‘Convenience Store Woman’ has a cover as fluorescent as the flickering store lights that our main character, Keiko (Miss Furukura) is obsessed with. So naturally, like the magpie (but gay-er) that I am, I simply had to read it. Inside the garish cover, we experience something truly different (by all accounts) – a monotonous and simple lifestyle. Just as our protagonist likes it.
From my perspective, this novel is not really plot-driven, but exists more as a commentary on Japanese culture through the eyes of a character who is considered to be “broken” or an outcast. And it does a great job.
Keiko lives for her work. She lives for the convenience store, the customers and the order that comes along with it all. Before she started work, a full 18 years before, she tried her very best to be ‘normal’. Throughout her life, she meticulously and robotically maintains the persona that she feels is appropriate for the company she’s keeping.
There are a number of good scenes in which Keiko is completely self-aware, and talks about how: “My present self is formed almost completely of the people around me. I am currently made up of 30 percent Mrs. Izumi, 30 percent Sugawara, 20 percent the manager, and the rest absorbed from past colleagues…”
Of course, this is a tendency of most humans, and she spots it in her colleagues and friends as they mirror other people’s ways of talking – but she is the only one who recognises in herself the need – not emotionally, but practically – to fit in.
In comparison, the persona of a ‘homogenous’ convenience store worker is one that instinctively knows. We see right from the start, as she relays certain childhood scenes, that she has no real concept of appropriate social interaction and always reads the situation wrong. On top of that, she also seems to be one of the most clear characterisations of a A-romantic Asexual (Aro/Ace) that I’ve ever seen in a novel, which is fantastic to see.
In comparison to the external world where she feels ‘different’, here in the store, she is given clear rules to live by. Rules that aren’t broken, rules that are consistent, and that she can trust. Decisions about produce that make sense (daily specials, restocking based on the weather). She operates the checkout in her dreams, only eats convenience store food, instinctively knows the physical tells of a customer’s needs, and as she says numerous times, is perfectly satisfied knowing that her “hourly pay covered the basic requirement to condition [her] body so that it was fit to work”. She loves the store. In many ways, she is the store.
The translation of this novel from Japanese (I am reading the 2018 English translation) is seemingly spot on. If the language was supposed to be uncomfortable, funny and unexpected, then Ginny Tapley Takimori got it right on the nose.
It’s true that there were parts of this novel that I found frustrating (partially some characters, partially the style). For example, I felt that Murata really hammers home a lot of the points that should have been left more subtly. As a reader, I was happy to spot some of the smaller hints towards a feeling, or a link to a metaphor etc. but I found that whenever I did, it would soon be followed up with the same point made again. And then the character would explicitly spell it out for the reader. Stylistically, this could have been because of the first-person nature of the novel and the fact that the protagonist requires these very explicit instructions herself to make sense of the world and everyday social interactions, but still it made me feel a little patronised.
The characters were well-defined, but they were ALL opposing forces in Keiko’s life. Every one of them pushing the cultural agenda and all out to secure her a husband. Even Shiraha, who is against the LifeScript™ according to Japan, still stands at odds to her (and as a result is incredibly unlikeable).
My knowledge of the dark side of Asian work/life/marriage culture only extends to the Japanese phrase “Hikikomori” (defined as adolescents totally isolating themselves from society for 6 months or more), the derogatory Chinese term “Sheng nu” (“leftover” unmarried women in their late 30s and beyond) and “karōshi” (literally translated from Japanese as “death from overwork”) – but it seems clear that both genders are growing up with huge pressure to conform and find where they ‘fit’ within society. Keiko is a little older than the more vocal generation (at 36) but it is a shame that she must be presented as entirely alone in rejecting these norms. Perhaps I still don’t understand the severity of the culture we see explored here.
In ‘Convenience Store Woman’, we follow this unusual protagonist as she battles through what society expects from her, and fights to secure her place at her beloved store when faced with someone who could rip it all apart.
Give it a read and let me know what you think – does having a limited knowledge of Japanese culture mean that I missed some of the subtleties in this book?