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Sayaka Murata: ンビニ人間 (Convenience Store Woman)

In Japan as in most or, most likely, all other countries, society and families impose certain norms on people. People are expected to follow these norms and, if they do not, they can find themselves derided, excluded and condemned. Many worthy tomes have been written on this subject as it is a complex one. However, there are two obvious examples of these norms which apply not only in Japan but in may other countries. The first is that, as an adult, you are expected to get married and, by extension, have children. The second, particularly for men but more and more for women, is that you are expected to get a good job. If you fail to do one or both of these, it is quite likely that society and/or your family will not approve and you will be excluded in some way.

Keiko Furukura is one of these. She works in a convenience store as does Sayaka Murata. As a child she never really got societal norms. Everyone thought I was a rather strange child. When a fight broke out among boys at her school, she hit one of the boys over the head with a shovel. It stopped the fight and she expected that her behaviour would be approved. Not surprisingly, it was not, either by the teacher or her parents. There were other instances of such lack of awareness of what society expected.

When she started university, she noticed a new convenience store opening up – Smile Mart – and applied to work there. Eighteen years later she is still there. Her parents are somewhat disappointed that she never got a proper job and they are also disappointed that she has never even had a boyfriend, let alone a husband. Her younger sister is married with a child but Keiko lives alone on a small flat, with scarcely nay friends.

Keiko knows her job. She knows when to put out what products, what sort of person will buy what, how to promote particular products. The store has a manual for staff regarding their behaviour and Keiko follows it to the letter and assists new employees in doing the same. I still don’t have a clue how to be a normal person outside that manual. She essentially only eats food she purchases from the store, lives a solitary life, seeing only her sister and her parents and has no romantic relationships.

My present self is formed almost completely of the people around me, she states. In other words, she is entirely influenced by he people who work in the store and they, of course, change regularly. She does make one friend – Miho – but they do not see each other often. When someone is required to stand in at the last moment and work extra hours, she is always the first to volunteer.

Then Shiraha comes to work there. Shiraha is a man in his mid-thirties, an unusual employee for the store, where most of the employees are students, married women looking to earn some pin money or those in professions such as musicians, where work is irregular. Shiraha is lazy, does not follow the manual and is highly critical of everyone and everything. Everyone here is a stupid loser. It’s the same in any convenience store. You’ll only find housewives who can’t get by on their husbands’ salary, job-hoppers without plans for the future, and the crappiest students who can’t get better jobs like being a home tutor. As for Keiko he calls her second-hand goods. Even if you are a virgin, you’re grubby. You’re like a Stone Age woman past childbearing age who can’t get married and is left to just hang around the village, of no use to anyone, just a burden. I’m a man, so I can still make a comeback, but there’s no hope for you.

Meanwhile, her family are trying to persuade her to find a man and even suggest a dating site but she is not interested. Indeed, she is quite happy being what she is, as she knows her limits, knows her job and knows what to do with her life.

Shiraha reveals that his main reason for working in the store – one that Keiko had not heard before and she had heard many – was to find a wife. Look, anyone who doesn’t fit in with the village loses any right to privacy. They’ll trample all over you as they please. You either get married and have kids or go hunting and earn money, and anyone who doesn’t contribute to the village in one of these forms is a heretic. Shiraha is a heretic, rejected by his family. However, there is no woman suitable to be his wife at the store and soon, by mutual agreement, Shiraha and the store go their separate ways.

Keiko and the store go back to the way they were and life resumes its normality again, at least as far as Keiko is concerned. Then Shiraha turns up again, still looking for a wife but also looking for a way to hide from the world.

Sayaka Murata did and, apparently, still does work in a convenience store so she knows what she is talking about. While life in a convenience store may not seem to be the stuff of great literature, Murata tells her story well so much so that we cannot fail to feel for her and even admire her, the way she finds her path in life and sticks to it. She is, as she firmly maintains throughout the book, a convenience store worker and nothing else. She does not want a husband/boyfriend nor does she want a better job. She is very happy having found her niche and wishes to stay there. She knows how to be a convenience store worker and knows it very well. She does not know, as she readily admits, how to be anything else, both professionally or socially. Yes, she changes but she changes under the influence of the people who work in the store.

Sayaka Murata may be just a convenience store worker but she is also, clearly, a good writer as this book, despite an apparently less than promising subject, really does work. There is a slight element of humour in it, but not much. Above all it is about how someone finds her niche, ordinary though it may be, is happy in it and does not wish to change. Perhaps we could all wish for something similar.

Publishing history

First published in 2016 by Bungei Shunjū
First English translation in 2018 by Grove Books/Portobello Books