Convenience Store Woman has sold over a million copies in Japan, and was translated into English last year. When I first saw this book in a bookshop, I knew I had to buy it. I was instantly captured by the blurb and cover – a picture of a soy sauce fish that comes with takeaway sushi around the world. As a Japanese person, I’ll always have an affinity for my own country, even though I left when I was just three months old. I’ve grown up with traditional Japanese parents, and go back at least once a year to visit family.
Will I ever live in Japan long-term, however? No. I’m too Westernised and I certainly wouldn’t fit in. Whenever I go back, I feel like a foreigner trying to speak Japanese because I’ve got an Aussie twang to my Japanese. There are also certain parts of the culture that I simply dislike. The Japanese are very much about propriety and keeping up appearances. It often feels fake to me. You don’t always know how Japanese people really feel because they are so polite and don’t want to offend anyone. Convenience Store Woman is celebrated for its witty and deadpan humour, but for me it is so much more than that. In fact, I found the undertones to be quite grim.
It’s a short book that I read in one afternoon, and I consider myself a slow reader. There is a lot to be gleaned ‘between the lines’. It explores the life of protagonist Keiko, who is clearly on the autism spectrum. Although her ‘illness’ is never explicitly mentioned in the book, Keiko struggles to understand people, and can’t cope outside her structured life as a convenience store worker. The author herself spent eighteen years working in a convenience store before taking up writing full time, which allows her to describe the daily running of the store in such delightful detail.
The book is much more than a woman’s difficulty to meet her family and friends’ expectations; it is a sociopolitical satire of broader Japanese society and its pressure to conform. Keiko just wants to be ‘fixed’ and be ‘normal’. It implores us to question, “what is normal?”. When Keiko encounters another social misfit, Shiraha, and they try to be ‘normal’ she finds herself miserable. She suggests a marriage out of convenience so that they can get people off their backs about being middle-aged with low-status jobs, still single, and childless. However she finds herself with a man who is misogynistic, disenfranchised, and antisocial (bordering on psychopathy). In their frequent contretemps, we hear Keiko’s feminist voice emerge, challenging Japan’s attitudes toward gender roles and equality.
Lastly, Convenience Store Woman is a book about identity, including sexual identity. Keiko has no interest in sex. She’s repulsed by it, even. It represents some of the social issues in Japan, which has a decreasing population and a high rate of sexless (and possibly loveless) marriages. Murata writes in a compassionate way about Keiko, which allows the reader to accept Keiko exactly as she is. In some ways there is a sadness about Keiko’s reliance on her job to give her a sense of identity and purpose, but maybe we shouldn’t judge people if that’s how they lead happy lives.
Whilst I’ve discussed some of the darker themes in Convenience Store Woman, the book itself is easy to read, with both a lightness and directness in Murata’s language. She is so blunt at times that sometimes you can’t help but laugh at the absurdity and audacity of her words. I hope that her other books will also be translated to English, and I look forward to the next instalment. If you’re looking for a short, refreshing read, this book is it.