To Be or Not To Be, a Convenience Store Worker
Updated: Dec 12, 2020
Convenience Store Woman
in English, translated from Japanese
in a nutshell At thirty-six, single and childless Keiko is happy with who she is - 'just' a part-time convenience store worker. Her sister has taught her the basics of how to seem normal, but Keiko is secretly proud to lead her life as a well-oiled cog in her beloved convenience store. Also, she can't help but find so-called normality a little pathetic - the softness of a baby's skin makes her think of a blister. Yet, is she a sociopathic product of metropolitan alienation (as everyone seems to think), or an early prototype of a generation of machine-humans to come? And, will she ever be 'cured'?
why? A quick, easy and entertaining read that brings up unexpected questions about the meaning of freedom and free-will.
flavour extract 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. Now, too, I felt reassured by the expression on Mrs. Izumi and Suwagara's faces: Good, I pulled off being a "person".
Konbinis - Japanese convenience stores - are open round-the-clock and they sell a bit of everything, mostly food, that needs careful arranging and promoting. Keiko Furukura should know, she's been part-timing there for eighteen years, a job she got by chance but that gave her life a sense of purpose. Now, at 36, she happily recognises herself as an extension of the convenience store. She is not interested in sex, career, looks or family. The convenience store dictates her biorhythm: its products feed her at breakfast, lunch and dinner, its never-ending activity lulls her to sleep, and she even deems natural that the store will decree her time to die once she will no longer be able to serve it. The convenience store, unchangeable through its constant shuffling of staff and products, is Keiko's religion, her worldview. Most importantly, the convenience store allows Keiko the freedom to be what she truly wants - not a woman, but a store worker. As a woman, everyone around her (her sister, her colleagues, her friends from school) considers her a failure, or worse, someone who needs to be treated and cured. How? By finding a proper job, a man and possibly having children. In a nutshell, she should finally conform to society's standard of normality, but that's not for Keiko. This is the premise of the novel.
I picked this book up last summer in one of my favourite stores, Foyles. It was being heavily publicised, placed in a high-pile right in the centre of the newly arrived must-reads. You could take your pick among three different pastel coloured covers, which seemed fun at the time, very kawaii Japanese, perhaps convenience-store style. Even while browsing the novel I realised that it was all a commercial hack, since Keiko is not a fashionista, colour-matching purses with shoes, or a cute manga girl all goofy and sweet. Despite my misgivings about being obviously lured into a commercial trap I went ahead and bought an autographed copy in pink - I was feeling chirpy that day. There were reasons galore to justify the purchase. I had been stuck in a reading rut and I needed something new and light, plus I would soon leave beloved Bristol to move back to Italy and I needed to stock up on as many books as I could find to fill the oncoming void - Italian bookshops spreading like crowded, empty deserts in my mind, with their non-existent foreign books sections. Also, I was curious to see what all the hype was about, if there was some substance behind the glitter.
Well, this is definitely not a subtle book. