Title: Convenience Store Woman
Author: Sayaka Murata
Translator: Ginny Tapley Takemori
Genre: Japanese Literature; Asian Literature; Literary fiction; Adult fiction; Women Fiction
The English-language translation debut of one of Japan’s most talented contemporary writers, selling over 650,000 copies there, Convenience Store Woman is a heartwarming and surprising story of thirty-six-year-old Tokyo resident Keiko Furukura.
Keiko has never fit in, neither in her family, nor in school, but when at the age of eighteen she begins working at the Hiiromachi branch of “Smile Mart,” she finds peace and purpose in her life. In the store, unlike anywhere else, she understands the rules of social interaction―many are laid-out line by line in the store’s manual―and she does her best to copy the dress, mannerisms, and speech of her colleagues, playing the part of a “normal” person excellently, more or less. Keiko is very happy, but the people close to her, from her family to her coworkers, increasingly pressure her to find a husband, and to start a proper career, prompting her to take desperate action…
A brilliant depiction of a world hidden from view, Convenience Store Woman is an ironic and sharp-eyed look at contemporary work culture and the pressures we all feel to conform, as well as a charming and completely fresh portrait of an unforgettable heroine.
“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.”
The above quote sets the general tone of the book. The world through the eyes of a socially awkward person who has been told time and again their behaviour is abnormal. This seems relatable and coming-of-age. Convenience Store Woman does not stop there, but goes further, and exhibits how such an adult would have developed coping mechanisms to “fit in”.
The book also has an anti-capitalistic attitude, that tries to break free from the mould created by society, a blueprint of an average person. I personally feel this could be the result of a quarter-life crisis of many millennials in the 21st Century – feeling like an anomaly to the norm. This should be eradicated in order for people to continue living their mundane existence.
Keiko is such an anomaly, but in some ways the norm as well. Through her eyes, we see the absurdity of existence. Japanese books have this as a common theme, which makes me love them even more.
Keiko is a 36-year-old single woman, who has never been with a man and has worked 18 years in a convenience store. This understandably odd choice of career is seen as a burden to her loved ones as they wait for her to be “fixed” and her dilemma lies on whether to secure a more viable career option or get married to fit into society. According to the society we all hail from, we always have certain parameters that guide people to understand who belongs to the social mix and who is an oddball. These include either marriage and children or a flourishing career for a woman in her 30s. Keiko finds both options incredibly difficult to pursue as her quirks set her apart from the ‘normal’ women who can easily fit into social circles and are in general likeable (read not difficult). Her convenience store offers her solace from the hard-hitting reality of social constructs that require her to fit in different moulds created by the society. The mould required for being an efficient convenience store worker is the suitable choice for her, as her relationship with the everyday workings has made her feel comfortable, the social settings and day-to-day occurring predictable, and generally, the convenience store offers her to be able to control her life the way she wants it to be.
With her growing older, she might not have many years left in a physically draining job, as working in a convenience store also means working through long hours of standing and lifting, and the chance of being fired for being older than her colleagues, who are normally in their late teens or early twenties as they try to make an extra buck for school or college, looms over her. She also notices that people around her feel very uncomfortable that she doesn’t fit into the mould that society expects her to be in by her age (either married or working in a big company).
The book discusses some very quirky and funny expectations/observations from a person who is as per society’s standards, a misfit as she does not see the requirement for a high-paying job or marriage. She is a single woman who has chosen a life that she deems to be incredibly rewarding and soothing and she tries her best to excel and keep her job consistently. As to her love life, she does not care much about it either.
The writing is quirky and therapeutic, as Japanese books usually are, While still being engaged with the writing and we as part of the society worry along with Keiko’s friends and relatives about Keiko and her rather on brand decision making skills regarding her life. But she is truly content and happy with her life in the convenience store and it brings her peace as her days are predictable and she has no need for a husband as she is just that comfortable with herself.
“After all, I absorb the world around me, and that’s changing all the time. Just as all the water that was in my body last time we met has now been replaced with new water, the things that makeup me have changed too.”
The one part that made me really love the book was the realisation that we all reflect people around us knowingly or unknowingly, in our small own ways like mannerisms, habits, dressing, noticing unknowingly the smallest quirks in speech and making it our own. The moment there is a change in our surroundings, we tend to reflect our new surroundings. Even though Keiko herself is supposed to be a misfit in society, she herself mirrors her surroundings to appear normal. It applies to the very notion of being social beings, where we reflect the people who we choose to surround ourselves with.
However, I think some of us at some point have thought about the very simplified nature of our existence to be of some use to the world or society. It can be either through monetary/economic means or through creating offspring and helping humanity carry on its seed. This is very common during an existential crisis when we look through the mirage created by society and realise the futility of our very own existence.
I read this book in less than a day, and it brought me back to reading. Overall the quirky and funny storytelling keeps you reading and loving Keiko. Japanese authors always make me feel this way!
My rating for this book would be 3.6 out of 5 stars
You can purchase the book here!