Reading Japanese: Kindle Paperwhite versus Kobo Glo

There are already a lot of articles out there in the net comparing the two devices. Having quite similar specs I found that the reading experience with both units is very similar, as long as one stays with Roman character books. This article focuses on reading Japanese with the units and try to compare them.


Peculiarities of Japanese text

I will not give a full introduction to the specifics of reading Japanese, one can consult the excellent W3C Working Draft Requirements of Japanese Text Layout, or my slides Typesetting with Kanji (used during a conference in Guanghzou and at TUG 2012 in Boston). I only want to mention the following points that one needs to understand in the following comparison:

  • writing/reading direction: Japanese prose is often written from top to bottom, from right to left. So the first kanji on a page is the one in the top right corner. As a consequences books are read from right to left, page turns go from left to right.
  • various writing modes: Japanese uses at least three different glyph sets in parallel: Hiragana (ひらがな, mostly used for grammatical distinctions and some additional words), Katakana (カタカナ, used to transcribe foreign words), and Kanji (漢字, used for the main part of the text).
  • word separation: There is no word separation done by inserting empty space. The full text is normally written without any separation of words.ruby-example
  • Ruby: small Hiragana characters attached to words written in Kanji to provide the pronounciation (see the image on the right for an example)

Japanese text and eBooks

Kindle’s format (azw) went through some revisions, since 2011 with the format described as azw3 or kf8 it is able to do html5 and css3, thus gaining the ability to display Japanese text in vertical mode properly.

Kobo’s main format is epub, which since revision epub3 supports Japanese layout. In reality what is now shipped in Kobo Japanese books is called kepub which contains additional Javascript (besides others I guess).

Both being basically at the level of epub3/html5/css the abilities are quite similar. Here are two screenshot of more or less the same page in Harry Potter, left on the Paperwhite, right on the Kindle:


Text and page layout

As you can see above, the quality of fonts and resolution are very similar, nothing to complain here. The only thing that is disturbing, and often remarked in forums, is that the Glo leaves a wider margin, even when I set it to minimum margin range. The effect is that the rows are shorter.

Selection and dictionary lookup

(Update 2014: With the release of firmware 3.2.0 the selection process on the Kobo has improved considerably and is now on par with the Kindle. See this blog post for details and screen shots!)

Here the Kindle beats the Glo by far, unfortunately. Let us first look at how selection works:

  • Paperwhite: tap&hold on the screen selects the largest connected set of glyphs of the same type (Hiragana, Katakana, Kanji, see above). If necessary, the selection can be adjusted later two handles at the end of the selection.
  • Glo: tap&hold does nothing. One has to tap-hold-move to the next character. This procedure is very error prone. No automatic selection here. I normally need four to five trials until I get it right. (Note that this behaviour is peculiar for Japanese text. With Roman text words are properly selected automatically.)

Now for lookup in the dictionary. As mentioned in this article, I have installed a Japanese-English dictionary for the Kindle. For the moment this is not possible with the Glo (although there are some hacks), so on the Glo I would get the Japanese-Japanese dictionary.

  • Paperwhite: the translation immediately pops up in a small transient window. Content depends on the selected dictionary.
  • Glo: One has to tap the dictionary symbol at the bottom bar, then select dictionary. After that a full screen window appears.



With respect to the quality of display the two units are very similar, only that the Glo uses the screen space less efficient. As long as you don’t need select/lookup in Japanese books, the reading experience is also very similar.

But when it comes to selection and dictionary lookup in Japanese text, the Paperwhite beats the Glo by far. And since I have to lookup words quite often, I use the Kindle for Japanese text, and both units for all the other books.

8 Responses

  1. Thank you for your review! It’s really helpful!
    You know, I’m a Brazilian, learning Japanese, and I just bought a Kobo Glo. Althought I really love it (I prefer than Kindle), I got a little sad to know there isn’t a Japanese-English dictionary. This is awful =/

    Anyway, do you think there could have some update or something? ahaha.
    I’m just hopeful! 😛

    Thank you!

