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Cellphone novels

A reading phenomenon made in Japan


cellphone novels

Japanese cellphone novels novels, © Johanna Mauermann

Cellphone novels are a significant and cutting-edge example of the increasing popularity of works that do not originate from paper-based manuscripts, but from online formats. They illustrate the strong reciprocal effects of technical developments with literary formats. In her article, Johanna Mauermann discusses the position cellphone novels hold in Japanese literature, and whether they should be viewed as an indicator of a changing concept of literature.

In our society, young people who are occupied with their mobile phones present a common picture in public places such as trains, cafes or out in the open. But who would guess that this does not mean that messages are sent or games are played, but the next bestselling title is produced? In recent years, such an idea should not be discarded in Japan, where „cellphone novels“ (keitai shôsetsu) have become highly popular. In 2007, this new type of electronic literature hit the news, as the list of the ten best selling fiction books in Japan featured five such cellphone novels (Tohan 2007).

The minimum aspect such cellphone novels have in common is that these texts have been designed to be read on mobile phone screens, and that their publication in printed form is subject to a second, later step.

„The (…) trend has been the emergence of hit novels whose content originally appeared on websites accessed by mobile phone. These keitai shosetsu, or ‚cellphone novels’, became wildly popular when read on mobile terminals and maintained that popularity when transferred to the paper medium. The writer Yoshi’s Deep Love was the first of these to be widely read. It was received coolly by people connected to the traditional publishing industry, but vast numbers of young girls who had never read novels before (Anm.: Markierung durch J.M.) pushed it to the top of the bestseller lists, making it a significant work from the perspective of expanding the book-reading population.“ (Matsuda, Japanese Book News 51: 3)

Owing to the cellphone novels, young women in their teens and twens have discovered their interest in reading. The cellphone novels thus tap groups of readers the Japanese literature market was unable to access before. One of the reasons is that the cellphone novels focus on the topic of tragic love stories, and their plots can compete with soap opera scripts: The individual stories evolve from a mixture of sex, prostitution, violence, jealousy, unwanted pregnancy, abortion, rape, auto-aggression, attempted suicide, drug abuse, illness and death. Love is romantically transfigured and illustrated as a positive force that renders meaning to life and acts as a remedial source (iyashi).

From underground culture to mainstream
Since 2002, when he published Deep Love: Ayu no Monogatari („Deep Love: Ayu’s story“), the author Yoshi is regarded as the inventor of the cellphone novel, kick-starting the so-called first boom (daiichiji kêtai shôsetsu bûmu, Honda 2008: 21). „Deep Love“ tells the tragic story of 17-year old female student Ayu, who flees home after being subjected to abuse and violence, and turns to prostitution for the sake of a little bit of consumer wealth. Things change when she falls in love with Yoshiyuki, who is about to die. Their luck is not to last, as Ayu dies at Christmas caused by an HIV infection. The novel embarks on detailed descriptions of sex and violence, the plot is lurid and patched together. Yoshi presented his story and follow-ups for download on a website he set up himself, distributing leaflets promoting the site among schoolgirls. The girls were highly enthusiastic about the series, they posted the links to the online novel on their phones and demanded a printed book version that was finally published in 2002. 2.7 million copies of the Deep Love series were sold (cf. Starts Publishing press release no. 30.08.2005). These were succeeded by a cinema movie, a manga and a TV series. At the time, the term of cellphone novels was little used, as the phenomenon appeared to be solely linked to the name of Yoshi.

The second boom set in in 2005, and it was largely determined by cellphone portals offering free downloads, such as Mahô no I-rando („Magic Island“). Mahô no I-rando provides software for creating personal websites that can be used on the computer or cellphone. In 2000, Mahô no I-rando did not only offer homepage features such as blogs or diaries, but also a „BOOK“ option, an application for creating novels that was to turn into a success. Such a „BOOK“ is a virtual book with an index and separate chapters you can click and read. According to its owners, the site has meanwhile 5.2 million registered users, hosting more than 1 million (begun) novels (cf. Kusano in Da Vinci Nr. 159: 211). Registered users can create cellphone novels themselves and offer them for download, other users can comment on the novels or recommend them to their friends. This way, a network of cellphone novel fans has been established. In 2005, this „BOOK“ option culminated in the phenomenon of cellphone novels as bestselling fiction. Young, unknown authors began to type cellphone novels using their Mahô no I-rando nickname, thus an alias. These stories were allegedly based on „real life events“, in many cases the author and the main character bore the same name. Hence, this group of cellphone novels with their „semi-autobiographical“ claim became known as riaru-kei („realist“, Honda 2008: 57). As in „Deep Love“, the interaction between author and readers is characteristic to the stories – fans write to their authors, and the authors rely on their fans’ support.

