Find out more about Episode 24 of the Read Literature podcast on the episode page.
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Hi. This is Alison Fincher.
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[1:07] This is Read Japanese Literature. My name is Alison Fincher. Read Japanese Literature is a podcast about Japanese fiction and some of its best works All the works we discuss are available in translation, so you can read along if you want. You can find out more at ReadJapaneseLiterature.com.
Quick content warning: This episode includes a brief mention of an author’s suicide.
[1:35] Once upon a time, there was an old man who made his living by cutting bamboo. One day, he notices a light at the root of a bamboo stalk. Inside the stalk, he finds a little girl only three inches tall. He says to her, “I have found you because you are here, in this bamboo which I look at every morning and evening. It must be that you are meant to be my child.”
He takes her into his hands and carries her home to his wife. They couple raise her as their own little girl.
From that day forward, the bamboo cutter sometimes finds stalks of bamboo filled with gold. Gradually, the small family becomes very rich. When the girl was grown, the old man and old woman ask a diviner to name her. The diviner calls her “Mayotake no Kaguya-hime”—“the Shining-Princess of the Young Bamboo”.
Her adoptive father believes she must be “a divinity in human form”. But, he advises her, “It is the custom in this world for men and women to marry and in that way for their families to flourish”.
Kaguya-hime is truly beautiful. Men from all over the land came to seek her hand, but she is skeptical of all of them. She sets them impossible tasks to prove their love.
Eventually, she attracts the eye and heart of the emperor himself. But she can’t be with him. She tells him her body wasn’t “born on earth”.
Late in the story, she is finally able to articulate her origins. In tears, this is what she tells her parents:
I am not a creature of this world. I come from the Palace of the Moon. I visited this world because of an obligation from the past. Now the time has come for me to return… People from my old country will come for me.
Her adoptive father can’t do anything to prevent it. Neither can the emperor, who still longs to be with Kaguya-hime.
One not long after, the house Kaguya-hime lives in is “suddenly illuminated by a light brighter than noon, as bright as ten full moons, so bright that one could see the pores of a man’s skin”.
“Then, down from the heavens [come] men riding on clouds” who come to a stop five feet above the ground and hover there. The men have brought with them “a flying chariot covered by a parasol of gauzy silk”. Their leader orders Kaguya-hime to board the chariot for her journey home.
Kaguya-hime is grief stricken to leave her adoptive family, but she can’t stay. She dons a robe of feathers—and it makes her forget her sorrow and pity for her family: “Those who wear this robe know no griefs.” She drinks the elixir of immortality. And the flying chariot returns her to the moon.
Donald Keene is one of the most highly-regarded English-language scholars of Japanese literature. He translated this version of “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter” in 1956. It is considered to be one of the oldest surviving works of fiction in the Japanese language.
It’s pretty ubiquitous in Japanese popular culture even today. There was a Studio Ghibli film made in the early 2010s. My daughter hates this movie. She says it has ruined all cinema for her because the movie is so sad. Kaguya-hime is also involved in the origin story of Sailor Moon.
But “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter” also involves beings visiting earth on a flying vehicle. And so it is also regarded as one of the world’s first works of science fiction.
[5:02] Today, we’re going to talk about Japanese science fiction… And most of it is going to be a lot more modern than “The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter”.
I’m going to start out with a description of science fiction as a genre.
I’ll move on to a history of science fiction specifically in Japan. It will include a lot of Japanese science fiction authors. Almost all the authors I mention in this episode are available in English translation. There’s an even more comprehensive list of what’s available in English translation on the episode page.
We’ll move on to the colorful biography of sci-fi writer Izumi Suzuki—one of my favorites—and her story “Night Picnic”.
[5:57] If you’re a regular listener, you’ve heard my spiel about genre studies before: genre studies is both endlessly fascinating and painfully tedious.
Genre is a broad term for a category of art—in this case, a work of fiction. Genre theory is the study of how we categorize stories—comedy, tragedy, romance…
Genre is important because we can learn useful things about comparing stories that share common traits.
