Japanese embrace the mobile phone novel

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In Deep Love, a wildly popular Japanese story of teenage heartbreak, Ayu decides to pay for her boyfriend Yoshiyuki's life-saving heart surgery by prostituting herself. But instead of using the money on the operation, his parents spend it. Ayu dies of Aids.

Steamy melodramas with tear-drenched endings have been a staple of Japanese popular entertainment for years. But Deep Love, which recently appeared as both a film and a series on one of the big television networks, boasts an unusual feature: it began life on a mobile phone.

Once seen as a passing fad, the cellphone novel, or ketai novel, has wormed its way into the heart of Japanese popular culture. Half of last year's top-10 bestselling novels originated from the (very) small screen and the top three books were all written by novice cellphone authors.

Critics say the truncated, slang-rich content of the novels, which shun traditional character and plot development, hardly qualifies as writing, let alone literature. One bestselling novel was tapped out on a mobile phone while the young author commuted to work, then uploaded to her blog.

The popular magazine press, which coined the phrase "oya yubi seddai" – "the thumb generation" – to describe Japan's army of cellphone users, has waded into the debate by asking: are real novels dead? Some have felt the need to remind readers that this is a country with a 1,000-year literature tradition.

But the criticism leaves many young people cold. The Nikkei business newspaper recently estimated the market for e-books at nearly 20 billion yen (£96m), and said it is growing by more than 200 per cent a year. The books are read in cafes, during work breaks and during Japan's famously long commutes.

"I thought the idea of a keitai novel was a bit dumb because the screens are so small," said Eriko Saito, 25, who spends hours on a train every day. "But you quickly get into them because the stories are so compelling and easy to understand, and the endings keep you hooked and coming back for more. I'm totally addicted."

The genre even has its own literary stars, such as Mika Naito, the so-called queen of the cellphone novel. Her serialised romantic story, Love Link, was accessed 1.5 million times in five months, instantly turning her into a publishing sensation. Another author, Rin, 21, has sold more than 400,000 copies of her high-school love story Moshimo Kimiga (If You...) since it was published last year. With 100 million handsets in circulation, the mobile phone is Japan's most ubiquitous accessory. Standard features include internet browsers, games and digital cameras, while newer models can be used to watch television, swipe train-ticket barriers and pay bills. Bigger screens and faster downloads have made manga comics and now full graphic novels increasingly viable.

Thousands of Japanese titles can now be accessed for about 210-450 yen a pop – cheaper than a paperback and without the added bulk in handbags and briefcases. The newer e-books, which are often accessed for two or three months before the subscription lapses, have developed their own literary tics, including serial cliffhanger endings and a small cast of characters – two to four people.

The seal of approval has come from two of the world's most famous manufacturers. Matsushita has developed a 5.6-inch high-resolution reader designed for reading e-books. Rival Sony has also launched a nine-ounce, 6.9x4.9-inch machine that uses iTunes technology to purchase e-books from the company's own Connect service.

"Is the cell-phone the library of the future?" asked one magazine after the launch of a new device. Perhaps it might become the new cinema too: Japan recently hosted its first Pocket Films Festival in Yokohama, screening 400 movies shot on camera-equipped cellular phones. The shortest clocked in at a giddy 12 seconds, but one entry stretched to adizzying 90 minutes.