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

Keitai Shousetsu: Who, What, How?

This page will outline how cell phone novels work, who writes them, who reads them, what themes they usually contain, and key stylistic features of the genre.

How Cell Phone Novels Work:

Cell Phone

Most keitai shousetsu are composed entirely on mobile phones, although some authors have been forced to switch to conventional keyboards due to injuries, including carpal tunnel syndrome and ingrown thumbnails (but, as Norimitu Onishi reflects, "Can a work be called a cell phone novel if it's composed on a computer, another tool, or even in longhand?"). Short installments of no more than 70 words are posted to a host website with social networking features, allowing fans to interact with each other as well as the author. According to Galbraith, these installments are "the ideal length to be read between shorter train stops" (online). Subscribers to cell phone novel websites receive daily email updates to their mobile phones, and if they are unsatisfied with the direction of the story, they can provide feedback for the author on the hosting website. The deeper implications of this will be explored shortly.

Who Writes Keitai Shousetsu?

Overwhelmingly, the authors of keitai shousetsu are young women in their teens and 20s, although men are increasingly contributing short works of horror and science fiction to host websites. Indeed, many were stunned when a 40-year-old man who wrote a dystopian cell phone novel walked off with the prize for "Outstanding New Work" at the 2008 Japan Keitai Novel Awards. Goodyear, in an interview, noted that two male finalists had been present at the awards ceremony the previous year as well: "One had written a thriller and the other a homosexual love story" (online). Most of the authors have not been published previously, and for many, keitai shousetsu is their first attempt at creative writing. Chiaki Ishihara, a professor of Japanese literature and author of a book on cell phone novels, attributes the ubiquity of cell phone and text messaging culture as the impetus for this new trend: "It's not that they had a desire to write and that the cell phone happened to be there; instead, in the course of exchanging email, this tool called the cellphone instilled in them a desire to write" (qtd. in Onishi). Much like blogging has inspired a new generation of prolific young writers in North America, Japan's text message culture has created bestselling authors out of young women who admit to never having read a novel. As Norimitsu Onishi asserts, "many cellphone novelists had never written fiction before, and many of their readers had never read novels before" (online).

As a rule, keitai shousetsu authors do not share their identities with the public, even when they have achieved fame and fortune in the industry. Journalist Yukari Iwatani Kane states, "to preserve the mystique of authors, and to protect the privacy of those who write personal experience stories, publishers encourage keeping real identities a secret. Many use one-word pen names" (online). Cutesy names like Mika, Mei, Rin, and Chaco are chosen as pseudonyms to prevent friends and family from discovering the painful and intimate secrets openly revealed in the large majority of cell phone novels. Most authors claim that their stories are entirely, or at least partly, autobiographical, although this has been contested by some critics skeptical of the veracity of some of the admittedly over the top plots (see the plot summary for Mika's Love Sky). W. David Marx, a writer for clast, an agency that analyses contemporary consumer and media trends in Japan, views the anonymity characterizing the genre as a fictional conceit demanding an empathetic reaction to stories that, read as fiction, would be at best abysmal: "The more net culture progresses in Japan, the more it become clear that anonymity is its underlying principle. Even in the face of fame and fortune, amateur writers are finding it more helpful to hide real identities in order to reap the benefits of building fantastical realities for mass empathy" (online). Indeed, whereas online culture in North America is arguably based on exhibitionism, voyeurism, and narcissism to an extent, Japanese online culture instead swarms with anonymous and unidentified users to the degree that many are called 'net transvestites' (Goodyear 64).

Who is the Audience?

Keitai Girls

Like the authors, the readers of cell phone novels are usually young females in their teens and 20s who do not have a strong background in reading literary texts. Galbraith cites a 2008 survey conducted by the Mainichi Shinbum newspaper, revealing that 86% of high school, 75% of middle school, and 23% of grade school girls read cellphone novels (online). While book sales in Japan fell 15% between 1996 and 2006, according to the Research Institute for Publications, more young women were reading books than ever before, only these books were in their mobile phones (qtd. in Kane, online). Literary circles and the media have characterized these young women as a dumbed down, hysterical lot bent on the destruction of Japanese culture, however, as Time's Lev Grossman rightly asserts, "We can see in the rise of self-publishing not only a technological revolution but also a quiet cultural one - an audience rising up to claim its right to act as a tastemaker too" (online). While the novels may not be considered literature with a capital "L," this growing group of young keitai shousetsu fans and writers is contributing to both the evolution of the book and a new era of widespread fiction reading.

