You’re on the subway in Tokyo. Suited businessmen on their way to a twelve hour day at work jostle around as you desperately try to find a square foot of space for your feet to occupy. There’s certainly no space to read a newspaper, and not even enough to reach into your briefcase and pull out the manga you’ve got into lately. You can, however, just squeeze your hand into your pocket (being careful to avoid touching the back of the profusely sweaty man next to you) and slide your mobile phone out. So, why not read a novel there? That’s what growing numbers of Japanese youth are doing every day; reading novels which have been written and are designed to be read on the phone screen. Each chapter is a mere 160 characters long (this takes about 2 minutes to read, which is the average time between stops on the Tokyo subway) and usually has a plot twist at the end, to keep you waiting till the next part arrives, almost like the Victorian serialization of Dickens` novels in weekly magazines. The writing style is by necessity short and punchy, similar to that of manga, and using emoticons and other phone based techniques to express emotions.
The most popular keitai shosetsu yet has been `Love Sky`, which was read by over four million people on their phone screens and a further two million when it was released as a book. It has even been made into a film starring the popular teenage stars Yui Aragaki and Haruma Miura, and most recently a TV drama. The author, however, remains mysterious; the novel was uploaded anonymously onto the specialist keitai shosetsu site Magic Island. All we know is that the author is female, lives in Kanto, and uses the same name on the site as Love Sky’s protagonist, Mika.
The book’s story is one of high melodrama. Mika, a high school girl, is bullied at school, but forms an unlikely friendship with Hiro, a punk and a loner. As their relationship deepens, Saki, who is both Hiro’s ex girlfriend and Mika`s chief tormentor, descends into jealousy and anger which culminates in her arranging to have Mika kidnapped and raped in order to humiliate her. However, Hiro’s devotion helps Mika get through her ordeal, and happiness for all is ensured. Realistic, no. Popular, yes. Wildly so. The story was criticized for its depiction of underage sex (though not, oddly, for its portrayal of rape), but this kind of edgy theme is precisely what makes the keitai shosetsu so popular among the young.
But is it literature? There has been a predictable outcry over keitai shosetsu among teachers, professors and politicians alike, as they bemoan the decreasing language skills of the younger generation. Certainly, the keitai shosetsu has a tendency to the formulaic. The general theme is often a love story in which the heroine and her beau are kept apart by seemingly insurmountable obstacles, which they eventually overcome, as typified by `Love Sky`. The first person narrative and buckets of melodrama are a must, to keep the reader’s interest in each and every 160 word segment, while dialogue and description are sparse. Critics deride them as simplistic and amateurish, with no respect for the traditions of Japanese literature.
But, can you really argue with the sales figures? A successful keitai shosetsu, in book form, can sell hundreds of thousands of copies; an important source of sales for Japan`s declining publishing industry. Of 2007`s top ten bestsellers, five were originally keitai shosetsu. Whether this spells the end for the traditional novel is yet to be seen, but what is certain is that the way the Japanese read is changing, whether those reared on traditional literature like it or not. The numbers alone suggest that keitai shosetsu, for better or worse, are here to stay.