You don’t have to look very hard in Tokyo to find the kind of shop featured in Convenience Store Woman. They’re as much of the urban landscape as vending machines, billboard advertising and neon lights. An indispensable part of daily life for the millions of workers who commute into the city every day.
Sayaka Murata once worked in one of these open all day/every day stores, using her experience to shape the daily life of Keiko Furukura, a model employee at a branch of the “Smile Mart” chain.
Over the 18 years she’s worked in the shop, she’s seen colleagues come and go, fatigued by the monotony of shelf stocking and restocking and product promotions. But Keiko relishes the familiarity, finding peace and contentment amid the hot food cabinets and well stocked aisles.
She’s the store’s star performer. Willing to work the unpopular shifts; keen to make sure product displays are neat and the hot food cabinets full, Keiko even checks the weather forecast before she starts her shift, knowing how it will influence what customers buy that day. So finely attuned to those customers’ habits is she, that she can get to the cash register at the exact moment they are ready to pay.
Alerted by a faint clink of coins I turn and look over at the cash register. It’s a sound I’m sensitive to, since customers who come just to buy cigarettes or a newspaper often jingle coins in their hand or pocket. And yes: as I’d thought, a man with a can of coffee in one hand, the other hand in his pocket, is approaching the till. I quickly move through the store, slide behind the counter, and stand at the ready so as not to keep him waiting. “Irasshaimasé! Good morning, sir.”they will head to the cash desk, and always willing to cover unpopular late night and weekend shifts,
Keiko is completely at ease in this world. It’s a different story however, once she is outside that environment where she is one of life’s misfits. She’s always been strange, someone who has never fitted in. Not at school or at university or even within her own family. Now, at the age of 36, she has few friends, has never had a boyfriend and lives in a very simple apartment.
Convenience Store Woman isn’t just a story of a woman who is a bit “odd”; it’s a reflection on on how people in Japan feel pressured to conform. Keiko understands the rules that say, at the age of 36 she shouldn’t still be single and in a blue colour job.
She’s reminded of those expectations in every encounter with her friends. They’re all keen to show off about their well-paid jobs, their husbands and babies. Keiko who doesn’t even have a boyfriend to talk about, has learned to be evasive when questioned about her own career and marriage prospects thought she has fooled no-one.
Convenience Store Woman gives a fascinating glimpse of what goes on in one of these stores. Murata takes us behind the scenes to witness the staff briefings about the latest promotions and special tasks for the day and the sessions where they practise their company mandated customer interactions : ‘Irasshaimase‘ (Welcome to our store), “Certainly, right away sir’; ‘Thank you for your custom.‘
Beneath the comedy lies a serious issue. An outsider, like Keiko, can survive in this culture only by aping the “normal” people who surround them. Keiko copies what her colleagues wear, studies their speech patterns and adopts their mannerisms.
Outside work Mrs. Izumi is rather flashy, but she dresses the way normal women in their thirties do, so I take cues from the brand of shoes she wears and the label of the coats in her locker. Once she left her makeup bag lying around in the back room and I took a peek inside and made a note of the cosmetics she uses.
She also adopts their behaviours so she can be accepted in their world.
I’d noticed soon after starting the job that whenever I got angry at the same things as everyone else, they all seemed happy. If I went along with the manager when he was annoyed or joined in the general irritation at someone skiving off the night shift, there was a strange sense of solidarity as everyone seemed pleased that I was angry too.
But now she realises that, similarly, the normal world has no room for exceptions and always quietly eliminates foreign objects. Anyone who is lacking is disposed of. So that’s why I need to be cured. Unless I’m cured, normal people will expurgate me.
The consequence is a loss of individuality but in Keiko’s eyes she has no choice: “the normal world has no room for exceptions and always quietly eliminates foreign objects. Anyone who is lacking is disposed of. So that’s why I need to be cured. Unless I’m cured, normal people will expurgate me.
It’s a slim novel but its message is profound. Murata’s focus is on Japan but she makes you think about your own society and how tolerant that is towards people who behave differently.
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata: Footnotes
Sayaka Murata has collected multiple awards for her fiction which began with Junyu (Breastfeeding) in 2003. Convenience Store Woman was published first in Jaan in 2016. The English translation by Ginny Tapley Takemori was issued in 2018. It was named as a Foyle’s Fiction Book of the Year and was longlisted for the 2019 Best Translated Book Award.
Since then two other English translations of her books have been issued. Earthlings in 2020 and a short story collection Life Ceremony in 2022.
Murata stopped working in a convenience store in 2017. In an interview with The Guardian newspaper in 2020 about the similarities between her own life and that of her main character.