Book Review: Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

book cover image -Sayaka Murata- Convenience Store Woman- riceball with a cute face “But once they get it into their heads that I’m not normal, since they all think they are normal they’ll give me a hard time about it, won’t they? “

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.

Reviewed title:
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).

Book Review: The Lake

Cover image- Banana Yoshimoto- The Lake- english versionIn ‘The Lake’ Banana Yoshimoto tells the story of Chihiro, a young Japanese woman, who gets to know a young man who is living across the street. Nakajima, a shy, extraordinary intelligent and interesting man. She watches him every day when she is looking out of her window.
Chihiro recently lost her mother, who died at the hospital after a long illness. She is mourning her loss deeply and struggles with her feelings. In this situation she is glad about a new friendship with her neighbor. In the beginning they are just friends, who become lovers.
Chihiro also loves her freedom very much. Coming from a small village she embraced the opportunity of moving to Tokyo. As an independent woman she is not actively seeking a relationship, she is still grieving, and she does not feel ready for a new boyfriend, not to speak of marriage. The friendship with Nakajima feels comfortable, and it is nourishing her soul. After a while Nakajima is moving into her apartment, and it feels right for her, but they are still struggling with their past.

Nakajima has an enigmatic aura. It comes apparent that something went terribly wrong in his childhood, and he seems to suffer from a childhood trauma. Chihiro is patient, cautious and caring towards him, but she also doubts sometimes if she can handle it.
She learns about Nakajima’s mother and about two childhood friends. After a visit of his former home, a small house at a lake, Chihiro is deeply moved emotionally but somehow feels alienated. She stays with Nakajima and their relationship further deepens when the backstory of Nakajima’s trauma is revealed.

The novel is written from the perspective of Chihiro in the first-person narrative. She describes the development of her relationship with Nakajima in a detailed description of her conflicting emotions. It reminds me of a diary, as she writes most parts of the story in a stream of consciousness.
The novel is mostly about Chihiro’s inner conflicts and the novel tells everything about the evolving relationship, therefore the story feels very lively.
You even can feel Chihiro’s feelings because she tells you about them in her inner monologue, she uses emphatic language, and you can imagine, yes, this is the way how it feels when you are falling in love.
She reflects her doings and emotions, sometimes she shares her philosophical thoughts. Not every word she writes is particularly wise, but it is very interesting.
The underlying topics are tough, as it is emotional or physical abuse in childhood and how it affects human wellbeing and relationships.

Banana Yoshimoto is one of my favorite Japanese authors. I have been reading her books for a long time. In my opinion ‘The Lake’ is a very emotional and extraordinary book. Her language is very colorful, and her story is moving. I like her writing style very much. The story reminded me a little of her debut ‘Kitchen’ in the beginning, but then it took another road. Banana Yoshimoto is a mature author now and although the book’s topic is serious, I liked how she deals with it: Her attitude towards others is positive and caring. And that is what I like most about the ‘The Lake’.

Reviewed title
吉本 ばなな. みずうみ. 2005.
Banana Yoshimoto. The Lake. Translated by Michael Emmerich. Melville House, 2011 (Cover).

More book reviews of Banana Yoshimoto’s books on Japan Kaleidoskop

  1. Book review of Banana Yoshimoto: Kitchen.
  2. Book review of Banana Yoshimoto: Lizard.

 

Book Review: The Travelling Cat Chronicles

‘The Travelling Cat Chronicles’ tells the story of Satoru, a young man and a cat, named ‘Nana’. She was a stray cat who chose Satoru as her ‘pet owner’. Both are going on a trip through Japan by car. They visit several childhood friends of Satoru. In the beginning we get to know Sosuke, a school buddy and read about their youth, in the following chapters about Yoshimie, Sugi and Chikako and last about Noriko, his aunt.

With each visit we learn about another exciting part of Satoru’s life-story, told in flashbacks or through conversations.

The novel plays in present times, but the time setting is irrelevant to the story. It could have happened in the last century or even before.

The overall theme of the ‘Travelling Cat Chronicles’ is friendship and love. The message is: Respect all creatures on earth. Think about your pet as a friend.

Hiro Arikawa (有川 浩) was born in Japan in 1972. She is a female Japanese author of light novels, and she has written some Japanese Young Adults novels. ‘The Travelling Cat Chronicles’ has been translated into about eight languages. Her novel was also made into a movie in 2018 (See International Movie Database).

The story is narrated by an omniscient narrator and partly from the point of view of the cat Nana in the first-person. The narration of the cat is subjective, in part opinionated, and she is making mostly comments about human behavior. She is also lecturing about how to communicate with a cat correctly. The narration of the overall story is combined with episodes narrated by Nana in a naïve, sometimes child-like writing style.

The author uses the point of view of a cat. Natsume Sôseki’s famous novel ‘I am a Cat’ written in 1905 is her role model. She indicates that with her introduction, which is a citation of ‘I am a Cat’ as follows: “I am a Cat. As yet, I have no name.” Arikawa continues: “There is a famous cat in our country who once made this very statement.”

