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In 2007, the number of cell phone novels posted on the popular portal, Magic Island, reached one million—a figure that has puzzled observers worldwide. Although critics ubiquitously interpret the writing and reading of cell phone novels as an escapist pastime, I see the cell phone novel movement as a response of young people to their incorporation into a precarious labor regime and their exclusion from collectivities (e.g., workplace and family) that offered their parents key resources for self-determination. Building on textual analysis and interviews with cell phone novelists, acquisition editors at publishers, and creative professionals at cell phone novel portals, I make the following arguments. First, I claim that the cell phone novel phenomenon reveals a curious paradox. The more young people become part of a precarious workforce, the more they seek self-fulfilling work that they are willing to perform, even if they do not receive pay for the work. Second, I demonstrate that the digital-media economy capitalizes on this trend. Although Internet portals, such as Magic Island, promote the writing of cell phone novels as an opportunity to pursue self-fulfilling and potentially lucrative work, these portals only acclimate youth to accept precarious employment and unpredictable work conditions. Last, I conclude that young people recognize in cell phone novels the potential to function as the medium of the political. Cell phone novelists do not simply voice their generation's anguish over their disenfranchisement. Rather, by writing these novels, they produce a conjuncture at which writers and readers come to understand themselves as new collectivities and begin to develop critical insights about work, solidarity, and future. [youth, labor, politics, cell phone novels, digital media, Japan]

The cell phone novel phenomenon took Japan by storm in 2007 when cell phone novels topped literary best-seller lists and the number of these novels hit the one million mark on the popular Maho no i-rando (Magic Island) portal (Yoshida 2008:42–43).1 Cell phone novels dwell on themes of suffering and pain that arise from unrequited love, the obstacles to true love, teenage pregnancy, miscarriage, abortion, rape, bullying, social injustice, drug abuse, incestuous relationships, or incurable disease. The exploding popularity of these novels has puzzled critics. Literary scholars lament the popularity of cell phone novels as a testimony to the dismal condition of Japanese literature and the declining levels of literacy among young Japanese people (Nakamura et al. 2008; Ishihara 2008). Other cultural critics (Honda 2008; Hayamizu 2008a,b; Sugiura 2008; Yonemitsu 2008) view the trend as a symptom of youth feeling lost (jibunsagashi shōkōgun) and young people expressing their cynicism about the future by embracing delinquent and even self-destructive behaviors (yankîka shōkōgun). These critics emphasize that young people (predominantly women) write these novels in transit and in transition, while commuting to work or while recovering from a crisis of some sort. They seem to agree that the practice of writing cell phone novels is an escapist pastime that highlights the pervasive feeling of hopelessness and lack of spirit among young people in Japan.

Although these accounts exercise a powerful hold on the popular imagination, they provide little insight into understanding what aspirations drive young people to write cell phone novels and what pleasures novelists derive from the writing process. Most pertinent to my analysis is that not one novelist told me that she thought of writing cell phone novels as a form of leisure. Rather, the novelists emphasized that writing cell phone novels required hard work overshadowed by the fear of failure. I also learned from editors that only a very few of these novels enable their writers to earn a living. Why, then, do young women, knowing that they risk disapproval from readers and criticism from literary scholars, continue to invest labor into writing cell phone novels? Mika, whose Koizora (Love Sky [2006]) sold 2.6 million copies, recounted: “I wrote my first novel [Koizora] for myself. I started writing so that I could move on with my life. I clearly remember the tingling sense of excitement, as if I were given the chance to stand at the starting line to run a new marathon.”2 When I asked her why she posted her novel online, she responded, “I wanted to help people to become more forward-looking [maemuki ni natte hoshii to].”

My point of departure is that writing cell phone novels is not a pastime to escape from the present but a means to confront it. The themes of work and collectivity have consistently surfaced in my interviews with novelists. Drawing on this observation, I interpret the cell phone novel phenomenon as a response of young people to their incorporation into a precarious labor regime and their concomitant exclusion from collectivities, such as the workplace and the family,3 which offered their parents key resources for self-determination. The cell phone novel phenomenon evolved in a particular moment. By the late 1980s, financial speculation had spun out of control, leading to the burst of Japan's speculative stock and property bubble and pushing the domestic economy into a relentless decline. During the recessionary 1990s, employers scaled back the recruitment of new graduates to reduce their labor costs. These young people became part of a precarious workforce from which employers could draw, following the fluctuations of a volatile economy. Scholars call this mobilization of youth into a flexible labor regime the freeter phenomenon and conceptualize it as a key feature of neoliberal transformations in Japan (see, e.g., Driscoll 2007). The term freeter refers to young people in their twenties and thirties who drift from one short-term job to another.4 In 2009, approximately 35 percent of young workers between the ages of 15 and 34 were employed in temporary positions.5 In the same year, an additional 9 percent of the same age group was unemployed.6 As evidenced by the curious revival of Kobayashi Takiji's Cannery Ship around 2008, the disenfranchisement of youth in the realm of labor fed a sense of betrayal among young people. Amamiya Karin famously noted that Cannery Ship's description of excessive exploitation on the open sea, where no regulations protected the workers, aptly mirrored “the current desperate situation of young workers” (Field 2009). These were the young workers—predominantly freeters—who began writing cell phone novels in the early 2000s.

