The stories collected in Terminal Boredom take up themes that might feel familiar to readers of contemporary Japanese fiction. The characters criticize, challenge, or defy social conventions. Narrators raise questions about identity and agency. But unlike, say, Mieko Kawakami or Sayaka Murata, author Izumi Suzuki died more than three decades ago.
Suzuki was active as a writer in the late 70s and early 80s, long before the “Lost Decade” and years of economic stagnation in Japan. Hers was the Japan of the Economic Miracle, a Japan with the second-fastest GDP growth in the world. Tokyo had become a global financial hub. English-language movies like Alien predicted the eventual triumph of Japanese businesses. People all over the world were learning the Japanese language.
Yet Suzuki’s stories are predicated on a Japan—on a world—in decline. The title story is about a future controlled by energetic elderly people. (The world of Yoko Tawada’s US National Book Award-winning novella The Emissary bears a strong resemblance.) “Old folks” have so much energy and stamina they can “go to work every day, and somehow still find it in them to have love affairs.” Listless young people can’t find work at all. Most of them have given up. Boredom is the central feature of their lives. Some simply forget to eat and starve to death. They don’t want to have children, preferring to “slip quietly into oblivion” all by themselves.
Like much of Suzuki’s fiction, “Terminal Boredom” is even more striking and believable in 2020 than it was in 1980. In 1980, the median age in Japan was 32; today, it is 48. Japan has one of the world’s lowest birth rates, and it faces a looming demographic crisis.
Suzuki was also remarkably forward-thinking on feminism and gender. Daniel Joseph, who translated the stories “Terminal Boredom” and “Women on Women”, recently described her writing as a sci-fi version of “kitchen-sink realism, told from the perspective of the one stuck doing the dishes.” Men loom large in many of Suzuki’s stories as a potential threat. “Women and Women” is the most extreme example. Men once ruled society “through violence and cunning,” but are now relegated to an exclusion zone where their only purpose is to help women conceive.
Gender is never comfortable or stable in Suzuki’s stories. Androgyny is a pervasive motif. People change gender in each other’s dreams. One once-male character has become a girl based on her parents’ expectations. Another reflects, “I am no man and I’m no woman. Who needs gender anyway?”
Suzuki’s feminist spirit is as relevant and her stories as piercing today as they were more than thirty years ago.
The stories collected in Terminal Boredom are fundamentally science fiction, and a few may make more comfortable reading for long-standing sci-fi fans. Suzuki’s writing can be evasive: she skips from one narrative perspective to another or makes leaps forward in time without warning. Aliens, space travel, and impossible drugs all make appearances. But Suzuki also uses the genre as a tabula rasa for her commentary on the present—and grim predictions about the future. Many of her stories will easily hold the interest of people who don’t normally read speculative fiction.
The colonization of space, for example, sets the stage for the darkly satirical Night Picnic, translated by Sam Bett. Isolated from any other human beings, Dad, Mom, Junior, and Sis try to reconstruct a family from the vestiges of “Earthling” culture. “As Earthlings,” Dad reminds Junior, “it’s our responsibility, regardless of time or place, to carry on our way of life.” They take their cues from popular novels and advertisements. They reenact television sitcom clichés:
Mom pounded on the door.
“Go away!” said Sis. “I’m being rebellious”
The response was muffled, as if her face was buried in a cushion.
“You’ve got it wrong, Sis,” Junior said.
“How so?” she asked. “I’m an adolescent.”
The humans’ bumbling attempts to act like “Earthlings” provide a damning commentary of Suzuki’s contemporary culture. It continues to land in 2021.
Critics have hailed Terminal Boredom as a long-overdue translation of an important minority voice in a genre dominated by men. And it is. But this collection is worth reading for more than its historical importance. Suzuki’s feminist spirit is as relevant and her stories as piercing today as they were more than thirty years ago.
Alison Fincher (@FincherAlison) is a student of Japanese and an independent researcher of contemporary Japanese fiction. Read Japanese Literature is her podcast about Japanese literature and some of its best works.