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Beauty and the Nerd: Net Twist on Old Tale Captivates Japan

Times Staff Writer

It’s not an original idea for a story but, hey, there’s something to be said for sticking to the standards.

Boy meets girl. On a train. She disappears into the urban anonymity of ... oh, make it Tokyo.

For the record:

12:00 a.m. April 20, 2005 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday April 20, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 40 words Type of Material: Correction
“Trainman” -- A photo caption in Sunday’s Section A with an article about “Trainman,” a Japanese bestseller that was taken from Internet chat room postings, misidentified Miki Nakatani, the actress who will star in the film version, as Ko Shibazaki.

Our hero pines for the girl, but there’s a problem: He’s a bit of a nerd and she’s a beauty. Besides, he doesn’t even know her name.

Good and bad writers have been working out what comes next ever since trains were invented. But not until the Internet chat room was invented has anyone chosen to hand off the story line to hundreds of strangers, then collect their electronically delivered wisdom, as well as their rotten ideas, and publish the lot as a book.

Now that’s an original idea.

Profitable, too, for the book division of Japan’s Shinchosha, publisher of “Densha Otoko,” or “Trainman.” The book is a front-to-back collection of e-mails from a popular Japanese chat room, where a real (we think) suitor’s attempt to woo a girl known online as “Hermes” was encouraged, derided and ultimately celebrated from March to May of last year.

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The book’s editor, Hiroko Gunji, says she approached the shy hero of “Trainman” and then downloaded and edited the e-conversations. Published in November under the pseudonym Hitori Nakano, it has sold more than 550,000 copies and may have spawned a new category of Japanese publishing.

“The reason ‘Trainman’ sold so well is that the content was amusing,” Gunji says, trying to explain the phenomenon.

“His dedication drew readers’ attention, and people just kept encouraging him or advising him on how to approach the girl.

“When we approached him, he realized that people were touched by his story. So he agreed to publish it.”

The number of people touched keeps growing. Five weekly comic books, or manga, have been spun off the book. A movie -- you knew there had to be a movie -- will begin shooting in June.

It has also sent Japanese book publishers frantically surfing chat rooms looking for the next gold mine of electronic correspondence. “Trainman” proved that the narrative threads of a chat line can be quickly and cheaply edited into book form, conveniently bypassing the need for the ego management that goes with nurturing writers.

“It’s easier for publishers to spot attractive authors, even if they are amateurs, in the Net community and groom them rather than contacting existing professional authors,” says Kayoko Shibuya of ALC, a mid-sized Japanese publisher that has formed Freedom Breeze Publishers Assn. with five other houses to help bloggers get published on paper.

“Trainman” has been joined on bookstore shelves by “This Week, My Wife Is Having an Affair,” excerpts from a chat community’s reaction to a husband made anxious by his wife’s fling with someone she met online.

There is also “Reality Record: Diary of a Brutal Wife,” the book version of a man’s humorous blog about the lousy treatment he gets from his wife and daughter.

Some Japanese book publishers have formed new divisions, with researchers spending their days searching chat rooms for good narratives. Surely there must be “writers” with names like jimboT436 who aren’t yet aware that their messages to cynthias2ndhusband, met by a witty put-down from Pocket- Rocket, are actually a perfect opening chapter for a story with the paperback sales punch of Jackie Collins.

Like civilizations, the new literary form is springing up spontaneously in different parts of the world, and there are many claims to its creation.

Japanese novelist Ryu Murakami has been publishing e-mail correspondence on public affairs and culture as part of his Japan Mail Media series of books since 1999.

There are examples of the emerging style in other countries as well.

Argentine journalist Ernesto Tenembaum recently published his e-mail correspondence with a high-ranking official of the International Monetary Fund, an exchange that traced high-wire policymaking during the country’s 2001 economic meltdown.

And British author Matthew Beaumont road-tested the genre in novel form with “e: the novel of liars, lunch and lost knickers,” 300 pages of imagined e-mails that “expose” the backstabbing in a London advertising agency.

The difference between Beaumont’s novel and “Trainman,” however, is that whereas Beaumont’s book is fiction, “Trainman” is allegedly a real person who pursued a real “Hermes.” He described himself online as an “Akihabara-type,” one of the young men who haunt the garish Tokyo neighborhood of that name, known for its high density of electronics shops. He was obsessed with PCs and anime, electronic games and pornographic comics. His hair was long and lank. He wore glasses. Boring glasses.

One day while riding a train, he saw four women -- one young, three middle-aged -- being harassed by a drunk. Trainman intervened, and the group ended up at the local police station filling out reports.

The young woman asked for Trainman’s address before she left, and days later, he received a gift of Hermes teacups from her.

Trainman found the woman, whom he called Hermes, by the return address on her gift. Being socially inept, he went online to ask whether he should try to contact her. Then he wondered electronically whether he should ask her out on a date.

His online buddies were only too happy to offer opinions and strategies.

As the relationship between Trainman and Hermes evolved, they suggested he take her to hip restaurants they specified and wrap himself in better clothes. Also: contact lenses.

Trainman’s appearance improved, but Hermes was no easy catch. She spoke foreign languages, liked to travel abroad, and had a fondness for hard-to-get English tea.

Fortunately for Trainman, she also liked “The Matrix.”

Two months later, they confessed that they liked each other. (The Japanese don’t throw the word “love” around.) A romance book was born.

Yet Trainman shows no eagerness to take credit as the author who may have invented a new genre of literature. He does not give interviews. His photo has never been published.

In fact, there are some who say he doesn’t exist, that the entire story, from the abusive drunk to the courtship, is a fiction dropped by the publishers onto an unsuspecting chat room.

Gunji insists that “Trainman” is reality literature, that she has met Trainman and can vouch for his persistent nerdiness even after success in publishing and love.

“He’s just an ordinary young man, not so handsome but not so ugly, rather shy but can express his opinions if he needs to,” she says.

“He is now busy dating the girl. He likes thinking about taking her somewhere on a date, that’s all. He doesn’t want his life disturbed.”

Hisako Ueno of The Times’ Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.


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