Essays and Notable Articles and The Future of the Book

Big in Japan: A Cellphone Novel For You, the Reader

By posted at 4:26 pm on January 31, 2008 23

A week ago, an article in the New York Times created a mini-furor in literary circles. As the resident Japan expert in my circle of friends, everybody was asking me, “So what’s the deal with these cell phone novels?”

The NYT article was the first I’d heard of them. I did a quick Internet search, and what do you know? The Times was right, they’re all over the place. Google spits ups thousands of pages, and several of the more popular novels are listed on the Internet Movie Database as films in production.

What does this mean for the English novel? Is this the future of literature? In Japanese, maybe. There are a number of features of Japan’s language and culture that make a cell phone novel more palatable than it would be in English. First, Japanese grammar is much better suited than English to the kind of short sentences writing on a cell phone encourages. As a high-context language, a complete sentence in Japanese can consist of just a single, lonely verb. Japanese speakers and writers frequently and freely omit subjects and objects from their sentences, expecting the reader to figure out what’s going on. Go figure. The use of Chinese characters also serves to compact sentences. Since you don’t have to actually spell out entire words, as in English, but can represent them with an ideogram, you can say a lot more in a much smaller space.

Secondly, and perhaps just as important, cell phone novels tap into long traditions of Japanese prose and poetry. First, even a cursory examination of a cell phone novel will show a visual connection to the poetic traditions of haiku and tanka. The connection doesn’t end there, at its best the writing itself has an economy and – I’ll regret saying this – poetry that taps into the same tradition. The medium – you try typing a novel on the keypad of a cell phone – forces the writers to make every word count, and (in Japanese at least) it shows. The themes, as well, harken back to traditional Japanese themes. The first “modern” novel (written by Murasaki Shikibu in 11th century Japan), The Tale of Genji, was basically a high school love story, and nothing has changed since then. In manga, on television and in literature, the amatory exploits of high school students have always captured the imagination of the Japanese public. And the long, long literary tradition there, combined with the frequent use of public transportation, means that books in general, whether written on cell phones or not, occupy a much more important place in Japanese culture than in the West.

So what are these cell phone novels like? For the curious, I’ve translated a short passage from Sky of Love, the number one best seller by Mika, recently made into a movie. I’ve only read the first chapter, but apparently it’s a heart wrenching tale of young love, as seen through a Jerry Springer filter of premarital sex, teen pregnancy, gang rape and mortal disease. Enjoy.

Translation note: Two things. First, I’ve done my best to preserve the sentence structure and formatting of the original (at the expense of clarity and good prose, I’m afraid). This is more or less how it looks and reads in the original Japanese. Second, it’s common in Japanese for people to refer to themselves in the third person. The protagonist here does that frequently. It’s a habit that’s considered somewhat childish and endearing.

Sky of Love (the novel in Japanese, for those who’d like a visual reference.)

Prologue

If I hadn’t met you that day…

I don’t think I would have

Felt this bitterness.

This pain.

This sadness

Cried this much.

But.

If I hadn’t met you…

This happiness.

This joy.

This love.

This warmth.

I wouldn’t have known that either.

Today, I’m going to look through my tears and up at the sky.

Look to the sky.

Chapter One- A smile

“God, I am so hungry♪♪”

Finally lunch time. Felt like I’d been waiting forever.

Same as always, Mika put

her lunchbox on her desk and opened it.

School is a drag.

The only thing I like about it is eating with Aya and Yuka, my friends from class.

–Mika Tahara–

She’s a freshman, who started at this school in April.

It hasn’t even been three months

since she got here.

She’s met some people she likes and gets along with. She’s had some pretty good times.

She’s short.

And stupid.

And not that pretty

Doesn’t have any special talents.

Or even know what’s she wants to do with herself after graduation.

Bright, tea-colored hair she dyed right after she got here.

She’s wearing a little makeup, but it looks strange on her, especially at this time of day.

She stumbled out of middle school and right into average.

She had normal friends.

She had normal crushes.

She dated three guys.

I don’t know if that’s normal, or what.

But, what I know is normal,

is that those relationships all ended fast. That’s what she’s saying.

She doesn’t know real love.

All she knows is how to fool around,

Just that.

Love…

Who needs it?

It was right then…

I met you.

Mika’s life: she expected it would end in the same boring way it had begun. Meeting you was going to change all that.

Like always, Mika and Aya and Yuka

wolf down their food.

Why is it everyone gets so quiet when they eat?

The classroom door rattles open,

A guy with one hand in his pocket

walks over

to the three of them.

That guy, he stands in front of them

And he starts talking. Casually.

“Hey! My name’s Nozomu. I’m in the class next door. You heard of me?”

The three girls look at each other.

They pretend they don’t know what he’s talking about.

Just keep eating their lunches.

Since I’d gotten to school, I’d heard a lot of rumors about Nozomu.

A player.

A flirt.

