Grove Press, 2016, 163 pages
Tokyo resident Keiko Furukara has never fit in - neither in her family, nor in school - but when at the age of 18 she begins working at the Hiiromachi branch of national convenience store chain Smile Mart, she realizes instantly that she has found her purpose in life. Delighted to be able to exist in a place where the rules of social interaction are crystal clear (many are laid out line-by-line in the store's manual), Keiko does her best to copy the dress, mannerisms, and mode of speech of her colleagues, playing the part of a "normal" person excellently, more or less.
Keiko is the perfect employee - never late, always worrying about how to maximize sales, brilliantly conscientious, and highly energetic. Managers come and go but Keiko remains at the store for 18 years. It's almost hard to tell where the store ends and she begins. At 36, Keiko is very happy in her life, but the people close to her, from her family to her coworkers, pressure her to settle down with a man and to find a proper profession. Eventually, she is pushed to make a huge change. The static world of Keiko is upended - but will it be for the better?
A brilliant depiction of an unusual psyche and an extraordinary world, Convenience Store Woman is both an ironic and sharp-eyed look at contemporary work culture and the pressures to conform, as well as a charming and completely fresh portrait of an unforgettable heroine.
“When I can’t sleep, I think about the transparent glass box that is still stirring with life even in the darkness of night. That pristine aquarium is still operating like clockwork. As I visualize the scene, the sounds of the store reverberate in my eardrums and lull me to sleep.”
This was a very short novel that I will try very hard not to compare to the Big M who is the one Japanese author most Westerners can name, but the elements I've noticed in other Japanese novels are very present here: the hyperfocus on minute details, on a character's train of thought, on long internal monologues about one's place in society.
This book had exactly zero long, indulgent descriptions of penises, vulvas, or nipples, though, so there is that. (Also, the author is a woman, so strangely enough her female protagonist isn't constantly studying herself in the mirror.)
Keiko Furukara is a strange one. She had a normal family life and a relatively happy childhood, but she was always the weird, overly-literal girl prone to disturbing her parents, teachers, and classmates. She relates a time when she was a child when she found a dead bird and insisted that her mother should cook it for dinner, and another time when she bashed an obnoxious boy over the head with a shovel and couldn't understand why everyone was so upset.
She grows up to become a convenience store worker, technically a part-timer, though she works there for eighteen years, six days a week. She never gets on the management track, she never looks for another job, and she never gets married, or even has any interest in a love life. She has no hobbies, no interests, and no outside life. She is a convenience store woman, and very happy at it. Her dedication and work ethic is very Japanese, and at the same time, it seems like a satire of traditional Japanese attitudes towards work: even her supervisors and fellow workers both admire her and think she's kind of strange and pitiful.
Some reviews refer to Keiko as autistic and/or asexual. Both seem accurate: Keiko reflects several times on her lack of interest in sex or romance, and she also refers to her deliberate attempts to copy other people's reactions in order to "pretend to be a human." Though autism is never directly mentioned, Keiko's sister and friends do bring up the possibility that she is asexual.
Keiko's contented, routine life, in which she knows every square inch of her store and what to do every minute of the day, is disrupted by a weird new employee named Shiraha, who is basically an angry incel. He rants about society, calling it a "Village" that hasn't changed since the stone age, and complains that only the strongest men get the women. While pitying himself for having to conform to the Village's expectations, he heaps contempt and derision on Keiko, for being an unmarriagieable, unfuckable loser. Although he claims women are useless if not having babies, he also rants about how much easier women's lives are. When he's not muttering these long polemics at Keiko, he's sexually harassing other female employees and customers, because he's hoping to find a wife.
Shiraha is an asshole loser, so of course he ends up moving in with Keiko and taking up a parasitic, ungrateful existence. Their relationship is completely nonsexual, and Keiko is completely blase about it, while also very intelligently observing all the holes in Shiraha's arguments, his hypocrisy, his general uselessness.
It is the reaction of her sister and coworkers, who at first are delighted that she is finally getting with someone, even a loser like Shiraha, that disrupts her life. She realizes, at last, that she has been pitied and is an object of contempt, not a "person" at all. By turning into a "female" — a woman attached in a (presumably) romantic relationship with a man, she ceases to be a Convenience Store Woman and has been slotted into society's narrow conception of her. When she resigns, after eighteen years, from her job, she becomes without purpose or meaning.
You eliminate the parts of your life that others find strange—maybe that's what everyone means when they say they want to "cure" me.
These past two weeks I'd been asked fourteen times why I wasn't married. And twelve times why I was still working part-time. So for now I'd decide what to eliminate from my life according to what I was asked about most often I thought.
Deep down I wanted some kind of change. Any change, whether good or bad, would be better than the state of impasse I was in now.
The internal reflections of Keiko and her attempting to grapple with a society that neither understands nor cares about her feelings were rendered elegantly in this short book. Keiko is a very sympathetic character, a very Japanese character. She has no grand epiphanies and there are no dramatic moments in this book, just a long character study disrupted by the entry of a jerk who messes everything up. But fear not, you can take the woman out of the convenience store, but you can't take the convenience store out of the woman.
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