The first in this series of novels was Tenshi ga kureta mono („What the angels gave me“, 2005), written by a user called Chaco on Mahô no I-rando. Fans of this story demanded its publication, which took place in 2005. Chaco tells about her High School-love, which is about to reach its happy end after many missed opportunities, but does, after all, end with a tragedy – her boyfriend dies in an accident. She reports that she has written this story in order to deal with the fate, thus she allegedly intended to write the text for herself, never having a book publication in mind. In the epilogue to her first novel, she moreover thanks her fans, stating that she would never have been able to complete her work without their support and messages (Chaco 2005: 238pp.).

Once they had become aware of the trend, the Mahô no I-rando staff began to observe developments in the scene of cellphone novels, and following further publications they launched the one cellphone novel that was to finally turn the underground phenomenon into a mass culture phenomenon: Koizora („Sky of Love“, 2006) by Mika.

Koizora comprehends two printed volumes, with a respectable number of 700 pages – corresponding to 100 characters per page on a cellphone screen and the incredible number of 2800 pages that were completely read on a cellphone screen by millions of young women. Mika’s novel sold nearly two million copies (as of 11/2007, cf. Mahô no I-rando press release, 19.11.2007) thus it is one of the most successful and best known cellphone novels. The story centres on Mika and her great love, beginning in the first year of her life at high school. When Mika meets rowdy Hiro, she falls in love with him and they become a couple experiencing a time of dramatic ups and downs. One day, Hiro surprisingly leaves Mika. Only two years later, Mika learns why Hiro acted in such a way – he has cancer and wanted to save her from sorow. Eventually, they make up again and Mika stays with him until he dies. Mika closes her story by stating that this love was worth everything, and she has no regrets.

It is easy to understand that the topics of the cellphone novel appeal most strongly to female teenagers and early twens. Even though the stories are unlikely to be taken for real in their entirety, the components off sex, jealousy etc. are regarded as „true“ (riaru), as they are modelled on the readers’ own situation. The strong presence of the characters, presented in dialogues and (inward) monologues, address the reader directly, and the emotional state of the main character is experienced immediately. If, moreover, the author is regarded as the alter ego of the main character, as in the case of Koizora, this increases the sensation of riaru. Empathy (kyōkan) is enhanced by the knowledge that in many cases we are dealing with a real story, as well as the opportunity of contacting the author directly. Tragedy and drama emotionally appeal to the readers who are touched (kandō) and moved.

Between communication culture and literature
The phenomenon was discussed in all of the printed media in Japan, including the daily papers, journals and sixx monographs, analysing the phenomenon of cellphone novels from a sociological, cultural and economic perspective. A central, repeated point of debate was whether cellphone novels are an aspect of communication culture characteristic of a young generation, rather than a type of literature.

In fact, the cellphone culture practised by young girls is fundamental to cellphone novels. The Japanese media scientist Matsuda Misa argues that the mobile internet is mainly used for sending e-mails and most of its users are female, having created a characteristic way of expressing themselves that is reflected in the cellphone novels, such as colloquial language, onomatopoeia „emoticons“ (Matsuda, Itô, Okabe 2006: 35). A strong tendency of keeping in touch by e-mail can be observed in girls, resulting in many messages a day with the sole purpose of reassuring their peers that they are thinking of each other. It is not important to communicate about something, but rather to communicate as such. You want to be connected (tsunagaru koto, Hayamizu 2008: 189).

Nevertheless, there are decisive arguments for treating cellphone novels as a new type of literature rather than a type of communication. While cellphone novels share some linguistic and stylistic aspects of text messages and internet language, including smileys, abbreviations and colloquialisms, they do not present themselves as a type of communication comparable to a Chat on the internet. Right from the start, they are clearly structured as a book with chapters and pages, a beginning and an end. Furthermore, cellphone novels do not only share the outward form of books. All of the works are published as novels (Ishihara 2008: 18). Such a statement is justified as each of the four novels was written by a single author telling a story in his or her own right using her own words, and the story is complete within the framework the author has delineated. Communication about the novel does not take place within the story itself, but is placed on an external site. Viewed in this light, cellphone novels are a type of literature by which girls communicate, and the author is included in this communication. Of course, this implies that the cellphone novel is more interactive than a conventionally written novel - authors such as Mika claim they never intended to write a novel, but a diary (Mika in Itō 2007: 24). Mika’s „diary“, however, clearly does not simply report the truth. This is apparent from the unlikely cumulation of shocking events in Koizora, as a synopsis of the first 100 out of 700 pages illustrates: Mika has hardly met Hiro when she lets him deflower her, only to learn he has a steady girlfriend. However, he leaves his girlfriend, and he and Mika join up, but they have to face many problems: Hiro’s jealous ex-girlfriend Saki bullies Mika and Mika falls victim to a rape she initiates. Mika subsequently tries to commit suicide, but she is saved and confides in her school friend Tatsuya who, in turn, is driven to dropping out of school because of Hiro’s jealousy. Mika is moreover made pregnant by Hiro. Their feelings for one another are thus strengthened and they both want to have the baby. Another attack by Saki, however, causes a miscarriage. In terms of Mika’s diary, have the imaginations of young female readers not rather run wild, the readers thus becoming authors themselves?

