Keitai Shosetsu: The Love-child of Technology and Literature

A page of a keitai shosetsu

         by: Anastasia Rivera

             If literary critics had all authority, then the art of literature has only declined, dying only to die again with every generation. In Western literature, romantic novels written by educated young women were once trashy, now they are considered classics a la Pride and Prejudice and Wuthering Heights. Japan, only a few decades ago, watched as novels written for women by women dominated bestseller lists and cultural critics bemoaned the depravity. They posed that true literature had been replaced by such ill-devised and highly emotional writings. In 2007, the top three best-selling novels originated as keitai shosetsu and the critics cried once more. The burgeoning popularity and ubiquity of mobile telephony has birthed the keitai shosetsu, the cell-phone novel.

The movie poster for Koizora, 2007’s #1 bestselling novel in Japan. It is the incredibly tragic love story of a young woman and a gangster.

A cell-phone novel is a serialized story, delivered through e-mail or text to those who subscribe through distributing sites such as Maho no i-Land (Magic Island) in Japan or Textnovel.com in America. Authors and readers can communicate and collaborate on stories. The audience may suggest dialogue and plot twists, express their opinions on the work, and ultimately shape the narrative trajectory. Authors, likewise, may track their stories’ popularity stats and viewings, adjusting accordingly. In short, “keitai shosetsu…exist in vast online pools where writers and readers engage each other” (Yourgrau). The intermediary of the editor and publishing company disappears as the line between producer and consumer blurs. Text messaging and e-mail rather than voice calls enhance the private nature of cell phones and the cell-phone further capitalizes on this isolation. Japanese society especially encourages this silent communication, shown in the general prohibition of answering calls in public spaces such as trains in order to refrain from disturbing others (Ling). The average daily commute of two hours is perfect. Cell-phone novels, then, resemble the long, affected gossip between close friends where one speaks to eager millions.

A common scene depicting Japanese commute

The main demographic for the cell-phone novel, both as authors and readers, consists of young women from early teens to twenties. There are exceptions, however, including the originator of the keitai shosetsu, a thirtysomething man who called himself “Yoshi”. Interviewed for Japan Today, kiki, who won an award and publishing deal for her novel I, Girlfriend, said, “I started reading ‘keitai shosetsu’ last year, and writing this year. They are easy to read and write, so it was easy to get into” (Galbraith). The ease with which one may participate in the cell-phone novel trend and the social distance of the internet allow for anonymity. Authors usually adopt simple, disyllabic pen names and have never written outside of schoolwork before. In fact, Japanese online culture is highly populated by cartoon avatars for profile pictures and blatantly false identification. “Match.com doesn’t work well [in Japan], because a majority of people won’t post photographs, and blogs—a recent study found that there are more of them in Japanese than in any other language—are often pseudonymous” (Goodyear). Cell-phone novelists in particular have strong incentive to never reveal their identities, despite the popularity of their works and subsequent fortune from publishing successes, as they usually write autobiographical confessions through the highly intimate medium of the keitai shosetsu.

The first movie based on Deep Love, the first cell-phone novel, which branched off into multiple storylines. This is the story of Ayu, a high school prostitute who participated in enjo kousai.

Through these cell-phone novels, young women can express themselves freely and relate to those whose stories are hardly different from their own experience. The cell-phone novel truly adopts a therapeutic tone not unlike the basement meetings of an anonymous support group. Themes of keitai shosetsu revolve around “prostitution, AIDS, rape, incest, abortion, drugs, suicide, and desperate eternal love” (Yourgrau). Rather than an outpouring against female oppression, however, these stories reflect a common impression of Japan: the humility and passivity of women. Social issues that cannot be addressed openly are artfully typed into the solitary keypad and delivered only to those who choose to learn more. “The moral of [the average keitai shosetsu] is not that sex leads to all kinds of pain, and so should be avoided, but that sex leads to all kinds of pain, and pain is at the center of a woman’s life” (Goodyear). It should be noted, however, that other genres like science fiction have been attempted. But, the vast majority concerns the traumatic experiences of young women narrators.

Critics, like those from the respected literary journal Bungakukai, have frequently concluded that such writings do not qualify as literature due to poor composition and campy content. Echoing the ageist dissatisfaction with newfangled textspeak, fears include that the common usage of kaomoji (lit. face characters or emoticons) and informal colloquial language will bring the literary deterioration of coming generations. A Japanese slang word even arose to disparage cell-phone novelists and their audiences. Yutori refers to those who cannot read, write, or think intelligently, attributed to the ‘slow education’ (yutori kyouiku) system adopted in the 90s (“Keitai”). Furthermore, the anonymous nature allows for empathy-garnering deceptions. Despite such criticisms, even renowned author, translator, and Buddhist nun Jakucho Setouchi has revealed that she has contributed to the growing number of keitai shosetsu (Galbraith).

