I thought long and hard about buying an Amazon Kindle for studying Japanese. Like five years kind of long and hard. And as with most life enigmas, it came down to a simple question: Why spend hundreds of dollars on a giant phone that doesn’t even work as a phone? Not to mention you could just buy an actual book for ten bucks.
Although to be fair, most of my enigmas are more along the lines of Why’m I waking up on a park bench? or What happened to the Filipino girl I bought all those cocktails for? But anyway, I finally broke down and bought a Kindle, and holy balls, if you want to learn Japanese, it’s the greatest thing ever. So at least that’s one problem solved.
Of course, if you don’t want to learn Japanese, eh, I guess you could still read English books, if cable TV hadn’t made them obsolete back in the ’90’s.
Now, I don’t do a lot of tech product recommendations, probably because I only hate two things and technology’s one of them. All I want electronics to do is get out of the way so I can watch movies, find the nearest curry house, or Skype a random girl in Gunma prefecture. I don’t want to read the manual, write code, or encase myself in tinfoil. Ken Seeroi ain’t trying to walk around all Tin Woodsman during rainy season.
Thankfully, anti-tech is where the Kindle shines. (Well, that and a dark room.) Because its singular purpose is to pretend it’s a book, without any extra bullshit. And in that, it’s close to the perfect product.
Why the Amazon Kindle for Japanese is Better than a Book
The Kindle isn’t just better than a book for reading Japanese—-it’s waaaay better. To understand why, you have to grasp what makes the language so hard.
Evafuckinthin. The grammar, particles, hiragana, katakana, slang, dozen different dialects, and above all—let’s not kid ourselves—kanji. Japanese is a bunch of sticks, none of which make any sense. How can 会, 逢, 遭, and 遇 all sound and mean the same? What kind of sick nation would do that?
Sorry, rhetorical question. So then the Japanese in their great wisdom decided to remedy their native language by making sure all recent words abandon kanji entirely. Instead, they chose to co-opt the world’s second most screwed-up language, English. The result being that today’s Japanese is thoroughly jumbled with thousands of English loan-words—only, oh yeah, they forgot to use actual letters, so now everything looks like it was written by a chicken.
Enter the Amazon Kindle for Japanese
Whatever, all I wanted the Kindle to do was provide the ability to look up kanji easily. That alone would make it worth its solid-gold price tag. And amazingly enough, it works brilliantly. It’s undoubtedly the best money I’ve spent since deciding to learn Japanese, which, granted, was a terrible decision. But hey, if you’re gonna smoke crack, might as well nut up and buy a decent pipe.
Because here’s how fun it is to read a paper book in Japanese: First, you’ll need Coke bottle-strength reading glasses. Japanese people delight in making everything hard and apparently think it’s hilarious to print books in 8-point font. Next, you’ll need a smartphone for a dictionary app or Google Translate to look up the kanji. Then stop on every page and search for all the kanji you don’t know and write each reading and definition into the margin. You’ll need a pen too.
The Kindle takes one look at your miserable paper book and says Suck that. Just tap the unfamiliar kanji and up pops a definition, in Japanese or English. Now you’re covering a dozen pages in the time it used to take to read one, plus reading real Japanese books for adults. No one’s more surprised by this than me. But that’s only because no one actually cares whether you, I, or anyone can read Japanese or not. Oh, it’s a very rewarding language.
Which Amazon Kindle
Since the only thing higher than technology on the List of Stuff Ken Seeroi Hates is spending money, I first tried to use the Kindle app on my phone, on the PC, and the browser-based version. Which of course involved more technology, so then I was really unhappy. Plus, all of them kind of suck.
Finally I thought, why not buy an actual Kindle? I’m kind of slow to come to conclusions, I know. So then the question was, which Kindle? The Kindle Oasis had a picture of a girl in a bathtub, so that was an easy decision. You may want to note, however, that it turns out she’s not included. My life’s a constant series of disappointments.
Reading Japanese on the Amazon Kindle
On the plus side, the spillover effect from all that reading has been significant. Somehow, getting accustomed to consuming more Japanese faster reprogrammed my brain to be more willing to tackle billboards, road signs, and threatening letters from the local government. I’ve been reading Japanese for years, but always slowly and painfully. The moment I saw a wall of text, there was an instant revulsion, a feeling of “Ah jeez, we’re gonna be here a while.” Now I find myself more naturally reading without second-guessing; not as smoothly as English, but better.
Finally, here’s a rundown of the pros and cons:
Advantages of the Amazon Kindle
- Thinner and lighter than any book. People in train stations will hand you thicker pamphlets. There’s something kind of amazing about being able to carry a stack of books in your bag
- Waterproof (Kindle Oasis). Because civilization affords no higher pleasure than floating in a hot bath with a book and cold beer
- The kanji lookup works about 94% as well as Rikaichan or Yomichan (which help you read Japanese in a browser). You don’t have the control of a mouse, and the Kindle dictionaries are a bit meh, but the overall experience is good. You can read, lookup, and keep going with hardly a pause. It’s an order of magnitude faster than reading a paper book with an electronic dictionary or smartphone
- The battery lasts a really long time, at least a week or more with heavy usage
- You can see the Kindle perfectly in any lighting condition. It’s not at all like a cell phone. Somehow it magically adjusts from a sunny hammock to a dark bedroom
- Adjustable type size. Forget those 100-yen shop reading glasses, although they do look cool
- Downloading books is a snap. It literally takes about ten seconds to buy a book
- No distracting bullshit. You can set it up so all you see is Book. No date and time, no page numbers, no calendar or games or porn. Yeah, welcome to the 21st century, where the most exiting feature of a product is what it can’t do
Amazon Kindle Disadvantages
- The cover (at least the one I have) detaches a bit too readily, threatening to launch the Kindle into every toilet it sees
- It’s kind of expensive. Not as much as an iPhone, but a whole lot more than a bunch of books
- The Kindle Oasis is made of metal, so it’s cold in the winter. Avoid touching it with your tongue
- But the real downside comes if you don’t live in Japan. Because to buy books from Amazon Japan, you have to live here, or lie and convince Jeff Bezos that you do. And you absolutely need an Amazon Japan account, because the range of Japanese books available through other nations’ Amazon stores is miserable. There are various sites that propose ways of getting around this, but it sounds dodgy and a bit of pain in the butt. Probably easier just to move to Japan
Who the Amazon Kindle is Not For
- Beginners in Japanese. It’s probably a good idea to learn the basic sentence structure and a bit of vocabulary before launching into reading
- People who want to learn conversational Japanese, or just enough Japanese to get by
- People too lazy to read. Amazon makes a neat book, but it’s not gonna to read itself
Who the Amazon Kindle is For
- Intermediate- and advanced-level Japanese learners. Anybody feeling stuck who doesn’t think their Japanese ability is progressing. Reading is what you need
- People serious about actually learning the language. Learning to read Japanese is hard. Anybody who says it’s easy is lying. The Kindle will help you. It doesn’t lie
- Minimalists and folks trying to reduce the amount of stuff they carry
I love my Kindle, and could go on for days about this, but you get the idea. If you’ve got questions, or actually own one, hit me up in the comments. And if I don’t get back to you right away, rest assured it’s because I’m in the tub with a book and a beer, waiting for that girl from the ad to show up. Can’t wait to show her how well I can read.