While I don’t think I’ll ever stop loving print books (including E-books), Japanese audiobooks have some significant advantages. For a non-native speaker, I get extra information on the nuances of the text, especially for dialogue when there is a good voice actor. I don’t have to look up unfamiliar or forgotten Kanji characters, and I think in some ways audio listening requires less energy to concentrate. Finally, I think audiobooks can be much easier on the body, especially on the eyes and neck. I don’t think anybody ever got “injured” from too much reading, but decades of reading with bad posture (or bad lighting) can surely contribute to physical problems. Audiobooks, on the other hand, can be enjoyed in a more natural posture, whether that is on a walk outside or even laying in bed with your back completely straight. Audiobook experience can even help improve your printed-book reading, since you can pick up vocabulary words and sentence patterns that are shared by both.
Several years ago, I did some searching around on the internet for Japanese audiobooks but I couldn’t find too many. There was just a handful, and ironically some of the ones I found were translations of novels from English (like Harry Potter).
For some time now I have been listening to the excellent Japanese Science-themed podcast 「ヴォイニッチの科学書」(The Voynich Manuscript) and at the end of each episode they usually announce how additional issues are available for a price on the site FeBe (フィービー). However, a few months back they announced that this site had been renamed to “audiobook.jp” (a much better name!), and so I decided to check the site out.
Audiobook.jp has a pretty nice webpage with things divided into high-level categories such as 楽しむ本 (books to enjoy), 学ぶ本棚 (bookshelf for learning), and a dedicated podcast section that has the pay version of the aforementioned “The Voynich Manuscript” podcast. Looking into the “books to enjoy” category, there is recommended works, mystery works, world classics, and other categories.
Prices vary for a single work from a few dollars to a few tens of dollars. For example, for The Voynich Manuscript it is 540 Yen (roughly $5 USD at this time) for a monthly subscription, with the first month free. For another example, the great book Hibana is is currently 1296 Yen, roughly $12 USD (I reviewed the book version here)
In the last few years I’ve been listening to a lot of roudoku (voice narration) and after listening to a few free samples on audiobook.jp, I feel that the quality of the performances are pretty good, with music and sound effects in some cases. Some of the readings are actually done with a robot voice, though the quality is absolutely amazing (given it is artificial). I have a slight concern about paying to listen to something spoken by a robot, but I guess that covers the cost of developing the technology.
While I have not actually purchased any works on this site yet, I assume the quality is the same throughout. One work, 教団X sounded really interesting and I am considering buying it at some point. I had seen this book’s cover at Kinokuniya–it’s kind of scary and very memorable.
Everything sounds great at this point, but I’ve saved the main drawback of this site until the end of the review: while better than what I saw a few years ago, the selection is still quite meager. First of all, it seems that over half of the material on the site is catered to the learning/business angle, leaving fiction as only a small fraction of the overall stock. While there are a few popular Japanese novels, a portion of the novels are translated from other languages (like the classic tale Momo). But most disconcerting is that there were zero works from several prolific, ultra-famous authors, like Haruki Murakami (村上春樹) and Keigo Higashino (東野圭吾).
Despite slight progress from a few years ago, it appears the field of audio books (especially nonfiction) is still quite young in Japan. I had pondered on why this might be so, and the other day on 「ヴォイニッチの科学書」the two hosts mentioned something that made sense: in Japan, the average adult commutes via train, where it is pretty easy to read manga or traditional novels. In places like America, where many more people commute via their own cars, there is a much larger amount of time where one’s eyes are busy, but ears are available.
But, having said that, I don’t see why Japanese audiobooks can’t eventually become popular. Just because the selection on audiobook.jp is limited doesn’t mean you should not take a look for yourself. Who knows, you may find something you like, and even if you just listen to the brief samples for each work you can get some listening practice in. Admittedly, the bar for understanding Japanese audiobooks can be high, but if you find yourself with a stronger listening vocabulary (and a weaker knowledge of kanji), then audiobooks may be just up your alley.
As a final note, if you are interested in classic authors, like Edogawa Ranpo (江戸川乱歩), you may be able to find good quality roudoku on Youtube (example) for free.