But when we sit down to define what a genre really is—that’s when things get complicated.
Now, depending on who you ask, science fiction… or sci-fi… is either a youngish and narrow genre… or an old and super broad genre. There are endless ways to subdivide science fiction:
How serious is the science?: It can be hard sci-fi, mundane sci-fi, or soft sci-fi.
What are its major themes? End of the world? That’s apocalyptic or post-apocalyptic.
Biotechnology and genetic engineering? Maybe you’re looking at biopunk.
Climate change? Could be cli-fi.
How is the story told? Romantic adventure in exotic settings, usually with space ships? Probably a space opera. Some of pop culture’s most famous sci-fi is space opera—like the Star Wars and Star Trek franchises.
There’s feminist sci-fi. LGBTQ+ sci-fi. Christian sci-fi. Libertarian sci-fi. And there are sci-fi mash-ups with other genres like alternate history sci-fi. Sci-fi erotica. “Tech-noir” like [the] films Blade Runner and Minority Report. Sci-fi Westerns like the TV show Firefly
And then some people like to use the “term speculative fiction” as an umbrella category for all genres that deliberately depart from “consensus reality”—the kind of “real” that we look around and see every day that people more or less agree exists. Sci-fi belongs under the umbrella. But so do fantasy and horror… stories about superheroes, utopias, the supernatural…
Japanese science fiction to be a broader category more like “speculative fiction” that still incorporates other genres like fantasy and horror.
[8:27] The advocates of an older and broader genre definition for science fiction sometimes date the origins of sci-fi all the way back to the ancient Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh. (The earliest written versions of The Epic of Gilgamesh are more than 4000 years old.) If sci-fi is indeed at least as old as written story-telling, then it includes some of the world’s oldest and best-loved stories.
- The Ancient Hindu epic Ramayana from the 5th or 4th century BCE. In it, a character flies a Vimana—a palace or chariot that can travel into space or even under water.
- One Thousand and One Nights or Arabian Nights dates to the 8th or 9th century CE. Several of the stories include sci-fi elements. In “The Adventures of Bulukiya,” for example, the protagonist travels across space to different worlds.
- Even in Geoffrey Chaucer’sThe Canterbury Tales in the 1300s, “The Squire’s Tale” includes a metal horse that looks a lot like what we would now consider a robot.
On the other hand, advocates of a youngish and narrower genre definition look no earlier than the Enlightenment… sometimes no earlier than the 19th century. One of the most popular titles to get thrown around as the “first sci-fi novel” is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
The Japanese novelist Kōbō Abe regarded Edgar Allen Poe as one of the fathers of sci-fi. (We’ll discuss Abe more in a few minutes.) But many of Poe’s stories continued sci-fi elements. For example, 1835’s “The Unparalleled Adventure of One Hans Pfaall” describes a trip to the moon in a hot air balloon.
Englishman H. G. Wells and Frenchman Jules Verne are sometimes identified as authors of “scientific romance”. Less scrupulous critics might not separate scientific romance from sci-fi. The two men wrote hugely popular, science-oriented stories.
[10:30] The stickliest of sticklers have a very precise date in mind for the origin of science fiction as a genre: in 1926, Luxembourgish-American Hugo Gernsback founded Amazing Stories magazine to publish only “scientifiction” stories. (Obviously the term “scientifiction” has evolved into the somewhat less awkward “science fiction”.)
In contexts like Amazing Stories, early sci-fi stories were “pulp”. There are exceptions, but as a rule they weren’t really intended to make the reader think in the way sci-fi often is today. The stories were fast-paced. The characters were painted in strong colors. Good guys were good guys; bad guys were bad guys. And this was a very successful formula. By the late 1930s, Amazing Stories and its competitors were selling more than 1.5 million copies a month.