A new medium in the age of e-commerce
The analysis illustrates that with regard to their simple style, the scarcely metaphorical presentation and the emotionally oriented topics of the cellphone novels presented here can only be allocated in the field of trash. While the target group is narrow in its scope, its number is large. Hence, the term of cellphone novels presently describes a form of entertaining literature for girls and young women respectively that has emerged from new medial developments. In this respect, cellphone novels represent the increasing networking and reciprocity of pop and youth culture and new technologies and the respective industries.

Cellphone novels are not only literature by name: They are moreover deeply rooted in Japanese literature, as they reflect many contemporary lines of literature. Here, too, „J-Bungaku“ has been developed as an opponent of junbungaku, i.e. high standard literature (Gebhardt 2008), the influence of new media on literature and popular culture is widely discussed and the best selling book charts list autobiographies with dramatic plots1, illustrating a desire for advice in life (ikikata) and remediation (iyashi)2, and „new literature“, that is works by younger authors, receives recognition3. „Pure love“ and the „dark“ side of society are likewise dealt with4. The influence of popular and youth culture is evident from the cellphone communication culture pursued by young women. Technological innovations provide the basis for a technological development of the genre. The above described „BOOK“ functionality as well as the widespread use of cellphones and the mobile internet is fundamental, as well as its affordability to young people owing to flat rate tariffs.

From an economic perspective, the phenomenon of cellphone novels presents a growing market force targeting the book market, e-commerce, the cinema and television. It will further affect the music industry and merchandising industry. The superior role of a „media mix“ (media mikkusu) is apparent as a marketing strategy here (targeted marketing of the same content via different media): a bestselling cellphone novel goes along with cinema production, a TV series and a manga production as well as a game adaptation. Cell phone portals (Mahô no I-rando) and publishing houses (Starts Publishing, Goma Books) have joined forces for the first time and turned a phenomenon that exists virtually into one that exists in literature.

Meanwhile, different types of cellphone novels have emerged, including those written by amateurs that are often meant to contain autobiographic aspects, or fictional cellphone novels written by professional authors5, as well as novels that are advertised as cellphone novels, but were never written to be read on the cellphone as such6. Love stories still predominate but the scope of the genres now also includes historic fiction, horror and fantasy stories and there is now a successful minority of male authors.

The genre and the term of cellphone novels has established itself following millions of sold copies and the continuing new release of publications each month, both on the book market and in the press. Hence, the question is not whether cellphone novels will continue to exist, but how they will develop in the future.

Author: Johanna Mauermann

About the author:
Johanna Mauermann, born in 1984, studied Japanese studies and Drama, Film and Media Science at the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University Frankfurt. She wrote her M.A. thesis on the phenomenon of cellphone novels in contemporary Japanese literature. She is currently researching on the topic of creative industry in Japan as a postgraduate student of Japanese studies in Frankfurt.

Johanna Mauermann: „Handyromane. Ein Lesephänomen aus Japan“
EB-Verlag, Berlin, 2011
297 Seiten, kart., 22,80 €
ISBN: 978-3-86893-041-2

1 e.g. Dakara, anata mo ikinuite („That’s why you should live on“ 2000) by Ôhira Mitsuyo, who was bullied as a child or Gotai fumanzoku („Dissatisfied with the entire body“, 1999) by Ototake Hirotada, who is physically disabled.

2 see footnote 1, or Allan Pease’s international bestseller „Why men don’t listen & women can’t read maps“, 2000.

3 2003: awarding of the most recognised Japanese literature prize, the Akutagawa prize, to the youngest authors of a story, 20-year old Kanehara Hitomi and 19-year old Wataya Risa.

