Convenience Store Woman by Sayana Murata, the short novel and winner of Japan’s most prestigious literary award, the Akutagawa prize, was for me a captivating and compulsive read, but ultimately lacked the emotional clout of similar Japanese novels like I Want to Kick You in the Back by Risa Wataya or, in particular, The Nakano Thrift Shop by Hiromi Kawakami which shares many of the Convenience Store Woman‘s quirky and eccentric qualities.
The heroine is a 36-year-old woman, Keiko Furukura, who, as a child, stopped two classmates from fighting by bashing them over the head with a shovel. Later Keiko stopped a female teacher’s hysterics by pulling down the woman’s skirt and knickers, behaviour that alarmed the authorities and her parents.
By adulthood, it was quite clear that Keiko was a little odd, and in an effort to appear normal she got a job at a convenience store. Here, Keiko’s carefully crafted veneer of normality only emphasised her abnormalities as she created a stripped-down, pure version of Japan’s conservative society around herself.
In her world, Keiko exists inside but also outside of Japan’s preordained life plan of work, marriage and children. She has no partner, no husband or interest in having one, no interest in sex and no life or interests outside of The Smile Mart, the convenience store she has worked at since it opened in 1998 when she was 18 years old. She eats food bought from the store, keeps herself fit and healthy in order to work well and defines herself proudly as a ‘cog in the wheel’ – and as long as her particular cog keeps turning, she is happy.
To allay suspicion and avoid finger-pointing Keiko adopts the style of speech and phrases of her co-workers and often repeats the same phrases back to them. She shops where they shop and buys dresses and handbags by the same designers but is careful enough to select ones in different colours or with similar designs so not to be thought copying or, perish the thought, displaying abnormal behaviour. Her sister also devises a number of phrases that Keiko can use to dispel criticism and divert probing questions about her private life; or rather her complete lack of life outside of the convenience store.
This charade works well until the arrival of Shiraha, a part-timer who looks down on his co-workers at the convenience store, who he regards as losers. Aside from this and being especially lazy, his speciality is stalking female customers in the hope of finding a woman rich enough to look after him so he doesn’t have to work anymore…
Funny and impossible to put down Convenience Store Woman is as much a clever attack on Japan’s work and marriage ethic as it is on our concepts of normality. It is also a radical championing in praise of the hidden eccentrics and nonconformists that lurk in the most normal of places, even convenience stores. Highly recommended.