I want to start this Convenience Store Woman review with some memories of Japan’s convenience stores. Like many new arrivals, I quickly came to love the country’s network of ‘konbini’ as they are nicknamed. Whether it was buying pork buns (nikuman) before a night out, or Pocari Sweat to ease the head the next day, using the scanner or photocopier, the ATMs, buying tickets, or sampling ALL THE SNACKS, they were a daily indulgence. On the night after the 2011 earthquake, one provided shelter while I waited for a friend, later when moving apartments I shipped a suitcase via one to my new place.
You can buy all the essentials and run your whole life from a konbini and you are pretty much never more than half a block from one (in Tokyo, at any rate). In Tohoku, they were often the first places to reopen after the quake, so they kept many volunteers fed and warm. Through the pandemic, the stores have continued as normally as possible, the shelves are stocked, the mask section perhaps a little bigger than before. The staff are behind plastic sheets, but are truly unsung heroes, because, as in the UK and other places, working in a konbini is still seen as a sign of not doing well. Tolerated for students or as a part-time job for housewives or those with a side gig, but not a suitable long-term career.
Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman is the story of Keiko, who has worked at a convenience store since she was a student. At first, her family viewed this as a positive step, as there was always something a little ‘off’ about her, but now time has gone by without her moving on to anything else and eyebrows are being raised. Keiko likes the comforting routines, the anticipating of customer’s needs, and the rules of behaviour as set out by the company manual. But how will she react when things begin to change around her?
It is the start of another day, the time when the world wakes up and the cogs of society begin to move. I am one of those cogs, going round and round. I have become a functioning part of the world, rotating in the time of day called morning.
This could be seen as depressing, and Keiko’s friends and relations assume she must be miserable to be ‘stuck in a job’ like this, as well as by being permanently single. Keiko describes herself as a ‘freeter,’ Japanese slang for someone who doesn’t have a full-time, contracted job with all the perceived benefits that brings. There is often an age element to such precarious employment, with those who came of age after the bubble economy ended staying on temporary contracts – sometimes for years – while older employees who were hired with better packages are more difficult to fire.
But Keiko sees it differently. Life in the store runs smoother than the world outside, where she tries to take cues on how to behave ‘normally’ from her sister and friends. When they continue questioning her about the future, the arrival of a new employee at the store, Shiraha, offers a potential way past such awkwardness. Shiraha is also getting grief from family, while scheming to get rich and/or bag a rich wife, but without hope of a full-time salary and in a society where women often have to give up work when their children are born, he will never be considered a good catch. He has a few incel-adjacent theories as to why this is so, constantly lamenting how male-female relations haven’t changed since the Stone Age. There is an element of ‘us against the world’ to their plan for Shiraha to move in with Keiko, but his misogyny towards her won’t let up. Eventually, their inability to live off Keiko’s salary means Shiraha pushes her into looking for more lucrative work and leaving the convenience store behind. How will she cope?
Convenience Store Woman perfectly skewers many of the absurdities of modern life and the translation has a humorous tone that allows some of its more serious or darker elements to catch the reader unawares. I loved the description of ‘this cast-off-cicada shell world.’ Shiraha is ‘lanky like a wire coat hanger,’ and his sister-in-law at one point confronts Keiko to ask, ‘Is he taking the piss?’
Keiko has her own – sometimes quite shocking – way of seeing the world, but since some childhood upsets has kept quiet and blended in better.
When you work in a convenience store, people often look down on you for working there. I find this fascinating, and I like to look them in the face when they do this to me. And as I do so I always think: that’s what a human is.
And sometimes even those who are doing the same job are biased against it. Before I knew what I was doing, I looked Shiraha in the face.
I find the shape of people’s eyes particularly interesting when they’re being condescending. I see a wariness or a fear of being contradicted or sometimes a belligerent spark ready to jump on any attack. And if they’re unaware of being condescending, their glazed over eyeballs are steeped in a fluid mix of ecstasy and a sense of superiority.
It is for the reader to decide whether Keiko is out of step, or if it is the value that society puts on different categories of work that needs updating. Given that service and logistics sector workers have proved so essential during the pandemic, it is sad to read in this interview with former convenience store worker Sayaka Murata that she has witnessed customers yelling at staff.
The interview convinced me to buy a copy of Murata’s new book Earthlings, which is also translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori, and which I had been planning to read for a while. If you are looking to read more works in translation by women, as part of Women in Translation month or throughout the year, then Murata is definitely an author to have on your radar – and your shelves!
Convenience Store Woman works for both the #JapaneseLitChallenge14 and #ReadIndies – are there any Japanese books from independent publishers that you are planning to read this month? Let me know in the comments below…