Sayaka Murata, Convenience store woman (#BookReview)

Book coverConvenience store woman, which won Japan’s prestigious Akutagawa Prize, is Sayaka Murata’s 10th novel, but her first translated into English. Hopefully, it won’t be the last. A rather unusual book, it elicited a stimulating discussion at my reading group last week.

The convenience store woman of the title is 36-year-old Keiko Furukawa. She isn’t “normal”, and her family worries she will never fit in to society. However, when 18 years old, she obtains work at a newly opened Smile Mart convenience store, and quickly feels comfortable, undertaking routine daily tasks, and following the store’s rules. Eighteen years later, she’s still there. This is not seen as a valid situation for a woman of Keiko’s now mature age. Why isn’t she married? And why doesn’t she have a better job? Then she meets another convenience store worker, the also, but differently, nonconformist Shiraha, and she thinks she can solve both their problems by having him move in with her.

It’s a short book, at just 176-pages in the print edition, and is told first person. Now, for those of you who remember my recent discussion of first person voices, Convenience store woman is a perfect example of an effective use of first person. The main theme is the push for conformity, the push to follow the expected narrative of a life, but our narrator, Keiko, is not, for whatever reason, able (or willing) to conform. This theme is particularly relevant to Japan, which has a reputation for conformity and group behaviour, but it’s also universally relevant, because many societies, my own included, are not good at coping with people who stray from the “norm”.

So, Keiko is different. She’s been different all her life. She knows it, and she’s mystified. She’s particularly mystified by the way people often behave which seems counter to logic, and also by the way people cheer up when they think she’s behaving “normally”. An example of the former happens in her childhood, which she tells us via flashback. There’s a schoolyard fight. The kids call for the fight to stop, so she goes to the toolshed, gets a spade and bashes one of the kids with it. Everyone is horrified,

“But everyone was saying to stop Yamazaki-kun and Aoki-kun fighting! I just thought that would be the quickest way to do it,” I explained patiently. Why on earth were they so angry? I just didn’t get it.

An example of the latter occurs after she invites Shiraha to live at her place. Everyone assumes they are in a relationship. “They were all so ecstatic”, she wondered, she says, “whether they’d lost their minds”. Listening to her friends “go on”, she says,

was like hearing them talk about a couple of total strangers. They seemed to have the story wrapped up between them. It was about characters who had the same names as we did, but who had absolutely nothing to do with me or Shiraha.

There it is – the expected story or narrative of life!

Of her convenience store colleagues, she says:

I was shocked by their reaction. As a convenience store worker, I couldn’t believe they were putting gossip about store workers before a promotion in which chicken skewers that usually sold at 130 yen were to be put on sale at the special price of 110 yen. What on earth had happened to the pair of them?

As you can see there’s a good deal of humour in this book. You can also see why this story could only be told first person. Any other voice would risk undermining Keiko’s authenticity, her reality.

So, for Keiko, it’s “convenient” having Shiraha at her place. Everyone is happy for her, and she likes that “they’ve stopped poking their nose into my business”.

However, while Keiko, for all her strangeness, is a likeable character, Shiraha is not. He has no desire to work, and takes advantage of her wish to appear “normal”, even though it satisfies his need for the same. He excuses his laziness by criticising society and its unfair gender expectations on men:

“Naturally, your job in a convenience store isn’t enough to support me. With you working there and me jobless, I’m the one they’ll criticize. Society hasn’t dragged itself out of the Stone Age yet, and they’ll always blame the man. But if you could just get a proper job, Furukura, they won’t victimize me anymore and it’ll be good for you, too, so we’d be killing two birds with one stone.”

Worse, he’s arrogant and cruel:

“I did it! I got away! Everything’s okay for the time being. There’s no way you’ll be getting pregnant, no chance of me ever penetrating a woman like you, after all.”

Actually, he only “got away” because Keiko had the idea of his moving in. Fortunately, she has no interest in sex, so his comment falls on flat ears – but we notice it.

The novel, then, hinges on the idea of normality, with the word “normal” recurring throughout the novel. Early on, Keiko realises that “the normal world has no room for exceptions and always quietly eliminates foreign objects”. This is why, it dawns on her, her family wishes to “cure” her. She is therefore grateful for the convenience store, where she can operate as “a normal cog in society” – until her age makes it no longer “normal”. The charming Shiraha has his own take:

“People who are considered normal enjoy putting those who aren’t on trial, you know. But if you kick me out now, they’ll judge you even more harshly, so you have no choice but to keep me around.” Shiraha gave a thin laugh. “I always did want revenge, on women who are allowed to become parasites just because they’re women. I always thought to myself that I’d be a parasite one day. That’d show them. And I’m going to be a parasite on you, Furukura, whatever it takes.”