There is value in the growing cultural production among youth, whether or not they are considered literature. Honestly, the disputed classification of keitai shosetsu as literature or a social plague hardly seems relevant. This is a form of communication, announcement, and creation of legacy. It is a medium of expression that, whether or not there is approval, will continue or fade into obscurity like other fads and trends. They should be analyzed for what they say about society, because, either way, they are stamps clearly representative of Japanese youth.

A keitai shosetsu printed into book form

Discussion Questions:

1. What do you think accounts for the success of keitai shosetsu in Japan yet relative obscurity in America?

2. Do you support these criticisms of the medium?

3. Why would young women specifically adopt the cell-phone novel? Why not similarly marginalized salarymen, for example?

4. These stories frequently feature violence, sex, and other sensitive content. Does such base content eliminate them as high literature?

 

Sources:

Galbraith, Patrick W. “Cell phones come of age“. 26 Jan 2009. Accessed 28 April 2015.

Goodyear, Dana. “I ♥Novels”. The New Yorker. 22 Dec 2008. Web.

Kinsella, Sharon. “Cuties in Japan”. Women, Media and Consumption in Japan. eds Brian Moeran and Lise Scov. Curzon & Hawaii University PRess, 1995. 

Ling, Rich and Per E. Pederson. Mobile Communications: Re-negotiation of the Social Sphere. 2005.

Nishimura, Yukiko. “Linguistic Innovations and Interactional Features of Casual Online Communication in Japanese. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication”. 2003.

Keitai Shousetsu: A Study of Japan’s Mobile Phone Fiction”. 2010. Accessed 28 April 2015.

Yourgrau, Barry. “Thumb novels: Mobile phone fiction“.  29 July 2009. Accessed 28 April 2015.

Comments

  1. Alexia Blair says:

    Awesome post, Anastasia!

    The movie Koizora was the first time that Keitai Shosetsu had been brought to my attention. This method of Internet publication and communication between author and reader distinctly reminds me of fanfiction, the main difference being that the author creates original work instead of changing a canon story. It is interesting to note on how Keitai Shosetsu, like the subcultures of kawaii and Lolita (among others) have been treated by mainstream society as lacking in structure and substance. This, however, is definitely a regular pattern among aspects of contemporary cultures when compared to generations before.

    I was wondering if Keitai Shosetsu are still popular now, or have they faded out of popularity like literary critics claimed they would? All in all, a fascinating article!

  2. It is a very interesting post, Anastasia~

    Actually, Keitai Shosetsu is very popular in China as well. Girls of my generation all had experience of reading such novels during classes and daydreaming about being the lucky heroine. Young readers can project their own personalities onto these characters easily. These fairy-tale plots are written to target young teenagers as their main consumers.
    Although Keitai Shosetsu were criticized for poor composition and unrealistic storylines, this medium of expression at least motivates ordinary people to write and provides more opportunities for writers to have their books published. Given the fact that competitions among Keitai Shosetsu are heating up, I believe novelists are motivated to write well structured novels that could be valued as literatures.

  3. Jordan Cheresnowsky says:

    “Keitai shosetsu” remind me a lot of fanfiction websites, where you subscribe to get notifications about your favorite stories and the website offers a certain level of anonymity. I have read studies before about light novels and manga magazines being used for quick literature and entertainment during commute, but did not know about cell phone novels. Though it is unsurprisingly that social issues are covered in these anonymous novels, it still says a lot about all kinds of literature. The “classics” we view of literature today generally tackled the larger social or cultural problems of a time, and thus they became classic through their depictions.

    Do you believe that something like “keitai shosetsu” will be become a trend in Western countries? Though we do have blogging and fanfiction sites, these novels do seem to have a different flare to them that could potentially become popular.

  4. I’ve never heard of keitai shosetsu before, so I find this post absolutely fascinating. Like Jordan, I’m also reminded of fanfiction since both mediums are generated by the public and allow for widespread participation.

    I think your strongest critique is to question the hesitation to call keitai shosetsu literature because one wonders if this is even the right question. What does literature stand to lose if these cellphone novels become part of the literary canon? Does ‘high’ literature somehow become less prestigious or less notable because of it? Is it not more productive to include ketai shosetsu as literature and, by extension, hold them accountable to academic criticism?

    Furthermore, you seem to imply that this new medium has the potential to be a subversive literary form that liberates younger female voices, that becomes another way to gain cultural capital where representation may be skewed or incomplete. In this sense, keitai shosetsu also reminds me of testimony due to its confessional nature.

    I do wonder how the rise of keitai shosetsu fits into Asuma’s notions of a database model of consumption. Could this shift indicate a need for a larger grand narrative to make sense of issues regarding the youth, particularly in relation to young females and sex?