Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata is a rare book. Imminently readable, absurd, laugh-out-loud funny, yet profound. And it’s the winner of the Akutagawa Prize, Japan’s most prestigious literary award. As a child Keiko, our heroine, is different. Unnervingly so. Particularly in a society where conformity is the ideal. ‘Normal’ is what everyone is striving for and when Keiko starts to work in a convenience store, ‘normal’ seems within reach. But being ‘normal’ eventually involves marrying and having children, which she’s not even remotely interested in. As pressure mounts, Keiko needs to find a solution.
At ‘Smile Mart’, Keiko learns to bow and greet the customers, restock the shelves, and operate the check-out tills, just like a robot. In fact, she becomes a kind of composite person, an amalgamation of her colleagues and the store’s instruction manual.
I looked around and saw a man approaching with lots of discounted rice balls in his basket. ‘Irasshaimase!’ I called in exactly the same tone as before and bowed, then took the basket from him. At that moment, for the first ever, I felt I’d become a part in the machine of society.
Being ‘normal’, however, is not enough. As a woman, ‘normal’ also involves marrying and producing off-spring. So after 18 years in the convenience store, an existence Keiko finds quite comforting, the pressure to marry becomes unbearable.
Murata’s novel, dressed up as an innocent little story, is anything but. It’s a stinging satire on Japanese society, how women are viewed, conformity and identity. It’s a direct comment on Japan’s declining birth rate and increasing number of women choosing to forgo marriage and children in return for their freedom. I loved Murata’s deadpan humour, the naivety of the language contrasted with the simmering anger beneath. If you enjoy offbeat, I’d recommend adding this to your summer reading list.
Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata is translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori and published by Grove Press, 163 pages.
Interested in more reviews of Japanese fiction? Try Colourless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami or Out by Natsuo Kirino.