On every corner in every city in Japan, you’ll find a convenience store. This is where urban Japanese go for the basic necessities of life: cans of tea and coffee, microwave ramen, socks, and disposable chopsticks. Behind the counter of the 7-11 or Lawson’s, you’ll find the combini: a convenience store worker.

Keiko Furukawa is a combini. She works at Smile Mart, a convenience store open 24/7 in a business district of Tokyo. Most combini are job hoppers, university students, foreigners or bored housewives. Keiko is 36 years old and single. She’s worked at the same Smile Mart for 18 years. Convenience Store Woman by Murata Sayaka is Keiko’s story.

Convenience Store Woman is Murata’s 10th novel but the first to be translated into English. The novel is a bestseller in Japan and winner of the prestigious Akutugawa Prize. Being a fan of Japanese fiction, I knew this book should be on my nightstand.

But I forced myself to delay the pleasure until I would be in Japan. Now that I’ve arrived and have spent time in plenty of Family Marts, I’m puzzled. I found Convenience Store Woman to be a slight novel with an overt message. What am I missing?

Funny or sad?

Keiko is a protagonist with no personality of her own. From the time she was a young child, Keiko has been told she’s a misfit. Her responses, say, to a dead bird or a naughty boy, do not align with what’s expected of her. She’s never learned how to arrange her face into a normal expression or speak as others do. In a convenience store, however, the combini are taught how to behave.

Standing shoulder to shoulder in a line, our backs straight, we lifted the corners of our mouths to match the smiling face in the training poster and in turn called out the stock welcoming phrase: Irasshaimase!

Murata Sayaka, Convenience Store Woman (Grove Press 2018)

Keiko copies the way the other combini talk or dress. The better her imitation, the more accepted she becomes. She thinks of herself as infected by her fellow combini and is grateful for their influence. It helps her pass herself off in the outside world as normal.

Reviewers in the east and the west read Convenience Store Woman as deadpan comedy. I find it deeply sad. There’s nothing funny to me about a conformist society that crushes every spark of individuality. Nor does it make me laugh to read about parents who want to fix their oddball child.

The only way Keiko can conform to society is to transform herself into a combini, a person whose sole function is to be convenient for others. The social commentary Murata offers is bitter black.

Love Story?

Other reviewers seem convinced that Convenience Store Woman is a romance. Not between Keiko and Shiraha, a former combini, but with the store itself. To underline her point, Murata published a love letter to a convenience store.

We’ll be having another date tomorrow morning. Lately I’ve been just going through the motions and wearing the same old jeans all the time, but tomorrow I’ll wear a brand new dress. I want you to dress up for me, too. Make sure you’re super clean, even inside your backroom refrigerator, okay?

Murata Sayaka, Love Letter to a Convenience Store, LitHub 14 June 2018

Unfortunately, the writer of this love letter has more personality than Keiko in the novel. If this had been her voice throughout the novel, I might have liked Convenience Store Woman better. Instead, we get flattened prose for Keiko and ranting by Shiraha, the would-be love interest. In not so subtle terms, Murata wants us to understand that conformity is bad.

The Far Side

The original Japanese title of Convenience Store Woman is Combini Ningen. The term is generic, implying neither male nor female, singular or plural. The translation choice raises interesting questions about the role of sexuality in this novel. Keiko has never kissed. She has no interest in sex of any kind or, for that matter, other humans.

Convenience Store Woman forces us to look at the other side of the counter. To reckon with the fact that the smiling combini so cheerfully ringing up your purchases is a person, not a robot. Perhaps a flawed one or, in the case of Keiko, an incomprehensible specimen, yet human all the same.

Murata takes us into the world of combini. See with their eyes. Listen with their ears. Anyone who’s ever been inside a Japanese convenience store will recognize it.

A convenience store is a world of sound. From the tinkle of the door chime to the voice of TV celebrities advertising new products over the in-store cable network, to the calls of the store workers, the beeps of the bar code scanners, the rustle of customers picking up items and placing them in baskets, and the clacking of heels walking around the store.

15 Nov 2019 | Karen Kao