By the 1940s and 50s, sci-fi evolved into something different. Instead of Amazing Stories, the magazine at the center of the genre had become Astounding Science Fiction. Its editor was a man named John W. Campbell, Jr. He promoted stories that were “extrapolations of possible technologies and their social and human impacts” and “idea fictions rooted in recognizable science”. And so, partially under Campbell’s leadership, the focus shifted to “hard science fiction”. In other words, the “science” of the sci-fi was more sound—or at least presented as though it were more sound.
The counterculture movements of the 1960s caused another shift in the sci-fi genre. This time the change originated in the UK rather than the US. From the 1960s on, a lot of sci-fi became more experimental and avant-garde. Sci-fi had challenged the cultural status quo for decades, but I think it’s safe to say that the challenge became more urgent in the 1960s when there were so many challenges to the status quo in play in the culture at large. This whole movement is called the “new wave”—and it’s very important to the way Izumi Suzuki approached science fiction.
Just to be clear, these changes have built on each other. That pulp past, the tradition of hard sci-fi, new wave… these aren’t movements that get used and discarded. Each is very much a part of new sci-fi written today—either actively in use or conspicuous in its absence.
One of the last great innovations in sci-fi is the introduction of “cyberpunk” in the 1980s. “Cyberpunk” is something of a hybrid: computer-generated reality plus the plot and/or style of a hardboiled novel. Think Blade Runner, for example.
I think it’s also worth mentioning that sci-fi has slowly become incorporated into more mainstream fiction. For example Margaret Atwood is a highly regarded literary writer. Books like The Handmaid’s Tale and Oryx and Crake definitely qualify as sci-fi, too. Nevertheless, both are regarded as high literature.
It’s also worth mentioning that sci-fi as a genre and as a community has become more inclusive. If you Google “important sci-fi authors” or “best sci-fi authors” you’re still likely to get lists that are almost entirely white men—almost all of them American. But work by women and people of color is gaining more and more (very much deserved) attention.
[14:20 min.] Before I move on, I think it’s necessary to mention that Anglo-American sci-fi has a complicated relationship with Asia and Asian people.
Remember how Amazing Stories premiered in 1926? The US Federal government passed a massive immigration overhaul in 1924. The Immigration Act of 1924 wasn’t the first immigration law to exclude immigrants from Asia—but it was the most comprehensive. Starting in 1924, no one from Asia could legally immigrate to the United States.
The Immigration Act of 1924 was a triumph of Yellow Peril thinking. The racist Yellow Peril motif was a 19th and 20th century fear of East and Southeast Asians that pervaded Europe and North America. Unfortunately, early sci-fi is rife with Yellow Peril imagery.
I could talk for far too long about Yellow Peril imagery in sci-fi, but that would take us way off topic. Suffice it to say that early sci-fi writers used the genre to explore and exploit anxieties about Asia—Orientalist at best, maliciously racist at worst.
I do think it’s important to include this imagery at this moment in our story today because this particular kind of racism affected Asian and Asian-American readers of sci-fi.
John Cheng at Binghamton University cites a letter to the editor of Amazing Stories sent in by a Chinese American reader named Howard Lowe: “I am most interested in your stories containing Chinamen as the villains. Please don’t always pick on them. I am sure others would do.”
Orientalism came up again in the 1980s in the form of the “Japan takes over the world” trope. Think about Alien, the company that sends Sigourney Weaver into space in Weyland-Yutani. (Yutani is a markedly Japanese name.) In Back to the Future, Part II, 2015 Marty works for a Japanese company. In Blade Runner, noodle shops are ubiquitous and geisha advertise Coca-Cola. The people who wrote these stories and produced these films were expressing anxiety about Japan’s financial success in the 80s.
Today’s sci-fi still features Asian motifs. Asians aren’t usually presented as a threat, but they’re still Orientalist. Writers and directors are still using Asian culture to mark an alien culture as Other, even as Other in a positive way. For example, there are significant overlaps between Asian and Vulcan culture[s] as depicted in Star Trek: Strange New Worlds.
[17:10] As I move on to Japanese science fiction, let me just clarify a little bit about vocabulary.