The work available to freeters was irregular and was located primarily in the service industries.7 Although temporary service work lacks a career structure, opportunities for skill enhancement, and welfare benefits, it still demands that workers invest their emotions in the work process. Arlie Hochschild (1983) conceptualizes this form of labor as emotional labor—a need for service providers to personalize impersonal commercial transactions by giving something personal, such as a smile, to customers with whom they have no personal relationship. Curiously, the more a regime of devalued emotional labor embraced Japanese youth, the stronger these young people's desire grew for fulfilling work that they were willing to perform, even if they did not receive pay for the work. In the 2000s, young freeters found a solution in affective labor (Hardt 1999) whose value had increased enormously in response to the global success of made-in-Japan entertainment during the 1990s. As the vision of economic recovery and national prosperity became powerfully linked to the culture industries—a trend discussed as “cool Japan” (McGray 2002)—creative professionals, such as Tajiri Satoshi and Miyazaki Hayao, were catapulted into stardom. Unlike service workers who perform emotional labor, creative professionals pursue affective labor. They invest their subjectivity—their life experiences, affective and ethical commitments, intimate beliefs, and political sensibilities—as the raw material for the extraction of surplus value.

Cell phone novel portals, such as Maho no i-rando, illuminate how the digital media economy capitalizes on the growing appeal of affective labor among freeters. Launched in 1999, Maho no i-rando targets consumers in their teens and twenties by offering them the opportunity to create their own websites.8 Unlike other social networking sites,9 Maho no i-rando also invited users to upload to the site their own novels (bukku, which became known as the cell phone novel) and diaries (nikki). Cell phone novel portals derive their revenues exclusively from advertising. They use the content young people produce for free to attract readers whom they sell to advertisers. These portals secure a stable supply of content by aggressively promoting the writing of cell phone novels as an opportunity for young people to realize their dreams (Matsumura 2006). They exploit the desire of young freeters to pursue work that is conducive to self-actualization and upward social mobility. In reality, however, only a few writers succeed in publishing their novels in print—the only way that cell phone novelists can earn an income from writing these novels. Instead, by promoting the digital media economy as a realm of new work opportunities, these novel portals socialize young freeters to accept precarious work conditions this economy is built on.

Cell phone novelists claim that writing their novels gave them more than a taste of fulfilling work. They insist that the emotional ties (kokoro no tsunagari) they form with their readers through the writing process help them envision a brighter future. They experiment with new modes of political engagement. Stuart Hall (1996) argues that it is not the objective economic conditions that constitute individuals as political subjects. Rather, the vision (i.e., a common ground) first emerges, and the formation of a collectivity follows. Articulation—the production of links between individuals and the enunciation of a vision that results from this network of links—constitutes individuals as political subjects. More recently, network theorists have identified digital media as sites for the emergence of new modes of political engagement. Tiziana Terranova (2004) claims that digital media offer a potential for political experimentation by enabling the dynamics of capillary communication to produce a common ground.10 Cell phone novels and proletarian literature may not have the same intentions, but they resonate with similar effects. Norma Field asserts that the Cannery Ship boom “issued from and feeds a hunger for collectivity and activism amid the loneliness and cynicism produced by neo-liberal callousness” (2009). By writing cell phone novels, young people not only experiment with new forms of work and new possibilities of self-determination. By posting these novels online, they also open new channels of communication and generate new experiences of intimacy and new forms of belonging.


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According to a 2006 survey, more than 98 percent of Japanese people between the ages of ten and 29 use cell phones (Takeuchi and Kawahara 2011). Instead of personal computers, young Japanese people use their cell phones to access the Internet, to find entertainment, to shop, to play games, or to seek work. Not only has the digital media economy responded to this trend by developing content for cell phones but young freeters have also recognized the lucrative potential in the production of digital media entertainment. Yoshi, a young male freeter, who wrote the first cell phone novel (Deep Love), was widely celebrated in the 2000s as one of the first successful entrepreneurs of the emerging digital economy (Nanase 2006). With an investment of $1,200 (¥100,000), Yoshi launched a website where he posted his novel. To promote his novel, he distributed leaflets to female high school students in Shibuya. News of Yoshi's novel spread by word of mouth, and within three years, the site had received 20 million hits. In 2002, Starts, the largest publisher of cell phone novels, sold 2.5 million copies of Deep Love. Yoshi's story of a teenage girl who contracts AIDS in the course of her involvement in sex work (enjō kōsai) was adapted as a movie and a television drama. Matsushima Shigeru, Yoshi's editor at Starts, told me that Yoshi was successful because he was a clever entrepreneur. Yoshi invested heavily in promoting himself; he also maintained control over his media image by giving interviews only when he was allowed to weigh in on which portrayals of him appeared in the media.

Cell phone novelists embrace a new attitude toward work not only because they adopt an entrepreneurial spirit but also because they put their souls to work (Berardi 2009). The service industries have long required workers to personalize impersonal business transactions by performing emotional labor. A restaurant manager describes the trend: “We try to remove the spiel and inject the personality. … We are trying to bring it down to an intensely personal experience” (Heskett 1990:201). Cell phone novelists translate personal experiences of trauma and everyday precarity in order to offer their readers entertainment that feels intensely personal. Marketed as stories based on real experiences and written in first person, these novels offer entertainment that readers appreciate as personal and thus authentic (riaru).11 This feeling of authenticity that publishers and readers associate with the genre is an effect of affective labor.

