I’m loving Japanese literature more and more. The modern stuff in particular, appears deceptively simple, but as you read, and for weeks afterwards, you become aware of layers of meaning.
The Convenience Store Woman is no exception. On the surface it appears to be a light tale about the life of a young woman who has been a convenience store worker for 18 years. But underneath is all this stuff about Japanese culture, societal expectations, belonging, purpose and how we cope with people who are different from the ‘norm’.
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It’s obvious, although undeclared that Keiko is probably on the autism spectrum. She has major issues with empathy, routines and socialisation. Her family have always wanted to ‘cure’ her. She has spent her life keeping her ‘mouth shut’ and trying to be ‘normal’.
The convenience store is a place where Keiko feels like she belongs. She follows the manual assiduously and learns from (copies) her colleagues in the way they dress, talk, do their hair etc. Routines are her big thing though. She judges weather conditions to perfection so she knows when to stock/promote hot food or cold, she lines up the food in perfect rows, carefully lining up flavours and labels and sorting oldest to newest. She is the model employee and loves her job, finally feeling like she is ‘normal’ and functioning member of society.
But sadly, society still does not see her as ‘normal’. A new employee who pokes fun at the store routines and manual upsets the rhythm of her life and she learns from her sister that, “ever since you started working at the convenience store, you’ve gotten weirder and weirder.”
Keiko’s one brief attempt at a relationship shows her what ‘normal’ might be like, although there was nothing usual or typical about her time with Shiraha in the end. It was an eye opener for her to realise though, that her family and friends were more comfortable with her in an unhappy, dysfunctional relationship and unemployed rather than being happily single and working in a job she loved and was good at. You begin to wonder who the odd people really are after all.
Her attempts to be ‘normal’ didn’t worked. Certainly the scene with her sister and crying baby nephew shows us, the reader, how far from normal human reaction Keiko really is. Her thought processes at this moment are rather startling and concerning; I would certainly not be leaving my baby alone with her!
And this is where Murata has cleverly left it open for us to sometimes feel fear of Keiko and her robotic, almost psychopathic tendencies, but mostly we feel concern for her and just want her to be accepted for who she is. In the end, we’re on her side, just wanting everyone to stop dumping their issues about ‘normal’ on her, so she can be happy in her work.
The convenience store is where Keiko belongs, and when she finally realises that her “very cells exist for the convenience store,” we know that she will be as okay and as happy as she possibly can be. She knows what she is and she’s content with that and no longer cares what anyone thinks. In the end this is a love story – a love story between a woman and her convenience store!
For the human me, it probably is convenient to have you around, Shiraha, to keep my family and friends off my back. But the animal me, the convenience store worker, has absolutely no use for you whatsoever.
The Convenience Store Woman won the 2016 Akutagawa Award.
Won the Foyles Book of the Year for Fiction 2018.
Picked as one of the New Yorker’s Best Books of 2018.
Longlisted for the 2020 International Dublin Literary Award.
It was Murata’s tenth novel.
Throughout her writing career, Murata has worked part-time at a convenience store in Tokyo.