1. University of Virginia
  2. Arts & Sciences

Dreamwork: Cell Phone Novelists, Labor, and Politics in Contemporary Japan

In 2007, the number of cell phone novels posted on the popular portal, maho no i-rando, reached one million—a figure that has puzzled observers worldwide. Critics claim that young women write these novels in transit and in transition; these women merely translate their feelings of boredom and lack of spirit into an escapist pastime. By contrast, I analyze the cell phone novel phenomenon as a site that reveals how young people respond to their incorporation into a precarious labor regime and to their exclusion from collectivities (e.g., workplace and family) that offered their parents key resources for self-determination. More specifically, I make three arguments in my presentation. First, I posit that the cell phone novel phenomenon sheds light on transformations in the meanings and forms of work. I argue that affective labor—as performed by cell phone novelists—has become a valorized form of labor because it couples in a virtuous liaison the intensifying demand for workers to invest their humanity in the work process and the growing desire of workers for self-fulfilling work. Second, I suggest that the cell phone novel phenomenon discloses how digital media technologies enable young people to experiment with new modes of political engagement. I argue that by drawing on the dynamics of capillary communication, the writers and readers of cell phone novels produced a conjuncture at which they were able to develop critical insights about work, solidarity, and future. Lastly, I propose a new approach to understanding the shifting place of youth on the Japanese labor market. Critics blame young Japanese people for having a diminished sense of commitment to work. Others interpret the historical heights in youth unemployment as an effect of a volatile economy’s ever growing demand for flexible labor. I aim to point a way beyond the stalemate of these polarized analyses by examining the production of cell phone novels as a practice that reveals how young people actively seek ways to move forward.

(Cosponsored by the East Asia Center)

Event Date: 
Friday, 21 October 2011 - 1:00pm
Gabriella Lukacs
Speaker Title: 
Assistant Professor, Department of Anthropology, University of Pittsburgh