4 An example for the romance boom regarding „Pure Love“ (jun’ai) is Sekai no chūshin de ai o sakebu („The weight of happiness“, 2007) by Katayama Kyôichi. Social injustice is dealt with by Kirino Natsuo in OUT („Embracing death“, 2003).

5 Prestigious Japanese writer Setouchi Jakuchô, aged 86, published her first cellphone novel in 2008: „Tomorrow’s Rainbow“ (Ashita no niji), drawing on the great Japanese classic Genji Monogatari („The Tale of Prince Genji“).

6 In particular, see the series of cellphone novels published by Goma Books, where classics from Japanese literature (works by Akutagawa Ryûnosuke, Natsume Soseki, Dazai Osamu) are re-published as cellphone novels: to be read from left to right, contradictory to the traditional direction of reading from right to left, with additional reading aids and in a colourful design and colourful typefont.

Chaco (2005): Tenshi ga kureta mono. „What the angels gave to me“. Tokyo: Starts Publishing.

Da Vinci (2007): Keitai shosetsu ’tte do na no?. „What are cellphone novels about?“. In: Da Vinci Nr. 159, Juli 2007 (Jahrgang 14, 7. Ausgabe 2007). Tokyo: Media Factory. S. 207–213.

Gebhardt, Lisette (2008): Überlegungen zur zeitgenössischen japanischen Literatur. In: Meyer, Harald (Hg.): Wege der Japanologie. Festschrift für Eduard Klopfenstein, S. 265–289.

Hayamizu, Kenro (2008): Keitai shosetsu teki. ‚futatabi yankii-ka’ jidai no shojotachi. „Cellphone novel style: Girls become Yankees’ Again“. Tokyo: Hara Shobo.

Honda, Toru (2008): Naze keitai shosetsu wa ureru ka. „Why are cellphone novels sold successfully?“. Tokyo: Softbank Creative.

Ishihara, Chiaki (2008): Keitai shosetsu wa bungaku ka. „Are cellphone novels literature?“. Tokyo: Chikuma Shobo.

Ito, Onsen (2007): Keitai shosetsuka ni naru maho no hoho. „The magic guide to becoming a cellphone novel author“. Tokyo: Goma Books.

Maho no I-rando Pressemitteilung (19.11.2007): Daihitto keitai shosetsu ‘Koizora’ shiriizu de 392-manbu. „The cellphone novel hit series Koizora has sold 3.92 million copies“ Tokyo: Maho no I-rando. Link: company.maho.jp/press/press_release/20071119koizora.pdf (Zugriff vom 30.03.2010)

Matsuda, Misa; Ito, Mizuko; Okabe, Daisuke (Hg.) (2006): Personal, portable, pedestrian. Paperback edition. Cambridge: MIT Press.

Matsuda, Tetsuo (2007): Japanese Literature Today: Publishing Trends for 2006. In: JAPAN FOUNDATION, Japanese Book News No. 51, S. 2–3. Tokyo: Japan Foundation. Link: www.jpf.go.jp/JF_Contents/GetImage/img_pdf/JBN51PDF.pdf (Zugriff vom 01.04.2010)

Mauermann, Johanna (2009): „Das Phänomen Handyroman in der zeitgenössischen japanischen Literatur“. (Magisterarbeit am FB 9 – Sprach- und Kulturwissenschaften/Japanologie der Johann Wolfgang Goethe-Universität Frankfurt) - „The phenomenon of cellphone novels in contemporary Japanmese literature“. (M.A. thesis, submitted to the Department for Japanese Studies, Johann-Wolfgang-Goethe-Universität Frankfurt)

Mika (2006): Koizora ~setsunai koi monogatari~ (Band 1&2). „Sky of Love ~ a heart-rending love story~“. Tokyo: Starts Publishing.

Starts Publishing Pressemitteilung (30.08.2005): Shoseki ‚koibana ao’ ‚koibana aka’ hayakumo ichii ni rankuin! „The book version of Koibana ‚blue’ and Koibana ‚blue’ hits book charts at no. 1!“. Link: www.ozmall.co.jp/company/Release/Pdf/Release_71.pdf (Zugriff vom 30.03.2010)

TOHAN (2007): 2007 nenkan besutosera happyo. „Tohan Report on annual bestsellers 2007“. Link: www.tohan.jp/cat2/year/2007_1/ (Zugriff vom 30.03.2010)

Yoshi (2002): Deep Love daiichibu. Ayu no monogatari. Deep Love. „Deep Love (Part 1): Ayu’s story“. Tokyo: Starts Publishing.

Translated into English by Gwendolyn Schulte (DIPF)



Cellphone novels