Translated from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori, ‘Convenience Store Woman’ by Sayaka Murata tells the story of Keiko Furukura, a socially awkward woman in her mid-thirties who has been working at the Hiiromachi Station Smile Mart shop for the past eighteen years. She feels under pressure from others, particularly her family, to appear “normal” and meet society’s expectations, by which she must find a career with more prospects or get married and have children.
The prose in ‘Convenience Store Woman’ is much easier to digest compared to the other book I read for Women in Translation month Flights by Olga Tokarczuk. This short and darkly comic tale is also more firmly rooted in realism, which is likely to be influenced by the fact that the author herself has worked part-time in a convenience store for a number of years, and I think it will appeal to fans of The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami – another example of quirky contemporary Japanese fiction in a retail setting.
Keiko is satisfied with what she does for a living. However, even though she finds it difficult to read other people’s emotions, she still worries about their reactions to her status as a single woman without career ambitions which makes her something of an outcast in Japanese society. The convenience store itself is convenient for Keiko in that its strict protocols and the predictability of her job appeal to her desire for routine whilst also allowing her to blend in with her surroundings in a way that she struggles to achieve in her personal life. It is a reliable and unchanging environment where Keiko finds it easy to integrate and be seen as “normal” with clear instructions to follow about how to interact with customers. The irony is that the rest of the world outside the shop also has very specific and rigid ideas about how women in their thirties should live their lives but Keiko doesn’t follow this type of “rule” as easily as what’s expected of her at work.
Convenience is depicted in other forms too. Keiko tries to help Shiraha, a feckless former colleague who was fired from his job because he refused to obey instructions and doesn’t find satisfaction in the store’s corporate identity in the way that Keiko does. They are in a similar situation as unmarried singletons under pressure from others to find a partner yet Shiraha is also quick to criticise Keiko for her life choices. Shiraha moves in with Keiko and she uses his presence in order to fend off questions from others and add to the pretence that she is “normal”, far from the happily-ever-after scenario that others may wish for her.
Instead, the real romance (or horror, if you prefer) of the story lies in Keiko’s devotion to the Smile Mart and I particularly enjoyed the ironic contrast between Keiko’s deadpan observations and the cheerful corporate slogans of her workplace. I hope to see more of Murata’s work translated into English very soon.