Convenience Store Woman by Sayaka Murata

Normalcy is highly overrated in Sayaka Murata’s quirky novella.

Author info

Sayaka Murata is the author of many books, and she won the Akutagawa Award for Convenience Store Woman, which was inspired by her real-life job experience. She has been included in Freeman’s “Future of New Writing” issue, and Vogue Japan selected her as Woman of the Year in 2016. She still works part-time at a konbini.

British translator Ginny Tapley Takemori has translated works by more than a dozen Japanese writers, including From the Fatherland, with Love by Ryū Murakami,Puppet Master by Miyuki Miyabe and The Whale that Fell in Love with a Submarine by Akiyuki Nosaka. She lives at the foot of a mountain in Eastern Japan.

Thirty-six-year-old Keiko Furukura is perfectly content with her life. She’s been working part-time at the Smile Mart convenience store since she was eighteen. As a woman in her late thirties who’s never been in a relationship or considered a professional career, Keiko knows she isn’t normal, has known since childhood that her family thinks there’s something wrong with her that needs to be “cured.” So, after a few grade school incidents, she becomes quiet and unobtrusive, doing her best not to draw attention to herself, making no deep friendships but no real enemies either. She continues to feel slightly out of step with the world through her college days, until she goes into intensive training for the opening of a brand-new Smile Mart location. Her first day at work is life-changing: “for the first time ever, I felt I’d become a part in the machine of society. I’ve been reborn, I thought. That day, I actually became a normal cog in society.”

Keiko is great at her job. Her instincts are finely tuned to the ins and outs of daily convenience store life. She knows just the right pitch and volume to use with customers, from greeting them when they enter, to thanking them for their purchase. She uses this same instinct to get along with a rotating stream of co-workers and managers, imitating their vocal inflections and style habits in order to maintain smooth, congenial interactions at work. But Keiko’s family and friends worry that she’s wasting her life. They pressure her to find a man before it’s too late, and to find a real, respectable job. Things come to a head when a new worker joins the Smile Mart team, and Keiko makes a dramatic decision that leads her down the path to a conventional life. Her family, friends and co-workers are overjoyed to see that she finally has a future—but is that really what she wants?

The novella’s setting is thoroughly Japanese, and touches on some of the big issues facing society today, particularly Japan’s birth rate and employment problems. But the story’s social commentary is a low background hum against the high, mesmerizing strangeness of its protagonist. Keiko’s an off-beat, hard-to-forget heroine who packs a big punch, despite the book’s slender 163 pages. Japan-savvy readers will find themselves right at home in the familiar rhythms of the Smile Mart konbini, including the greeting shouts of “Irasshaimase,” which translator Ginny Tapley Takemori reproduces for English readers. The book is full of uncanny depictions of the clean, well-ordered Japanese convenience store. In Murata’s hands, the konbini is a world of dreamy perfection, enviably efficient and perpetually stocked to fulfill every customer’s up-to-the-moment needs. Yet the store is also eerily vacant of its own personality, and nothing about it remains from its first days. Other than Keiko, every single employee and commodity has changed many times over since the store’s opening. And despite how perfectly she fits in, Keiko realizes how easily she, too, can be replaced. Readers, on the other hand, will be hard-pressed to find a substitute for this book.

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