Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Dana Goodyear ♥ Cell-Phone Novels

An acquaintance sent me a link to Dana Goodyear’s December piece on the Japanese profusion of keitai shosetsu, or cell-phone novels. Here’s my riff on it.
In the classic iteration, the novels, written by and for young women, purport to be autobiographical and revolve around true love, or, rather, the obstacles to it that have always stood at the core of romantic fiction: pregnancy, miscarriage, abortion, rape, rivals and triangles, incurable disease. The novels are set in the provinces—the undifferentiated swaths of rice fields, chain stores, and fast-food restaurants that are everywhere Tokyo is not—and the characters tend to be middle and lower middle class. Specifically, they are Yankees, a term with obscure linguistic origins (having something to do with nineteen-fifties America and greaser style) which connotes rebellious truants—the boys on motorcycles, the girls in jersey dresses, with bleached hair and rhinestone-encrusted mobile phones. The stories are like folktales, perhaps not literally true but full of telling ethnographic detail.
Dana Goodyear’s I ♥ Novels is par for the course for The New Yorker, which I suppose isn’t bad at all. It’s well researched, and there’s an intimacy to the interviews that goes beyond the merely illustrative. Goodyear doesn’t overanalyze. A few quibbles:

I have problems with her depiction of the milieu of the typical keitai shosetsu as “rural” and “rustic”. In fact, I looked at descriptions of five keitai shosetsus. They all had urban or unidentifiable settings. True, none of them were obviously located in Tokyo, but… Inaka=country may be “provincial”, but not necessarily “rustic”. People forget that even in the most “rustic” prefectures, only a small fraction of the population actually engages in agriculture. Japan is a profoundly urban nation.

Then why the purportedly non-Tokyo setting? (In one of the five that I looked at, the action appears to take place in Osaka and Kishiwada, a satellite community with a population of 200 thousand.) I think that it’s mainly a plot device that forces separation, with the older boyfriend (or brother—incest appears to be a popular subtheme) going off to college or work in the big city. And how often haven’t we heard that? You can see that a lot in American novels and TV dramas too. Another, not necessarily mutually exclusive explanation is the one’s own transition to an unfamiliar, impersonal milieu and the estrangement often triggers the creative instincts. In fact, modern Japanese high literature has been constructed on that fertile mixture of rapture, rejection, disillusionment and longing.

And Yankees? “Lower and lower middle classes”, sure (though you wonder who’s left), but the fashion she depicts (and more importantly the lives of the heroines from what I gather) has a much broader appeal to Japanese youths than what we understand as the Yankeee lifestyle (itself an evolving, sometimes hard-to-define subject).

Goodyear appears to link the profusion of a cell-phone culture to a personal computer deficit. But an online report based on a 2006 World Bank survey of 28 countries (likely OECD members) puts Japan in 12th place, behind the Swiss, Anglos, Teutons, and South Koreans, but ahead of Latin countries including otherwise well-off people such as the French and the Italians, as well as Austria, Belgium and Ireland, three other high-income nations. I suppose this tells us that Catholics, compared to Protestants, have a life. But I digress: my point is that there’s nothing here to suggest that there’s a link between a cell-phone culture and purported computer use. In fact, my guess is that the typically youthful cell-phone addicts are the very kind of people who are inclined to access the Internet on regular PCs. Then why the mass cell-phone addiction? Two words: commuter trains; they’ve been replacing weekly magazines and tabloids and more reputable dailies.

Unrelated to the main theme of the essay, but an important assertion nevertheless:
Mone’s withholding is consistent with the ethos of the Japanese Internet, which is dominated by false names and forged identities.
Perhaps. And I’ve laid out my thoughts before on the corrosive effects of anonymity. But I should note that almost all of the comments on the American political, sports, and other blogs that I’m aware of are also pseudonymous.

Finally, what does the future hold for keitai shosetsu? To repeat a sentence from the initial quote:
In the classic iteration, the novels, written by and for young women, purport to be autobiographical and revolve around true love, or, rather, the obstacles to it that have always stood at the core of romantic fiction: pregnancy, miscarriage, abortion, rape, rivals and triangles, incurable disease.
And “incest” too. Add war, subtract abortion, and you might as well be describing Homer, the Greek and Jacobian tragedies, Shakespeare, Kabuki, the Arabian Nights… Oh yes, and mistaken identities and lookalikes too. And The Tales of Genji was in form and function the soap opera of the day. So don’t write off the keitai shosetsu just yet. High culture is nothing but pop culture that has acquired historical context.

ADD. 15 January: I correct myself in the comments regarding my temporary lapse of judgment on the distinction between anonymity and pseudonyms.


ZI said...

"But I should note that almost all of the comments on the American political, sports, and other blogs that I’m aware of are also pseudonymous."

I am not expert on the japanese net but I don't think using pseudonymous and anonymity are the same.

I am ZI, it's my name only name on the net. The few people I interact with on the web know me by that name. It's my identity or a brand.

Now, I don't how representative website like 2chan are but they are obviously very different. Users are only known as "anonymousXX". There is no identity, you can't say, "oh I remember that guy". There's no reputation, since ZI doesn't exist, I don't need to behave in order to preserve the ZI persona its credibility.

This is complete anonymity and judging by the popularity of 2chan, japanese seem to prefer it that way.

