Murata Sayaka worked in a convenience store herself, and much of her experience will probably show in her novel. ‘Convenience Store Woman’ brought her the Akutagawa Award, one of Japan’s most prestigious literary prizes, in 2016.
Miss Keiko Furukawa is the main protagonist, she is 36 years old, working in the Hiiromachi Station Smile Mart, a typical convenience store in Japan or simply called ‘konbini’.
Her colleagues are a mix of different people like Ms. Izumi, a housewife, 37 years old and a flashy dresser, Miss Sugawara, 24, a singer in a band, a university student, a job-hopper, and her boss.
Keiko Furukawa is absorbing everything in the shop: the smell, the sound, every move of the surrounding customers. She copies the dress style of Ms. Izumi because she thinks she is a role model of what a woman in her thirties should be wearing. In her speech pattern she is parroting other staff members. She is like the embodiment of the convenience store.
Her friends and acquaintances are bullying her for not having a proper job and not being married and bossing her around. Keiko Furukawa calls working in the ‘konbini’ a dead-end job herself, but it is the only place in the world, where she feels socially accepted, like a valuable part of a team, yes, she is feeling comfortable at her workplace. Wearing a uniform, everyone in the staff seems to be equal, because they are all store workers.
Then a new staff member Shiraha appears, he is an arrogant, lazy misogynist, and an outsider like Keiko Furukawa. So, they get to know each other, and he becomes her roommate. The novel answers the question if this will change her life and shows how her surrounding reacts to this development.
The story is written from the perspective of a 36-year-old woman working in a convenience store in first person narration. Keiko Furukawa is still single in her mid-thirties and has been working part-time in a convenience store for her whole life. The overall theme is women’s living conditions in contemporary Japan and specifically how people are singled out as an outsider, when they do not play their role as expected by society, which means getting married or taking a decent career path.
The novel can be understood as a critical portrayal of contemporary Japan’s society. So-called social phenomena like ‘hikikomori’ (secluding oneself, often hiding inside and not leaving one’s apartment), working in low paid or/and part-time jobs, as a ‘freeter’ (freelancer) with little or no perspective to change one’s lifestyle for the better. These developments can be seen in Japan at least for the last three decades and have changed the society deeply, where the once so important full time employment for a lifetime at one company was the norm.
Sayaka Murata is one of Japan’s modern female authors, who writes about women in Japanese society without shying away from taboo topics and has won several literary awards. ‘Convenience Store Woman’ is her 10th novel. Her newest book is called ‘Earthling’ (地球星) published in Japan in 2018. A translation into English was made available in October 2020.
I liked ‘Convenience Store Woman’ more than I thought I would when taking the book in my hands. The cute cover was indicating the wrong direction. It is not some nice story about a girl working in a store, but a deeply moving story about a young woman searching her way in a hostile environment. She does not understand the social protocol and is not understood by her friends and family either. As an outsider of Japan’s society social interaction becomes painful for her, but she finds happiness in a place which is not appreciated by normal standards and that is her ‘konbini’. I was surprised by the literary strength of the book which stands out. So, I would like to read more of Sayaka Murata and will have a look at her new book in the future. ‘Convenience Store Woman’ is an important and unusual work.
村田沙耶香. コンビニ人間. 2016.
Sayaka Murata. Convenience Store Woman. Translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori. Portobello Books 2018 (Cover).