Japanese cellphone novels

Cultural Insights, Writers & Writing — By on February 8, 2008 at 10:59 am

A few weeks ago, I saw an article in the NY Times about the exploding popularity of “cellphone novels” in Japan.

Until recently, cellphone novels — composed on phone keypads by young women wielding dexterous thumbs and read by fans on their tiny screens — had been dismissed in Japan as a subgenre unworthy of the country that gave the world its first novel, “The Tale of Genji,” a millennium ago. Then last month, the year-end best-seller tally showed that cellphone novels, republished in book form, have not only infiltrated the mainstream but have come to dominate it.

Of last year’s 10 best-selling novels, five were originally cellphone novels, mostly love stories written in the short sentences characteristic of text messaging but containing little of the plotting or character development found in traditional novels. What is more, the top three spots were occupied by first-time cellphone novelists.

An interesting phenomenon, to be sure, but as I filed the thought away I couldn’t decide what, if anything, it said about Japanese culture. Now, though, thanks to a post on Andrew Sullivan’s blog, I was led to an interesting description of the cell phone novel from the perspective of Japanese communication styles.

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…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.

If you’re interested in learning more about high-context langauge and other such forms of communication, by the way, you can check out some of the writings of Edward Hall, such as The Silent Language.

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