Convenience Store Woman is the heartwarming and surprising story of thirty-six-year-old Tokyo resident Keiko Furukura. Keiko has never fit in, neither in her family, nor in school, but when at the age of eighteen she begins working at the Hiiromachi branch of “Smile Mart,” she finds peace and purpose in her life. In the store, unlike anywhere else, she understands the rules of social interaction ― many are laid out line by line in the store’s manual ― and she does her best to copy the dress, mannerisms, and speech of her colleagues, playing the part of a “normal” person excellently, more or less. Managers come and go, but Keiko stays at the store for eighteen years. It’s almost hard to tell where the store ends and she begins. Keiko is very happy, but the people close to her, from her family to her coworkers, increasingly pressure her to find a husband, and to start a proper career, prompting her to take desperate action…
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata (translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori) is certainly an interesting book – especially in light of the fact that I’ve spent the last two years swimming in the miasma of gender and cultural expectations that plague our main character.
The basic premise is that there is a woman who works at a convenience store, who is quite happy to work in a convenience store, and who would likely work at a convenience store for the rest of her life if it weren’t for the society’s various pressures. I’ve been in Japan long enough to know that this is a real problem facing women in this country; they can either be ‘career women’, if they have a fulltime job with a corporate ladder to climb, or they can be ‘family women’ who devote themselves entirely to running a home with a husband and children. Many of my students at the university don’t have much in the way of future plans besides ‘Marry a rich man’, while others are pursuing careers that will allow them to interact with and assist rich men (nursing, legal assistants, accountants, etc). Even the female professors are almost universally unmarried – the only exception is a foreign woman who married a Japanese man and wanted to keep her independence. There are Japanese women who buck this trend, of course, but the two life paths are still deeply entrenched in the culture*.
Furukura isn’t interested in either of those life paths and that causes her family and friends a lot of distress. Now, Furukura has trouble understanding emotions and empathising. I thought at first that the author was coding her as autistic, but there weren’t any sensory sensitivities, so in the end I read her more as a psychopath than someone on the spectrum. One of her coworkers is a misogynistic stalker who uses his job to prey on women, and when he’s railing against the expectations that are settled on him as a Japanese man – get a good job, get married, support the family, etc – Furukura decides the best thing is for them to get married to appease their families and friends.
The only problem I have with the exploration of cultural/gender expectations in Convenience Store Woman is that fact that the characters who question these expectations are coded as literally mentally ill (and potentially a danger to others). Everyone else adheres unquestioningly – even Furukura’s sister, who’d seemed to support Furukura and even helped her pass as typical, breaks down in tears towards the end of the novella because she can’t understand why Furukura can’t be cured. The word ‘cured’ actually got thrown around a lot, which squicked me a bit. It kind of left me with the feeling that, in this story’s universe, people who want to consider a life outside of the norm must have something terribly, irreversibly wrong with them.
It’s a novella, so it’s a short read, and certainly interesting if you’re looking for a quasi-romantic relationship between a human woman and a brick and mortar combini. If gross man-babies make you furious, then you might want to skip this one.
Next month is Oceania, and I’ll be reading Growing Up Aboriginal in Australia, edited by Anita Heiss
*Men are under even more pressure, since they are expected to get a good enough job that their single salary will support a family, and their work/life balance is a joke so they hardly get to see the wife and children that they work so hard for. Young men are often not taught basic things like how to cook and clean for themselves, because the expectation is that they’ll be going to restaurants, etc, until they can secure a wife to do it for them.
PS – I love writing and I love eating! If you want to help with the latter (and ONLY if you want) you can maybe buy me a coffee? 🙂