Kadokawa, one of Japan’s largest publishers, is rolling out a free manga distribution service online, which it hopes will become a pillar of its digital entertainment business.

The Comic Walker, set to launch on March 22, offers 200 titles of manga which can be accessed on smartphones, tablets or personal computers. The service allows readers to translate Japanese dialogue into English or Chinese.

The vast library of titles, some of which can’t be read anywhere else, comes for free.

Among the 200 titles that will be initially available for its launch are selected from the 23 comic anthologies Kadokawa currently publishes, such as Shonen Ace and Young Ace, Kadokawa representative executive director Shinichiro Inoue said.

50 series will be original Comic Walker productions that will make their debut through the service, he added.

Translations will be ready for just 40 titles at launch, although Kadokawa plans to expand its translated catalogue over time. Japanese lines can be switched to English or Chinese with a single command.

The company says it also hopes to add French language options, says Hideaki Furubayashi, the Kadokawa executive in charge of the Comic Walker project.

“There are a large number of French speakers in Africa, but there isn’t an established network of manga selling bookstores there,” he explained. “With this service, we can supply Japanese comics to readers there as well.”

Kadokawa aims to make Comic Walker one of Japan’s biggest comic sites, with 1 million monthly-based users and 100 million page views, by the end of this year.

But, like anything offered free on the Internet nowadays, Comic Walker has a catch. The latest chapters will be available for free until the next chapter is published. After that, the older chapters will be archived at Kadokawa’s online bookstore, Book Walker, where they will be available for purchase.

Kadokawa’s hope is that readers will find series they enjoy through Comic Walker, then shell out for print or e-book editions from the back catalogue. The publisher is also planning to release colored-editions of Mobile Suit Gundam and Evangelion.

“That experience convinced us that if we deliver legitimate manga digitally and quickly, we’ll be able to win the hearts of comic fans worldwide, and as a result, eradicate underground sites,” Inoue said.

Three major underground sites alone have a total of 9 million monthly unique users, with page views amounting to 2 billion. These sites make about $12 million a year from ads, sharing into revenues of the original publishers.

By Maesie Bertumen

Image: Sebra / Shutterstock.com