Convenience Store Woman
by Sayaka Murata, Ginny Tapley Takemori
My Tokyo husband and I often wish that we could pluck a Family Mart or Lawson’s out of Tokyo and set it down in our SEMinn town. Unless you’ve experienced the glory that is seasonal parfaits, neat rows of delectable rice balls, changing and various canned hot/cold drinks, and comprehensive daily needs (including underwear, pantyhose, trendy shampoos, tape, stationary) that is a Japanese convenience store, that may sound crazy.
But as a young mother with two children under the age of three in Japan, they were a life saver. They could occupy my toddler for hours just looking at everything, and as a combined air conditioned break/food bribe on a sweltering summer walk to the children’s center, priceless. Don’t even get me started on how all those set phrases and required manners from the clerks served as a soothing normality to someone who (as a Caucasian) often encountered difficulties with every public interaction.
But enough about me. Let me tell you about this book. It’s not speculative fiction, but literary. Folks Familiar with Banana Yoshimoto and Haruki Murakami will recognize the slight vagueness and rhetorical feel to the dialogue, almost as if the characters were mouthpieces for more formal treatises about the human condition rather than actual fully formed characters.
Keiko works at a convenience store. She has done so for 18 years as a part time worker. While I often marveled at the dignity afforded service workers in Japan due to the formal phrases, set interactions, and uniforms required, this book shows Keiko’s devotion to the job as somehow eccentric and strange, placing her outside the normal bounds of society. She truly revels, in a Autism Spectrum way or borderline sociopathic (if I was reading this with a USA literary lens) with the rows of neatly presented food items, the bright lights, the predictable rhythm of the day. But in the Japanese literary lens, Keiko’s affinity for the store isn’t so much about Autism or OCD or neurological quirks, but more a human personification of the ways the roles society wants us to play infect ourselves and humanity.
Keiko notes this even in the ways her coworkers ‘infect’ each other with their speech patterns. Rather than a complete exploration of the ways Japanese society treats women in the workplace, Keiko seems a place holder for “woman”, and the part-time worker she allows to live with her as a “man” (even down to his stupid, unending self-centered riffs on how society is still Stone Age and only men who are breadwinners get women). The Japanese title of this book actually translates as “Convenience Store Human” and that title gives more of a flavor of this book: about our constructions of gender and personhood and how we “use” each other in our own stories.
There’s a point where Keiko listens to friends discuss herself and her lodger and muses in her blunt and insightful way that its like listening to the plot of a story where there are characters named “Keiko” and “Shiraha” that have nothing to do with either of their real selves.
As a USAian, I heartily recommend this book to others to get a short, smooth, easy read, with wonderful translation (it’s not small feat to take the somewhat ambiguous Japanese dialogue and make it easily consumable in English) and a story that is a metaphor about human identity with many delicious unspoken layers underneath. And Keiko’s love for konbini, much like my own, makes me wistful for that soothing superficial layer of normality.