Koizora: Empathy and Anonymous Creation

If the promotional materials are to be believed, one out of every ten Japanese has already shed tears over the “keitai novel” Koizora 『恋空』. This level of cultural penetration would make the work the mainstream media event of the 21st century — quite a feat for an amateurishly-written love story about gang rape, teen pregnancy, miscarriage, and premature cancer deaths. The figure of 12 million may be a misreading of internet download statistics, but Koizora’s success in mainstream markets has been the real deal. Beginning as a keitai shōsetsu posted on a host-focused bulletin board in 2005, downloads of the story from the keitai novel site Mahō no Island eventually hit 10 million in its first year. The cleaned-up book version sold in the millions, a manga version appeared, and the recent film adaptation debuted at #3 on the box office. A “side-story” Kimizora: ‘koizora’ another story is currently topping the fiction charts.

Although we at clast have been skeptical in the past about the internet’s ability to completely crack the old production systems for culture in Japan, Koizora clearly presents the case of a total “nobody” creating content, “publishing” it through an open website, gaining grass-roots popularity, and finally winning sponsorship from the larger entertainment industry (in this case, Starts Publishing and Tōhō Company, with help from Lawson’s, Tsutaya, NTT, and Mitsuya Cider etc.) Some wonder how this particular work found its way into the system so quickly (when more popular keitai writers continue to be ignored), but just as in the Chad Vader model, Japanese companies are clearly using the internet as a testing ground for new talent.

In other ways, however, Koizora is just another example of traditional Japanese diffusion patterns for pop culture. Whether schoolgirl fashion or a hot band, microtrends in Japan very rarely show clean linear (or even exponential) growth from the grass-roots level up to the masses. Once a certain product or style becomes slightly visible on the street, the mainstream media complex scoops it up and propels it into national news/advertising campaigns — thus creating an immediate explosion in interest or participation for the entire country. The effect is a huge jump in diffusion rather than a smooth curve. In the case of Koizora, the original “phone novel” phenomenon may have been impressive for that niche, but the book printing was promoted through mass-targeted television advertising; the subsequent high sales should not be too surprising.

The most interesting feature of Koizora‘s success may be its author — “Mika” (美嘉) —  about whom we know absolutely nothing. Despite being the best-selling young female author of recent days and an overnight millionaire, “Mika” has chosen not to reveal herself to the public. Like Densha Otoko before, Mika is essentially anonymous and untraceable. We get nothing more than a first-name and some attributed quotes. Koizora is supposed to be a “true story” of her youth, or at least, “based on her experiences.”

Since nobody in the Japanese media appears interested in investigating the real Mika and readers do not have problems with the gross inaccuracies in Mika’s depiction of pregnancy and malignant lymphoma, the author has no pressure to add a face and full name to her semi-literary stardom. Anonymity is important for individuals to share their creations on the internet, but there is also a sympathy and understanding amongst Japanese consumers towards protecting the anonymity of those who request it. Anonymity, however, is also a key component of this form of confessional literature. Not only does the “nobodiness” of the author make it seem more “real” and “personal,” anonymity protects seemingly-autobiographical narrative works from the James Frey/A Million Little Pieces danger of exposé.

Empathy is the key emotional response to a book like Koizora. Readers cry because they have emotionally invested in the pain and suffering of this protagonist — feelings no doubt amplified by the assumption that the terrible gang-rape bullying and teenage death actually happened to this pitiful author. Once the narrative becomes “based on a true story,” revealing the true degree of fictionalization may lead to collective let-down. If Mika were really a forty-year old data-entry clerk who experienced completely unremarkable teenage years, the whole prerequisites at the base of the “empathy” start to fall apart. It’s not fun to cry for the pain of a friend who has lost her mother and then find out the next day that the mom is alive and she was lying the whole time to get you to pay for drinks.

The more net culture in Japan progresses, the more it becomes clearer that anonymity is its underlying principle. Even in the face of possible fame and fortune, amateur writers are finding it more helpful to hide real identities in order to reap in the benefits of building fantastical realities for mass empathy. The masses of readers are more likely to tolerate terrible writing, melodramatic clichés, and incredulous stories of sex and death on the assumption that they are first-hand accounts. The Internet has made the narrative behind the “success” of a creative work as important as the narrative contained the work itself. Breaking Mika’s anonymity in the case of Koizora would ruin both.