Key Styles, Genres, and Themes of Keitai Shousetsu

Most cell phone novels are written in the first person, like a blog or diary, and run from 200 to 500 pages, with each page consisting of approximately 500 Japanese characters (Bodomo 201). As mentioned previously, the Japanese language is uniquely suited to reading on tiny screens, as each single character may represent a larger concept, and authors use space on cell phone screens strategically to convey a variety of meanings. Characters may be jammed tightly together if the author wants to create an intense or stressful scene, and spaces between lines can represent a character deep in thought or can signal calm and contentment. Rin, the author of 2007's bestselling If You comments on this technique: "You're changing the line in the middle of sentences, so where you cut the sentence is an essential part. If you've got a very quiet scene, you use a lot more of those returns and spaces. When a couple is fighting, you'll cram the words together and make the screen very crowded" (qtd. in Goodyear 65). Authors work within the constraints of the medium to create meaning, as well as a completely new and unique minimalist style that has alternately attracted huge amounts of fans and a steady stream of criticism. As screen space is limited and every word must be carefully chosen, character development and descriptions of setting are often sacrificed for a focus on highly emotional dialogue. Plot movement is swift and readers are expected to fill in the blanks. Emoticons, or emoji, punctuate the dialogue, adding additional layers of meaning in a limited amount of space. The language used is highly colloquial and slangy, mimicking the everyday text messaging speak commonly used by Japanese youths.

Jay Bolter and Richard Grusin, in their book Remediation, comment on the process of renewal and replication when emerging technologies replace older media: "new media is remediated with older media into a dynamic ongoing process that disrupts any causal or linear notion of old and new technologies" (Bolter and Grusin, qtd. in Hjorth 3). As is the case whenever a new technology threatens to replace an older medium, such as the cell phone potentially replacing the book, critics are quick to raise the alarm, decrying the deleterious effects on morals and literacy these new forms will effect on younger generations. However, is it possible that the cell phone novel is not a new and debased form of Japanese literature, but rather, a continuation of previous literary traditions, albeit in a flashier and sexier form? Ben Dooley over at The Millions suggests that this may indeed be the case: "cell phone novels tap into long traditions of Japanese prose and poetry...even a cursory examination...will show a visual connection to traditions of haiku and tanka" (online). On a thematic level, some have noted a relationship between these digital tales of love and despair and the classic 11th century Japanese novel, Murusaki Shikibu's The Tale of Genji, which was also written by a female author in installments. However, these older literary works are heavy on the use of kanji and often do not appeal to younger generations who have been raised in a fast-paced, hyper-social, and technologically advanced environment. Cell phone author Rin says of her peers, "they don't read works by professional writers because their sentences are too difficult to understand, their expressions intentionally wordy, and the stories are not familiar to them" (qtd. in Onishi). A more recent inspiration for cell phone novels is Japanese manga, or comic books. Many of the authors and readers grew up surrounded by manga, and the influence is clear in the dependence on dialogue, the juxtaposition of image and text (emoticons and Japanese characters), and the fast pace of the books. Ruth Cox Clark remarks that keitai shousetsu are "very much like a graphic novel, but without the illustrations" (online).

What are the themes common to most keitai shousetsu? CNN reporter Laura Farrar remarks, "The novels often center on themes that are rarely discussed aloud in Japanese society - drugs, sex, pregnancy, abortion, rape, and disease" (online). Most often, the stories are set far away from Tokyo, in the less sophisticated provinces of Japan and the characters are from the middle and lower classes. Upon reflection, keitai shousetsu could not be more unlike the cheery, triumphant everygirl-gets-the-hot-guy genre of 'chick lit' that has been so popular in the West. Death of loved ones, miscarriages, and AIDS are some of the more dominant recurring themes in keitai shousetsu, and the level of melodrama is set on high. The novels are not about female empowerment; rather, they seem to emphasize a sense of feminine passivity and helplessness that would strike many North American readers as somewhat anti-feminist. Goodyear observes, "the stories themselves often evince a conservative viewpoint: women suffer passively, the victims of their emotions and their passivity; true love prevails" (63).

The loneliness of a crowd

However, the dark, sexual, and violent themes running throughout keitai shousetsu may actually hold up a mirror to the real-life experiences of young women living in a society that promotes feminine humility and passivity. Young women who have experienced any one of these events - rape, abortion, drug abuse - are silenced by society, and can find a cathartic outlet in writing and reading these novels. In my own opinion, after reading the introduction to Mark D. West's Love Judges: The Crisis of Intimacy in Japanese Law and Society, the heightened melodrama scorned by critics may actually be a fairly accurate window into contemporary Japanese society, give or take some embellishments. West's book is chock full of interesting statistics that give some context to the dark and depressing themes that are attracting scores of young female readers to these novels:

  • Relationships: A 2007 government survey found that 52.2% of men and 47.7% of women between 18 and 34 have not had relationships with the opposite sex.
  • Suicide: Japan's suicide rate is one of the highest in the world.
  • Sex: In a 2005 survey, Japan ranked last in frequency of sex per year.
  • Abortion: About half of all Japanese pregnancies are said to end in abortion.
  • (online).

West's picture of contemporary Japanese society is arguably even more bleak than that conveyed by the semi-autobiographical universe of the keitai shousetsu, although this is rarely, if ever, acknowledged by the detractors of the genre.

Go to the next page to read about how keitai shousetsu foster a participatory and interactive culture of readers and writers.

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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.