In 1962, Kōbō Abe published one of the first essays about the science fiction genre in Japanese. (We’ll talk more about Abe and his essays in a minute.) But he opened the essay, “They say that the sf novel is enjoying a quiet surge in popularity lately.”
I’ve seen SF marked as a typo or corrected in some articles about Japanese science fiction. It’s not an error—it’s a correct term. Abe goes on to explain that Japanese “SF” stands for the English term “science fiction”. It is, he says, “what would be called “kuiso kagaku shosetsu” or “fantastic science novels”. That particular term is now pretty out-of-date in 2023.
So for the rest of today, I’ll be using “science fiction”, “sci-fi”, and “SF” pretty interchangeably because they are all correct ways of talking about the same genre of Japanese fiction in English translation.
If we’re taking the loosest possible definition of science fiction, Japan has some old supernatural classics. We opened with The Tale of the Bamboo Cutter. As I mentioned, some people consider it Japan’s earliest work of science fiction.
There’s an even older folktale called Urashima Taro. (The oldest reference to the story is in a text written in 720 CE.)
In the first season, we covered Japanese setsuwa—anecdotal stories often tied to medieval Buddhism. You might remember the spurned woman who turned into a giant snake? A liberal definition of sci-fi might include some setsuwa.
We also had an episode about kaidan, Edo-period Japanese ghost stories. The most famous names in kaidan are probably the author Ueda Akinari and the anthologist Lafcadio Hearn. You could group the work of both under early SF, too.
But aside from these early classics, my plan today is to give you a broad overview of the story of 20th and 21st century Japanese science fiction.
Japanese people have been reading science fiction—or perhaps proto-science fiction, depending on who you ask—since the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Sci-fi authors like Jules Verne and H. G. Wells appealed to Japanese people interested in “civilization and enlightenment”.\\
Let me also mention Ryunosuke Akutagawa. He doesn’t show up in most accounts of early Japanese science fiction, but I’m not sure I can leave him out. He was writing fiction that wasn’t like what anyone else was writing in Japan in the 1910s and 20s. You might remember our discussions of “The Nose” or “Hell Screen” from season one. Both stories are based on old Japanese setsuwa that were centuries old. But they’ve also been dramatically updated.
Akutagawa was many things. I’m tempted to say that among those, he was something like a bridge between traditional Japanese story-telling and science fiction. In stories like “The Nose” or “Hell Screen” he almost remade traditional stories into science fiction.
By the way, his novella Kappa is listed in some databases of sci-fi titles. A kappa is a Japanese yokai that lives near water and sometimes drags the unwary to their watery deaths. Akutagawa’s novella is about a patient in an insane asylum who claims to have once visited the realm of the kappa. We’re going to be treated to a new translation this summer by Allison Markin Powell and Lisa Hofmann-Kuroda.
[20:43] Scholar Takayuki Tatsumi teaches at Japan’s Keio University. He has written some of the best English-language articles on Japanese SF. And he divides the history into “generations”. I’m going to follow his organizational structure. As I follow it, I’m going to give you a little more information about one or two authors from each generation, especially writers that are better-known or more widely available in English.
As I mentioned at the beginning of the episode, I’ve got a more extensive—but by no means comprehensive—list of Japanese SF authors available in English up on the episode page. Don’t forget to buy your books from our Bookshop to support the podcast.
There are several figures you might consider the “Founding Figures” of SF in pre-war Japan.
Shunro Oshikawa published The Undersea Warship in 1900. Some scholars think that novel anticipated the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905.
Juza Unno was a fond reader of early American sci-fi stories. He wrote “space-operas” along the same lines. Stories like “The Flying Island” and “Mars Corps” were well loved by Japan’s youth in the 1930s and early 40s, including Nobel laureate Kenzaburo Oe.
Finally, some critics locate the origins of Japanese SF in 1930s detective fiction. This isn’t as counter-intuitive as it might seem—after all, America’s Edgar Allan Poe is sometimes credited as both an originator of the detective novel and an originator of the SF genre. Very few readers or writers in Japan actually saw the genres as distinct until the 1960s.