In the west, anonymous is most of the the exception.

Janne Morén said...

ZI, 2chan is hardly representative for the Japanese internet population. It's kind of like saying slashdot is the typical US internet community.

Anyway, she does have a bit of a point - Japan is less urban than your typical developed country, and at the same time its big cities are proportionally larger. The effect is a much more pronounced division between the major urban centra - Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka - on one hand, and the rest of the country on the other than you see in most countries. Japan is rather like France in this respect, with one completely dominant urban area, and a (relatively) rural country that more or less defines itself in terms of this relation.

Her piece is of course written from a US perspective, where the imbalance is far less profound; you have several urban centers spread out all over the country with enough political and economic heft to stand on their own with no psychological need to compare to each other. New York just isn't as dominant as Paris or Tokyo are in their countries (and I'd argue that Paris is even more dominant in France than Tokyo is here), since you have Los Angeles and San Francisco, Washington, Chicago and so on as counterweights. France has what? Lyon, perhaps, or Marseilles. Japan has Osaka and Nagoya of course, but they are all in the same part of the country and serve to reinforce the dominance, rather than counteract it.

So yes, I'm not surprised she sees a strong urban/rural theme (when you take a wider definition of "rural" as opposed to major population centers). She seems to overdo it, true, but I don't think she is wholly without a point.

Jun Okumura said...

ZI: Shame on me for missing that point, ZI. I myself have emphasized the importance of the distinction on this blog. Janne also makes a valid point in this regard—Japan does have a large blogosphere—though I’m curious to know if a mostly anonymous, monster (I use the word in a value-free way on this specific occasion) of a chat room like the 2 Channel exists in the United States and what the true balance is.

Janne: Topology-wise, Japan may be heavily weighted toward forests, fields and paddies, but its demographics are clearly urban. I think you’re mixing the dominance of the center (chuo) and the peripherals (chiho) with the urban and the rural. I don’t think that most of the people in, say, Sapporo, Sendai, Kanazawa, Hiroshima, Kita-Kyushu and Fukuoka (to avoid the Kanto, Chukyo and Kansai areas, where the bulk of the Japanese population live) consider themselves rustic or rural; inaka maybe, rustic or rural no. If she has a valid point there, she has missed it.

Janne Morén said...

Jun, while Japan is indeed fairly urban compared to the world as a whole (at 50% urban inhabitants), it has less urban population than most industrialized countries. Japan stands at about 66% living in urban areas, as opposed to 76% for Europe as a whole and over 80% for the industrialized west Europe.

And as I said, at the same time the largest population centers are disproportionally larger than in other countries. In other words, a comparatively large proportion still live in small communities, and in major metropolitan areas, and a comparative dearth of mid-size population centers.

ZI said...

"I’m curious to know if a mostly anonymous, monster of a chat room like the 2 Channel exists"

Perhaps it does, but it's an evil step child of 2chan and it's not specifically a US community but rather a global community. I didn't mention it because I honestly believe that on the global English-speaking net this thing is an aberration. And it's only a shadow of the real thing as far as I know.

Slashdot doesn't really have anything in common with 2chan except perhaps g33k culture. But it was my understanding that 2chan's audience was larger than that.

Jun Okumura said...

Janne: Please let me know where you go the data. Something appears to have been lost in the definition.

ZI: Thanks. Too bad I don't have the wherewithal to look into this and other aspects of Internet culture in more detail. There must be reams of academic and practical work in this field.

Janne Morén said...

"Janne: Please let me know where you go the data. Something appears to have been lost in the definition."

There's a number of sources, each with a somewhat different definition of "urban". No matter which you pick, though, the trend is the same. Usually what is meant is something along "larger than a village".

One example is the UNDP data:

According to their stats and definition of "urban", Japan is 65th overall in urban population with 65.8%, but that includes city states like Singapore of course.

By comparison, Argentina (the highest "large country") is 90% urban, Sweden is at 84%, USA is 81%, Germany is 75%, Turkey is 67%. Austria is just ahead at 67% and Finland is slightly behind at 61%.

Of course your definition of "urban" matters for the absolute numbers, but as I said, the relative ranking tends to stay the same.

Jun Okumura said...

As a matter of fact, the report merely cites a source instead of giving us a definition. I won’t go to the trouble of looking up that particular source to see if it does include definitions, though, since the footnote acknowledges:

1 - Because data are based on national definitions of what constitutes a city or metropolitan area, cross-country comparisons should be made with caution.

In other words, the table is useless for comparison purposes.

I did find what is the likely source for the Japanese figure,, courtesy of the Japan (MIAC Statistics Bureau and the Director-General for Policy Planning (Statistical Standards) The table shows that in 2005 66.0% of the Japanese population lived in “densely inhabited areas” as defined for statistic purposes at However, under the somewhat more loosey-goosey definition (definitions?) given for “urban” at by the U.S. Census Bureau—including “townships and other political subdivisions, not incorporated in whole or in part as municipalities, with a total population of 10,000 or more and an average density of 1,000 or more persons per square mile[!]”—the percentage would be much, much higher. If I had to hazard a guess, it would higher than the corresponding figure for the United States. I have no way of proving that, but it’s more plausible than any comparison based on the numbers in the UN table.