Convenience Store Woman

Title: Convenience Store Woman
Japanese Title: コンビニ人間 (Konbini ningen)
Author: Sayaka Murata (村田 沙耶香)
Translator: Ginny Tapley Takemori
Publication Year: 2016 (Japan); 2018 (United States)
Publisher: Grove Press
Pages: 163

Keiko Furukawa is 36 years old and has been working at the same convenience store for almost two decades. She loves the job, which suits her perfectly. Keiko has never fit in and constantly finds herself at a loss for how to talk with other people, but human interaction is governed by detailed rules and a prewritten script in the perfectly ordered world of the convenience store. “A convenience store is a forcibly normalized environment where foreign matter is immediately eliminated,” Keiko explains, adding that she appreciates this sense of distance from unnecessary social and emotional disturbances (60). The structured environment of the convenience store provides Keiko with a safe space in which she can perform work that she finds satisfying, meaningful, and helpful to other people.

At its core, Convenience Store Woman is a novella about the dignity of a job that many people find trivial and demeaning. Keiko takes obvious pride in the convenience store where she has worked since it opened eighteen years ago, and it’s not difficult to share her enthusiasm as she cheerfully describes seemingly banal tasks such as preparing food, restocking shelves, and greeting customers. Unlike the confusing and conflicting expectations imposed on her by the outside world, Keiko knows exactly what needs to be done in the convenience store, and she knows exactly when and how to do it. She often remarks on the feeling of satisfaction her experience and competence give her. For example, at the beginning of the novel, Keiko declares…

It is the start of another day, the time when the world wakes up and the cogs of society begin to move. I am one of those cogs, going round and round. I have become a functioning part of the world, rotating in the time of day called morning. (4)

Keiko pays close attention to the smallest details of the self-contained environment of the store, and her keen powers of observation allow her to appreciate the personalities and behavioral quirks of the customers. She does not judge or discriminate against anyone who enters the store and does her best to unobtrusively ensure that they are comfortable. She applies the same keen focus of her attention to her coworkers, mimicking their comments and speech patterns so that they find her friendly, companionable, and – most importantly – normal.

Convenience Store Woman doesn’t have an overarching plot, but its story is propelled forward by small scenes of conflict resulting from the friction between Keiko’s contentment and the expectations of other people. A crucial incident occurs during a backyard barbeque during which the husbands of Keiko’s high school friends have too much to drink and start laying into her for remaining in the same dead-end job without getting married. “The normal world has no room for exceptions and always quietly eliminates foreign objects,” Keiko later rationalizes as she thinks back on the conversation. “Anyone who is lacking is disposed of” (80). Keiko comes to the unfortunate realization that, by remaining unmarried and childless at 36, she has begun to stray so far outside of normative social expectations that she risks ostracization.

Partially because of this incident, Keiko feels pressured into inviting a thirty-something NEET named Shiraha to live in her apartment. Shiraha briefly worked at the same convenience store as Keiko but had been dismissed because of his poor performance. He had also, it turns out, been stalking some of the customers, and he continues to hang around the building even after he’s fired. Keiko views this as a threat to the harmony of the convenience store, so she takes it on herself to drag him to a family restaurant and try to talk sense into him. During this conversation, Shiraha echoes many of Keiko’s anxieties regarding social belonging, saying that he risks ostracization himself if he remains unmarried.

Although Shiraha is thoroughly unpleasant, Keiko invites him into her apartment and treats him like a pet, happy to tell the people in her life that a man has moved in with her. The circumstances aren’t ideal; but, as Keiko explains to the reader, “Deep down I wanted some kind of change. Any change, whether good or bad, would be better than the state of impasse I was in now” (94). The “impasse” Keiko faces has nothing to with wanting to advance in life; rather, the complications that arise from Shiraha’s presence trigger a crisis that forces Keiko to choose between becoming the person she is expected to be and her own unique sense of happiness.

Keiko reads as being on the autism spectrum, and her thought processes and behavioral patterns remind me a great deal of some of my friends and students with Asperger’s Syndrome. Keiko never explicitly identifies herself as being on the spectrum, however, and I get the impression that she would probably find the label distasteful. When she honestly informs a group of women that she has never been romantically attracted to anyone, they sympathetically respond that it’s become much more common and socially accepted to identify as asexual, and that they would understand if she were to come out as such, but Keiko finds this offensive.

