In 2002, Japan’s Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (MEXT) introduced a new guideline for public education of minors. The directive stipulated the need to reduce classroom hours and focus on curriculum that is less about teaching the memorization of facts and more about flexible ways to get students to think about their own self-worth. The resulting yutori (cram-free) environment, according to some observers, created a generation that lacks ambition at work, incapable of handling stress, and devoid of will to communicate their thoughts. MEXT reversed some of the 2002 reforms in its renewed guidelines in 2011 and 2020 to reemphasize classroom hours and the “ability to survive.” Yutori education, at least according to Japan’s educational bureaucracy, was considered to have failed - but not without influencing a generation of Japanese students.

Izumi Suzuki, in the seven short stories that make up Terminal Boredom, presages the yutori generation, even though her writing comes before the very idea of yutori was taken up by the Japanese government. She was a young woman mindful of her literary talents but striving to find her identity in ways that conservative members of Japanese society would criticize as unconventional. As the daughter of a reporter for the major national newspaper the Yomiuri Shimbun, she started writing novels as part of a literary circle at her high school. But unsatisfied with her post-graduation life as a pencil-pusher at the local government office of her small hometown, she moved to Tokyo and found success at the highs and lows of culture, acting in pornographic films while winning literary awards. The death of her ex-husband from drug overdose at the age of 29 exacted a toll on her mental health, likely contributing to her taking her own life in 1986 at the age of 36.

Suzuki came to much of the same conclusions about young people as the critics of yutori education. In exploring life in distinct science fictionalized futures, the stories take on a dystopian tinge, not only because of environmental degradation, militaristic conflicts, and social frictions, but also because of the emotional issues of a yutori generation amplified by substance abuse and authoritarian efforts to mitigate the issues and maintain order through heavy-handed, top-down measures. Suzuki’s own life, as a small town girl no doubt facing social judgments for her proximity to sex and drugs, led her to question her own emotional stability amid questions about her self-worth, in ways that the yutori generation can largely relate in the contemporary, more mundane ways.

The emotional issues associated with the yutori generation and their interactions with top-down measures form the central narrative in several stories. In the female-dominated world of “Women and Women,” measures to lock up the few remaining men and attempts to stamp out any attempt to portray men positively reinforce the young females’ contentment with a society that has been economically degraded by lack of male workers. In “Terminal Boredom,” the protagonists nonchalantly witness the authorities combating prevalent youth unemployment and listlessness through forceful employment exams and removal of loiterers in public.

The perceived emotional weakness of the young protagonists are often exploited by top-down initiatives for commercial purposes. In “You May Dream,” many buy into an advertisement that promises transportation to a happier world of the future after putting clients to sleep for decades. In “That Old Seaside Club,” those dejected by their real-life anxieties are transported into an always sunny, always entertaining simulation, only to face their dark present again when put back into the real world. And TV companies in “Terminal Boredom” try to increase their audience by pairing TV with euphoria-inducing brain insertions.

But more often, it is the protagonists themselves that use whatever drastic means necessary to escape their present emotional detachment. In “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes” and “Forgotten,” drugs and alcohol help young people forget their present, even to the point of sacrificing the ability to rationally make decisions about love and future life. And in “Night Picnic,” a family of monsters live in the delusion of being human, drowning in the idealistic past portrayed in videos and texts of a people that has long disappeared.

Those emotional anxieties of the yutori generation shines through in Suzuki’s portrayal of human relationships in each story. No matter how strange the fictional worlds of the future she manufactures, her reader would find something deeply familiar in the simple conversations of her characters. Fears about and the attempt to escape the inadequacies of present lives and uncertainties about what future brings form a common thread among all conversations, asking the audience to question their own mental health as the narratives lurch from self-loathing to insanity to pure indifference. She asks, through her exaggerated worlds of exploitation and conflicts, whether her readers, like her characters, are spending enough time to craft the meaning of their own lives, rather than being simply pulled toward certain directions by external forces.

Suzuki’s stories lack satisfying resolutions, possibly to strike home the point that the young have let so much slip away while they remain shrouded in their present purposelessness. The males in “Women and Women” are captured and languish in prison, the memory of an acquaintance is erased from dreams in “You May Dream,” and the home planet of the alien boyfriend is colonized by Earth in “Forgotten.” All this, because their protagonists are unable to stand up for who they are and what they believe in, instead letting their fears, anxieties, and unwillingness to change get the best of them.

Suzuki means these bleak conclusions as warnings. Her futures are not dystopian because of loss of productivity, malign use of technology, or substance abuse. They are dystopian because each young protagonist, in their everyday interactions, failed to contribute in their own possible ways, to help society pull back from the edge of becoming unglued. Instead of standing on the sidelines, feeling sorry for their own emotional volatility and learned helplessness, Suzuki leaves us with the impression that she wishes they could have provided more emotional support to those around them, and together, resisted further encroachment of authoritarian domination and economic exploitation.

While the futures she portrayed in her stories are fictional, like all great works of science fiction, it’s more properly seen as social satire. The propagandistic language of “Women and Women,” the drug abuse of “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes,” and the technology-based mental “salvations” of “That Old Seaside Club” and “Terminal Freedom” all resonate with the way we live now. Suzuki shows the audience that their ultimate results are not better futures for humankind. Today’s young have the responsibility to see to it that we do not see the endgames of these futures.

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TNL Editor: Nicholas Haggerty (@thenewslensintl)

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