Keitai Shousetsu: A Study of Japan's Mobile Phone Fiction

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Introduction

Context

Keitai Shousetsu: Who, What, How?

Keitai Shousetsu and Participatory Culture

Bestsellers and Crossovers

Praise and Criticism

Cell Phone Novels Outside of Japan

Reflection

Works Cited

Introduction

According to a well-established media mythology, it all started in 2000. A Tokyo man pseudonymously known as "Yoshi" posted installments of his novel, Deep Love, to a website he had specifically created as a means to deliver the chapters to mobile phones, or keitai denwa. Standing out front of Tokyo's hipster hub, Shibuya Station, Yoshi distributed business cards to high school girls with information about his novel, made available free-of-charge via his website. The tragic story, about a teenage prostitute in Tokyo who engages in enjo kosai, or the exchange of sex for designer clothing, and dies of AIDS as a result, was a runaway success with young Japanese women and within three years Yoshi's site had received more than 20 million hits (Bodomo 201). The surprise success of Deep Love prompted a small publishing house, Starts Publishing, to release an initial run of 100,000 hardcover print copies in 2003, and by 2007, the book and its sequels had sold an amazing 2.7 million copies altogether (Galbraith). Besides the exceptional oddness of the reverse digital-to-print publishing process of Yoshi's cell phone novel, the printed book is notable in that it preserves the appearance of the original cell phone display, with the text running horizontally from left-to-right, and emoticons punctuating the dialogue. These details have now become standard in print versions of keitai shousetsu. Yoshi's melodramatic tale of teenage sex and violence has also spawned a television series, a successful movie, and manga, yet, to this day the identity of the author remains unknown. Arguably, Yoshi's Deep Love has served as the gold standard for other amateur authors to follow, who anonymously submit sordid, erotic, and hyper-violent "autobiographical" tales of rape, abortion, disease and other taboo topics to mobile novel web sites by the millions.

In his upcoming book on computer-mediated literacy, Adams B. Bodomo defines keitai shousetsu as "a type of novel which is specifically designed for reading on a mobile phone and transmitted through text messages or e-mails from websites running such businesses" (201). It must be noted that cell phone novels are not previously published novels by established authors digitized for reading on mobile devices, rather, they are serialized works submitted by amateur authors to sites specially designed to transmit uploaded chapters to mobile phones in daily installments. Immediately following the unprecedented success of Yoshi's Deep Love, a media-sharing site called Maho no i-rando ("Magic Island") began offering a "Let's Make Novels" template along with instructions on how to compose a cell phone novel, inspiring would-be authors to write and submit their own keitai shousetsu. As of late 2008, the site offers free access to over one million titles and is visited an amazing three and a half billion times per month (Goodyear 63). Although many other cell-phone novel sites have sprung up since 2002, Maho no i-rando remains the largest, and has been home to the genre's most popular authors, including Rin, Mika, and Mei, whose novels will be discussed shortly. Many sites offer access to titles for a minimal fee of one or two dollars per month, but larger sites offer access for free and turn a profit from providing advertising space to companies eager to capitalize on the concentration of young consumers attracted to the sites.

Most cell phone novels share a few key characteristics: their authors protect their identities with one-word pseudonyms, they claim to be either autobiographical or semi-autobiographical, they focus on unconventional themes such as rape and disease, and dialogue takes precedence over establishing setting or character development. Encouraged by the wild success of Deep Love, editors employed by cell phone novel sites trawled submissions for the next Yoshi and print versions of keitai shousetsu began to hit bookstore shelves regularly, with 22 published in 2006 and 98 in 2007 (Galbraith). Of these 98 titles, five cell-phone novels reached the top ten bestsellers list in 2007, inspiring panic in the old guard, who were repelled by the unsavory themes and simplistic writing style of the novels. On the other side of the coin, more amateur authors than ever were inspired to try their hand at writing, more Japanese teens were drawn to reading, and the formerly marginal sub-genre of the keitai shousetsu hit the mainstream as what Dana Goodyear calls "the first literary genre to emerge from the cellular age" (62).

As many journalists have asked: Why Japan? Why hasn't this breakthrough of mobile fiction occurred elsewhere? The emergence of these novels was fostered by the convergence of a set of uniquely Japanese circumstances, including early adoption and affordability of mobile devices, the advanced technology available on these mobile devices, social taboos against voice calls which encouraged a widespread youth culture based on texting, a notoriously difficult language that can discourage young people from reading and writing literary texts, and long, cramped commutes on public transportation. On the next page, I will delve deeper into these circumstances.

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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.