What is it to be normal? What are the rules of life that we need to learn and abide by in order to live a life in which both our own needs and the expectations of society are satisfied?With a host of literary prizes to her name, Sayaka Murata’s 10th novel Convenience Store Woman earned her the Prestigious Akutagawa Prize in 2016, a year in which she was also listed by Japan Vogue as one of its women of the year. Titled ‘Convenience Store People’ in its original Japanese, ‘Convenience Store Woman’ is the first of her novels to be translated from Japanese to English and has become an International Bestseller.
The central character, Keiko Furukura, relishes every moment of her job as a Convenience Store worker. Not only is she efficient and conscientious, she’s in tune with the heartbeat of the store, understanding and anticipating its every needs, attentive, caring and responsible just as a mother with a new born child. Her sense of responsibility and duty to the store consumes her life to the extent that Keiko ensures she’s in peak physical and mental condition, eats nourishing food, which inevitably she buys from the store, and gains plenty of sleep. She dreams about the store and whenever she needs comfort in her life, she retreats back to the store in her mind. Indeed, Keiko considers herself to be ‘as much a part of the store as the magazine racks or coffee machine.’ When she realises that she hasn’t drunk water from the store for 2 weeks, she becomes almost grief stricken as the water molecules in her body which until that moment were sourced from the store are being replaced. Her connection with the store is weakening. She’s being diluted. which of course is far from the truth. Even as a child, the therapist created a story about the source of Keiko’s behaviour ie. It must be her family environment, when in fact she had a stable, loving family. Based on stereotypes, these imagined fictions not only cover up the actual truth, they prevent further investigation and offering up the support that is required.
As with all good fiction, Sayaka Murata holds a mirror up to the world asking us to reflect on how we balance the rules of societies with the needs, desires and personalities of individuals. How do we nurture and harness the talents of individuals not only for the benefit of society but to help us all flourish and find our place in the world? How do we perceive and accommodate outsiders who do not fit into the norm and if we are outsiders, how do we find our place without creating conflict?Keiko has in fact found the perfect compromise within the store. The 2 weeks training that all employees have to undergo before they’re let loose on the customers in the store involves practicing phrases, smiling, posture and if she waivers, given advice and corrected. Whilst for some this may seem constraining or downright demeaning for Keiko it’s a blessing.
‘first time anyone had ever taught me how to accomplish a normal facial expression and manner of speech.’Within the store she can fulfil the expectations of others. The rules are clear. In her mind Keiko has had two lives, one which was confusing within which she struggled to know the rules and the one after she was ‘reborn. As she says;
’ ‘for the first time ever, I felt I’d become a part in the machine of society. I’d been reborn as a Convenience Store worker.. that day I actually became a normal cog in society.’
Many of us would shudder at the thought of becoming a cog. The question ultimately becomes whether Keiko should be the one to change or society change its view of her. But as opposed to Shiraha who’s outsider status and battle with the world manifests itself in misogyny and hate towards the world fuelled by his narcissistic nature, blaming everyone else for his problems, Keiko’s desire for acceptance free of conflict and ultimately being true to herself, is fuelled by her own willingness to find the solutions and find a compromise.
Sayaka Murata hasn’t tried to pathologise Keiko, indeed labelling Keiko may be a stereotype that the author is attempting to steer us away from. Rather she has created a character with a rational view of life to explore what might happen if societies rules perceived rational rules are taken to their logical conclusion.
In an increasingly globalised world and one in which it’s common to change jobs, move away from family and friends or even migrate to a different country, the idea of what is normal within the new community becomes even more apparent. Not only is Convenience Store Woman a beautifully written story about a quirky character trying to find her place in society, it certainly gives us pause for thought.Translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori Published by Portobello Books 2018. 163 pages (Original published in 2016) Sunita Crawley is a fiction blogger and member of the Books Without Borders Bookclub