Japanese books are hard to find outside of Japan. Luckily, the Amazon Kindle is a great tool for Japanese learners that gives you access to digital Japanese books anywhere in the world! In this post, we will cover how you can use the Amazon Kindle to download Japanese books, practice reading, and get better at Japanese!
Buying a Japanese Kindle: Do you need to?
First, let’s think through logistics. Do you actually need to buy a Kindle? And, if so, where can you get one?
Kindle e-reader or app?
If you don’t own a physical Kindle ebook reader, there is one alternative you may want to consider before opening your wallet. Amazon also offers Kindle apps for all major smartphones. These apps let you read digitally without needing to purchase a Kindle separately. Alternatively, there is also a desktop Kindle app that lets you read books on your laptop or desktop computer.
I own both a Kindle Paperwhite (connected to Amazon Japan store) and have a Kindle app on my phone (also connected to Amazon Japan). After using both extensively, I much prefer the phone app to the physical e-reader.
Some reasons why I like the phone app:
- Easier dictionary lookup. – The e-ink Kindle’s Japanese dictionary is not very good. Oftentimes, it will fail to find a word, especially if it is a conjugated verb or an awkwardly-spelled word.
- Mobile data access. – Dictionary look-ups are not enough. When reading, I often want to do a Google search to learn more. This is much easier to do on a phone. Also, although both the digital and physical Kindles have a “Translate” function, this translate function doesn’t work without WiFi access. This is not a problem if you are on your phone, as you can always just use your mobile data.
- Pop-up dictionary integration. – Also, on a phone, you can install a useful popup dictionary app. I use an app called Popup Japanese Dictionary. All you need to do is copy a word or phrase to your phone’s clipboard. The app will show the definition in a popup window. This gives you extra coverage in case the Kindle’s built-in dictionary misses something.
- Less fat-fingering. – It’s harder to highlight sentences and words on an e-reader Kindle.
- Money. – Money spent on an e-reader means less money to spend elsewhere.
In general, having a phone just works much better with all the other features that a Japanese learner needs. However, using the Kindle app for your Android phone or iPhone also has some disadvantages:
- Distractions. – With a phone, it’s easier to get distracted by random notifications. You may start off reading but find yourself on Facebook or YouTube instead.
- Less screen real estate. – Most phones have significantly smaller screens than the smallest physical Kindle. It can be awkward to read manga or other picture-heavy text on a phone screen. However, I generally do not find that this is a problem. (If you want more screen space, you can also read on a tablet like the iPad or Amazon Fire.)
- You lose access to your native Kindle account. If you have a Kindle account in your home country, you won’t be able to access it on your phone (because you’ll be logged in from Amazon Japan). There are some tricks to get around this (on Android, you could duplicate the app with a third party tool), but, in my experience, these solutions are unreliable and may cause your phone to crash.
If you already own a physical Kindle, you may want to reserve your e-ink Kindle for English books and use your phone to read Japanese.
Do you need to buy a Japanese Kindle to read Japanese books?
If you still think you prefer a physical Kindle to an app on your phone or computer, then the next question is, “Where do I buy a Kindle?”
Although you will need an Amazon Japan account to buy Japanese books (more on how to do that), you do not need to buy a Kindle from Amazon Japan. All Kindles are the same inside, so you can buy your Kindle anywhere and tweak the settings. I bought the Kindle Paperwhite I use to read Japanese in the United States, and it works just fine. As for digital dictionary support, your Kindle should let you simply download and install a Japanese dictionary.
How to buy Japanese kindle books from Amazon Japan
Now let’s look at how you can sign up for Amazon Japan and start finding books to read.
How to sign up for Amazon Japan
Although non-Japanese Amazon websites may have a few Japanese books, for extensive access you will need to make an account on Amazon Japan. This will give you access to the whole Kindle store, with hundreds of thousands of books.
An Amazon Japan account will also let you sign up for Prime Reading or Kindle Unlimited, which give let you read books buffet-style—that means unlimited reading practice!
