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Kobo has edge on Kindle in Japan, despite unsteady launch

A report from The Japan Times offers a window onto the battle heating up in that country between Kobo and Amazon, the latter of which is playing catch-up in releasing the Kindle e-reader.

Kobo, of course, is owned by Rakuten, described as “Japan’s largest online shopping mall.” The Kobo e-reader was launched in Japan on July 19, giving the Toronto-headquartered firm the early edge. Amazon promises its Kindle is “coming soon. From The Japan Times:

Whilst the Amazon teaser does not give a date for the Kindle’s release in Japan, the speed with which Rakuten acted with its Kobo has surprised consumers. The price too, ¥7,980, which closely matches the $99 price of Amazon’s latest Kindle Touch in the United States, is quite competitive compared to existing e-readers in Japan. The price and the promise of better-than-Kindle Japanese-text support ” such as vertical text ” seem to be proving popular and Rakuten has already sold about 100,000 Kobo devices.

However, Kobo’s launch has had its share of hiccups. A major complaint has been the lack of selection in Kobo’s Japanese ebook store, which reportedly contained fewer than 20,000 titles at launch, the majority of which were free ebooks in the public domain. (By contrast, Kobo’s Canadian team has been notably proactive in signing up diverse publishers.) Software issues have also been legion, and Rakuten committed a PR blunder in removing negative user reviews of Kobo from its site.

The report suggests that Amazon might also be having a hard time signing up Japanese publishers wary of jumping on the ebook bandwagon. That reluctance is surprising given the potential Kobo and Amazon clearly see in the country:

Even though Japan had the world’s largest e-book market until last year, it was mainly built on regular mobile phones with non-major comic books. It’s still unknown whether traditional (i.e., non-comic) books on a dedicated e-reader will become a popular reading experience in Japan or not.