I use the concept of “affective labor” to capture the intensification of the trend in which workers are increasingly invited to invest their subjectivity—first, their emotions and then everything else that constitutes them as unique individuals, including their life experiences, memories, intimate beliefs, ethics, affective commitments, and political sensibilities—as the raw material of valorization. Two key features distinguish affective labor from emotional labor. First, affective labor integrates processes of capital accumulation with practices of self-determination by further blurring the line between paid and unpaid work. Second, affective labor is performed in laboring processes that effectively shape and even transform subjectivity. As a result, affective labor is simultaneously more exploitative and more conducive to experimentation with new forms of political engagement than emotional labor is. I explore these tendencies of affective labor in the next two sections. In the rest of this section, I turn to my interviews with cell phone novelists to examine what aspirations motivate young people to pursue affective labor in the digital media economy and what fulfillment they find in this form of labor.

Throughout the postwar period, Japanese employers have demanded an intense commitment from their employees. Linking a worker's sense of self with work is not new. However, while employers in the economic high-growth period accepted that their employees sought fulfillment outside work, Japan's neoliberal economy rewards workers who seek fulfillment in work. The reason for this is straightforward enough. When pleasure and work are integrated, subjectivity is open to be harnessed as a source of valuation. My interviews with cell phone novelists highlight the ironies of neoliberal labor markets that allow employers to demand irregular workers to embrace the same degree of commitment to work that they expect from employees who enjoy job security. They accentuate the perils of a labor market that allows dignity to be purchased through unpaid affective labor. At the same time, these interviews reveal why young people so readily accept the invitation to pursue affective labor in the digital media economy and why they identify affective labor as a form of labor that is the closest to what they imagine as dreamwork in contemporary Japan. When I asked Chaco if she enjoyed working as a cell phone novelist, she told me:

In terms of the time investment, writing cell phone novels is not all that different from my previous jobs. I worked as a sales associate and a receptionist. Although I was paid to work forty hours a week, I ended up working much more, and my work spilled over to my days off. I did unpaid overtime every day, and when I was not busy with work, my boss asked me to follow up with our customers on earlier sales. I was thinking about work all the time. Since I started writing cell phone novels, not much has changed. When I am not working, I am still thinking about work. Well, work is always hard for me, because I try to do things conscientiously. But when I am writing a novel, I feel, “Hey, I really love doing this,” and this feeling makes an enormous difference.12

Mika, another celebrity novelist, offered the following insight:

Before I became a cell phone novelist I worked in the service industries. Communication, problem-solving skills, and smiling practically without a break were key requirements for my line of work. When I am working on a novel, I am all alone. It is no longer a struggle with customers but a struggle with myself. For much of the time, I feel lonely and insecure. As a type of work, writing novels is better than any of the soul-crushing service jobs I've had, but it is also much more overwhelming because it demands my soul. But writing novels makes me much stronger. It helps me overcome my weaknesses. There is nothing more gratifying than this sense of achievement (tasseikan).13

The more a volatile economy requires workers to invest their souls in the work process, the more the workers expect work to be fulfilling. This paradox does not pertain exclusively to the culture industries and to the young. However, it has manifested itself with peculiar intensity within the culture industries, and it has also affected the young more than any other segment of the working population. Although youth unemployment reached historic heights in the early 2000s, it was commonly dismissed as coming from a voluntary choice. Youth were ubiquitously blamed for having a diminished sense of commitment to work. Yet, the spectacular success of cell phone novel portals suggests that young people are willing to perform work that they perceive as fulfilling, even if they are not paid for that work. Affective labor in the digital media economy tantalizes with possibilities not often offered by emotional labor in the service industries. These possibilities include a lucrative income, upward social mobility, recognition, and most importantly, self-actualization with all the rewards it offers—the pleasures of growth, fulfillment, and dignity. Under precarious work conditions it is not surprising that young people see the potential of dreamwork in affective labor. Although this form of labor may or may not enable them to earn a living, it allows them to enjoy a sense of personal growth, fulfillment, and dignity.

Paolo Virno (2004) writes that the Italian workers’ resistance to the Fordist rationalization of work was just as important as technological innovation in forcing capital to leap into the post-Fordist era of immaterial work. By extension, when young people pursue affective labor in the digital economy despite being unpaid or underpaid for that labor, they express their reluctance to accept mobilization to a regime of devalued emotional labor. At the same time, young people's turn to affective labor inspires capital (i.e., the digital media economy) to create new infrastructures (i.e., cell phone novel portals) to harness this trend. After all, the cell phone novel can be conceptualized as a just-in-time incarnation of the literary novel. The phenomenal popularity of cell phone novels sheds sharp light on two parallel trends. It indicates that young people move to the digital economy to obtain work that they perceive as fulfilling. The cell phone novel boom also reveals how the digital economy adopts the core principles of post-Fordist accumulation such as improving the return on investment, efficiency, and product customization. Next, I demonstrate that although novel portals promote the writing of cell phone novels as an opportunity to pursue fulfilling and potentially lucrative work, these portals mainly reinforce the flexible labor patterns of post-Fordist accumulation in the realm of digital media production. As such, these portals acclimate youth to accept precarious labor and unpredictable work conditions within and beyond the digital media economy.


