Rise of the New Mohemians

Tokyo’s streets are a homage to sci-fi fantasy, seventies style. Fields of mirrored skyscrapers are snaked by webs of towering monorails, glass-fronted mainstreet superstores flash with phosphorescent adverts. But like every Big Brother backdrop, a revolution occurs a few alleys back from the sheen, and in Tokyo, mazes of traditional cubed houses hold a variety of secret Steppenwolf doorways.

Behind one such door in the North of the city is a library bar with vintage issues of Visionaire and opulent Japanese-edition fashion photography books, it stands as a temporary salon for writers who don’t use pen & papers, or laptops, they write novels on their mobiles.

Drinking an £8 coffee, Ryu, king of the new ‘mohemians’, explains how he came to be credited as the first m-novelist,

“It came from necessity, I was working in a bar in Shibuya where the girls with the orange faces are” begins the 23 year old whose profits from his first m-book have allowed retirement to a desert island, where he’s profoundly in love with the local delicacy of octopus balls. In broken English and through a translator he goes on to tell how he felt disturbed by the repetitive cycle of observing chicks arriving to the scene, enticed by the appeal of darker life, slipping into a world of wrist-cutting, drugs, prostitution, debauchery and occasional degradation.

From his bar he assembled a team of groupies who spilt their stories to him. He emerged as a writer making notes on his phone about the new faces’ demise. “I sent the first notes and chapters to girls fresh to the area as cautionary tales, they told their friends, and their friends” Using emoticons to signify character moods and shortcuts of text speak, he uploaded test chapters to a website which got downloaded to phones. Ryu’s high octane writing appealed to girls across Japan, the site received unprecedented traffic and a paperback publisher soon clocked the sounds of the underground; his maverick m-novel, Tokyo Real, went on to sell three million hard copies, 32 million have been issued via the website.

“I didn’t plan to begin as a counsellor, or a writer, but the notes on my phone became chapters. The book was then published and it was made into a film, manga and anime.”

This organic progress has now been gazumped by market manipulators, and Tadashi Izumi, who has a PhD in Victorian literature from Cambridge, and Honjo Sae, who formerly wrote traditional books, have picked up on techniques to exploit this new market, they’re at the helm of this epoch which sees around three million people across Japan self-publishing in this way, students are it, teachers do it in their lunch time. In a society where texting is way more polite than speaking on the phone in public, it’s an acceptable form of creativity that fits in your pocket. The process operates in one of two ways, either via subscription, where users sign up for a certain amount of content a month for however many yen, or they give it away free. Apparently giving it away for free is favoured, as with most creative acts on the web.

Tadashi Izumi recognised the largest audience being teen girls, so began writing stories specifically for this audience, cannily, he also designed merchandise ready to rock.

“It’s a marketing dream,” says Tadashi, “The audience have time on their hands, they are always on their phones, killing time. We call them the Oyayubizoku generation (the thumb tribe). I created merchandise to tie in with Crossroads, my first m-novel. The characters wore a perfume and necklaces already available in the shops when the book was launched online. They thought they were real, pre-existing products, but the book worked as a kind of advertisement’ he says.

Crossroads sold 2m copies in just one week, the website receives around 12million hits per month. Izumi’s follow up book, Cross Overhas a diamond necklace available in select boutiques which sells from 100 000 yen (over £700), he’s trying to break into an older demographic. “Shakespeare would have been a mobile novelist” he claims.

Honjo Sae was recruited by Japan’s biggest record label, AVEX to write stories which include members of bands, as a cross-promotion, multi-platform, 360 PR megamix.

“You have a smaller screen space,” she explains of the Keitai Shousetsu which are fast spreading across China and Taiwan, “It’s all about action, less description, and the sentences have to be short, with spacing to fit on the screen”. Honjo calls herself and Ryu ‘non-fiction novelists’ as they are picking the truth from real life and interpreting them back to the public. Fantasy is everyday for Tokyo people. This is the tech age where several generations cite all their heroes as cartoon characters. Atom Boy is cooler then Elvis. So manga houses are also providing hand drawn cartoons exclusively for the phones, there are m-soap operas, m-films, m-street art, customised screen savers and Comic Studio software which allows consumers to develop plots for all mediums where they are the protagonist. We are living in the future, and the immediacy of technology suits Japan’s mohemians, it’s a culture that embraces the moment. Tokyo is a socially connected city where a walk through town is like being in the ‘Ray of Light’ disco video, or maybe that’s the sleep deprivation, Daft Punk gone crazy.

Yet aside to tech love there is a tradition for respect which permeates everything from the one-to-one love binds of seaweed around sushi, where the consumption is intimate, dark, with low slung opium smoking seats to recline upon to suck the exquisite delights of Bachannalian feasts, where plethoras of health and happiness are served alongside iced jasmine tea, with or without alcohol, Kobe beef gently fed by the tit of people who want to eat happy cows, parma ham wrapped around samphor type of asparagus, creamy tofu with sesame sauce, pork steeped in dark illicit concoctions, and the finest tuna sashimi. A pool of heated water to have blanched mushrooms and soup or the temples of such world class gastronomic havens as chef Jeff Ramsey’s 25 course tasting menu on the 36th floor of the Mandarin Oriental, where views of red flashing lights create organized patterns in which to try and understand the city. It’s a joy to taste and behold. And perhaps this ritualistic respect related to the very art of writing, and communication and the painstaking skill required to use the pictorial scripts. The pride and manners expected from one another are perhaps a route of this servitude reflected in digital society, which sits within pleasuredomes of simplicity and intellect demonstrated at places such as the 2121 Design Sight, (a masterpiece cocoon to the art of design by Tadao Ando and Issey Miyake). It’s not as easy as ABC. But this complexity leads us to wonder how many adaptees to m-writing will blossom overseas. In Europe we’ve probably all now got friends who have bought a zillion classics for a fiver for their Nintendo DS, and perhaps downloaded some of the sample chapters that are getting provided digitally as promos from companies like Canongate. Transworld last year pioneered a programme of texting in for chapters, which proved moderate success, HarperCollins have the e-experimental imprint, The Friday Project, and 3 are adopting socially networked technology such as Skype calls to allow us to all integrate into the future and apply these Mohemian ways with handsets like the INQ. Soon the Espresso machine will print titles on demand in bookshop, to order – you want Lolita on pink paper in ten minutes, you got it. This means less shelf space, more data space.

The old guard will always prefer a book. But the advantages of being able to adapt screen colours, font size are incredible for the dyslexic or visually impaired. Also, as a study aid, or for those who like to flit behind a hundred books at once, the e-book is the answer, you can carry a library in your handbag. Genius.

But how many writers can give up words for text-speak is yet to be seen. There are numerous companies exploring ways to use mobiles to market novels designed for traditional paperback, particularly bestselling brand authors like Andy McNab although it may be left to indie kids to invent new ways with words, and today is our playground for the future.

Thanks to Takeshi Miura and Akiko Hamaoka for translation.

Kirsty Allison started writing professionally as a teenager on Loadedand Dazed in 1994. Her fiction has appeared in Ambit andKatalogue. She has recently been performing poems around London. She has been working on a novel set in 1990s Shoreditch since the 1960s.

Kirsty Allison travelled to Tokyo with 3snapshots.com

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Saturday, May 16th, 2009.

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