(2018 translation from the Japanese by Ginny Tapley Takemori)
Keiko Furukura isn’t a convenience store worker, she is part of a convenience store. “I was wasting time talking like this. I had to get myself back in shape for the sake of the store. I had to restructure my body so it would be able to move more swiftly and precisely to replenish the refrigerated drinks or clean the floor, to more perfectly comply with the store’s demands”. Keiko is content living as a cell in a convenience store, but her family and her (very few) friends are not content. “‘Keiko, aren’t you married yet?’ ‘No, I’m not.’ ‘Really? But…you’re not still stuck in the same job, are you? ‘ I thought for a moment. I knew it was considered weird for someone of my age not not have either a proper job or be married because my sister had explained it to me.” Keiko has to have things explained to her because she truly has no idea how to be ‘normal’. She mimics other people. “I’d noticed soon after starting the job that whenever I got angry at the same things as everyone else, they all seemed happy…Now, too, I felt reassured by the expression on Mrs. Izumi and Sugawara’s faces: Good, I pulled off being a ‘person’. I’d felt similarly reassured any number of times here in the convenience store.’
Keiko has worked part-time at the Hiiromachi Station Smile Mart for eighteen years. Five or more mornings each week, Keiko recites the shop pledge and the six most important phrases for customers. Then she follows her routine; restocking shelves, working the till, shouting greetings and the details of the daily specials at the top of her lungs. (Those daily specials include such delights as the mango chocolate bun and chocolate-melon soda). At night Keiko nourishes and rests herself in her tiny, cockroach-ridden apartment so that she can efficiently serve the store the following day. On her days off she visits her friends, not because she enjoys doing so, but because it’s the only connection she has “to the world outside the convenience store” and it seems to be the normal thing to do. These friends, and particularly their husbands, think that Keiko is very odd indeed, but she doesn’t notice. Her sister is at her wit’s end. “‘Ever since you started working at the convenience store, you’ve gotten weirder and weirder. The way you talk, the way you yell out at home as if you were still in the store, and even your facial expressions are weird. I’m begging you. Please try to be normal!’ She began crying even harder. ‘So, will I be cured if I leave the convenience store? Or am I better staying working there? And should I kick Shiraha out? Or am I better with him here? Look, I’ll do whatever you say. I don’t mind either way, so please just instruct me in specific terms.
There are hints that Keiko, lacking understanding and emotion, could be dangerous. She hits a boy with a shovel and thinks how easy it would be to silence a crying baby with a knife.
In order to be more socially acceptable, Keiko has moved a male former co-worker, the ghastly Shiraha, into her apartment. It’s a beautiful relationship. (Shiraha speaks: “People who are considered normal enjoy putting those who aren’t on trial, you know. But if you kick me out now, they’ll judge you even more harshly, so you have no choice but to keep me around,’ Shiraha gave a thin laugh. ‘I always did want revenge, on women who are allowed to become parasites just because they’re women. I always thought to myself that I’d be a parasite one day. That’d show them. And I’m going to be a parasite on you, Furukura, whatever it takes.’ I didn’t have a clue what he was going on about. ‘Well anyway, what about your feed? I put it on to boil, and it should be done now.’ ‘I’ll eat it here. Bring it to me, please.’ I did as he said and put the boiled vegetables and white rice on a plate and took it into the bathroom. ‘Close the door behind you, will you?'” )
Shiraha’s endless references to the Stone Age don’t bore Keiko particularly. Nor does she understand them. Shiraha again: “‘ That’s why contemporary society is dysfunctional. They might mumble nice things about diversity of lifestyles and whatnot, but in the end nothing has changed since prehistoric times. With the birthrate in decline, society is regressing rapidly to the Stone Age, and it’ s going beyond life just being uncomfortable. Society has reached the stage in which not being of any use to the village means being condemned just for existing.’ Shiraha wasn’t just picking on me; he was openly expressing his fury against society. I wasn’t sure which of us he was angrier with. He seemed to be just throwing out words randomly at whatever happened to be in his sights.”
Due to her new relationship, and to her amazement, Keiko, becomes an object of interest to her co-workers. “I was shocked by their reaction. As a convenience store worker, I couldn’t believe they were putting gossip about store workers before a promotion in which chicken skewers that usually sold at 130 yen were to be put on sale at the special price of 110 yen. What on earth had happened to the pair of them?”
Convenience Store Woman is often called funny, comical. It is, but in the wry manner of Flannery O’Connor, John Kennedy Toole or the Evelyn Waugh of “The Loved One” (although these were greater authors of the grotesque than Murata (yet?) is.) It is also a perceptive study in, to use the woke term, ‘neurodiversity’. At a mere 163 pages, Convenience Store Woman is just the right length, best downed in one gulp, like a chocolate-melon soda. Unlike the soda though, it’s worth trying.