Japan is a fascinating place, but it is also one that can seem rather… unusual to outsiders.
Like how they’re insane sticklers for punctuality (the management of a train service issued an official apology ‘for the inconvenience caused’, after the train departed 20 seconds early). Or their crazy dedication to order and their need for conformity (there’s a Japanese saying that goes ‘the nail that sticks out gets hammered down’. So much for individuality).
Conversely, the flipside to this restraint and rigidity is pretty extreme, which is why you have things like hikikomori (a social phenomena where mostly youngsters cut off any contact from the outside world, becoming ‘hermits’) and high suicide rates.
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata is a reflection of this duality.
I came across the book while browsing at Kinokuniya, and attracted by its cover design (in baby blue, canary yellow and bubblegum pink), flipped it open. I remained rooted on the spot for an hour and a half. The book itself was not a long read, but it was certainly one of the more interesting stories I’ve read in a long time – a tongue-in-cheek look at Japanese society and its hypocrisies and machinations.
Keiko Fukuhara has been a convenience store worker for over 18 years, and is by society’s standards, an oddball. At 36, she is single, unmarried and has no ambitions to climb the career ladder, content in the monotony at the store. In fact, she thrives in the everyday tasks of arranging perfect displays to maximise sales, shouting out Irrashaimase! to customers, anticipating their every move and reflecting that efficiently to cater to their needs. She calls herself a ‘cog’ in the machinery of the store.
As we delve deeper into the story, which is told through Keiko’s eyes, we learn that Keiko is not quite ‘normal’, and that she herself is aware of this, albeit in a detached kind of way. Like the alien that has learned to blend itself in with the rest of the crowd by putting on a mask, she has learned to hide her thoughts, although at times she still gets confused with how she should act. It is rather eerie to read the degree of self-awareness when she narrates her mimicking the way her colleagues speak and dress, and how it changes with every new person that comes to work at the store (I’m reminded of the film Body Snatchers). While discussing things with groups of people, she ‘carefully arranges her facial expressions’, as it she herself is incapable of showing her natural emotions.
Keiko also reveals psychopathic tendencies, as recalled in an episode from her childhood when she and her classmates find a dead budgie. While all the other children were crying, she snatches up the bird and tells her mother that they should eat it, mortifying her mother. At a school fight, when two boys were fighting and the rest of the class were screaming for them to stop, Keiko grabs a chair and hits one of the boys over the head – her reasoning being ‘they wanted them to stop’. Even more disturbing is the casual way she thinks of stabbing her sister’s son when the pair come visiting, because he wouldn’t ‘shut up’. Of course, Keiko has learned from her childhood experiences to hide these thoughts and not act upon them, because it isn’t ‘normal’. She does not seem to be bothered by it though – it is simply the best way to go about life efficiently.
In a sense, her convenience store job has given her a purpose and a measure of ‘normalcy’. But it seems everyone in Keiko’s life, from her colleagues to her well-meaning family, do not want to leave her alone – intent in making her ‘conform’. They bug her about dating, about marriage, about finding a new ‘real’ job, etc. and as time passes, she finds it harder and harder to justify and to fit in.
At the store, she meets Shihara, a misogynistic social outcast unable to hold down a job. Despite working at the convenience store, he despises it and looks down on his colleagues as well as the manager, and finally gets fired for slacking off and also stalking female customers. Shihara rages against how society wants people to conform, telling Keiko how “Strong men who bring home a good catch have women flocking around them, and they marry the prettiest girls in the village. Men who don’t join in the hunt, or who are too weak to be of any use even if they try, are despised.” But while Keiko seeks her form of ‘normalcy’ in her convenience store job, Shihara wants nothing more than to loaf about and hide away from the pressure of it all. The two strike up an unlikely deal in order to try to get everyone off their backs – by moving in together.
Like the convenience store where most of the story happens, everything seems bathed in an artificial, fluorescent light. The conversations sound unreal, plasticky, but it works well with the overall tone of the story and the character who, as the story has established, is incapable of feeling and appearing normal at times. But in a way, you can’t help rooting for Keiko. I think despite how the character is and her complete lack of empathy and feeling, most people have felt like Keiko – she just wants to live life her own way, no matter how different it may be to others. And who are we to deprive other people of such a right, if they aren’t harming anyone?
Modern fiction is so mired in morality and social justice themes that it can get rather preachy. Which is why, to me, Convenience Store Woman was such a refreshing read. Despite Keiko’s quirks and odd behaviour, I never felt that the author was judgmental. In fact, I felt that Keiko had a right to her version of normalcy and happiness… like from a job at the convenience store.