I’d never experienced sex, and I’d never even had any particular awareness of my own sexuality. I was indifferent to the whole thing and had never really given it any thought. And here was everyone taking it for granted that I must be miserable when I wasn’t. (37)

To Keiko, she is no one but herself, and she has no interest in serving as a representative for anyone else. Be that as it may, I think people who identify as asexual or on the autism spectrum will find a great deal of resonance in Keiko’s experience of being misunderstood and pressured to conform to arbitrary expectations, often “for her own good.” Toward the end of the story Keiko grows increasingly annoyed at the irrationality of the people who claim that they are trying to help her, including her own sister, who is “far happier thinking her sister is normal, even if she has a lot of problems, than she is having an abnormal sister for whom everything is fine. For her, normality – however messy – is far more comprehensible” (133). Regardless of Keiko’s opinion as the narrator of her own story, I feel that she does in fact perform advocacy, especially in her insistence that her personality and life choices are not a result of psychological trauma and that she is, in fact, healthy, happy, and strong.

In an enlightening interview with Fran Bigman at LitHub, Sayaka Murata talks about her own experiences of working as a convenience store cashier as she has continued to publish more than a dozen books during the past fifteen years. “For me and also for Keiko it is both a utopia and a dystopia,” Murata explains. “It is a utopia where you can make people happy, make friends, or feel less gendered.” Customers don’t have to put on an act (or fancy clothes or makeup) to walk into a convenience store, and foreign customers and employees are welcome. For an employee who is unwilling or unable to conform to corporate-dictated guidelines, a convenience store can be a dystopia, but clearly defined behavioral standards are exactly what Murata’s narrator needs in order to feel like a well-adjusted member of society. To anyone who’s ever felt that life might sometimes be a little easier if there were a rulebook, it’s easy to see the appeal of the utopian aspects of the convenience store environment.

Identity politics aside, Convenience Store Woman provides an entertaining glimpse into the mind and worldview of a fascinating character. Many parts of the novel are humorous, while others are uncomfortably cringe-inducing. More than any sort of social critique, however, Murata offers her readers finely detailed observations of the human beings inside a Japanese convenience store, which is a marvelous ecosystem unto itself.

Fujisan

Fujisan

Title: Fujisan
Japanese Title: 富士山 (Fujisan)
Author: Taguchi Randy (田口 ランディ)
Translator: Raj Mahtani
Year Published: 2012 (America); 2004 (Japan)
Publisher: AmazonCrossing
Pages: 191

In her Foreword, Taguchi states that she “wrote this anthology of stories as an expression of my veneration and appreciation for this life-affirming mountain; it is my personal tribute to Fujisan.”

Although Mount Fuji is in the background of each of the four stories collected in this volume, the main theme of these stories is an affirmation of life in the face of fairly extreme social maladjustment and malaise. “The Blue Summit” is about a convenience store worker who begins reflecting on his past experiences as a member of a religious cult after he survives an attempted robbery. “The Sea of Trees” is about three high school students with an interest in the occult who go hiking in the Aokigahara forest and come across a failed suicide. “Jamila” is about a public servant who is tasked with dealing with an old woman who lives in a house overflowing with garbage. “Child of Light” is about a nurse at a small gynecological clinic who ponders a teenage abortion patient she recently cared for as she climbs Mount Fuji with a group of older women. The characters of these stories all face death and the more unpleasant aspects of continuing to live and somehow manage to come out okay on the other side.

