- July 24, 2012
Japan’s leading online retailer Rakuten is hoping to see off Amazon’s Kindle and corner the world’s second-largest publishing market
For a nation of technology-loving avid readers, Japan has been slow to join the digital publishing revolution. While consumers in the US and Europe increasingly turn to e-readers, many Japanese have stubbornly refused to part with conventional reading matter.
Look around the carriage of a packed commuter train and most people will still be immersed in a book, not flicking through the virtual pages of a Kindle.
Manga comics that can be read on mobile phones are one of the country’s few success stories in digital publishing.
But that could all be about to change from Thursday, when the Japanese online retail giant Rakuten launches an e-reader it hopes will see off an expected challenge from Amazon’s device later this year, and corner the world’s second-biggest publishing market.
While several firms, including Sony, have already attempted to grow the digital market, Rakuten and Amazon are expected to be key – and bitter – rivals. At stake is a slice of a book market estimated to be worth $23.5bn (£15bn).
Rakuten’s chief executive, Hiroshi Mikitani, has made no secret of his desire to take on Amazon. During a recent e-book fair in Tokyo, the 49-year-old entrepreneur brandished a T-shirt bearing the message: “Destroy Amazon.”
To do so, he has enlisted hitherto sceptical Japanese publishers who appear to have overcome their fear of dramatic falls in physical book sales once Japanese consumers have made the shift to digital.
“In the last two months their attitude has completely changed,” Mikitani said. “Before, they were sceptical or worried about the negative impact on their business. Now they have changed their mind. This is their opportunity.”
Rakuten’s device – priced at 7,980 yen ($99), the same as a US-bought Kindle – is 1cm thick and offers wireless internet connections. Rakuten says the gadget, developed in conjunction with Kobo, a Canadian e-book marketer acquired by Rakuten in January, will run for about a month on a single charge.
It quickly became the top-selling product on the firm’s online store after pre-order sales were announced at the start of this month.
Rakuten, Japan’s biggest online retailer with more than 8,000 employees, has a captive audience: more than 80% of Japan’s 94 million internet users already have an account on its e-commerce site, it says, and are primed to snap up new product lines.
Amazon, meanwhile, has directed Japanese consumers to online information about its plans for a local launch, but has yet to name a date.
There are conflicting reports on how many Kobo titles will be available in Japan. Rakuten’s bespoke store will start with a modest 30,000 titles in Japanese, rising to 300,000 by the end of the year. A new firm comprising major publishers and a government-funded investment agency will add an extra million titles over the next five years.
“I want to start the reading revolution in Japan and in the world with Kobo, Mikitani said. “Kobo is a global device, a global platform, which allows anyone in the world to enjoy a variety of content.”
Despite the size of the publishing market in Japan, where 80,000 new books appear every year, the country has been slow to adopt the new medium. Very few novels and non-fiction titles have been digitised, and the closest many consumers come to the format is reading manga comics on their mobile phones.
After spirited resistance from publishers worried about the e-reader revolution’s effect on physical sales, the industry appears primed for a change of direction.
And for good reason. According to Yano Research Institute, a market research firm in Tokyo, Japan’s e-book market will be worth 150bn yen by 2015, compared with 67bn yen in 2010; the market for e-readers is expected to soar from 2bn yen to 70bn yen over the same period.
Roy Larke, professor of international marketing at Rikkyo University in Tokyo, said the shift to digital was inevitable. “The ease of use and low cost are just too appealing,” he said. “Japan will follow, and follow fast.”
JapanE-readersEbooksAsia PacificJustin McCurryguardian.co.uk