Shiraha shows us that Murata’s understanding of deviations from the norm is nuanced, not simplistic.

Anyhow, later in the novel, after her sister asks “How can we make you normal?”, Keiko comes to recognise that her sister is happier seeing her as “normal”, albeit with “a lot of problems”,

than she is having an abnormal sister for whom everything is fine. For her, normality—however messy—is far more comprehensible.

In the end, Keiko does resolve her conundrum regarding how to live in a way that is true to herself. It is inspired, in fact, by the convenience store, which I think we can read as a microcosm of society. She suggests that “a convenience store is not merely a place where customers come to buy practical necessities, it has to be somewhere they can enjoy and take pleasure in discovering things they like”. She can play a role in that.

Convenience store woman is a wonderful read. Perfect in tone and voice, and fearless in its exploration of the confining nature of “normality”, it forces us to look beyond, and imagine other lives and ways of being.

Sayaka Murata
Convenience store woman
Translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori
London: Portobello Books, 2016 (trans. ed. 2018)
eISBN: 9781846276859

32 thoughts on “Sayaka Murata, Convenience store woman (#BookReview)

  1. I read this last week! I agree with you that this is a delightful book with a light touch. Keiko finds a way of being normal that agrees with her personality – an impressive feat indeed!

    • Oh, what great timing Ian. You’ll know then that there’s so much more that could be discussed, so many different angles from which to look at Keiko’s life and experiences. Such a rich book, isn’t it?

      • The book doesn’t do this but I suppose that Keiko could be labelled as being autistic. This novel is part of a heartening trend for more visibility for people who are on this spectrum.

        • Yes, I was going to mention that Ian, but decided my review was convoluted enough! What I was going to say was that it seems like she would be on the spectrum, but that since the book doesn’t identify this, we shouldn’t either. I’d say she doesn’t address it (as I’m guessing you’d agree) because the book is not about why Keiko doesn’t conform but about how society handles lack of conformity (and how those non-conforming people feel about society’s reaction.)

          It does add to the complexity though, doesn’t it – and this is one of the other issues that I’d love to have explored – because there’s not conforming and not conforming. How should we feel about Keiko’s non-conformity versus Shiraha’s? Is all non-conformity “acceptable”? And if not, why not?

        • Yes, Shiraha’s much more willed non-conformity seems much easier for society to cope with.

  2. Terrific review. The book also sounds very good. Conformity and anti conformity have always been of interest to me. I think that most, if not all, societies deal well with anti conformity. Keiko wounds like a great character.

    • Thanks Brian. Keiko is a great character. She’s so honest in her responses, so genuine in wanting to understand what others think and why, and what they think she should do (though she’s not necessarily going to follow them.)

  3. I love your review. The title of the book in Japanese is Convenience Store Human Being. Like English, the word human is part of the word for humanity. What do you think of that change of title? Something was lost in translation I think…

    • Oh, I’m so glad Carolyn. I mentioned in my last letter that you will have seen this before you got my letter, given the speedy postal service we are dealing with! Haha.

      But, that’s really interesting re the translation. I think you are right. There is a gender aspect to the story – but that’s mainly imposed by Shiraha. For Keiko, though, her main focus is on what a human being is, isn’t it? The ending is quite interesting in that regard? What is human, what is animal, what is humanity. But, how did the original Japanese handle express all this?

      • I have a Japanese copy of the book, but not an English copy. I turned to the end of the book where Shiraha says to Keiko that everybody would be happier if she stayed with him and worked for him. At this she replies, “I cannot go with you–I am an animal known as a convenience store clerk. I cannot betray my instincts.” She later says that she must prepare her physical being in order to completely obey the “voice” (that word is in quotes the original) of the convenience store. At this Shiraha says, “That is disgusting. You are not a human being.”

        I think the answer to the humanity question is confusing because she refers to herself as an “animal” compelled to work at the convenience store, yet within the confines of the convenience store she regards herself as a “human being NINGEN”. Is she suggesting that it is the rules of society that makes us human? If so, she attains humanity within the clearly defined rules and ordered universe of the convenience store. The original title, KONBINI NO NINGEN or Convenience Story Human Being seems to suggest this.