I liked the opening story, “Blue Summit,” for its description of the appeal of sanitized and familiar spaces like convenience stores and family restaurants to the broken people who seek refuge there in the small hours of the night. As the narrator says of the convenience store where he works as a night shift manager:

I like it here. This convenience store is my sanctuary. There’s a stillness here that’s like the stillness you find in the snowy, bleak plains of Siberia. […] The store’s open twenty-four hours and it’s menacingly bright. There’s no darkness. It’s all so gloriously digital. While intimacy and a sense of reality are effectively absent in the store, a minimum degree of comfort is always guaranteed. The convenience store is stabilized on a low-energy wavelength: it never betrays you. In a convenience store, you can silently snuggle up to the void. (3, 13)

In this story, the convenience store as a comforting space is juxtaposed against the nightmarish interior spaces of the people who enter it. The narrator is haunted by the memories of a friend he made when he was a member of a religious cult headquartered at the base of Mount Fuji who may have been killed by the group when he tried to defect. Kozue, one of the employees who works under the narrator, suffers from a fascination with dissection and enjoys watching herself bleed. As for the anonymous assailant who unsuccessfully attempts to rob the convenience store at the beginning of the story and later shows up with a baseball bat looking for revenge, the narrator suspects that what he’s ultimately after is a validation of his own existence, a concern that the narrator sympathizes with even as he is attacked.

My favorite story in Fujisan has to be “Jamila,” if only for its colorful descriptions of a gomi yashiki, or “garbage mansion,” in Susono City, a small municipality in the foothills of Mount Fuji. The narrator of the story, a native son who has left a corporate job in Tokyo to take a post at Susono’s Office of Environmental Quality, is tasked with dealing with a local hoarder’s residence. He hasn’t made much progress, partly because he is fascinated by the structure:

When I went to investigate the house of trash for the first time, a part of me was genuinely thrilled. I wanted to see for myself who the old garbage lady was, the one reputed to be a goblin, but when I arrived, the horror of it all simply defied imagination. It was a slice of nightmare lying exposed in the heart of a residential area lined with middle-class houses. What bothered me the most was the drabness of all the visible junk, especially in light of the fact that each and every one of the objects was at one time or another brand new. […] The trash, estimated to be sixty tons’ worth, was spilling over from the premises into the public road, where it bore an uncanny resemblance to the entrails of a road-killed cat. (108)

I really don’t find all this trash-hoarding that objectionable. I find it more interesting than, say, staying inside city hall. As I stood there, gazing vacantly, my eyes registered an entire universe of things: wire hangers, torn umbrellas, broken TVs, antennas, vacuum cleaners, plastic bags, tattered clothes, tricycles, flowerpots, bedpans, bamboo blinds, futons… The trash went beyond trash to become works of fantastic, sculptural art. (100)

As in “Blue Summit,” physical spaces have a close relationship with psychic spaces, and the narrator’s meditation on an old woman’s gomi yashiki reveals the disorganization of his own (possibly deranged) mind and the sociological state of a nation that produces and throws away so much physical, cultural, and human garbage.

If I had to describe these stories in one word, it would be “intense.” There’s a bit of navel gazing going on in Fujisan, but it’s never too cumbersome, and the collection’s four stories move quickly and capitalize on topical issues for emotional impact.

If you’re wondering about the publication quality of Amazon’s new translation publisher, AmazonCrossing, it’s actually fairly decent. The front and back covers of the physical version of Fujisan look like printouts of a mid-resolution PDF document, but the inside text is crisp and clear, and the page layout is clean and uncluttered. During the short promotional period when Amazon was offering the book for about as much money as a cup of tea at Starbucks, I also downloaded the digital version of the book from the Kindle store, and it looked great as well.

Several reviewers on Amazon have complained about the translation, but I didn’t mind it so much. There were a few sentences that were awkward (they mostly involved slang), but overall I think Raj Mahtani did a great job conveying the voices of Taguchi’s characters. I have read (and produced) a great deal of clunky awkward translatorese, and I know just how terrible it is, but nothing of the sort appears in Mahtani’s translation of Fujisan. The vast majority of the translated prose in the collection is clear and serviceable. It’s never going to win any literary awards, but Taguchi herself isn’t exactly a “literary” writer; she writes popular fiction, and her writing reads like popular fiction.

In any case, the translated narrative voices of Fujisan are similar to the translated narrative voice of Taguchi’s previously translated work, Outlet, and readers who appreciated the exploration of hidden spaces and raunchiness of Outlet will definitely enjoy Fujisan.

By the way, the author has her own website, which includes an interview translated into English. If you can read Japanese, her blog is also well worth browsing.