So how do you make an account? Well, since Amazon Japan has an English version, language difficulties should not be a problem. The important thing is to make sure you sign up with a different email address from your native Amazon account. This prevents your Kindle from getting “confused” and logging you into your US account when you want to login to your Japanese one.
See this thread on Reddit for more information on how you can sign up.
Buy or borrow: Should you use Kindle Unlimited?
When looking for good Japanese books to read on Amazon, one option is to sign up for Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited service. For about 10 USD a month, you get access to over 80,000 titles that you can read for “free.”
This lets you read in a buffet style, jumping between books whenever you like. Don’t like a book? No problem, just switch to another one at no cost.
Personally, I do not like Kindle Unlimited. Here are some reasons why:
- Many popular books are not available. If there is something you want to read, you may have to purchase it anyway.
- If you unsubscribe, you lose access to everything.
- You might not read as much as you think.
You have to read a lot—probably at least a book a week—to get your money’s worth from Kindle Unlimited. As a Japanese learner, your reading speed probably isn’t fast enough to take advantage of the read-all-you-want features of KU.
Instead of Kindle Unlimited, I think it’s better to just buy 1-2 books a month. You’ll get lifetime access to those books, and you can read them at your own pace.Later, after you prove to yourself that you can read many books a month, then you can consider signing up for buffet-style services. Of course, the final decision is your choice.
If you live in Japan, you might also consider trying Amazon’s “Prime Reading,” which comes free with an Amazon Prime subscription. Prime Reading has fewer books, but you don’t have to pay extra to read them.
How to find good Japanese books to read
Once you have your Kindle and an Amazon Japan account, you will still need to find some good books to read. As Japanese learners, the key (as I write about in my book), is to find books that (a) are fun to read and (b) fit our current reading level. This gives you the optimal dose of both motivation and learning speed.
Be aware that, although some of Amazon Japan is in English, the Kindle store page is not. Think of this as your first Japanese reading challenge!
The best Japanese Kindle books for beginner and intermediate learners are—you guessed it—manga. As I write about elsewhere, manga gives you the highest context-to-text ratio, which is critical for learners.
As you improve, you can work your way up in difficulty to more difficult books. Once you are comfortable reading manga, you may want to move up to reading light novels, which are books for young adults.
In general, you can think of the “ladder of difficulty” for books as working something like this:
- Has pictures and furigana.
- Has furigana but no pictures.
- Has no furigana and no pictures.
As you move up the ladder, you can image moving up from manga to light novels (books for young adults) and, finally, to ordinary books for Japanese adults. Once you get to the third stage, you are pretty much fully fluent. Most learners never make it past the first stage.
Amazon Japan’s Kindle store has its books conveniently divided by genre or category, so you can select the category of book that best fits your current reading level. For most learners, your best bet is to either check out the manga or light novel categories.
Luckily, these are pretty easy to navigate to. Manga and light novels are the first options on the “genre” bar:
Another nice thing about Kindle books is that they come with a “free sample” option that lets you read the first few pages for free. This lets you test books before you buy them (or, if you’re super-cheap, you can even just read the samples for practice).
To review, the workflow for finding good Japanese books to read works like this:
- Pick a category or genre that fits your reading level
- Browse until you find an interesting book
- Download a sample and try reading it
- Buy it if you like it!
Once you have a book, it’s time to start reading and learning!
From Kindle to Anki: A workflow for learning Japanese with a kindle
- Download books from Amazon Japan
- Read and highlight interesting sentences. If you are reading manga, take screenshots.
- Export your highlights to html or txt format.
- Put those sentences into your favorite flashcard app and review
For example, here are the highlights from one of the books I am reading:
I can copy the sentences here and put them into my flashcard application. Or, I can export them and use some kind software to make cards automatically. There are all sorts of possibilities!
Once you get past the beginner stage of Japanese learning, I think the path to fluency is all about finding fun ways to get lots and lots of Japanese input. If you’re looking to get more Japanese reading input, you might want to give the Kindle a shot. Happy reading!
The cover image credits go to peter-rabbit on Flickr.