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Friday, Sept. 1, 2000

Internet makes itself felt in publishing

Stephen King is currently shaking up American publishers with his experiment in making his novel "The Plant" available for downloading one chapter per month directly from his own Web site. In Japan, too, various ventures are taking place in digital publishing and distribution.

Recently two e-bookstores have started up in the hope of becoming the Amazon.com of Japan: BOL at www.jp.bol.com and bk 1 at www.bk1.co.jp . According to the Shukan Asahi (Aug. 11), Kinokuniya Bookstore's Book Web went into the black in its third year (1998), but many remain skeptical about the chances of purely Web bookstores in Japan where, unlike the United States, book discounting is not possible.

The influence of the Internet is starting to make itself felt in the area of content as well. The Yomiuri pointed out a few months ago (June 10) that several authors have started magazines resembling home pages, like Sakura Momoko's Fujisan, or magazines based on Web sites like Murakami Ryu's JMM (Japan Mail Media).

Now a promising new novelist has emerged not through the traditional route of literary contests, but through the Internet. Taguchi Randy, a writer whose weekly Web column attracts 60,000 regular readers, has gained much mainstream attention with the publication of her first full-length novel, "Konsento." Inspired by the death of Taguchi's own brother of starvation after he withdrew from the world and shut himself up in his room (hikikomori), this novel deals with such themes as problems with conventional psychological counseling and therapy, death and shamanism.

In a short interview in Bungei Shunju (August) Taguchi says there are many in Japan now who have weak psychological boundaries between themselves and others; they withdraw from the world as a form of self-protection. She thinks one cause lies in the lack of strong fathers to break the tie between mother and son and help the child become an autonomous individual. Natural rebellion becomes unhealthy violence against family members, while silent messages are often sent for children to remain undifferentiated and dependent on parents.

The title "Konsento," by the way, means "electric outlet," a metaphorical source of raw energy. Taguchi's brother apparently often talked about a schizophrenic youth obsessed with electrical outlets.

Print versions of material originally done digitally also are becoming more common. For example, a two-volume set of essays and photographs, "Shosetsuka Buuko Igirisu e Iku: Buuko no Sketchbook" by Murayama Yuka, chronicles travels in England with an electronic notebook and digital camera. Every day while traveling Murayama would post a new account on the publisher Shueisha's site and these have now been published in book form.

Another author experimenting with the Internet is Murakami Haruki. For over three years (until last November) he wrote roughly 6,000 responses to over 10,000 e-mail messages sent to him at a special Web site. These have been issued in CD-ROM format, and now 282 questions and responses have been selected for publication in book form in "Soo da, Murakami-san ni Kiite Miyoo" (Asahi Shinbunsha).

Murakami told Shukan Asahi (July 21) that he started the project out of curiosity and didn't find writing the answers much of a burden, although reading all the e-mail was time-consuming and a strain on the eyes. In particular he was encouraged to realize so many people were reading and enjoying his books and were moved to send him e-mail. As he says, writing is a solitary profession and sales figures are a very abstract measure of one's impact on the lives of others.

The 282 questions found in the book are an interesting lot, ranging from questions about Murakami's daily life to writing and translating to asking for advice on love and marriage (especially about infidelity). Murakami's answers, although brief, are impressive in their frankness and sincerity. In regard to his daily life, he writes that he gets up at 5 and writes during the morning. He also runs or swims and works a little more in the afternoon. Then in the evening he has some beer and wine and listens to music, reads, or watches a video (no TV watching). He generally is in bed by 10.

One 31-year-old office worker wants advice on how to become more sociable and a better talker, but Murakami tells him it's difficult to change one's basic personality. It's better to accept it and try to strengthen one's good points instead. To a 25-year-old OL fed up with arrogant middle-aged men at work, he suggests that such arrogance often reflects a lack of self-confidence, and advises against thinking of people in categories such as "oyaji."

Asked about living abroad for improving one's English he says he's still not so good at speaking English, but life abroad greatly improved his ability to comprehend English spoken at a natural speed. He found that for communication such listening skills are more important than speaking ability.

At any rate this is a very enjoyable and fairly easy-to-read book showing a new, very accessible side of Murakami. In addition to giving a forum for ordinary people to be heard, the Internet can thus directly connect an author with his or her readers without the intermediary of editors or publishers. Ultimately this may be more significant than King's experiment in removing the publisher commercially.

Janet Ashby, a freelance writer and translator, came to Japan in 1975. She has a special interest in Japanese pop culture.


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