The Hiiromachi Station Smile Mart has remained open ever since that day, its lights on without a break. Sometimes I use a calculator to work out the number of hours that have passed since then. The other day, the store was open on May 1 for the nineteenth time, having been open continuously for 157,800 hours. I’m now thirty-six years old, and the convenience-store-worker-me is eighteen. None of the other workers who did their training with me are here anymore, and we’re now on our eighth manager. Not a single product on sale in the store at that time is left. But I’m still here.
Convenience Store Woman (which won the Akutagawa Prize) is perhaps best, if lazily, pigeonholed as a Japanese equivalent of Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine, but one without the troubling back story (Keiko’s parents are highly affectionate) and, thankfully, without the schmaltzy ending.
(On the less positive side, the narrator Keiko doesn’t share my and Eleanor’s love of tea:
Eleanor: “I warmed the teapot, then spooned in some first flush Darjeeling … Knowing no better my colleagues are content to drop a bag of poorest quality blended tea into a mug, scald it with boiling water, and then dilute any remaining flavour by adding fridge-cold milk. Once again, for some reason, it is I who am considered strange.”
Keiko: “I hadn’t added a teabag since I didn’t really feel any need to drink flavored liquid.”)
Keiko appears to be the perfectly trained worker for the ubiquitous and wonderful 24/7 convenience stores that are a feature of East Asia. As the novel opens she explains how she operates:
A convenience store is a world of sound. From the tinkle of the door chime to the voices of TV celebrities advertising new products over the in-store cable network, to the calls of the store workers, the beeps of the bar code scanner, the rustle of customers picking up items and placing them in baskets, and the clacking of heels walking around the store. It all blends into the convenience store sound that ceaselessly caresses my eardrums. I hear the faint rattle of a new plastic bottle rolling into place as a customer takes one out of the refrigerator, and look up instantly. A cold drink is often the last item customers take before coming to the checkout till, and my body responds automatically to the sound.
Alerted by a faint clink of coins I turn and look over at the cash register. It’s a sound I’m sensitive to, since customers who come just to buy cigarettes or a newspaper often jingle coins in their hand or pocket. And yes: as I’d thought, a man with a can of coffee in one hand, the other hand in his pocket, is approaching the till. I quickly move through the store, slide behind the counter, and stand at the ready so as not to keep him waiting. “Irasshaimasé! Good morning, sir.”
Except one is immediately alerted to an anomaly: a convenience store is for part-time temporary work, e.g., for students (or indeed authors such as Murata-san, who also worked in a 7-11 while writing her novels), not a place where someone spends almost twenty years refining their craft to almost obsessive perfection. Keiko explains:
The time before I was reborn as a convenience store worker is somewhat unclear in my memory. I was born into a normal family and lovingly brought up in a normal suburban residential area. But everyone thought I was a rather strange child.
There was the time when I was in nursery school, for example, when I saw a dead bird in the park. It was small, a pretty blue, and must have been someone’s pet . It lay there with its neck twisted and eyes closed, and the other children were all standing around it crying. One girl started to ask: “What should we — ” But before she could finish I snatched it up and ran over to the bench where my mother was chatting with the other mothers. “What’s up, Keiko? Oh! A little bird . . . where did it come from I wonder?” she said gently, stroking my hair. “The poor thing. Shall we make a grave for it?” “Let’s eat it!” I said. “What?”“Daddy likes yakitori, doesn’t he?
There was also that big commotion soon after I started primary school, when some boys started fighting during the break time. The other kids started wailing, “Get a teacher!” and “Someone stop them!” And so I went to the tool shed, took out a spade, ran over to the unruly boys, and bashed one of them over the head. Everyone started screaming as he fell down clutching his skull. Seeing as he’d stopped moving, my attention turned to the other boy, and I raised the spade again. “Keiko-chan, stop! Please stop!” the girls shouted at me tearfully. Some teachers came over and, dumbfounded, demanded I explain myself. “Everyone was saying to stop them, so that’s what I did.” Violence was wrong, the bewildered teachers told me in confusion. “But everyone was saying to stop Yamazaki-kun and Aoki-kun fighting! I just thought that would be the quickest way to do it,” I explained patiently. Why on earth were they so angry? I just didn’t get it.