In some ways, the massive growth of sci-fi in Japan is an accident of history. American GIs brought sci-fi magazines and novels with them when they occupied Japan. (Actually, they were sometimes issued sci-fi materials as Armed Services editions.) When the GIs were done, they left these materials behind. They made their way into used bookstores in Japan.
In the 1950s, Japanese SF was dominated by American authors in translation—writers like Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, and Arthur C. Clark. As a result, the first generation Japanese SF writers of the 1960s wrote material that was pretty imitative. Let me give you a couple of examples of authors
One is Osamu Tezuka. He has been described as “the godfather of manga”. He’s responsible for the creation of the best-loved series Astro Boy.
They also include Yasutaka Tsutsui. Tsutsui is maybe more widely-read in English than some of these other authors. Most notably, he wrote The Girl Who Leapt through Time, Paprika, and Salmonella Men on Planet Porno.
Kobo Abe also belongs in this first generation, and he deserves a discussion of his own. Read Japanese Literature spent a lot of time on Abe’s career and work earlier this season. But I want to talk a little bit more about his role in Japanese SF.
Abe was one of the dominant voices of the first generation of Japanese SF. His Inter Age 4, written in 1958, is considered Japan’s first modern work of science fiction. It was one of the first Japanese novels to make “hard science” central to the story.
Other Abe titles that fit the SF label pretty handily include 1979’s Secret Rendezvous and 1984’s The Ark Sakura.
The 1960 first issue of Japan’s SF Magazine included a statement by Abe:
The science fiction novel represents a discovery on the order of Columbus, in that it combines an extremely rational hypothesis with the irrational passion of fantasy…
The poetry produced by the collision between this intellectual tension and the invitation to adventure is not only contemporary; it is also connected with the original spirit of literature.
In fact, Abe is sometimes credited with establishing prose science fiction as a viable genre in Japan. And that’s even though he didn’t really want sci-fi to be its own genre.
What Abe actually advocated for was a branch of literature that elicits in its readers “the feeling of surprise that accompanies discovery”. The “science” of sci-fi isn’t “hard science” but the scientific method. The best SF presents readers with an intriguing hypothesis and follows its hypothesis to an ending. It’s a literature of deduction.
Sakyo Komatsu is another hugely important first generation SF writer. His works have had unexpected staying power because of disasters in Japan. There was revived interest in his 1973 Japan Sinks: A Novel about Earthquakes after the 1995 earthquake and 2011 triple disaster. And his 1964 Virus: The Day of Resurrection saw new sales after the outbreak of COVID-19.
I want to mention one more person writing SF in Japan in the 1960s, though he was by no means a strictly SF author—Yukio Mishima. In one essay, Mishima claimed that “science fiction might overcome the conventions of modern literature and its humanism”.
Mishima was apparently fascinated by UFOs. He was also a member of the Japan Flying Saucer Research Association, founded in 1955. In 1962, he published a novel called Beautiful Star. It was translated into English in 2022 [by Stephen Dodd]. I cannot believe it isn’t for sale in North America yet. (We should all demand that Penguin get on it.) But you can also easily buy a copy from the UK and have it shipped elsewhere.
The premise is that a family of four all decide that they are actually aliens from other planets in the solar system. They are supposed to help humans not destroy themselves with nuclear weapons. It’s really a beautiful book. It’s not like anything else published by Mishima—stylistically or philosophically. Highly recommended.
[27:03] Takayuki Tatsumi describes the second generation (writers of the 1970s) as writers who “so positively imbibed the New Wave of the late 1960s and early 1970s as not to imitate US models but to depict instead their own reality”.
So these are writers influenced by the countercultural “New Wave”—writers who pushed just how much SF can challenge the way we think society has to work and what it means to be human.