Having read and admired Natsume Sôseki’s classic tale ‘I am a Cat’ I had high expectations of ‘The Travelling Cat Chronicles’. I think the author set her bar high in choosing the first sentence, but maybe she just wanted to make a joke. I mean, it is difficult to compete with a classic of that high rank.

What I like about the book is the overall message to respect cats and every animal on the planet and respect your next one. Nana even is telling you her dos and don’ts of how to communicate with her. So, a good side effect of the novel is that you learn using cat language. And as a cat-lover that was the funniest part for me.

There is nothing to dislike about the novel. I mean, it is very friendly. Love and friendship, taking care of each other, what can be wrong about that.

Normally I do not read Young Adult fiction anymore because I am not in her typical target audience. I recommend the book to all readers who like to read about cats, friendship and who like the YA genre. It is an interesting bestselling Japanese book.

Reviewed title:
有川浩: 旅猫リポート. Arikawa Hiro: Tabineko ripôto. Kodansha 2015.
Hiro Arikawa: The Travelling Cat Chronicles. Translated by Philip Gabriel.
Berkeley 2018 (Cover)

 

Three Exciting Coming-of-Age Books by Japanese Authors


The ‘Coming-of-Age Day’ is celebrated in Japan on every second Monday of January as a national holiday since 1948. It is called 成人の日 – Seijin no Hi.
Japanese who turn 20 are celebrating this day, because from now on they are fully grown-ups with every right and responsibility legally speaking. And from now on they are also allowed to drink alcohol or smoke cigarettes. Young women are dressing up on the ’Coming-of-Age Day’ in a long-sleeved kimono and men in formal suit and tie.

Coming-of-age is an exciting topic described in world literature as in Japanese novels as well. The following books are good examples of what it feels to become an adult in Japan.

Kafka on the Shore by Murakami Haruki
What is it about?
It is a surrealist novel about a 15-year-old boy leaving his father behind and going on a secret journey. With only one photo in his hand, Kafka Tamura searches for his mother and sister, who left him and his father behind years ago. Read the full review on Japan Kaleidoskop.

Title in Japanese: 海辺のカフカ (Umibe no Kafuka) 2002.
Translated by Philip Gabriel. Vintage International (Cover 2006).

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Ôgawa Yoko
What is it about?
This is a story about an extraordinary friendship between the 10-year-old boy named Root and a retired math professor, who is slightly losing his memory because of brain damage. In the beginning they share only their passion for baseball, but soon the professor needs more help.  Read the full review on Japan Kaleidoskop.

Title in Japanese: 博士の愛した数式 (hakase no aishita sûshiki) 2003.
Translated by Stephen Snyder. Vintage International (Cover 2010).

Kitchen by Yoshimoto Banana
What is it about?
It is about a young woman dealing with life after the death of her beloved grandmother. A new friendship with a boy and his transgender mother. It is about mourning a profound loss and the beginning of a new life. All in all an emotional and touching debut novel of the now so famous Japanese author. Read the full review on Japan Kaleidoskop.

Title in Japanese: キッチン (Kitchin) 1988.
Translated by Megan Backus. Grove Press (Cover 1988)

Book Review: Record of a Night Too Brief by Kawakami Hiromi

Here is a collection of three short stories by Kawakami Hiromi 川上 弘美 (b. 1958) of her early career as a Japanese female writer, beginning in 1996. All were translated into English and published in 2017. Kawakami Hiromi is best known for her novels ‘The Brief Case’ (センセイの鞄) and Manazuru (真鶴).

In the title story ‘Record of a Night Too Brief’ Kawakami Hiromi describes dream sequences of a journey into an undiscovered land. It begins with the narrator becoming a horse and a stream of people leading her to a big banquet table with a buffet of delicious food. The scenery is depicted with surreal pictures and reminds me slightly of ‘Alice in Wonderland’. From there on the tale reads like a stream of continuing changes. It is a Kafkaesque metamorphosis of an indescribable plot containing elements of a locked-in situation, a monkey hunting the narrator and eventually a porcelain girl becoming a pearl.

The second story ‘Missing’ tells a family history from the perspective of a girl. One day her brother no. 1 disappears, but sometimes his voice can be heard and from time to time he makes himself visible to her. The narration is inspired by Japanese folktales including elements of magical realism.

‘A Snake Stepped On’ is one of Kawakami Hiromi’s best-known tales. 蛇を踏む (Hebi wo fumu) won the Akutagawa Award in 1996. It is a highly symbolic story about a struggle for independency with elements of folktales like the snake spouse. The narration follows the surreal paths as the first two stories in this collection. All three are well written and highly imaginative. Because of the experimental character of the stories they are sometimes difficult to understand.

Title:
Kawakami Hiromi: A Record of a Night Too Brief. Pushkin Press, 2017. Translated by Lucy North.