First published in Japanese in 2016 and translated into English in 2018, Convenience Store Woman is something of a literary sensation, having sold more than a million copies in Japan alone. This sharply observed novella is darkly humorous and strangely poignant, which may sound like a slightly uncomfortable combination, but somehow Murata makes it work. It’s also the sort of book that will resonate with anyone who has ever struggled to fit in or found themselves out of step with society’s expectations.
The story revolves around thirty-six-year-old Keiko, who has worked at the same convenience store – the Hiiromachi Station Smile Mart – for the past eighteen years. She is a reliable, diligent worker who takes pride in her work, keenly anticipating customers’ needs and rearranging the store’s displays to maximise sales. Her current manager – Keiko’s eighth since starting at the store – knows he can rely on her to deliver, maybe even taking advantage of her commitment now and again to pick up additional shifts.
Keiko, we soon learn, is somewhat ‘different’ to most other people. Although never explicitly stated, Keiko is somewhere on the autistic spectrum, struggling to conform to society’s expectations of either marriage and motherhood or a successful, responsible career. Despite her degree-level education, Keiko is perfectly happy with her part-time job at the convenience store as it provides a structure and routine she can understand. The familiarity of the store makes it a comfortable environment for Keiko, and while she still feels somewhat at odds with her colleagues, the role is manageable and satisfying for her.
Early in the novel, Keiko recalls how as a young child she first became aware of the difficulties surrounding her responses to certain situations – more specifically, how interpreting things literally often landed her in trouble. For example, when she breaks up a fight between two boys at her primary school by hitting one of them over the head with a spade, Keiko struggles to understand why others are shocked by her actions. As far as Keiko is concerned, she is simply obeying the other children’s cries of “stop them”, so why are the teachers upset with her for breaking up the fight? This, together with other similar examples, leaves Keiko feeling confused about how to behave towards others – it’s a situation she ultimately tries to manage by remaining silent as much as possible, hopefully as a way of minimising confrontation.
My parents were at a loss what to do about me, but they were as affectionate to me as ever.
I’d never meant to make them sad or have to keep apologizing for things I did, so I decided to keep my mouth shut as best I could outside home. I would no longer do anything of my own accord, and would either just mimic what everyone else was doing, or simply follow instructions. (p. 10)
As an adult, Keiko has learned to mimic the behaviours and expressions of other people, absorbing social cues from her colleagues at the store. It’s her way of fitting into some kind of societal structure – a state she achieves by mirroring the other workers, often dressing in similar clothes and using the same expressions.
Given her age and single status, Keiko often comes under pressure from her friends and family to find a partner – or at least a better job – as a way of progressing in society. For Keiko, however, these things are neither important nor desirable. Instead, she lives for her job at the convenience store and is mindful of the need to keep herself in good shape, both physically and mentally, to perform well in her role. As a consequence of all this, there are times when Keiko has to deal with intrusive questions from her peers, especially the men in her limited social circle – insensitive individuals who clearly consider her to be some kind of freak.
It was the first time I’d ever met him, and here he was leaning forward and frowning at me as if questioning my very existence.
“Um, well, I don’t have any experience of other jobs, and the store is comfortable for me both physically and mentally”.
He stared at me as though I were some kind of alien. “What, you never…? I mean, if finding a job is so hard, then at least you should get married. Look, these days there are always things like online marriage sites, you know,” he sputtered. […]
“That’s right, why don’t you just find someone? It doesn’t really matter who it is, after all. Women have it easy in that sense. It’d be disastrous if you were a man, though.” (pp. 77–78)
Everything changes for Keiko when Shiraha starts at the store. At heart, Shiraha is lazy, arrogant and dismissive – pretty much the exact opposite to Keiko in his attitude to work and authority figures in general. Like Keiko, Shiraha has also failed to live up to his family’s expectations; however, his failure to confirm has left him angry and rebellious.
When Keiko tries to help Shiraha with a place to live, the situation gets complicated, threatening to destabilise her happiness and security. I’d rather not say too much about how Murata does this, but it’s very clever – mostly because it highlights the absurdity of conforming to society’s expectations at the expense of valuing difference and independence.
Convenience Store Woman is an excellent novella – sharp, comical and gloriously quirky. Tonally, it combines the deadpan comedy of an Aki Kaurismäki film with the poignancy of classic Japanese fiction – some of Yuko Tsushima’s work springs to mind, especially given its focus on unconventional female protagonists on the fringes of mainstream society.
Murata’s use of language is particularly effective, highlighting Japanese society’s lack of tolerance towards diversity. It’s an environment where little or no attempt is made to understand the needs of someone like Keiko; instead, these ‘foreign’ bodies must be quietly ‘eliminated’ or ‘cured’, just like the aggressive customer who is removed from Keiko’s store.
The normal world has no room for exceptions and always quietly eliminates foreign objects. Anyone who is lacking is disposed of.
So that’s why I need to be cured. Unless I’m cured, normal people will expurgate me.
Finally I understood why my family had tried so hard to fix me. (pp. 80–81)
In addition to the central theme of the rigidity (and absurdity) of society’s expectations, the book also touches on a number of related points, including misogyny, coercion and our perceptions of retail workers. It makes for interesting reading in light of the recent pandemic – a time that has highlighted just how much we rely on key workers to keep our essential services running.
In summary, this is a surprisingly clever novella that poses some fascinating questions about society and the relative value we place on different life choices. A refreshingly different read for individuals and book groups alike.
Convenience Store Woman is published by Granta; my thanks to the publishers and the Independent Alliance for a reading copy.