Novel Idea

The rise of Japan's story-by-cellphone

by by Chelsea Rudman

When Americans see a teenager tapping out text on her cellphone, they assume she's chatting with friends or sealing a date for the weekend. When Japanese see the same, they know they might be witnessing the birth of a bestselling novel.

In the past five years, keitai, or "cellphone novels" have gone from being a laughable internet cult craze to a wildly popular mainstream phenomenon in Japan. Just over a year ago publishing companies began turning the stories, written on cellphones and uploaded to the web, into physical paperbacks. Their success has been groundbreaking: of last year's 10 bestselling novels, five were originally written on cellphones.

The keitai genre began as a hobby among a group of bloggers sharing romance stories, then grew into a national habit when website hosts developed software to facilitate the upload of text from cellphones. The serialized stories, known for their short phrases and scant plot development, have been criticized for lacking literary value. If democracy at its worst is mob rule, it's unsurprising that a democratic approach to art may produce insipid results.

Yet the keitai genre is, at least, democratic. One might interpret it as the fictional equivalent of blogging--a tech-enabled populist seizure of a medium long in control of the elites. Written in a straightforward style, keitai novels, readers say, are accessible to youth, unlike traditional Japanese literature. And the growth of a populist fiction market--governed not by editors and publishers but by readers--deserves special attention in the context of a society long known for its emphasis on tradition and hierarchy.

Cheap texts and packed trains
While internet-ready cellphones were available stateside long before the iPhone was released this past June, the Japanese market, which caters to a more tech-savvy population, has been dominated by a web-capable model, the i-Mode, since its release in early 1999. Cellphones quickly became such an invaluable social tool that the term keitai bunka, or cellphone culture, was coined to describe the youth culture of texts and emoticons. Some Japanese youths are so proficient in texting that they can type up to 100 characters per minute, equal to the speed required on a top-level word processing exam, according to the Japanese Information Network.

Cellphones are also the preferred internet browser for most Japanese youths, as PCs remain largely unaffordable. Web browsing via keitai grew when major network providers decided to offer unlimited packet messaging.

After noting a trend of story-writing on its users' blogs, one website host, Maho no i-rando, created software that permits text uploads directly from cellphones. Users began tapping out hundred-page stories in brief installments while commuting or during lunch breaks. The resultant web stories, which quickly gained millions of readers, became the first keitai shosetsu, or cellphone novels.

The stories have drawn a wide audience because they can be read, as well as written, on a cell phone screen, usually for free. And the infamously overcrowded Japanese commuter trains give keitai novels an edge over paperbacks. Almost everyone in Japan, from student to office worker, uses public transportation, and some commuters say the trains are so packed that it's impossible to open a book.

Yet keitai stories have enjoyed only increasing popularity, on and offline, since publishers picked up on the trend and started translating website hits into book sales. According to a September article in the Japan Times, the five keitai novels on the top-ten bestseller list have sold an average of 400,000 copies each. The top seller, "Love Sky," was even made into a movie.

Language democratized or language defiled?
What's so interesting about the keitai novel phenomenon is not only the medium in which they were conceived, but also the novice background their authors share. Most keitai authors have never written fiction before, and most keitai consumers are first-time readers of novels. A 21-year-old writing under the pen name Rin, for example, keyed out her opus "If You" as a high school senior, writing the story in installments over a six-month period. That story, after winning an online vote among cell readers, was turned into a 142-page book that became the number five bestseller of 2007.

And indicators suggest that the genre is not a mere flash in the pan. The Mainchi Shimbun newspaper and Starts Publishing, a leading publisher of the cellphone works, launched the Japan Keitai Novels Prize last year. In this year's competition, so far there are 2000 titles competing for a prize of ¥2 million, or $18,700.

That five of the top-selling novels in Japan were originally written as a series of soap opera installments between classes or during train rides signals either a populist literary revolution or the defilement of the term "fiction," depending on whom you ask. Should the genre be praised for getting teens to read? Or should it be condemned for inducting them into the world of books with stories many dismiss as trash?

Given the genre's constraints and the authors' inexperience, it's hardly shocking that the stories are attacked for lacking plot, character and scene-setting details. The predictable storylines are typically tear-jerkers featuring terminally ill beaus, desperate but good-hearted prostitutes and other such standard melodrama victims. The text generally reads like either a bad romance novel or a personal diary. The novels' simple, dialogue-heavy style poses a special threat to a country that holds the purity of its language so sacred that its major newspapers regularly run articles dreading the encroachment of the English language. A passage from "To Love You Again," in which a high-school boy drags his sweetheart into an empty classroom for a chat, reads:

Kin Kon Kan Kon (sound of school bell ringing)
The school bell rang
"Sigh. We're missing class"
She said with an annoyed expression.

Yet, criticisms notwithstanding, the genre has unique value beneath its low-fidelity veneer. Keitai novels, with their short paragraphs and simple language, are much more accessible to teens than traditional Japanese novels, whose sentences tend to be long and complex.

And keitai stories not only attract young readers, they actively involve them in the writing process. Even if readers don't start churning out their own stories, websites' comment features give fans a way to help shape the next installment of their favorite stories. Readers are often more than zealous in giving authors feedback; the 27-year-old author of "What the Angel Gave me," who goes by Chaco, told the Wall Street Journal she became so popular two years ago she received 25,000 online visitors a day, most of whom eagerly piled feedback onto her posts. "I was getting only one to two hours of sleep a night," said Chaco, whose phone would ring at 4 a.m. with emails from fans. Yet Chaco owes her book's publication to such fanatics--Starts Publishing printed the novel after a fan called and begged the company to turn her favorite story into a book.

In a culture whose rigid hierarchy is ingrained into the very structure of its language--many words come in 'plain,' 'polite,' and 'humble' varieties--the idea of story by collaboration seems liberating. Though the keitai community is not necessarily one of aspiring novelists, it is one of writers, and its members have managed to reinforce the value of the shared written experience for a young generation in a way that traditional authors have not.

Conventionally, editors and publishers are involved in helping new novelists emerge. By contrast, keitai novels are written entirely without the aid of professionals, and their success depends wholly on their popularity with readers. And while keitai writers are hardly bra-burning feminists, the genre has certainly given a generation of young women an outlet for their creative energies in a society where most of them are still expected to cook for their male relatives.

Coming to America?
While English translations of keitai stories could conceivably appear on the web in the near future, it seems unlikely that the phenomenon of cell phone stories will make it to the West any time soon. Americans, even young ones, use their cell phones for non-calling functions far less than the Japanese. And the limited texting capacity of American cellphones restricts the potential for an uploading-based craze.

Still, the advent of electronic readers like Amazon's Kindle, as well as the rise of the iPhone and similarly cutting-edge models, signal a sea change in the way we are reading. And when it comes to technology, Japanese innovations have a tendency to set the curve for the rest of the industrialized world. Americans in particular have a tendency to take Japanese trends that seem silly, like turtle-bopping plumbers or dueling owners of pets called Pokemon, and turn them into national crazes of our own. There may soon come a day when, instead of buying textbooks for classes, college students will download the course book list directly onto their phone-camera-web browser-electronic readers.

And maybe, if they commute and like to write, they'll upload a few, too.

CHELSEA RUDMAN B '08 wrote her first novel on her Gameboy.