In Japan, bestsellers now come via the phone

With her hair tied back into a neat ponytail, Hikari Kanno (13), a bookish 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 cellphone, the gateway for “cellphone 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 says.

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,” says Hikari’s friend Mio Katsuki.

Hikari says she spends on average three hours a day reading cellphone novels, giving her parents a monthly bill of 40 000 yen (about R2 500).

Kanno is one of the majority of Japanese secondary-school students who own cellphones and spend an average of two hours a day on their phones, compared with 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 cellphone novels into books.

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

Authors have inevitably had to adapt to the cellphone novel, which appears on the small handset screens in short, downloadable instalments.

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.

New literary genre

“Although cellphone 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,” says Mikio Funayama, the spokesperson of Japan’s most prestigious literary journal, Bungeikai.

“I think cellphone 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 says.

The growing popularity of cellphone 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 cellphone novel has been Koizora (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.

The author of Koizora, who goes only by her given name of Mika, was propelled to fame by using a website called “Maho no i-land [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 cellphone novels are women in their early 20s, while the website’s users are mostly between aged 15 and 24, it says.

The website started eight years ago when Japan’s largest cellphone provider, NTT DoCoMo, began its popular “i-mode” service that allowed cellphones to connect to the internet. With flat fees for access to i-mode, aspiring novelists started to write on their cellphones.

However, authors of cellphone 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 cellphones.”

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

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

Cellphone novels “are convenient as I can read anywhere and I don’t have to carry anything”, says Ayumi Chiba (20). “And, I love love stories.” — AFP

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories


press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday