In Japan, bestsellers now come via handset

by AFP/Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura, Feb 26, 2008 | Destinations: Japan

TOKYO, Jan 28, 2008 - With her hair tied back into a neat ponytail, Hikari Kanno, a bookish 13-year-old schoolgirl, would hardly seem to fit the profile of an avid reader of novels about sex, drugs and violence.

She finds them not at the bookstore but on her mobile telephone, the gateway for "cell phone novels" that are becoming so popular in Japan they are now considered a new literary genre.

"They make me cry. That's exactly why I read them," Hikari said.

The one she loves most is "Clearness," the story of a violent relationship between a female university student who sells her body and a young man who works in a nightclub.

"You can't see the type of rough dramas found in these novels on television," said Hikari's friend Mio Katsuki.

Hikari said she spends on average three hours a day reading cell phone novels, giving her parents a monthly bill of 40,000 yen (350 dollars).

Kanno is one of the majority of Japanese secondary school students who own cell phones and spend an average of two hours a day on their phones, as opposed to just 26 minutes reading books, according to a recent government report.

Publishing companies have pounced on the craze, printing some of the most widely read cell phone novels into books.

Three novels that originally targeted cell phones topped the bestseller lists in 2007, according to leading book distributor Tohan Co. Among the top 10 novels, half were written for cell phones.

Cell phone novels a new literary genre

Authors have inevitably had to adapt to the cell phone novel, which appears on the small handset screens in short, downloadable installments.

The text is written horizontally with wide spaces separating each line, unlike most Japanese novels that are written vertically and in small font.

Writers generally use simple language, short phrases, "emoticon" icons and jargon popular among youngsters.

"Although cell phone novels were initially snubbed by traditional writers, they reflect our time. They could develop into a new literary genre so we must keep our minds open," said Mikio Funayama, the spokesman of Japan's most prestigious literary journal "Bungeikai".

"I think cell phone novels appeal to many people because they are easy to read and understand. Readers are able to share with the author the feelings written in them. And there's an element of pop culture too," he told AFP.

The growing popularity of cell phone novels "could give birth to new expressions or styles of writing," Kensuke Suzuki, a researcher at the Japanese Institute of Global Communication, recently wrote in an academic journal.

The top-selling cell phone novel has been "Koizora," or "Love Sky," an autobiographical story of a first-year high school student who deals with the range of issues facing Japanese teenagers -- bullying, attempted suicide, drugs, sex, rape, pregnancy and, above all, love.

"Koizora" has sold 1.95 million copies since its book edition was launched in 2006. It was released in cinemas in November and attracted 2.8 million viewers in the first six weeks.

Cell phone literature an outlet for young authors

The author of "Koizora," who goes only by her given name Mika, was propelled to fame by using a website called "Maho no i-land," or "Magic i-land".

The website operates free of charge and has released more than one million titles, mostly from novice writers. Besides Mika, it expects to print several titles into books each month starting in January.

Most authors of major cell phone novels are women in their early 20s, while the website's users are mostly between aged 15 and 24, it said.

The website started eight years ago when Japan's largest cell phone provider, NTT DoCoMo Inc., began its popular "i-mode" service that allowed cell phones to connect to the Internet.
With flat fees for access to i-mode, aspiring novelists started to write on their cell phones.

However, authors of cell phone novels do not carry particularly "high ambitions nor aim to be professional writers," Akio Kusano, manager of "Maho no i-land," said recently.

Rather, they "feel the need to write into a story what they thought or felt during the day," he said. "This is especially true among middle and high school students who have mastered the art of communication through cell phones."

Most authors sign their stories only with their first names as the works are generally based on their personal lives, said Megumi Noguchi, the spokeswoman for the website.

In the view of Suzuki, the academic, the cell phone novel closely resembles a typical Japanese pop song "as it has attractive packaging and is consumed quickly and easily".

Cell phone novels "are convenient as I can read anywhere and I don't have to carry anything," said 20-year old Ayumi Chiba.

"And, I love love stories," she said.

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