My parents were at a loss what to do about me, but they were as affectionate to me as ever. I’d never meant to make them sad or have to keep apologizing for things I did, so I decided to keep my mouth shut as best I could outside home. I would no longer do anything of my own accord, and would either just mimic what everyone else was doing, or simply follow instructions.
When “the Smile Mart outside Hiiromachi Station opened on May 1, 1998, soon after I started university,”she finds working there her perfect role, where being taught exactly how to behave in different circumstances is key to the job. On her training:
First we practiced the various phrases we needed to use in the store. Standing shoulder to shoulder in a line, our backs straight, we lifted the corners of our mouths to match the smiling face in the training poster and in turn called out the stock welcoming phrase: Irasshaimasé! The male trainer checked each of us one by one, instructing us to try again if our voices were too quiet or our expressions too stiff. “Miss Okamoto, don’t be so shy. Smile! Mr. Aizaki, speak up a bit! Try again. Miss Furukura, that’s perfect. Nice and spirited — keep it up!”I was good at mimicking the trainer’s examples and the model video he’d shown us in the back room.
It was the first time anyone had ever taught me how to accomplish a normal facial expression and manner of speech.
And on her first day, as her first customer approaches, she finally feels normal and accepted:
I looked around and saw a man approaching with lots of discounted rice balls in his basket. “Irasshaimasé!” I called in exactly the same tone as before and bowed, then took the basket from him. At that moment, 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 observes that to “mimic what everyone else was doing” is ultimately what everyone does in society, adopting the mannerisms, attitudes and speech patterns of those around them. But Keiko does it deliberately rather than naturally:
My present self is formed almost completely of the people around me. I am currently made up of 30 percent Mrs. Izumi, 30 percent Sugawara, 20 percent the manager, and the rest absorbed from past colleagues such as Sasaki, who left six months ago, and Okasaki, who was our supervisor until a year ago. My speech is especially infected by everyone around me and is currently a mix of that of Mrs. Izumi and Sugawara. I think the same goes for most people. When some of Sugawara’s band members came into the store recently they all dressed and spoke just like her.
Outside work Mrs. Izumi is rather flashy, but she dresses the way normal women in their thirties do, so I take cues from the brand of shoes she wears and the label of the coats in her locker. Once she left her makeup bag lying around in the back room and I took a peek inside and made a note of the cosmetics she uses. People would notice if I copied her exactly, though, so what I do is read blogs by people who wear the same clothes she does and go for the other brands of clothes and kinds of shawls they talk about buying.
. . .
I’d noticed soon after starting the job that whenever I got angry at the same things as everyone else, they all seemed happy. If I went along with the manager when he was annoyed or joined in the general irritation at someone skiving off the night shift, there was a strange sense of solidarity as everyone seemed pleased that I was angry too.
Albeit Keiko still struggles to really understand others and her rather direct, and potentially violent, solutions are never far away, such as when she meets her sister’s new born child:
The baby started to cry. My sister hurriedly picked him up and tried to soothe him. What a lot of hassle I thought. I looked at the small knife we’d used to cut the cake still lying there on the table: if it was just a matter of making him quiet, it would be easy enough.
And as he enters her mid 30s, her colleagues and friends start to inquire about how she can make a temporary university job a permanent career, and about her non-existent love life. Her carefully constructed facade of normality, assisted by her sister who gives her tips on coping, starts to crumble:
“Do you mind if I ask you a personal question? Have you ever been in love, Keiko?” Satsuki asked teasingly.
“Like, have you ever dated anyone? Come to think of it, I’ve never heard you talk about that sort of thing.”
“Oh I see. No, I haven’t,” I answered automatically. Everyone fell quiet and exchanged uncomfortable glances with each other. Too late I remembered that my sister had told me in such cases I should give a vague answer like:“ Well, there was someone I liked but I’m not a good judge of men.”
