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.