Writers from this generation do include author and mangaka Masaki Yamada, who is responsible for Ghost in the Shell. Most importantly for our purposes today, these writers include Izumi Suzuki. Until 2021, Suzuki was virtually unknown in English. Now her second volume of short stories has been published in English just this month, April 2023. And we’ll talk about her more in a few minutes.
Tatsumi’s third generation in the 1980s was “in a position to exploit the varied cultural milieus and generic heritage of sf”.
Writers from this generation include Mariko Ohara. Her Hybrid Child is one of the very first books I ever read in translation from Japanese. Listen to this! Ohara’s protagonist is a male robot who ingests the body of a young girl. He becomes she—and so the novel becomes an elusive meditation on gender and feminism. And the whole story is situated in a world where a malfunctioning maternal AI threatens to destroy what is left of the human race. Again—highly recommended.
Tatsumi’s fourth generation is essentially the generation of the lost decade—the end of the Showa in the late 80s and then the 1990s. Tatsumi describes them as writers who “take for granted the postmodern modes of cyberpunk, cyborg feminism, and ‘Yaoi poetics’”.
Just a note on that term “Yaoi poetics’. Shojo comics and anime (these are comics and anime for young girls) originated yaoi. Yaoi is probably [better] known in English by “boys’ love” or “BL”. Boys’ love probably deserves an entire episode of its own. But long story short, comics for girls started depicting relationships between beautiful, androgynous men in the late 70s and early 80s. Yaoi is an important motif in fourth generation Japanese SF.
The American equivalent would be “slash fiction”—not “slasher fiction” but “slash fiction”—romantic or sexual relationships between characters of the same sex. You might have heard of the English “Kirk/Spock”.
We get to a few big names in the fourth generation of Japanese SF that English-language readers might recognize. Osamu Makino originated the Resident Evil stories. Miyuki Miyabe has been widely translated into English. I think she’s best known in English for her novel Brave Story—it’s generally marketed in English as a young adult fantasy. And Koji Suzuki has haunted the imaginations of all Millennials by creating the Ring saga, on which the American film series is based.
If there is a fifth or even a sixth generation of Japanese sci-fi, I think you could say that it is characterized by how widely accepted the genre has become. I often go back to the Akutagawa Prize as a reference point, and I think it’s relevant here. I may have missed someone, but I believe Kōbō Abe is the only Akutagawa Prize winner before 1990 to seriously engage with science fiction.
But since 1990, there has been an embarrassment of riches. Remember that Hiromi Kawakami started her career as the editor of a sci-fi journal.
Some of the winners in the last thirty years have written acclaimed titles that could be considered sci-fi. Yoko Ogawa with the The Memory Police. Yoko Tawada with The Emissary. (That was also published as The Last Children of Tokyo.) Hiroko Oyamada with The Factory.
Hakeo Takayama won for A Horse for Shuri in 2020. I’m pretty sure that A Horse for Shuri isn’t SF—it hasn’t been translated—but most of her work is.
Other authors have won the award for actual works of sci-fi. Yoriko Shono won for Time Warp Complex in 1995. And Toh EnJoe for Harlequin’s Butterfly in 2011.
[31:57] Izumi Suzuki was born in July 1949. That means she was born almost four years after the end of World War II… A little less than four years into the American occupation. The situation on the ground in Japan had begun to turn around. Starvation was less rampant, although it would be several years before Japan was well on the road to recovery. It also means that Suzuki was not quite 11 during the Summer of Rage—months of protests that rocked Japan in 1960. Translator Daniel Joseph summarizes Suzuki’s 1960s as “an era of drugs, rock and roll, and nationwide protests in Japan as it was elsewhere”.
Like a lot of the authors we’ve discussed, Suzuki has a colorful resume. She worked briefly as a keypunch operator at the city hall in Ito, today about a two-hour train ride southwest from central Tokyo. She worked as a bar hostess. As a model, she worked with the controversial photographer Nouyoshi Araki. As an actress, she worked with directors Shuji Terayama and Koji Wakamatsu. Some of the films she starred in were “pink films”—what Andrew Ridker describes as an “arty subgenre of sexploitation cinema”.
