What roles are considered acceptable for the Japanese woman in today’s society? Ah, the neverending conundrum. Sayaka Murata tackles this issue through addictively humorous prose in the novel “Convenience Store Woman,” also known as “Konbini Ningen” (コンビニ人間) in Japanese print.
The story unfolds from the standpoint of Keiko Furukura, a 36-year-old part-timer who, at the beginning of the story, has spent the last 18 years of her life at the fictional convenience store “Smile Mart.” But that’s not what makes the story absurd; it’s the fact that she has spent the last 18 years loving her job.
Dedicated Part-timers Get no Honor
From the get-go, Keiko is introduced as an oddball, barely understanding social cues but knowing enough to have learned from her previous faux pas, including an episode back when she was in grade school where she hit a classmate in the head with a spade to stop them from fighting. Keiko has also learned to adapt clothing style and patterns of speech from her colleagues, mixing whenever needed, and adjusting according to how her speech and actions are received.
As we follow Keiko through her meticulous daily life, we are shown what makes her problematic in Japanese society. As an adult working a part-time job, the identity she occupies in the public sphere is a puzzle to the people surrounding her. In Japan, working at a convenience store is considered one of the most undesirable jobs. While traditionally it attracts university students, in recent years, job posts are commonly filled by housewives, foreign students and the elderly. The idea is that the job is not something one considers for long-term employment. It is a secondary priority that one does on the side for extra money, or if your living conditions prevent you from working full-time, like taking care of an elderly parent.
In the story, while technically the term “part-time” applies to Keiko because she is paid an hourly wage, her work is anything but. She works on as many days and as many shifts as she can, frequently volunteering to cover others when they are unavailable.
In many ways, Keiko’s work ethic is what Japanese companies hope to get from their seishain (regular employees). The Japanese concept of ikigai—one’s sense of purpose—is ideally tied to one’s job or company, but this romantic notion traditionally applies to men, who can continue working uninterrupted by neither childbirth nor childcare, as these domestic functions are “honorably” relegated to women. Keiko therefore disrupts the hegemonic belief by 1) being a dedicated, veteran part-timer and 2) being a woman. Which leads us to Keiko’s second problematic aspect: she is a single woman in her late thirties.
The Tragedy that is Singlehood
Every year Japan slips further and further down the gender equality ranking run by the World Economic Forum, the latest position being 110th out of 149 nations surveyed. It’s a result that marks as no surprise. As ridiculous as it sounds, Japanese politicians today still get away unscathed from sexist remarks such as, “Women need to wear heels in the workplace,” or that “Women need to make babies to contribute to society.”
As such, Keiko’s singlehood comes up as an issue several times in the novel. People around her express that their concern over Keiko’s lack of a relationship, as if her being single is a pressing problem that needs to be solved.
As the story develops, we meet a male character who is introduced as both pathetic and disgusting. Shiraha, temporarily becomes a worker at Smile Mart only to express his disdain for the menial job at every chance he gets. He eventually gets fired for stalking a female customer.
At first, Keiko’s colleagues express outrage and disgust at Shiraha’s antics, which she dutifully copies. When they meet later in the story, however, Keiko invites Shiraha to move in with her, in an effort to keep up appearances.
Whatever disgust Shiraha harbored from Keiko’s colleagues is replaced by joy as soon as they find out that the two are now cohabiting. Suddenly, everyone insists on going on a meal with him, and they are more than excited for a chance to see him again. Similarly, Keiko’s sister and a rather distanced circle of friends celebrate what they believed to be a new relationship.
This ironic turn of events is a stab at the persisting idea of happiness—that people can only find true joy with a partner in life. People tend to be more preoccupied with the idea of a union that who the other half of the pair is matters less than being coupled itself. In Japan, as it is in many other parts of the world, singlehood remains an anomaly, and being in a relationship, no matter how miserable one may be in it, is still preferrable.
A Timely Novel
By showing the issues Keiko faces, author Sayaka Murata highlights some of the unreasonable standards Japanese women are measured against in today’s society. It challenges pervasive ideas about work and gender, and in the process draws attention to the multiplicity of ways of living. Part-time work can be just as fulfilling a career as a full-time position, and singlehood is by no means a problem to be solved. It’s a timely piece that slices through heavyweight social issues with biting humor.
However, if there is one thing I find problematic with the novel is that at times, Keiko is depicted as bordering on psychopathic. In one scene, we find her thinking that stabbing a baby is the best way to silence it. While Keiko being clueless about societal norms is hilarious, it also works against normalizing the issues she faces.
In today’s Japanese society, you don’t need to be a psychopath to be single and have an unstable career. I dare say that all it really takes to be in the same situation is to be average. Perhaps, if we gave this more thought and the discussion it warrants, we can find more acceptance for the different ways of being.
English Title: Convenience Store Woman
Author: Sayaka Murata
Translated by: Ginny Tapley Takemori
Length: 163 pages
Paperback, hardbound and e-book versions are available on Amazon Japan