A playboy

It seemed like he was walking around school

with a different girl on his arm every day.

“Watch out for Nozomu!”

“If he’s got his eye on you, you don’t stand a chance.”

Didn’t somebody tell me that…?

He’s got a well-proportioned face

on a tall body.

Highlights in his hair,

styled with wax for that “casual” look.

Eyes looking right at you, like they could see… something.

He’s got the right stuff for getting girls. There’s no question about that.

The problem is his personality.

Maybe… if he was a little more serious…

With all those rumors floating around. I don’t even need to tell you I’m not interested.

The three girls continue eating their lunches, pretending they haven’t even noticed him.

“Hey, now. You’re ignoring me? Let’s be friends. ♪ Come on, give me your number.”

His insistence makes me thirsty.

Mika, annoyed, grabbing a bottle of barley tea in one hand

gulping it all down.

“What do you think I’m going to do? It’s cool. Just tell me your number.”

There’s silence

Suddenly, Aya breaks it.

Mika and Yuka, looking at each other in disbelief.

Aya gives him her number

with a smile.

It’s hard to believe this is happening.

I wait until Nozomu has left the room, all puffed up and full of himself.

Then turning to Aya, blurting out:

“Why would you give your number to a guy like that? He’s trouble.”

Aya responds to Mika’s worry, like it’s no big deal.

“What can I say? I like cute guys. Ha.”

Aya’s a mature, beautiful woman.

She’s stylish and her best feature is

her long hair, a little wavy, and the red-brown of tea.

She’s got bad luck with guys. All the ones she’s dated are just playing with her…

That’s why, even when she gets a boyfriend, it’s just a few dates, quick break-up, repeat.

“Aya. Don’t get serious with a guy like that.”

To Yuka, with the serious face

Aya turns and lightly replies.

“Don’t worry about it.”

School lets out.

I go home, and lay around in my room, watching TV.

That’s when…

♪Ring♪

The ring echoes through the room.

There’s no name on the caller id.

It’s from a number that’s not in my phone.

I wonder who it is…

I pick-up to find out.

“Hello…?”

“…”

… silence.

“Hellooo…”

I say it with a little more self-assurance.

Click.

Beep, beep, beep.

They hung up.

Prank call?

Probably a wrong number.

♪Ring♪

Again, the ring echoes through the room.

The same number as before.

They’re not going to say anything anyway, I think.

So, I answer like I don’t give a shit.

“What?”

“…lo? Hello. Hello?”

On the other end of the line, I can faintly hear

the sound of an unfamiliar man’s voice.

“Who is this?”

The guy on the other end

shouts in a voice so loud I think it’s going to blow out my eardrum.

“…Mika? The signal’s bad! It’s Nozomu! You remember? The guy who talked to you at lunch today!”

WTF? Nozomu?

The Nozomu who hits on all the girls? That Nozomu?

The guy who got Aya’s number today… That Nozomu?

I start to panic.

I can’t find

the words to reply.

I should just hang up. Shouldn’t I?





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23 Responses to “Big in Japan: A Cellphone Novel For You, the Reader”

  1. Lee
    at 11:35 pm on January 31, 2008

    It's also possible to download English fiction to your cellphone/mobile. Here's a link to a site that has made my YA fantasy novel Mortal Ghost available in this way:

    http://www.booksinmyphone.com/index.php?list=book&id=lowl01

  2. A Paperback Writer
    at 6:28 pm on February 1, 2008

    Well, I think it sounds exactly like the kind of thing the average 8th grader would write. And, since I've taught junior high for 20 years, I've seen a lot of what 8th graders write.
    It also looks like it would be appealing to them. I can't say, however, that I'm dying to read the next chapter…..
    Thanks for translating it for us. I'd been wondering what they were like after all the fuss kicked up in the blogosphere a week or so ago.

  3. Laurie
    at 7:38 am on February 2, 2008

    Mike Elgin of Computerworld wrote that the cel phone novel is successful because it's participatory — something that needs to be applied to books across all media forms to increase readership in the U.S.

    Elgin's Jan. 31, 2008 commentary at
    http://www.computerworld.com/action/article.do?command=viewArticleBasic&articleId=9060501&pageNumber=1

  4. Laurie
    at 7:48 am on February 2, 2008

    Another attempt to make Elgin commentary an active link:
    Elgin:Will Cel Phones Save Books?

  5. heybooks
    at 7:08 pm on February 7, 2008

    Thanks for translating!

    I've been wondering about Koizora since seeing it all over the bookstores in Japan. It's a fascinating story, very simple but draws the reader in.

  6. yoshida
    at 1:20 pm on February 8, 2008

    considering the texting thing grew its wings in Japan, it really only makes sense that it is more suited for Japanese than English.
    but that doesn't mean that i would want to type or read the Tale of Genji on a cell phone.