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The number of cell phone novels posted on Internet portals is in the millions.14 Maho no i-rando was profitable from its launch, but when Japan's largest cell phone operator, NTT DoCoMo, began offering unlimited text messaging for flat monthly rates in 2004, the writing of cell phone novels moved from a subculture into the mainstream. By the end of 2007, Maho no i-rando had 5.7 million registered users. This figure indicates only how many people write or comment on novels; reading novels does not require registration. In 2007, users accessed the site 3.3 billion times per month—a figure advertisers found enticing (Yoshida 2008:42). Not only have cell phone novels achieved unprecedented popularity on novel portals but also have generated spectacular sales in print. The average sales of printed cell phone novels easily amounts to 400,000 copies per novel (Hani 2007), and even first-time authors enjoy print runs of between 50,000 and 100,000 copies (Galbraith 2009). Given that the cell phone novel is not a conventional mass cultural commodity read by broad cross segments of the population, these figures testify to the genre's extraordinary popularity.

Internet portals, such as Maho no i-rando, entice young people to write cell phone novels by forging a powerful association between cell phone novel writing and upward social mobility. Tominaga Masao, who designed the site, explained his mission as generating a space where magic happens and dreams come true (Matsumura 2006).15 He insisted that everyone has magic, and he invited young people to discover and work their own. In the wake of eroding job security, he summoned young people to become entrepreneurs by shaping their own lives through the types of work they choose to pursue. Tominaga's formulation appealed more to young people than the alternatives, which stressed the responsibility of the individual to succeed in a volatile economy. Young people found the latter formulation both patronizing and unsettlingly elusive. It provided no direction for how to make use of freedom and to exercise responsibility. Tominaga, on the other hand, encouraged young people to share their life experiences with their peers on Maho no i-rando. He argued that telling their stories could earn young people financial stability and individual autonomy.

However, Maho no i-rando was not a public sector job creation program. Instead, it was an experiment to introduce flexibility into the Fordist model of the Japanese culture industries, which were struggling to maintain profitability in the midst of the recession and concomitant market segmentation (Lukacs 2010). By deriving its revenues exclusively from advertising, Maho no i-rando followed the business model of commercial television. The site, however, corrected one of the major structural problems in television production: escalating labor costs. The skyrocketing costs of professional labor in media production make the costs of content production exorbitant. When Maho no i-rando invites aspiring young novelists to present their work to the world, it deploys a highly efficient cost-cutting measure. By promising them the opportunity to pursue careers as professional novelists, Maho no i-rando seduces amateur writers to invest unpaid affective labor into writing novels. It secures a free supply of highly diversified content that is likely to offer something appealing to everyone and search engines,16 designed specifically for cell phone novel portals, help readers find the novels that resonate with their sensibilities and moods.17

To offer consumers entertainment that feels personal cell phone novel portals draw readers into the writing process. The designers of novel portals have understood that the lack of communication between producers and consumers was a major flaw in the Fordist production of mass culture. Accordingly, they have developed site architectures that facilitate communication between writers and readers, which is another central characteristic of post-Fordist cultural production. A key feature of this site architecture is the bulletin board system (keijiban) where readers can communicate with each other. To encourage interaction between readers and authors, the designers of Maho no i-rando, in particular, have also developed diary and blog applications (Yoshida 2008:26–27).18 Links to the personal blogs and diaries of authors are posted alongside these authors’ novels. While writers often emphasize that they derive inspiration from readers’ comments, an employee at Maho no i-rando stressed to me that readers had the power to change the plot or the ending of the story.19 On the one hand, access to authors helps readers appreciate cell phone novels as more personal than mass-produced entertainment fare such as television dramas (Sano 2007:93–94). On the other hand, by encouraging readers to provide writers with feedback, novel portals are able to draw readers into the writing process and to inspire them to write their own novels.

Capitalizing on young freeters’ growing interest in affective labor, novel portals promote the writing of cell phone novels as a type of dreamwork—work that simultaneously serves as a source of fulfillment and a means of social upward mobility. No-ichigo, the second largest cell phone novel portal owned by Starts, features a “celebrity meter” showing that the site has helped 106 of amateur novelists so far to attain celebrity status. No-ichigo lists the names of these novelists including links to their novels and blogs. Shoving into the spotlight the novelists whose books were published in print is only one of the various strategies the designers of these portals use to encourage amateur novelists to envision themselves as famous writers. They also educate novelists about copyright laws so that they are prepared in case a television network decides to produce a television drama based on their novel. To help novelists achieve this goal, these sites offer applications that enable writers to improve their writing skills. The designers of Maho no i-rando, for instance, have developed an application called IQ-mode, which is a composition aid integrated with a dictionary function. No-ichigo, on the other hand, offers sophisticated applications to help writers promote their novels. No-ichigo also inspires novelists to envision themselves as celebrity authors by enabling and encouraging them to communicate with editors at Starts.

Ranking systems and contests are equally important tools to connect the writing of cell phone novels to the idea of social upward mobility. Before cell phone novel contests were launched, the designers of novel portals encouraged readers to rank cell phone novels. They emphasized that by submitting their votes readers could help their favorite writers to publish their work in print. They offered the example of Chaco's Tenshi ga Kureta Mono (The Gift from Heaven [2005]) that Starts published in 2005 after the readers ranked the novel number one on Maho no i-rando (Matsumura 2006). In the late 2000s, cell phone novel portals started cultivating business tie-ins with publishers. For example, Asuki Media Works purchased Maho no i-rando and Starts launched No-ichigo. These portals now sponsor thematic contests that they use to identify novels the publisher associated with the portal will publish in print.20 These contests are open to anyone who is registered with the sponsoring portal.

