That Convenience Store Woman is a delight to read probably goes without saying: it reached bestseller status in Japan and now is selling very well in English translation. The short novel by Sayaka Murata (an author and part time convenience store worker) is about thirty-six-year-old Keiko Furukura, who has worked half of her life in a branch of Smile Mart, a Tokyo convenience store. Working there she has found a kind of peace in the orderly store procedures and customer interaction dictates. This peace came to her the first day she worked at the store.
I looked around and saw a man approaching with lots of discounted rice balls in his basket. “Irasshaimase! [Welcome!]” I called in exactly the same tone as before and bowed, then took the basket from him. At that moment, for the first time ever, I felt I’d become a part in the machine of society. I’ve been reborn, I thought. That day, I actually became a normal cog in society.
Not only are the store procedures a way for her to feel normal, she also learns from her co-workers on how to affect a “normal” life, if not, actually live one. She learns how to speak informally, dress according to latest fashions, and express prevailing opinions to fit it. The reason Keiko needs this structure isn’t immediately obvious, even to herself. There are some incidents in her youth which she recollects, anti-social acts, that seemingly came out of nowhere and likely drew her into her shell. She lives alone in a tiny flat and sees no one except her younger sister and her family, and her only friend from her school days, Miho.
However, despite Keiko’s attempts at appearing normal, her co-workers, sister, and Miho continue to prod and question her lifestyle. Why isn’t she married? Doesn’t she want children? If not interested in marriage, shouldn’t she have a better job than working part time in a convenience store? Doesn’t she even want to date so she can have sex? Keiko is increasingly uncomfortable with these questions, although she doesn’t react outwardly.
Enter Shiraha. The new part time worker at Smile Mart has a bad attitude about everything to do with the store, dissing the products, the customers, his co-workers, and especially the store procedures. During his first morning, Keiko and the other workers on duty demonstrate how to correctly to speak loudly and clearly.
“Thank you very much!”
“Thank you very much!”
The three of us raised our voices in unison following the prompts…. Shiraha muttered under his breath: “Ugh. It’s just like a religion.”
Of course it is, I thought. From now on we existed only in the service of the convenience store. It appeared Shiraha had not yet come to terms with this, for he only moved his mouth mechanically, hardly making his voice audible.
Exit Shiraha. Not surprisingly, he doesn’t last very long at the job. A few days after he is let go, Keiko sees him living on the streets. Despite his situation, he has not lost his bad attitude and berates her for continuing to work at Smile Mart. And despite that, Keiko lets him clean up at her flat, and sleep one night. Well, the one night, turns into an indefinite stay. He doesn’t want her to tell anyone he is staying there, but of course it slips out at work, and then when she is with her family and Miho. The reaction is surprise at first, then everyone is enormously relieved that she is at last normal.
The narrative drive shifts readers to want to find out if being normal works for Keiko. And who is this Shiraha? He must have a past that caused him to be so negative toward anything that others consider normal. How does Keiko’s perception of normal change?
Yes, Convenience Store Woman is a delightful, quick read, full of quirky and achingly not-quirky (“normal”) characters. Humor abounds as the world’s absurdities are seen through Keiko’s eyes. I found myself wishing for more of it all.
Todd Shimoda is the author of Why Ghosts Appear, Subduction, Oh! A Mystery of 'Mono No Aware', The Fourth Treasure and 365 Views of Mt. Fuji.