The Roots of Keitai Shousetsu: How Did Keitai Shousetsi Become So Popular in Japan?
"They were built on the existing social and cultural practices of young people exchanging text as part of their everyday lives...it's an on-ramp to digital literacy. It's about shared culture and social practice that enables new forms of creative expression."
First and foremost, Japan's status as the most technologically advanced society on the planet must be acknowledged as the chief underlying factor motivating the rise of this phenomenon. As Mizuko Ito asserts, "Japan was the first country to have widespread mobile communications, even before mobile phones became affordable and popular" (qtd. in Galbraith). Teenage girls in Japan were instrumental in the widespread adoption of a primitive form of text messaging on beepers in the early 1990s, and by 1998, text messaging had become strongly associated with Japanese youth culture, with young female users at the helm (Ito "New Media"). To a remarkable extent, the Japanese have had much earlier access to advanced cell phone technologies, and have been enthusiastic adopters of mobile devices. At first, many teens were said to have suffered "packet death," that is to say, they were forced to abandon their keitai due to the huge costs incurred by transmitting large amounts of packet data, however, in 2003, mobile phone companies ushered in a new era of mobile communications with their decision to offer the unlimited transmission of packet data as part of flat monthly rates. What this meant is that an already established text messaging culture became even more widespread, as many more teens could now afford to text at any time. While North American providers still limit texts to 140 characters, Japanese phones can transmit up to 10,000. As of March 2008, a government study revealed Japan's keitai penetration rate to be about 95%, with an estimated 82% of youth between 10 and 29 owning a cell phone as of 2007 (Ito, "New Media," Goodyear 65). As a result of these factors, a boom in the reading and writing of keitai shousetsu occurred, and submissions to sites like Maho no i-rando rose exponentially.
Unlike North America, the use of personal computers is not widespread in Japan and many choose to access the Internet via their keitai, which may explain the relative lack of success mobile phone novels have experienced in the West. Furthermore, for the most part, North American cell phones do not typically have Internet access, although it will be interesting to see the impact devices such as the iPhone will have on North American mobile reading practices.
Text Messaging Culture:
As Patrick Galbraith notes, in Japan, "talking on the phone in many contexts is frowned upon, so people tend to make use of text messaging and emoticons to have lively conversations" (Galbraith). The density of the nation's population has given rise to strong social policing against any intrusion of personal space, and taking voice calls on the subway or in other shared public spaces often elicits negative reactions. Ito observes, "the use of voice calls in public transportation has been strongly discouraged...and this has been a major factor in the predominance of text communication" (online).
In addition, the early adoption of SMS, or Short Messaging Service, technology (better known as texting) has allowed Japanese youth plenty of time to experiment and play with its capabilities. While new forms of language such as "txt msging spk," that is to say, "text messaging speak," have recently caught on in North America, Japanese teens have been using this language for some time. Collette Snowden, a cell phone theorist, notes that SMS users, "once familiarized with the mechanics of SMS, began to explore and play with the technology...in playing with technology, users radically expanded and transformed its use" (113-114). It was from this advanced technological environment that Japanese teens, primarily females, adapted SMS for their own creative uses in the form of keitai shousetsu. As another cell phone theorist, Misa Matsuda, asserts, "the user demographic that most commonly uses mobile email is young and female" (qtd. in Goggin, 83).
It wouldn't be too far off to say that public transportation is also one of the main reasons behind the success of this new genre. Most Japanese people must endure long daily commutes to and from school and/or work. As a general rule, Japanese subway cars are notoriously cramped, with little elbow-room for passengers, and even less room to hold open a printed book or newspaper. In addition, as mentioned above, Japanese society holds strong social norms against voice calls, and teens wishing to use their mobile phones must do so silently. Obviously, something needed to be done to fill in this quiet and immobile chunk of time that punctuated the average person's day. Ingeniously, as Ruth Cox Clark observes, "commuting Japanese teens who wanted to read began to read on their cell phones" (online). While Japanese cell phone companies had been offering literary classics for keitai since 2003, these classics were not at all popular with teens. In the absence of books that spoke to their own experiences, Japanese youth, particularly females, began producing their own mobile reading materials.
The Japanese language is quite complex and consists of three different systems: kanji, katakana, and hiragana. Kanji is the most difficult and is composed of thousands of ideograms that many Japanese people find difficult to master, while the latter two systems are used in everyday Japanese. Emily Parker, in a recent article, "Is Technology Dumbing Down Japanese?," provides an introductory synopsis to the complexities of the language, and offers a justification for the declining interest in literary novels exhibited by many of the younger generation. As she notes, the language has been undergoing a process of simplification since the close of the Second World War, when the Japanese Ministry of Education reduced the amount of kanji used in the media. However, kanji continues to be used by academics and literary authors, who appreciate the subtleties and nuances the system affords. As a result, a rift has opened up between those who can actively read, write, and enjoy texts employing a large amount of kanji, and those who cannot. The vast majority of those who have difficulty understanding and writing kanji characters are young people, who have been generally more attracted to texts they can enjoy and understand, like manga, than traditional literature. As Goodyear asserts, "with short lines, simple words, and a repetitive vocabulary," cell phone novels are simple to read (65). Furthermore, most of the writing is hiragana, and "there is ample blank space to give the eyes a rest" (Goodyear 65). The flat, simple language of keitai shousetsu, for many Japanese youths, is more accessible than the classics, and more akin to the language they employ in everyday contexts, such as texting.
Finally, the keitai shousetsu is uniquely suited to the Japanese language as the grammar allows the author to write short, meaningful sentences that convey more information in a smaller space than would be possible in English. Ben Dooley, a Japanese translator who runs "The Millions" blog, clarifies this concept: "as a high-context language, a complete sentence in Japanese can consist of a single lonely verb. Japanese speakers and writers frequently and freely omit subjects and objects from their sentences, expecting the reader to figure out what is going on" (online). The unique features of the Japanese language make a cell phone novel much more feasible than it would be in the wordier English language.
This paper was originally written in December 2009 by Brianna Erban for LIS 585: Multimedia Literacies. This revised version was submitted to fulfill the requirements for LIS 600: Capping Exercise at the School of Library and Information Studies, University of Alberta, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
Last updated May 6, 2010.