Kanji Kindle: Amazon's e-reader comes to Japan late, but priced to move

The company's first Japanese Kindle will ship in mid-November, while its online store launches Thursday

The text on Amazon's newest Kindle reads top-to-bottom and right-to-left.

The massive online retailer announced its first Japanese-language e-reader on Wednesday, a version of its Kindle Paperwhite that will go on sale in mid-November. Amazon also said it will launch a new Japanese Kindle Store with 50,000 titles -- including 15,000 manga, or Japanese comics -- as well as Japanese mobile Kindle apps and its 7-inch Kindle Fire tablets.

The long-anticipated Japanese launch from Amazon, which is a household name among consumers in the country, comes years after some rivals. But e-books have yet to take off in Japan, and the Kindle's aggressively pricing could finally convince many consumers to give them a try.

"This will be the real start of the of the Japanese e-book market," said Kazu Saito an analyst at Japan's ICT Research. "There is already a strong culture of buying from Amazon in Japan, people are comfortable with it. Many users will flow naturally into using Kindles."

Amazon announced the launch on its website with a letter in Japanese from its founder and CEO Jeff Bezos. The company set its Kindle prices lower than many analysts expected, and even below U.S. prices despite the yen's near-record level against the dollar.

The basic Japanese-language Kindle Paperwhite will sell for ¥8,480 (US$106), less than the US$120 it costs in the U.S. While the U.S. version is cheaper because it displays adds, the Japanese version appears to be ad-free. The basic version of Sony's Reader costs ¥7,980, the same price as Rakuten's Kobo e-reader.

Amazon is launching with fewer Japanese titles than rivals -- Rakuten says it has over 60,000 titles and aims for 200,000 by the end of the year. But Amazon is emphasizing its lineup of best sellers and popular authors, as well as its strong lineup of popular manga titles.

Local media have long speculated as to why it took Amazon so long to launch in Japan, with many articles focusing on difficult negotiations with conservative local publishers.

"Until now the publishers weren't prepared to come aboard," said Daisuke Shibata, an analyst with Tokyo-based impress R&D. "If Amazon had launched without enough content, they wouldn't have gotten much of a reaction."

Total Japanese sales of e-books on phones, tablets and e-readers will total about ¥74.4 billion (US$1 billion) in the year through March, less than 10 percent of the total book market, according to estimates by ICT. While digital versions of manga and newspapers are growing in popularity in Japan, neighborhood bookstores with shelves crammed full of pocket-sized paperbacks are still common in the country.

ICT expects the e-book market to over double in the next three years, with the introduction of readers like the Kindle. Amazon will also face competition from Japan's mobile operators such as NTT DoCoMo and au, which offer e-book services for subscribers on their networks.

As in the U.S., the Kindle Fire tablets in Japan are priced lower than major rivals. A version of the company's Kindle Fire HD will sell for ¥15,800, nearly half that of Apple's recently announced iPad mini, which is set at ¥28,800.

Amazon's e-book store is set to open on Thursday in Japan. Its Paperwhite and Fire devices are available for pre-order and will ship on Nov. 19 and Dec. 19 respectively.

Amazon announced the Paperwhite in September in the U.S., and it began shipping this month. The Kindle device has a front-lit screen that the company says has 25 percent better contrast than previous models. Contrast is crucial on e-readers in Asia, where characters can be far more intricate than alphabetic characters in the west.

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