In 1973, Suzuki married a jazz saxophonist named Kaoru Abe. In 1975 (while she was pregnant with her only child), she published “Trial Witch” in SF Magazine. It turned out to be her breakout story. (By the way, it has finally been translated into English by Sam Bett and is available in the collection Hit Parade of Tears—out this month, April 2023.)
In “Trial Witch”, a 26-year-old housewife is tired of dealing with her lout of a husband. A man in spectacles appears in her house claiming to be from “the League of Witches” to offer her an apprenticeship. The housewife is skeptical… until she accidentally turns her husband into a woman… and then some kind of ape. Like a lot of Suzuki’s stories, it is a darkly comic tale that ends with a slightly ironic twist.
Now, here’s “the thing” about Suzuki as an SF writer. She started writing SF as early as 1972—but she never just wrote SF. She happened to publish her breakout story in that issue of SF Magazine. It was a special “women’s issue”, so she was published alongside international luminaries like Ursula K. Le Guin. Suzuki wrote realistic fiction, too.
It’s more the case that Suzuki’s breakout happened to be an SF story in an SF magazine. So Suzuki’s work as an SF writer is as much as accident of history as any kind of design.
Suzuki and Abe’s fraught marriage ended in divorce in 1977—even though they continued to live together. And when I say fraught, I mean it. She apparently once cut off her toe in front of her husband. Abe accidentally overdosed on the sedative Bromisoval and died in 1978.
For several years, Suzuki continued to support herself and her daughter through her writing. Later, her health declined and she started receiving public assistance. In 1986, Suzuki hanged herself in her home. She was 36 years old.
[35:16] To me, the very best science fiction is serious cultural critique—and that’s part of the reason I love Suzuki.
Suzuki’s cultural critique is still incredibly relevant. When I first read the Suzuki collection Terminal Boredom, I was struck by how of-the-moment her work seemed in 2021—even though she died in the 1980s. Yes, her pop cultural references are all to the 1960s and 70s.
But thematically, you can easily read her work alongside women who won the Akutagawa Prize (for early-career writers) in the 2010s—authors like Sayaka Murata or Hiroko Oyamada. Suzuki takes on identity, agency, and gender in ways that were way ahead of her time. In ways that are still kind of ahead of the time in 2023.
She’s also preoccupied with a Japan—with a world—in decline, even though she was writing in a period of huge financial success for Japan. She wrote the story “Terminal Boredom” years before the economic bubble burst.
But it’s about a Japan where “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.”
Young people don’t even have enough energy to work at all. Some of them get so bored they forget to eat and starve to death. They don’t want to have children; they just want to “slip quietly into oblivion” all by themselves.” Sounds prescient to me.
And let me talk a little bit more about gender in Suzuki’s fiction.
Her own life gave her a lot of reasons to think about gender and feminism. I already mentioned her marriage. Sexism also had a major impact on her career. In one article, translator Daniel Joseph relates an anecdote about a 1977 interview with Suzuki and Taku Mayumura. (Mayumura was a seminal name in that first generation of Japanese SF writers. He hasn’t been widely translated into English, although Daniel Joseph has translated his work.) Izumi Suzuki asked Mayumura if she could join Japan’s SF Writers Club.
She was half joking. It was a long shot. None of the thirty-something members were women. Mayumura laughed her off.
“Women and Women” is probably the most sustained feminist effort among her translated stories. The premise is that late 20th-century pollution caused the number of men born each year to decline radically. Women pushed men out of power… out of society entirely… and into exclusion zones.
But Suzuki’s feminism is never unambiguous “man-hating”. The protagonist questions whether the new way of living really makes sense. Most women are in lesbian relationships and still impose gender roles on themselves. More “masculine” women go to work, and more “feminine” women stay home and keep house.
The protagonist finds a hidden male who’s not supposed to be hanging around her neighborhood. She strikes up an illicit friendship with him. makes an illicit male friend. Despite her hopes, he treats her exactly the way her society has taught her to fear a male might. She is (justifiably!) horrified. She doesn’t excuse the boy. She just wonders whether a society segregated by sex is wrong nevertheless.