Cell phone novel portals also team up with publishers and distributors to create extravagant annual contests. Maho no i-rando, Starts, and Mainichi Newspapers organized the first contest, the Nihon Keitai Shōsetsu Taishō (Japan Cell Phone Novel Grand Prize), in 2006. In 2007, Maho no i-rando created its own annual contest, the Maho no i-rando Award, and other companies quickly followed suit. Mobagē Taun, for example, introduced the Mobagē Shōsetsu Grand Prize in 2007. In addition to publishing contracts, these annual contests offer generous cash prizes to the finalists a jury selects from hundreds of submissions.21 In December 2007, Goma Books created its own cell phone novel contest offering the largest prize, JPY10,000,000 (approximately $120,000), to the winner.22 On one hand, the increasingly lavish prizes suggest that publishing is a lucrative business. As such, these prizes add enormous appeal to careers in the creative industries. On the other hand, the award of a publishing contract—as opposed to an award of a trip to Hawai'i for instance—charts a particular career trajectory for cell phone novelists. It suggests that the point of writing cell phone novels is to have these novels published in print and the ultimate goal for cell phone novelists is to ascend to the ranks of bestselling authors.

The most popular cell phone novels, such as Yoshi's Deep Love and Mika's Koizora (Love Sky), sold more than 2.5 million copies. In the late 2000s, these figures prompted millions to try, but in the end, only a few novelists earn a living from writing cell phone novels. Rather, the digital media economy molds young people into subjects of labor that Virno calls opportunists: “Those who confront a flow of ever-interchangeable possibilities, making themselves available to the greater number of these, yielding to the nearest one, and then quickly swerving from one to another. … It is a question of a sensitivity sharpened by the changeable chances, a familiarity with the kaleidoscope of opportunities, an intimate relationship with the possible, no matter how vast” (2004:86). Cell phone novel portals promise novelists opportunities for lucrative work, despite that the mass media market can accommodate only a few popular novels. In reality, the digital media economy socializes young people to unpredictable work conditions by encouraging them to cultivate an intimate relationship with what is possible. Young people turn to the digital economy in search of dreamwork and cell phone novel portals promise them this work. Although writing cell phone novels allows only a few to earn a living, I demonstrate in the last section that young people find the labor they invest in writing cell phone novels fulfilling because it enables them to build new channels of communication and to approximate new forms of social belonging. I analyze two bestsellers, Koizora (Love Sky) and Tenshi ga Kureta Mono (The Gift from Heaven) to show that writing cell phone novels inspires youth to look beyond the temporality of their precarious everyday lives and produce futurity.


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In Love Sky, Tahara Mika, a freshman in a high school in Kyushu, falls in love with the delinquent hero, Sakurai Hiroki (Hiro). The novel centers on the couple's evolving relationship and troubles. A group of men, incited by Saki, Hiro's ex-girlfriend, rapes Mika. As a consequence of Saki pushing her down the stairs, Mika suffers a miscarriage and loses Hiro's child. After Mika attempts suicide in response to being bullied in school, Hiro finally breaks up with her and starts dating Mika's friends as if to intentionally hurt his former girlfriend. Mika then dates Yū, with whom she goes to college. One day, a friend, Nozomu, reveals to Mika that Hiro is terminally ill with lymphoma. When Mika visits Hiro in the hospital, the two of them realize that they still love each other. Mika marries Hiro, who passes away shortly after their wedding ceremony. Hiro's mother gives Mika his diary, from which she learns that Hiro never stopped loving her. He had broken up with her to spare her from the pain of his loss.

Similar to Koizora, Chaco's Tenshi ga Kureta Mono (The Gift from Heaven) is based on the author's real-life story. Mai is a freshman in a high school in Osaka. She does not have any friends and feels lost. When a girl named Mîko introduces her to a circle of friends who congregate together after school, Mai meets Kagu and slowly develops feelings for him. Kagu has a complicated family background: his father abandoned the family, leaving them with huge debts to repay. Kagu, who takes over the role of the breadwinner, refuses to forgive his father when his father returns. The father commits suicide, causing Kagu to drop out of school and move to Wakayama prefecture to work to repay his father's debts. The responsibility of providing for his family consumes him, preventing him from cultivating his relationship with Mai. Although Mai starts dating someone else, she cannot forget Kagu. One day she calls him to tell him that she loves him. On his way to meet Mai, however, Kagu dies in a car accident.

Both of these stories, as well as other cell phone novels, are derivatives of the shōjo genres of the 1990s.23 Unlike the shōjo genres that offer apolitical stories of middle-class romance, one can conceptualize the cell phone novel as a response to the socioeconomic disenfranchisement of youth and the consequent loss of hope among young people. A brief analysis of how the cell phone novel departs from earlier shōjo genres reveals how cell phone novelists confront the weakening of emotional ties—a trend that has prompted critics to describe Japan of the 2000s as “a society without relationships” (muen shakai; see Tachibanaki 2010). Unlike earlier shōjo stories, cell phone novels rarely conclude happily. In the 1990s, “happily ever after” stories solved the imminent crisis and existential dilemma of the shōjo heroine by securing her entry into a stable and secure middle-class lifestyle. The shōjo of the 1990s appears in a transitional stage of her life, moving from adolescence to adulthood. The cell phone novel heroines are also transitioning out of adolescence, but within the narrative framework of the novel they never reach adulthood. In cell phone novels, uncertainty and vulnerability extend from adolescence into young adulthood. In these novels, formerly intimate spaces (family and school) no longer function as spaces of nurturance and protection. Instead, they emerge as emblems of authoritarianism that lost their foundational meaning; they offer only discipline, not protection. In cell phone novels, formerly familiar spaces are unfamiliar, and formerly safe spaces become spaces of struggle for survival.

