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.