Convenience Store Woman
by Sayaka Murata
translated from Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori
This is a fascinating Japanese novella about an unusual person trying to understand the world. It’s funny and empathetic and the Tokyo setting really brought back moments from our Japan holiday.
Lead character and narrator Keiko is a convenience-store worker. She has worked there since her first year at university and is still there 18 years later because it’s the one place where she feels she belongs. But as the years pass she feels increasing social pressure to conform. And her attempts to conform are at once hilarious, heartbreaking and unsettling.
“I automatically read the customer’s minutest movements and gaze, and my body acts reflexibility in response. My ears and eyes are important sensors to catch their every move and desire. Taking the utmost care not to cause the customer any discomfort by observing him or her too closely, I swiftly move my hands according to whatever signals I pick up.”
Keiko is not just socially awkward. We are never given a formal label but she struggles to empathise with any human emotions or actions. She is alienated by her inability to truly feel and experience what others do, but she has learned to fake it by copying others. She copies how others dress, speak and react, choosing new people to copy every so often who seem appropriate for her (in terms of age and station in life). This can lead to unintentionally comically or extreme moments.
The convenience store is a huge part of daily life in Japan. They’re like the old British corner shop (which is barely a thing anymore) but they all sell remarkably good quality hot and cold food that’s always fresh and always fully stocked. Murata includes a lot of the tiny details of these ubiquitous stores, making me feel like I was right back in Tokyo picking up a quick lunch (or emergency safety pins – it is super convenient to have these stores everywhere).
“ ‘Irasshaimase! Good morning!’
I love this moment. It feels like ‘morning’ itself is being loaded into me. The tinkle of the door chime as a customer comes in sounds like church bells to my ears. When I open the door, the brightly lit box awaits me – a dependable, normal world that keeps turning. I have faith in the world inside the light-filled box.”
Keiko tries hard to be the best convenience store worker she can be, and it’s never quite clear if this is because she thinks it’s important to help other people or because this job is the only thing she knows how to do and she doesn’t want to lose it. Her problems begin when her small group of friends and family unintentionally persuade her that continuing to hold down the same job is not enough, and she seeks to do more with her life.
The step she takes to fix this perceived problem is clearly a terrible idea from the start. And, like the rest of the book, the way it plays out is funny, touching and sometimes shocking.
Keiko can be uncomfortable company to keep. It is surprisingly difficult to empathise with a lack of empathy. But Murata does an excellent job of conveying Keiko’s view of the world.
Konbini ningen published 2016 by Bungeishunju.
This translation published 2018 by Portobello Books.