While the hero serves as the key to the socioeconomic security of the shōjo heroine, the hero's death in cell phone novels can be read as a reference to the waning power of the state and the faltering industrial system: the inability of the former to protect its citizens from the destructive forces of an unregulated economy and the withdrawal of corporations from the provision of welfare services. Whether she sees herself as entitled to the normative ideal of middle-class security, the shōjo heroine wavers and resolves her identity crisis when she insists on her pursuit of the hero; through this insistence, she wins the hero's heart. While the shōjo heroine's search for true love helps her overcome her feeling of insecurity, the insecurities of the heroine in cell phone novels are more deeply rooted, and the options available to her are not as clear. The death of the hero confirms what she has long suspected: she is on her own in the world. Cell phone novels typically end on this despairing note of self-awareness.

However, most novels frame this ending in epilogues that usher the reader from the heroine's narrative present to the novelist's real present. Whereas the narrative present is the denouement of the heroine's past, the real present is a closure to her past and a foundation of her future. The uncannily consistent messages of these epilogues point to an understanding of the genre as an experimentation with new modes of political engagement. Most prominently, these epilogues encourage their writers to live meaningful lives (ima wo seiippai ikiro), create connections with others (kizuna wo tsukurō), and be positive about the future (maemuki ni narō). A curious aspect of these messages is that they are not conclusions novelists derive from their experiences of pain and trauma described in their novels. Rather, novelists insist that they learn these lessons from their readers. Cell phone novelists open their epilogues by pointing out that without the encouragement of their readers, they would not have been able to complete their novels. They insist that it is the readers who helped them “regain their strength to be forward-looking” (Mone 2007:299) and to leave behind their past selves that they describe as: “I was full of anxieties” (Mika 2006:363); “I hated myself so much that I wanted to die” (Nana 2009:253); or “I entirely lost the will to live” (Mone 2007:298). However, these novels are not purely therapeutic. BeaHime, the writer of Teddy Bear, aims to raise consciousness when she writes: “We have the right for meaningful lives. We are not disposable [iranai ningen]” (2006:213).

The trope of disposability is key for understanding the excessive eventfulness and melodramatic excess that characterize cell phone novels. I interpret this excess as symptomatic of a fixation on social relevance. Cell phone novels do not focus on how the protagonist feels about her social world and the individuals that surround her; instead, they center on the heroine's experience of being intensely loved or hated. This perspective expresses the heroine's insistence that she is not irrelevant, at least in social terms. In parallel, the novelist comes to the same realization in the process of writing her novel. She realizes that she is able to inspire her peers to look forward to a brighter future. Lauren Berlant (2011) posits that when growing economic and social precarity undermines the capacity of the family and the nation to generate and maintain an experience of belonging and a possibility of self-determination, intimate publics emerge to fulfill that role. These intimate publics “provide the feeling of immediacy and solidarity by establishing in the public sphere an affective register of belonging to inhabit when there are few adequate normative institutions to fall back on, rest in, and return to” (Berlant 2011:226). By producing cell phone novels, young Japanese people have produced an intimate public. Cell phone novels are responses to the experience of precarity, but they articulate more than the minimalist optimism of the defeated who, according to Berlant, struggle on “to stay attached to life from within it, and to protect what optimism they have for that, at least” (2011:10). Cell phone novelists insist that economic precarity—the unwillingness of employers and the inability of the government to invest in young people's future—should not necessarily equal social precarity.

The cell phone novel movement sheds light on the capacity of affective labor to function as the medium of the political (see Allison 2009). In contemporary Japan, young people see affective labor not only as a potential source of income and means of self-actualization. They also draw on affective labor to fight a collective crisis in sociality.24 They realize that the labor they invest in writing cell phone novels does not alienate them from their humanity and from their peers. Cell phone novelists see the practice of writing these novels as a means to regenerate emotional ties in the wake of weakening social relationships (muen shakai). Mika told me the following:

Muen shakai is a trend that deeply saddens me. What we have to realize is that emotional ties [kokoro no tsunagari] or connectedness [kizuna] with others is not something one can develop by one's own effort. We have to work on these collectively. Even if you are in a place where you feel that you are so lonely that you no longer have the strength to reach out, remember that many others feel the same way. I hope that over the next years to come, cell phone novels will become tools to help us connect with each other.

Cell phone novels serve as instruments of mobilization. These novels do not simply encourage young people to cope, but they inspire their readers to refuse to accept social and economic precarity.


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By analyzing the cell phone novel phenomenon as a response to the incorporation of youth into a regime of precarious labor, this article points a way beyond the stalemate of the polarized analyses of youth and labor in Japan. Scholars have interpreted the growing number of young irregular workers as an expression of the unwillingness of young people to offer employers the same selfless loyalty their fathers did (Yamada 1999). Others have suggested that the young make up a burgeoning underclass—a new reserve from which a volatile economy satisfies its demand for inexpensive labor (Genda 2005). While some young adults admirably fit Yamada's profile and others find their situations faithfully mirrored in Genda's analysis, a third group of young people also neither worry nor hope for the best, but instead actively seek ways to move forward. Although the pursuit of affective labor in the digital media economy enables only a small minority of young people to quit their unrewarding service jobs, it inspires many to think about social and economic precarity, their lives, and their futures.