Some of Suzuki’s stories go beyond feminism to criticize gender itself. There are androgynous characters—characters who aren’t clearly male or female. There are characters who change gender. One character reflects, “I am no man and I’m no woman. Who needs gender anyway?”
[39:12] To end today I’m going to tell you about my very favorite Izumi Suzuki story. It’s called “Night Picnic”.
“Night Picnic” is about four family members: Dad, Mom, Junior, and Sis. It’s all kind of vague, but they think they’re the last humans left on a colony on a planet in space.
The story opens with Dad coming into Junior’s room, chewing on a cigarette.
“Hey, aren’t you supposed to light those things?” Junior has to prompt him.
“Oh, right. I just keep forgetting,” says Dad.
The story works because the four are so set on being human. Dad constantly reminds them, “As Earthlings, it’s our responsibility, regardless of the time or place, to carry on our way of life. To be the very model of a family. Especially since we’re so far away from Earth, out here on our own.”
They take their lessons about being human from books and videos. They recognize that a lot of the books are lies. They hope that the videos, at least, are true.
But when pop culture is all you have to go on, your version of humanity is pretty distorted.
In my favorite moment from the story, Mom complains that Sis has locked herself in the closet for six hours.
“It’s those awful books,” she complains to Dad and Junior. “Now she’s started reading about how daughters hate their moms and love their dads.”
Her brother has to intervene.
“Go away!” Sis shouts. “I’m being rebellious… I’m an adolescent.”
She’s seen characters on TV dramas get upset with their parents. So her brother has to explain that she’s missed some nuance of the Electra Complex that he’s read about… in a book.
In another funny moment, Mom has to take a long time to get dressed for the picnic because “when women go out, it takes them a long time to get ready”. “A long time” turns out to be two and a half days.
I chose to talk about “Night Picnic” not just because I love the story, but also because it includes some of Suzuki’s most compelling themes.
Time is “bogus,” Junior tells Sis. “After 3pm today, for all we know it’ll be 7am four days ago.”
Consumer culture is ridiculous. The family has a replicator that can produce almost anything. Sis has to tell it which of a dozen brands of pomade to make for Junior.
Gender is fluid and maybe even arbitrary. Sis was a boy until “Dad decided that having one boy and one girl would make for more variety.” Now that she’s a girl, Mom is “adamant that a child with a girlish body should be raised to be a woman.” Sis’s only complaint is that “the hairstyle and clothes are totally different,” which is “a pain.”
The whole Japanese family structure is problematic. According to the story, “Families depend on every member acting out their roles.” But these four characters are most definitely acting roles—there is nothing at all inherent about these characters or their relationships with each other that demands any of the behaviors they display.
And finally, the way these characters are trying to act out being human calls into question the nature of humanity itself.
The net result is that the characters’ bumbling attempts to act like ‘Earthlings’ provide a damning commentary of Suzuki’s contemporary culture. It continues to land in 2023. And it lands in virtually any late-stage capitalist country.
Like many good sci-fi stories, “Night Picnic” ends with a twist ending that I’m not going to give away here. I’ll just say (again) that “Night Picnic” is one of my very favorite stories. I hope you have a chance to pick up a copy.
[43:10] So why read Japanese SF?
First of all, it’s just good sci-fi. Anyone who likes sci-fi should read Japanese SF.
Second of all, because a lot of Japanese SF includes the motif I find most compelling in a lot of Japanese literature—the way modern culture is just tired. It’s something on a lot of our minds today. And maybe that’s why Izumi Suzuki is such a favorite of mine. She takes up that tiredness, as well as meditations on feminism and gender, with a special zeal.
I’ve been reading from Sam Bett’s translation of “Night Picnic”. It appears in the collection of Suzuki’s work called Terminal Boredom. Buy your books from our Bookshop.org page to support the podcast.
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