Supermarket by Satoshi Azuchi
You wouldn’t expect a novel about a such a prosaic place as a supermarket would be all that interesting, but Satoshi Azuchi’s Supermarket is a real page-turner. Originally published in Japan in 1984, it’s remained a top seller for twenty-five years, but has only now translated into English. The main character, Kojima, is a cousin of the owners of the Ishei Stores, a small chain of a handful of supermarkets and department stores. Kojima is an up-and-coming banker when approached to work for his cousins. It’s a step down in prestige but he sees the chance to build up something with his own initiative instead of being stuck in the staid world of banking.
“Write what you know” is often heard as advice for writers. Although I’m not sure it’s always good advice, Azuchi takes it to heart. He graduated from a top law school but instead of a law firm went to work for a supermarket chain not unlike the fictional Ishei Stores. His experience shows in the novel: exquisitely precise details of the supermarket management, how produce is prepared and sold, how markups and mark downs work (and don’t work), how employees get away with stealing products, among many others.
Azuchi entertainingly works these details into the story of the young inexperienced Kojima’s struggle to improve Ishei Stores, which is teetering on the edge of going under, a fact is unbeknownst to the owners as a group of managers have been doctoring sales and purchase records, sometimes for personal gain, sometimes to cover up incompetence.
Kojima finds a few allies and they work to prove the misdeeds and change the corporate environment to improve quality. But things are not always as they seem on the surface and Kojima often goes out too far on a limb. His personal life is also troublesome—his wife resents him leaving a good paying and prestigious job to work with cabbages. Add an attractive administrative assistant to the mix and Kojima becomes the subject of damaging office gossip.
Even when he manages to solve many of the chains’ problems, Kojima is drawn into an even larger conspiracy. He must bend his own ethics for the good of the company. He’s the ultimate idealist and altruist, yet it might be his downfall. Or will it?
Supermarket isn’t great literature in the classic sense, but is a fun, suspenseful read. One thing is for sure: you’ll never look at your local supermarket the same again.