The cell phone novel phenomenon epitomizes that young Japanese people use digital media to participate in the economy in ways that they find more fulfilling than the roles this economy assigns to them. Many of them venture to the digital media economy seeking an alternative to the emotional labor that is predominantly available to them in the service industries. What they hope to find by pursuing affective labor there is the possibility of self-actualization and the means of earning a living. The digital economy extracts free labor from youth by capitalizing on young people's frustration with emotional labor. Young people, however, also identify in affective labor the possibility to fight a collective crisis in sociality—an effect of an ailing economy's destabilization of normative relationships and forms of belonging. Mōri Yoshitaka (2005) proposes that young people resort to artistic and cultural forms of expression to voice their political views, for they find conventional forms of party politics and political activism to be unappealing and inadequate. By writing cell phone novels, young people produce a conjuncture at which writers and readers come to understand themselves as new collectivities and begin to develop critical insights about their lives and futures.

Not one writer I interviewed thought of writing as a form of leisure. While they emphasized the rewarding nature of writing cell phone novels, they also stressed that it entailed hard work. Chaco, for instance, related her experiences of writing as follows:

I am ashamed of this now, but I hated books my entire life. I loved stories, but I satisfied my craving for them from movies, television dramas, and graphic novels. I started reading books only after I decided to pursue writing as a career. I spent an enormous amount of time memorizing dictionaries (Japanese language, thesaurus, etc.) to increase my vocabulary. At the same time, the more I embraced a sense of responsibility, the more demanding my work became. I wanted my books not only to be well written but also to be factually correct. I thought a lot about social responsibility, how I could avoid endorsing irresponsible and unethical behavior. I spent a lot of time doing research for my novels and consulting experts to ensure factual correctness. Professional writers do all this, but I never learned to write, so the whole process was very painful for me. This job feeds me and puts a roof over my head. Of course, I work extremely hard to do it well. And the better I am, the more I enjoy writing.25

Yet, the cell phone novel phenomenon also reveals the highly contentious nature of affective labor. Cell phone novel portals encourage novelists to aspire to become professional novelists. They underplay the contentious nature of this career by overemphasizing the exceptional sales figures for the bestselling cell phone novels. Curiously, most cell phone novelists remain anonymous even after their novels become bestsellers. The writers I interviewed claimed that it was their choice to conceal their identity from the public. They asserted that they needed to protect the privacy of the people (incl. themselves) about whom they wrote. Writers also reasoned that it would be difficult to write cell phone novels if they gained celebrity status. A condition of disenfranchisement—expressed in anonymity—is the necessary position from which these novels ought to be written. Forgoing celebrity status serves to generate profit while protecting writers from being stigmatized as victims of some sort. However, anonymity also reproduces the conditions that make these writers vulnerable in the digital media economy. Even those cell phone novelists who become famous lack job security, institutional support nets, and the promotional benefits of media publicity. Although affective labor allows young people to envision a link between work and social upward mobility, one point becomes clear: the binary of empowerment and disempowerment has lost analytical force in a context in which subjectivity is the main source of valuation. When the meaning of work is elusive, conditions of exploitation become more intricate. Writing cell phone novels feeds very few writers, but those few keep a powerful dream alive. It is the dream of dreamwork—work that sutures the split between labor and humanity and between labor and collectivity.


Acknowledgments. I am grateful for funding support for research for this article from the SSRC/JSPS, the Mitsubishi/JISF Funds (University of Pittsburgh), and the Central Research Development Funds (University of Pittsburgh).More people have contributed pleasurable insights to this article than I can possibly list here. I thank particularly Allison Alexy, Susan Andrade, Andrea Arai, Laura Brown, Sabine von Dirke, Charles Exley, Michael Fish, Joseph Hankins, Harry Harootunian, Akiko Hashimoto, Marilyn Ivy, Giuseppina Mecchia, Jun Mizukawa, Akiko Takeyama, and Kathleen Woodward. I would also like to thank the anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments. Last, this article would have never been completed, had it not been for the exceptionally conscientious editorial work, patience, and exemplary intellectual vigor of the CA editors, Anne Allison and Charlie Piot. I cannot thank them enough for their help.

  1. 1

    Cell phone novels are short, serialized novels composed on cell phones in small segments and made available to readers through web portals such as Maho no i-rando. Some of the most popular cell phone novels are also printed.

  2. 2

    Interview with Mika, Tokyo, October 8, 2010.

  3. 3

    Labor market deregulation has had multiple effects on the family and familial intimacy. Young people who have no access to secure employment are more hesitant to start their own families. At the same time, they are conflicted about having to rely on their parents for continued financial support.

  4. 4

    The word freeter is a combination of the English word free and the German word arbeiter (worker).

  5. 5

    See Kōseirōdōshō: Heisei 21-nen Jakunensha Koyo Jittai Chōsa Kekka no Gaikyo; Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare: Summary of the Survey Results of the Employment Condition for Young People, 2009;, accessed July 25, 2012.

  6. 6

    See Wakamonono Shitsugyoritsu 9%-dai [The Unemployment Rate for Young People Has Reached the 9 Percent Level];, accessed July 25, 2012.

  7. 7

    See Kōseirōdōshō: Heisei 21-nen Jakunensha Koyo Jittai Chōsa Kekka no Gaikyo; Ministry of Health, Labor, and Welfare: Summary of the Survey Results of the Employment Condition for Young People, 2009;, accessed July 25, 2012.