        • Thanks very much for these thoughts, reflective reader. It’s complex isn’t it. I think for her, AS you suggest, she does need the convenience store work to be human. Outside it she doesn’t understand the rules, and outside she’s not “normal”, so not “human”? I think you’re right, then, that there probably is something about “rules” distinguishing humanity. The “animal’ reference to herself is still a little confusing to me, except that perhaps it refers to the instinctual part of herself? There are many references to her bodily responses (animal responses?) to the store, which I had thought about including in my review. Her instincts draw her to the store, where the rules enable her to feel human?

  4. Great review. A lot of reviews I’ve read focused more on how “quirky” the narrator is, but I like how you tied it to people’s need for a narrative they can understand.

    • Thanks Laura. Some in my reading group said “quirky” too, but I reserve quirky for something lighter hearted, something intended to be, perhaps, a little fun and absurd. That’s not this…

  5. I can’t help but wonder if the English translation truly re-presents the original: the Japanese are so … so … so not like anglophones !

    • I think it does a pretty good job MR, of capturing the overall tone and issues, but Carolyn is the best to answer that, if she comes back to look at the comments. She’s lived in Japan, teaches Japanese, and has done some translation albeit more non-fiction than fiction.

  6. I wonder if the Japanese have a quiet and quirky sense of humour, or just the ones who get translated. If I were to find time to read outside Australia I think my first choices would be Japan and Nigeria.

    • Good question Bill. I can’t answer that, except that I know a couple of Japanese women (who live in Japan so not westernised in any way) and both do have a lovely sense of humour – and an ability to joke in English, which suggests a creative turn of mind I’d say.

      BTW You’d approve of Murata, not only is she a Japanese woman writing about a Japanese woman but she worked in a convenience store for 18 years!

      And, watch out for tomorrow’s post, because Nigeria is getting a bit of a guernsey!

  7. Hi Sue, I love your review and I also loved this book. Most of the Japanese novels that I have read in English translation always seem to me, to be quirky.

    • Thanks Meg, I’m not surprised you liked it too, because it is a great read isn’t it. As I said to Laura, “quirky” isn’t quite the right word for me, though I understand why people say that. Japanese novels do though, I agree, often have a very different tone to what we are used to.

  8. This was one of the few translated books that popped up on my annual compilation of the ‘best books of the year’ lists. Sounds interesting.

  9. I read this a couple of months ago for my book club and adored it. After reading your review and picking up on your use of the word ‘convenient’, I’m now wondering if the Japanese word for convenience store is also related to convenient. It would add another interesting layer if so, especially as Keiko also talks about relationships being convenient (or not).

    My review –

    • Thanks Brona. I certainly felt that there was intended to be a word play there – and I’m assuming the translator was reflecting an intention in original, but I guess we’ll have to ask one of those here who knows the language. I’ll come read your review. I don’t recollect seeing it come through.

  10. I appreciate your take on this, an insistence on more-than-just-quirky, as well as the comments about the translation of the title and others’ reflections on quirky. My experience of Japanese literature is limited, too, and although I find myself noting similarities between the way this work is described and the way some of Banana Yoshimoto’s characters come across, I also wonder how much of this has to do with the way that publishers assess Western readers’ expectations of Japanese women writers too. Surely there are plenty of not-so-quirky Japanese women on the pages of not-translated-into-English Japanese fiction.

    • Yes, good point about the publishers’ role Buried. I have read quite a bit of Japanese literature and do sense a recurring sort of tone but I suspect we are seeing the more literary end of the spectrum in translation?

  11. I really enjoyed this book. At the end is the general consensus that Keiko was done with Shiraha and in effect told him to go? Going back to convenience store work meant she knew what she needed, that it suited her and helped her have routine and look after herself. Shiraha doesn’t fit into this picture. Going back to convenience store work meant Keiko no longer cared so much about what society expects from her (including having a man around).

    What were other people’s conclusions?

    • Hi Au Revoir Sugar, yes, that’s pretty much my reading of it – that she realised she didn’t NEED to be normal, so didn’t NEED him, and that the convenience store was a place where she felt she knew the rules and could contribute, even if it’s not what others thought was appropriate. And that, I think, means that her character develops in the novel? (Sorry for the delay in approving this. I was out of town and not getting to my blog much.)

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