This article originally appeared on the Diamond Agency blog clast.

12 Responses to “Koizora: Empathy and Anonymous Creation”

  1. Adamu Says:

    http://www.nhk.or.jp/etv21c/update/2007/1118.html

    Did you catch this tonight? It’s an NHK-education documentary. I almost missed this when I was watching volleyball, but it was a really interesting look at this phenomenon. Some famous photographer guy interviews authors and fans of the genre

    Some points from the show:
    1. These mobile novels are being touted as the savior of the publishing industry, which has been in something of a decline recently. Each time a hit mobile novel is published it’s basically guaranteed to sell hundreds of thousands of copies. They are bringing in the high school girl demographic which never used to buy that many novels let alone expensive hardcovers.

    2. The host interviewed several of the authors and they come in a lot of varieties – one who claimed the story was true but offered no proof and wouldn’t show her face, (“Chaco”), one who wrote a fictional story about a kid who dies of blood tranfusion-caused AIDS but based the emotion on the loss of her grandmother (she did show her face), and a guy who wrote about how his gf threw herself off a bridge (and showed the purikura to prove that at least he at one point had a girlfriend)

    3. Accordingly, the expected reaction from these is not uniformly empathy at tragic real events. One fan who was interviewed assumed she was reading fiction and was shocked when she learned it was a true story. Anonymity does seem to be a necessary part of the equation (or rather it’s more like anonymity is the rule in Japanese Internet). So rather than authors finding it helpful, they are just discovering the natural effects of this “underlying principle”

    4. The settings and audiences of these novels are overwhelmingly in Japan’s outlying nowhere-lands (Gunma, suburban Osaka, etc) where the crime rates and abortion rates are higher than even Tokyo. The growing dysfunction and loss of hope remind me a lot of the US suburbs (right down to the high school drop out in a metal band). Also, the plots seem to be almost all reminiscent of Sekai no naka de Ai wo sakebu (dead girlfriends/boyfriends).

    Though these novels have proven to be an efficient way to channel livejournal style postings into coherent, ultimately profitable narratives (anonymity forces the writer to avoid navel-gazing entries about what she ate for breakfast, for one thing), I get the feeling they are just one more manifestation of the effects of Internet culture in Japan. Much like the US, internet forum culture encourages people to be self-absorbed, minutiae-obsessed, and low on insight. But as the host guy tonight was saying, these people are using the language they know to express really intense frustration with their lives (the host labeled them “love refugees” because they live in a world far removed from adults and hence don’t get enough love).

  2. W. David MARX Says:

    Thanks for adding that.

    There seems at least to be a link between the form of the keitai novel and the content of “personal tragedy.” Has there been a hit post-modern comic novel on the keitai yet? Obviously the core readership of teenage girls plays into it and the accessibility of the medium to those who aren’t aiming to be sophisticated pro writers up for the Naoki or Akutagawa prize, but the personal quality of format also seems to lend itself to “relaying tragic situations.” When that happens, you need a certain level of anonymity from the author to preserve this front.

    “Also, the plots seem to be almost all reminiscent of Sekai no naka de Ai wo sakebu (dead girlfriends/boyfriends).”

    Yes. The stories all seem to revolve around the idea of surviving the death of a loved one. Apparently there is no idea of subtle tragedy. Loves must die to fulfill the tear quota.

  3. Aceface Says:

    “Yes. The stories all seem to revolve around the idea of surviving the death of a loved one. Apparently there is no idea of subtle tragedy. Loves must die to fulfill the tear quota.”

    See,this is pretty depressing situation.I see intellectual and cultural sensitivity is dying in this country.Daughters read Keitai novel and their mothers watch Korean Soap operas.Sons and Fathers enjoy porn in all forms.