  8. 8

    The company that launched Maho no i-rando was Tepco Office Service. TOS was originally an information technology company established in 1989 that produced application service provider (ASP) services for regular PC websites. In 1999, TOS began experimenting with applying to cell phones the system architecture it had developed for PCs. The company started a keitai website, named Maho no i-rando. By 2006, Maho no i-rando had become TOS's main product. TOS transformed Maho no i-rando into a separate business and the name of the keitai website service itself (Maho no i-rando) became the new name of the company. By March 2010, Asuki (Ascii) Media Works had bought 70 percent of Maho no i-rando's stocks, and the site became one of the affiliated companies of Asuki Media Works.

  9. 9

    Social networking sites (including GREE, Echoo!, Tomomoto, Friend Map, Kinugasa, UUME, Mobagētaun, and mypage) mushroomed in the early 2000s.

  10. 10

    Terranova highlights the centrality of affect to this mode of political engagement when she writes: “This political mode cannot but start with affects—that is with intensities, variations of bodily powers that are expressed as fear and empathy, revulsion, attraction, sadness and joy” (2004:156–57).

  11. 11

    The English word real (riaru) is used to discuss the authenticity of these novels. In Ishihara's view, what lends a sense of authenticity to cell phone novels is not that the described events actually occurred but that the suffering is real in the writers’ imagination (2008:34–38; see also Sugiura 2008). Although not all cell phone novels draw on personal or real experiences of pain and trauma, riaru remains central to the marketing of these novels. Publishers promote cell phone novels as texts that do not go through the conventional review and editorial process. Kitano Hiroshi, an editor at Take Shōbō told me that this statement was a myth, but he was quick to admit that some editors edited cell phone novels more invasively than others. He explained that novels had to be edited to attain maximum dramatic impact and to be checked for typos and other grammatical errors (interview, Kitano, Tokyo, June 21, 2010).

  12. 12

    Interview with Chaco, Tokyo, September 20, 2010.

  13. 13

    Interview with Mika, Tokyo, October 8, 2010.

  14. 14

    Other cell phone novel sites or social networking sites with cell phone novel applications quickly followed Maho no i-rando. Examples include Gocco, launched in December 2006; Mobagē taun (Mobile Game Town), a free game and SNS site established in the spring of 2007; Oricon, a cell phone novel site colaunched by Oricon, Goma Books, and Success Networks Cooperation in December 2007 (Yoshida 2008:56–58); and No-ichigo, a cell phone novel site launched in June 2007 by Starts.

  15. 15

    The theme of dreams continues to figure powerfully in the identity of Maho no i-rando. Currently, the site features a page called “Community of Dreams.” It is based on the idea that one gets a step closer to realizing her dream by posting this dream on Maho no i-rando. This page encourages users to make dream-friends (yume nakama) by enabling them to connect with other users who have similar dreams. The page also generates statistics based on the themes of the dreams submitted to the site. The dreams that relate to work rank the highest among these dreams. Almost twice as many people articulate what their dream is in relation to work than in relation to romantic relationships, which is the second most popular dream. See Dream Collection;, accessed July 25, 2012.

  16. 16

    Indeed, this arrangement proved to be ingenious. The owners of Maho no i-rando continue developing applications to allow users to express themselves in more and more genres. In 2010, Maho no i-rando featured 30 genres, ranging from novels through photography to the satirical haiku (senryū).

  17. 17

    No-ichigo, for example, encourages readers to evaluate novels. The function of “simple comment” (kantan kansō) allows readers to click on features—such as romantic, full of dreams, funny, educational, and so forth—that characterize the novel. This data is used to improve search algorithms and hence to provide better search results.

  18. 18

    In addition to a bulletin board where readers can communicate with each other, No-ichigo also offers an application called “comment notebook” (kansō nōto), which allows readers and authors to communicate. This application is optional and it allows authors to respond to readers’ comments, as well as to edit or delete these comments. Readers can also write reviews (rebyū) of novels. These reviews cannot be edited or revoked. As part of the review, readers can rate the novel on the scale of 1–5. The summary of these ratings appears along with the title of the novel.

  19. 19

    Group interview with editors from Asukii Media Works and Maho no i-rando. The interviewees asked me to maintain their anonymity, Tokyo, September 28, 2010.

  20. 20

    Matsushima Shigeru at Starts told me that not all novels popular with readers are published. He explained that many of the most highly ranked novels were “distasteful” stories of gang rape and other forms of excessive violence perpetrated on young women—stories whose publication would violate publishing standards (interview, Matsushima, Tokyo, June 28, 2010).

  21. 21

    The jury is composed of celebrities and authorities of sorts: acquisition editors, renowned writers, government officials, and other well-known media personalities.

  22. 22

    Keitai Shōsetsu Kontesuto Shōkin Sōgaku 1,000 Man Akai Ito no Tsugiwa? [Cell phone novel contest offers award of JPY10 million: Who will be the next winner after Akai Ito?], Oricon Career, December 1, 2007;, accessed July 25, 2012.

  23. 23

    Shōjo refers to young girls who are preoccupied with consumption-oriented and fun-loving lifestyles.

  24. 24

    In the context of the eroding welfare system in contemporary Italy, Andrea Muehlebach (2011) has suggested that affective labor was valued because of its capacity to foster noncommercialized social bonds.

  25. 25

    Interview with Chaco, Tokyo, September 20, 2010.


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