Bestselling Japanese novelist’s English debut a commentary on Japanese social pressures
Keiko Furukura, the subject of Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman – a biting commentary on Japan’s treatment of single women – is a conformist at work and a misfit outside, who constantly bats away urgings to find a mate
Convenience Store Woman
by Sayaka Murata (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori)
Brightly pastel coloured, Convenience Store Woman looks like the sort of cutesy product you’d find in a Tokyo shop. Even the cover shows a rice ball decorated like a girl’s smiley face, with black nori hair and a tiny carrot bow.
Rice balls are among the hundreds of daily items that Keiko Furukura, 36, has spent half of her life arranging and selling at the Hiiromachi Station Smile Mart in Tokyo. In her own words, it has been 18 years since Keiko was “reborn” into the only place and job she has ever felt comfortable.
Convenience Store Woman may seem like a light and easy summer read about a Japanese shopgirl, but is actually a cutting commentary on the pressure society puts on its citizens, particularly single women.
For most people, working at Smile Mart would be a terrible combination of drudgery and forced cheeriness. Employees must dress and speak exactly the same, stripped even of mobile phones and earrings. Every morning they practise chanting in unison, “Irasshaimase!”, “Certainly. Right away, sir!” “Thank you for your custom!” Even loyal customers note that, after 18 years, the Smile Mart never changes.
Keiko is an ideal employee: she has been there since the shop’s first day, is never late, has no children, works uncomplainingly through holidays, and never loses her temper. To her great relief, any “foreign object”, like the odd difficult customer, is systematically expelled from the store’s gleaming interior.
The irony is that, even as Keiko submits herself to this extreme conformity, she still cannot conform in Japanese society. She performs an essential service in a busy city like Tokyo, but will never be regarded as anything but an anonymous and uniformed low salary worker.
Aside from work, she only sees her parents, a kind-hearted sister and a small number of old school friends – all of whom are baffled by her inability to, and lack of interest in, doing anything better with her life.
Keiko is inundated with their misplaced sympathy, which is actually thinly veiled pity and condescension. She recounts, at one point, that she was asked 14 times in one week why she was still unmarried. (This happens after she makes the mistake of going to a party).
All of her friends’ suggestions that she try online dating or job hunting just point to their false presumption that she is unhappy. After all, what woman would not want romance, a husband and a baby? What worker wouldn’t want better pay and a higher title?
At no point does anyone ever visit her or ask her positively about the Smile Mart, where she is prized by her bosses, and where she experiences genuine pride and joy. Some of the best writing in the book takes place in the confines of that convenience store, where Keiko is the master of knowing exactly how much extra iced tea is needed on hot days, or when to push sandwich sales just as the new office block is opening up down the street.
Perhaps she would be more respected if she applied that obsessive attention to detail to being an artist, or sushi chef, or CEO – but it somehow doesn’t count for the woman approaching middle age behind the cashier.
Outside the controlled environment of work, Keiko is painfully awkward, because she has no idea how to behave. She peeks at her colleagues’ clothes and shoes to get hints on which brands a “normal” 30-year-old woman should wear, and tries to mimic their speech.
While there is something definitely off about Keiko, this book resists the temptation to diagnose or explain. Her behaviour is not blamed on a dark secret, past abuse, or a specific disorder. This is a great relief, at a time when everyone (including many authors) like to play armchair psychologist. Keiko is happy to be the way she is, and an attempt to “fix” her with a boyfriend and a better career ends disastrously.
The only background the reader is given is that Keiko’s problems started young, when her parents noted with alarm that she lacked the normal instincts of other children. Keiko couldn’t understand why a beloved pet bird which passed away could not also be eaten for yakitori – after all, both were birds. Or why two boys fighting in a playground should not be stopped with a shovel to the head. But she did understand that her thoughts were wrong, and so she withdrew into herself, and found comfort in her job.
It should be noted that this book’s author, Sayaka Murata, is both a bestselling writer in her native Japan, but also an actual part-time convenience store employee. Convenience Store Woman is her first novel to be translated into English, and offers a sharp observation into this small slice of Japanese life.