    • Yeah, updates … I don’t see one coming. There are some tricks that can be found on the forums to change/add dictionaries, but I haven’t tried it myself, since for Japanese reading I use the Kindle, or the Kobo if the text is easy enough for me that I don’t need too much help.

      Well, maybe in future there will be some Japanese-English dictionary available for the Kobo, too. At least I hope so.

  2. Simon Picard says:

    I’m learning Japanese and I’m very interested in an ereader to simplify the dictionary searches. I’ve tried both the kindle and globo readers, and I found it nearly impossible to make a proper selection. The basic selection turned out to successfully select a word one time in the ten or so tries I made, and I was unsuccessful at using the handle, they would disappear as I shortened the selection or jump to the next column. Am I doing something wrong? Do you have any advice to improve that use (which is now at the level of “absolutely useless” to me) ? And also, is this the kind of tricks you mentioned for the globo : ? Do you have any hindsight yet about this?

    Thank you for this article, it’s pretty difficult to find an effective solution for reading Japanese!

    As a side note, I’d like to state how much I liked the sony reader, the interface and selection was the easiest to me. It’s a shame you can’t install a Japanese-English dictionary at all!

  3. Hi Simon,
    thanks for your comment. Your case is interesting. With the Kindle Paperwhite I never have any problem selecting. The algorithm is not optimal, as it selects the biggest connected part of glyphs in the same writing (all hiragana, all kanji, all katakana), but that works often quit nicely. If I have to change the selection I just close the popup and move the selection handles.

    In contrast on the Kobo Glo it is like you said, in most cases no success in proper selection.

    That is that for now I am using the Kobo Glo for most of my reading, and the Kindle for the Japanese books.

  4. Kamil says:

    Dear online friends, I am a grad student newly arrived in Japan. I don’t speak japanese and I am not really trying to learn it substantially, cuz my program is in English. So, I bought the Kobo Glo recently and whenever I search for books, all I’m finding is japanese books.

    How can I search for books in English? Thank you in advance!

  5. David says:

    I agree with Simon. Japanese text is almost impossibe to select in the paperwhite (the 2013 edition). First of all, it has no japanese tokenized at all, so it select entire phrases until it founds a dot or a comma. I don’t understand this because there are good and open source japanese tokenizers out there (e.g. Lucene from the Apache project).

    Norbert, the selection handles are not working. The touchscreen is not as precise as a tablet, so trying to select a word is impossible. I sincerely cannot understand how it works for you. If you have any clues, please show me. I want to be able to look up words in the dictionary.

    • Hi David,
      interesting. I don’t have a PW2 (PaperWhite 2, the later edition), so I cannot compare. But in the Japanese books I have, generated e.g. wiht kindlegen from epubs, I have not seen this behaviour. It selects the biggest group of glyphs of the same type, so either all Hiragana, Katakana, or Kanji. So if everything is written in Hiragana, then indeed full sentences will be selected, which is not really helpful. But if you have normla Japanese text where Kanji and Hiragana are mixed structuring the text it should work properly.

      Concerning the selection handles. Well, that is not trivial, neither with Kobo nor PW, but I had a bit more success with the PW.

      If I can provide any further information, please let me know.

  6. David says:

    Hi Norbert, thanks for your response.

    I used kindlegen too to generate mobi files and add it to the PW2. I thought the selection problem was in all Kindles, but i read your comments in this entry and i thought maybe it was a problem with my epubs. And actually it was. I downloaded some free books from, extracted the files and add them to my PW2 (i need to do this because the default account is not but, and it worked. In those ebooks text is selected correctly.

    Still don’t know what was the problem with the other epubs. A friend of mine with more knowledge about the ebooks formats is helping me to compare them and try to find out where was the problem.


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