Keiko’s love of the convenience store comes because it is “a forcibly normalized environment where foreign matter is immediately eliminated,” where her slavish following of the training manual works to her favor. But now she realizes that, similarly, “the normal world has no room for exceptions and always quietly eliminates foreign objects. Anyone who is lacking is disposed of. So that’s why I need to be cured. Unless I’m cured, normal people will expurgate me. Finally I understood why my family had tried so hard to fix me.”
One of her least successful co-workers is a loser (his favorite word for others) who comes to work in the store simply to find a wife, who refuses to follow the “stupid” rules and is eventually fired for stalking a customer. Keiko has an inspiration — he needs a wife and she needs a facade of normality — they should get married. And so he moves into her tiny flat. His attitude is lazy and sexist:
“When you’re a man, it’s all ‘go to work’ and ‘get married.’ And once you’re married, then it’s ‘earn more’ and ‘have children’! You’re a slave to the village. Society orders you to work your whole life. Even my testicles are the property of the village! Just by having no sexual experience they treat you as though you’re wasting your semen.”“I can see how stressful that would be.” “Your uterus belongs to the village too, you know. The only reason the villagers aren’t paying it any attention is because it’s useless. I want to spend my whole life doing nothing. For my whole life, until I die, I want to just breathe without anyone interfering in my life.That’s all I wish for,” he finished, holding his palms together as if in supplication.
But Keiko treats him like a household pet, making him spend his days in the bathtub, to the bemusement of her sister who is initially excited thinking Keiko has found love at last:
“Oh, but it’s about feeding time anyway.” I took some boiled potatoes and cabbage from the cooking pan and put them along with some rice into a washbasin I kept in the kitchen and took it to the bathroom. Shiraha was sitting on cushions he’d stuffed into the bathtub and fiddling with his smartphone. I held his feed out for him, and he took it. “The bathroom? Is he in the bath?” “Yes, it’s really cramped when we’re together in the room, so I’m keeping him in there.” My sister looked incredulous.
Unfortunately Keiko’s plan backfires. Whereas her co-workers had largely left her unbothered, now they think she is in a relationship they are even more curious, which interrupts the important work of the convenience store to the perfectionist Keiko’s annoyance:
“Look, it isn’t that there’s anything between us! He’s just staying at my place now, that’s all. What’s important is that we haven’t even started preparing the chicken skewers yet!” “What?” Mrs. Izumi screeched. “You mean you’re living together?” “Seriously?” put in the manager. They sounded so excited I decided it was useless saying anything more and rushed over to the freezer, took out the boxes of chicken skewers, and ran with my arms full back to the cash register. I was shocked by their reaction. As a convenience store worker, I couldn’t believe they were putting gossip about store workers before a promotion in which chicken skewers that usually sold at 130 yen were to be put on sale at the special price of 110 yen. What on earth had happened to the pair of them?
I’d always had a lot of respect for manager #8. He was a hard worker and I’d thought of him as the perfect colleague, but now I was sick to death of him only ever talking about Shiraha whenever we met. Until now, we’d always had meaningful worker-manager discussions: “It’s been hot lately, so the sales of chocolate desserts are down,”or “There’s a new block of flats down the road, so we’ve been getting more customers in the evening,”or “They’re really pushing the ad campaign for that new product coming out the week after next, so we should do well with it.” Now, however, it felt like he’d downgraded me from store worker to female of the human species.”
And persuaded by her new partner to leave the store and look for more permanent employment, Keiko realizes her life has lost its meaning:
I had judged everything on the basis of whether it was the sensible thing to do for the convenience store, but now I’d lost that standard . There was nothing to guide me over whether an action was rational or not. Before I became a store worker, I must have been following some kind of logic in my judgments, but I’d forgotten whatever guiding principles I’d followed back then.
Action needs to be taken . . .
A very quick and light read, but highly entertaining and one that lingers long after it has been read, with some very important things to say about society and its tolerance of those who don’t fit the normal criteria.