bunko will be on the “too hard” for most learners.

Aozora Bunko can seem like an attractive choice because it’s free, but “free” can often be the most expensive thing. Is it worth saving a few dollars a month to (a) learn Japanese slower and (b) risk burning out and quitting Japanese altogether? It’s your call, but I think it’s worth it to consider the opportunity costs.

Alternatives to Aozora Bunko: what to use instead

So what are some other sources of Japanese reading practice that you can use?

Obviously, here at Box of Manga, we think that manga is a wonderful option. Manga teaches you real-world Japanese with real-world context. Plus, manga has built-in visual aids, which helps you to understand what is going on.

Another easy alternative is to just buy a book. You can get both digital and physical Japanese books for less than $10. As a Japanese learner, one book can provide you with over a month of reading practice. If you can afford a Spotify or Netflix subscription, then you can probably afford to buy a book every few months!

There are many other great options for getting Japanese reading practice, including video games, blogs, and social media (I’m a fan of using Twitter). For more reading options for Japanese learners, you might want to see our blog post on the subject.

Remember, this isn’t 1980. Thanks to the internet, you have access to an infinite amount of high-quality Japanese reading material. Why purposely choose Aozora Bunko, a site that uses archaic language from a time the Japanese themselves barely remember?

Sure, there are some great classic works of literature on the site. But those books will still be there waiting for you after you’ve reached Japanese fluency.

Like manga? Check out our monthly manga subscription box. We hand-pick titles that match your Japanese reading level :)