  7. Anonymous
    at 4:45 pm on June 2, 2008
  8. Stan Soper
    at 6:46 pm on June 3, 2008

    Really nice article and I was glad to see the translation of part of Sky of Love. I have been inspired by this new form of fiction to launch a similar website for the U.S. market. Check out http://www.textnovelblog.com, which describes my research into this form of fiction and my efforts to launch the new website at http://www.textnovel.com (scheduled for beta launch on or around June 15). Thanks again for the excellent article!

  9. Anonymous
    at 4:42 pm on June 16, 2008

    Where can I find the rest of this novel translated?

  10. Saoirse Redgrave
    at 9:55 pm on August 6, 2008

    Thanks for that translation of Sky of Love! Cool! It does have a totally different feel than most "traditional" writing, but it has the potential to hook readers quickly through using the character's "voice" so distinctly. At http://www.textnovel.com there are some US writers also trying this format–anyone can read or write for free there. :-)

  11. Yessy
    at 9:40 am on September 29, 2008

    Hey they should bring that over here…but it would be hard for us to read long sentences and our memory might not take it. I would still like for the book to be translated into English cause I really liked the movie. I also would like for Japanese phones to come but we all don't get our wishes do we now?

  12. Lena
    at 11:31 pm on November 9, 2008

    I've read all the comments saying how this is not like the tradition writing and how this is what a middle schooler would write like…

    I just have to say.
    This was meant to be a cellphone novel.
    It is different than you average novel.
    Besides this is also TRANSLATED.
    All in all this is the best book ever.
    I finished it and it was just too sad.

  13. Saoirse Redgrave
    at 8:49 pm on November 23, 2008

    Lena,

    I doubt anyone was being critical of the work or its writer (and if they are, they are still entitled to their own opinion). :-) I expect most folks are aware it is translated and are very glad you enjoyed reading it. :-)

    BECAUSE it is not traditional in its style or its format (by design)it has created a fascination and popularity it might not have otherwise achieved if first published in a standard book (actually it might have struggled to get out of the standard American or UK slush pile).

    But that's the power of alternative forms of publishing–they grow audiences for powerful and unique new voices in literature who might have been overlooked otherwise.

    Glad you enjoyed the book, Lena–it's great to see part of it so accessible here–keep reading everyone! :-)
    Saoirse

  14. Anonymous
    at 6:00 pm on December 6, 2008

    wow, i've seen the movie with subs and now i'm dying to read the whole thing! is the whole thing available to read in english online?

  15. jimschumacher
    at 10:14 am on April 2, 2009

    The cellphone novel phenomenon seems to be very interesting, I just did research and wrote an article about its rise, and your article has helped me understand better how these novels are constructed. In my next article about their structure and main characteristics, I'll embed a link to this site. Thank you for this interesting translation! (If you want to read my articles and maybe leave a comment, go to my blog where you'll find the links to the articles!)

  16. Keitai Shousetsu and the technology of </3 | The Figment Blog
    at 5:47 pm on June 17, 2010

    [...] Mika, the author of “Love Sky,” used the limitation of small screen size to create an entirely new literary genre. The first thing I noticed about “Love Sky” was that things just happen. There’s no stage [...]

  17. miriam
    at 7:16 pm on June 21, 2010
  18. Juuri Giao
    at 2:28 am on July 24, 2010
  19. Keitai Shousetsu and the technology of </3 | Figment Blog
    at 9:52 pm on December 1, 2010

    [...] But as I would also learn, keitai shousetsu are much more than just novels written and delivered to phones. Japanese writers like Mika, the author of “Love Sky,” used the limitation of small screen size to create an entirely new literary genre. [...]

  20. takatsu
    at 10:16 pm on January 2, 2011

    Hi, thanks for the coverage on cell phone novels! They are in fact spreading all over the world and here in North America as well.

    I am a university student and actually the first true cell phone novelist in North America, going by the pen name of Takatsu. Over the course of 2 years, my novel, Secondhand Memories has gained fame with readers all over the world and has become the first and most popular cell phone novel in North America. In 2009 it won numerous awards and is heading towards publication when it is complete. Just recently it was featured in an English textbook in Japan and will be used as part of an exercise for students in Japan.

    Textnovel.com is the first site in North America that has been designed with the concept of cell phone novels in mind back in 2008. We have been working to bring this phenomenon to North America for a while now. I am extremely excited about this movement and believe it can revolutionize the writing and publishing world. It truly is a remarkable new concept and in my opinion it may transcend current forms of literature. Please read the link provided below for more information!

    For more information about what cell phone novels truly are and where they came from as well as what is the truth behind its movement into North America please see this link: http://www.textnovel.com/story/The-Cell-Phone-Novel-Manual:-About-Cell-Phone-Novels,-What-They-Are-and-more/5579/1

    Thanks

    -Takatsu

  21. Umaiya
    at 10:03 am on January 24, 2012
  22. inalcanzabl3
    at 2:30 pm on February 2, 2012
  23. robert
    at 12:20 am on May 26, 2014

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