MLA: the ultimate in fantasy novels

December 15, 2000

The internet has created a new literary genre in Japan but some of its features have much in common with the classics. Toru Kiuchi examines a medium where anything goes

When the 18th-century English novelist Samuel Richardson serialised Clarissa Harlow in a weekly magazine over the course of a year, he changed the plot little by little each week, incorporating some of the opinions his readers had sent to the magazine. The work is now considered the blueprint for the hypertext novel. The modern Japanese science-fiction writer Yasutaka Tsutsui also daily altered the plot of his novel, Gaspar in the Morning , which was serialised daily from October 18 1991 to March 31 1992 in the Asahi Shimbun newspaper. Tsutsui followed the suggestions his readers sent to him by email.

Gaspar in the Morning depicts the president of a trading company, Seizo Kinohara, being gradually taken over by a computer game. The absurd plot was written in basic MS-Dos text, just before the internet revolution. Nevertheless, it was the first example of computer technology influencing Japanese literature.

Since 1992, the world of electronic communication has totally changed. The number of websites and electronic libraries for commercial and academic use has increased dramatically over the past four or five years. One example is the Publi, which was launched in September. It is a consortium of eight major Japanese publishing companies set up to sell e-books.

The paperless publication revolution has produced a new internet literary world. Academics have exploited the medium. The National Archive for Japanese Literature has digitalised Japanese classics, from the 7th century (such as Manyoshu - the oldest collection of Tanka poems) to the 17th century (including Oku No Hosomichi by Basho).

Another example, the Aozora Bunko Library, has 617 digitalised classics and modern works with expired copyrights. These include works by Soseki Natsume, Ogai Mori, and other major 19th-century authors. All are basically in the public domain, so scholars can download digital data documents from the library and use them for literary or linguistic studies. In addition, the Archive of Historical Documents at the University of Tokyo has a full-text database of all the documents that existed in the Heian period (794-1192) and the Kamakura period (1192-1333).

A new literary trend has arisen in Japan against the background of this web explosion. Writers who owe their success to the internet include Ryu Murakami, Yumehito Inouye, Randy Taguchi, Seiko Ito, and Makoto Takeuchi. Ryu Murakami, a modern Japanese novelist, has published his novels on his own website - "Tokyo Decadence". He has recently accepted orders for his new novel, Kyoseichu (Symbiotic Worm), via the internet and is also selling it through an ordinary publishing house in paper form.

The book's hero cannot adjust to the outside world and he communicates solely through email. Once he re-establishes contact with the external world, he commits murder. The novel is not so far-fetched when you consider that 1.6 million young people in Japan have severed their connection with the outside world and communicate almost exclusively through the internet. In addition, another 130,000 school-age children choose not to go to school at all.

Another novel recently published by Murakami, Kibo no Kuni no Exodus (Exodus to the Nation of Hope), tells of students who, disillusioned with Japan, stop going to school and form military units. They set up an alternative existence, promoting environmental issues, human rights and social welfare and finally establish their own autonomous state.

Another author who uses the internet is Yumehito Inouye, a mystery writer who recently launched a website, "E-Novels", which sells only his e-books. Inouye's site (see below for site address) contains a hypertext experimental novel, The Last Train with 99 Passengers , that contains no opening or final pages.

The book is set on a subway train in Tokyo. Ninety-nine passengers are on the train. Each has a story to tell. Readers can read the novel by switching between one passenger and another. The novel could be interpreted as a love story, a mystery or any other kind of fiction, depending on which passenger the reader chooses. By clicking on any station, person, or time, readers can begin the story at different stages or incidents described in the novel.

Randy Taguchi has built her reputation on internet culture. Her popular column in an email magazine led her to write her first novel Konsento (The Wall Socket), published in June 2000. Taguchi's own brother, who starved to death after ten years locked away from the outside world, resembles the protagonist in the novel. Konsento addresses this growing problem, mixing the world of computers and virtual reality with the heroine's grief for her dead brother.

Another author, Seiko Ito, published his novel No Life King on his official website, "Watch Seiko" (see below for site address), declaring that he had abandoned all copyright privileges to the English version. And Makoto Takeuchi (see below for site address) won the 66th Modern Novel Prize for Best First Work for his internet short story Nine Letters . He first published the story in a journal and then rewrote it for the internet. The story is made up of letters from the hero to his friend and girlfriend. Readers can click on any of the letters and create their own story - each one is a story within the main story.

All these writers use the internet in their fiction, both as a medium and often in their subject matter. "Weekly Relay Novel," a cyber space for amateur and professional writers, with some 4,900 members, says the definition of an internet novel is one that writers publish on the internet using the opportunities the medium offers in terms of images, sounds and graphics as well as in text. If possible, the novel should invite readers to participate in the creative process.

One of the main rules for writing an internet novel is to promote interactivity between writers and readers, as Tsutsui did eight years ago. Accordingly, the website "Online Novels" recently added an interactive section where readers and amateur writers could write a novel in collaboration with professional writers.

Another recent move was the launch of the Internet Prize for Literature by the Internet Authors' Association, which has some 218 members who are professional writers active only on the internet on their own websites. Sometimes members collaborate on projects.

It is fascinating to observe that this new internet literature shares some of the characteristics of Japanese literature since the 7th century - such as the collaborative process of composing series of haiku poems, short stories and oral literature.

Tsutomu Ogata, an expert on classic Japanese literature, says in one of his essays: "It can safely be said that Japanese literature has always been a literature of interactivity and collaboration, at least before the advent of modern literature in the late 19th century."

Although mainstream 20th-century Japanese literature is mainly a private, professional endeavour, there is a chance that the emergence of internet literature might reverse this tendency and we will see a resurgence of the collective and interactive writing that appears in classic Japanese literature.

Toru Kiuchi is associate professor of English at Nihon University. He is speaking at a Modern Language Association session on the impact of the internet on East Asian literature.

For most of the following sites you will need a browser capable of displaying Japanese text.

Yumehito Inouye:

Seiko Ito:

Other publishing websites in Japanese:


"Papyrus" (Ryunosuke Akutagawa's masterpieces, cartoons):

"Gutenberg 21" (Japanese and world classics):

"Writers Speak about Their Own" (listen to novels read by their authors):

"Tolle et lege" (list of online libraries and bookshops):

Criminals, perverts and Snoopy
Brave new words
Favourite poems
Prison writing
Prison poet Jack Mapanje
Apartheid's blind spot
Translating Tolstoy
Reading in translation

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