    These love-one-dies-by-uncured-disease-and-protagonist-left-in-sorrow is definitly the remnant of 新派劇.When I come of age in the 80’s,I hear all about post-modernist explaination as “All the big stories had ended and we all shall see the re-run of the past”,I think everyone was actually thinking about something more sophisticated in fiction than what we see now,but they had never imagined that income gap would affect the deteroration of the intelligence of the readership.

  4. W. David MARX Says:

    Things have swung a long way from the days of Asada Akira: “Best Seller.” But maybe it’s good that people refuse now to bow down to elite tastes. They like what they can understand. This is bad for the intelligence level of “mainstream culture,” but this doesn’t mean that we have to read Koizora if we don’t want to.

    they had never imagined that income gap would affect the deteroration of the intelligence of the readership.

    I don’t think it’s just income: lower taste groups are no longer ashamed of their tastes. This is true everywhere in the world. The idea of centralized elitist media is dead.

  5. Yui Aragaki - Heavenly Days | Jayhan Loves Design & Japan Says:

    […] The digital novel firstly appeared in December 2005, published on the popular cell phone site Mahou no iRando. It stays at the top position of the popularity chart because of its touching story that make many people cried. It quickly becomes a printed novel in October 2006 and sold more than 1 million copies in the first month of release. Now, it was been read and supported by more than 12 million readers. Keitai Shosetsu (ケータイ小説) or hand phone novel had become very popular and the Japan, and adaptation of hand phone novel to live action movie was the latest trend. You can read more about the “Koizora” phenomenon in Clast’s analysis. […]

  6. Ken Says:

    There seems at least to be a link between the form of the keitai novel and the content of “personal tragedy.” Has there been a hit post-modern comic novel on the keitai yet?

    Marxy, I was wondering this as well. I may be totally off here, but my first thought was this:

    Keitai novels are likely to be read on the train, when one is ‘alone’ yet surrounded by lots of other people. Laughing out loud from a comic novel might not be appropriate (I’ve tried reading Catch-22 on the subway, had to get off), but the sadness from a tragic novel might blend right in.

    Might it be about blending in?

  7. W. David MARX Says:

    I wouldn’t go that far. I think the audience for these keitai novels is overwhelming young (maybe high school females?) and the writers are probably close to that demographic in spirit. I am not sure they are looking to read anything approaching real “literature” in a snobby sense. And if you were a literary writer, there are lots of opportunities in Japan for you to publish a real book. (If you are a real comic writer, manga seems to be the better format, no?)

  8. Koizora (恋空 = love sky), a mobile book bestseller « Heybooks Says:

    […] novel has been wildly successful. ‘Beginning as a keitai shōsetsu posted on a host-focused bulletin board in 2005, downloads […]

  9. Mulboyne Says:

    Article about keitai shosetu here (Japanese).

    http://news.livedoor.com/article/detail/3464242/

  10. W. David Marx Says:

    We both read 2-CH Itai news.

  11. kay Says:

    This mobile phone subculture has already taken a hold on the lifestyles of many young japanese high school girls and though i’m not trying to be cynical, but it seems that the mobile novels were written amateurishly, in terms of the writing techniques of the narrative and the alignment to reality. i doubt that these stories are written from the author’s real-life experience simply because it would seem too exxagerated or that the author must have a great sense of imagination. in any case, it is a fact that most young adults find these stories extremely welcoming. Perhaps some of them could identify with the characters and empathise with them and perhaps some of them are just young people looking to satisfy their cravings for love or some others simply liked heart wrenching romances with a sweet and pretty girl and a bad-boy punk with good looks as the protagonists. well, with the invasion of these stories spun from cell phones in the japanese media market and also the novelist’s market, i feel that definitely the standard of novels being written and published in the future would drop, or if you’re on the side of these cell phone novels, increase. the tastes of the people could shift to one of easy to understand language and intriguing romantic plots underlined with the issues of sex and violence and that is up to the individual to decide if it really is that good a culture after all.

  12. Samurai in New York » Blog Archive » Social Not Working? Says:

    […] has lined up content that appeals to younger users like avatars, a place to create your own "keitai novel," and a "shitumon hiroba" — "Question Court" — that functions like […]