Convenience Store People
Bungeishunju, 2016 [not available in English translation]
コンビニ人間 (Convenience Store People) won the 155th Akutagawa Prize in July. I usually pass over the Akutagawa Prize winners as they tend to be “serious literary works” that leave me depressed. However, many of the comments on bookmeter about コンビニ人間 ran along the lines of “This book may have won the Akutagawa Prize, but it was interesting,” so I thought it was worth a try.
I was also drawn in by the Japan Time’s description of Sayaka Murata as a “convenience store worker who moonlights as an author.” Murata plans to continue her part-time work at a convenience store because the job provides her with both book ideas and a routine.
(If you’re imagining the typical American convenience stores with their grungy floors, stale food and oversized drinks, think again. You can read about what convenience stores in Japan are all about here.)
The novel starts when Keiko is in her late 30s or, more importantly in her mind, 19 years after she was “born as a convenience store worker.” Although her memories of the period before this rebirth are vague, Keiko does know that she was born into an “ordinary home and raised lovingly in the ordinary way.” Nevertheless, she has always been strange and felt out of place.
When she was in kindergarten, she found a dead bird in the park. The other children cried over the bird, but Keiko grabbed it up and took it to her mother, suggesting that they grill it for her father since he likes grilled chicken. Her mother tries to redirect her by acting out a burial with the other children, but Keiko can only think of how wasteful this is, and how hypocritical it is to cry over a dead bird and then “murder” flowers to put on the grave.
In first grade, Keiko intervenes in a fight between two boys by grabbing a shovel and hitting one of the boys over the head until he couldn’t move anymore. She explains to her shocked teachers that the other children were yelling for someone to stop the fight, and her approach was the fastest way. After several similar episodes, she realizes that she is just worrying her parents and always ends up having to apologize for things she is not sorry for, so she decides to talk as little as possible outside of her home and either imitate others or wait for instructions. This seems to relieve everyone concerned.
Working in the convenience store, where everything has its proper place and a manual standardizes every movement, gives her a kind of contentment. Keiko learns how to greet customers and make the right facial expressions by studying a store poster showing smiling faces. She models her behavior, her clothes and her mannerisms on her co-workers, looking in their lockers to check the tags on their coats and labels on their shoes and then buying the same. This strategy lets her pass in “normal” society, but doesn’t allay the concerns of her high-school friends and sister over her unmarried state.
When Shiraha, a sullen and awkward young man, joins the convenience store staff, he upsets the store’s equilibrium. Keiko tries her best to train him, but when she teaches him how to neatly arrange products on the shelves, he protests that men are not suited to this kind of work: “Ever since the Jomon period [14,000 – 300 BCE], men have gone out to hunt and women have protected the home and gone out to collect berries and wild grass. Women’s brain structure makes them suited for this kind of work.” Keiko doesn’t take this personally and, true to form, just tells him that “Convenience store employees are not men or women, but just store employees.”
Needless to say, Shiraha does not last long in this line of work, but Keiko decides that a paper marriage with Shiraha would satisfy social norms, reassure her family and friends, and give Shiraha a refuge at the same time. We know from the beginning that there is no way this will end well. Keiko and Shiraha respond to their sense of isolation in opposing ways: Keiko by mirroring those around her and Shiraha by ostracizing everyone around him with his inflated sense of self-importance so that, when he is inevitably isolated, he can blame others for it.
He is an unabashed misogynist, and yet even when he calls Keiko a dried-up, middle-aged virgin, his insults just bounce off of her. This is exactly what makes the book so interesting. Murata’s use of a first person narrative together with a narrator who has little self-awareness creates a sense of dislocation—we watch Keiko from a distance rather than with the sense of intimacy that a first-person narrator usually creates. We cannot quite relate to her, and yet the “normal” people in the story seem like horrific caricatures as they push her to conform to standards that seem arbitrary as seen from Keiko’s perspective. I was aghast at Shiraha’s views of the world, but gradually found that my disgust was tempered by an inability to relate to Keiko’s co-workers and friends, the supposed exemplars of normal society.
One of Shiraha’s pet theories is that the modern world is still stuck in the Jomon period:
I read history books to try and figure out when the world went wrong. You look back at the Meiji period, Edo period, Heian period, no matter how far you go back, the world is just on the wrong track—even if you go all the way back to the Jomon period! … And then I realized: the world is no different than it was during the Jomon period! People who are no use to the village are eliminated, both men who don’t go out hunting and women who don’t have babies. We keep talking about modern society and individualism but all along, people who don’t try to fit in are interfered with, forced into shape and ultimately pushed out of the village.
Keiko claims that “Unlike Shiraha, I just don’t care about most things. I don’t really have my own will, so I don’t mind just following along with village principles.” Even this modest ambition seemed to be beyond her reach, and in the end I couldn’t help but sympathize with Shiraha’s assertion that “This world does not recognize foreign objects. I’ve been forced to suffer from this for my whole life.” This novel serves as a condemnation of a society in which there is no place for people like Keiko and Shiraha.
So as not to end on too somber of a note (and there’s plenty of humor in this book), have a listen to the Konbini Store song!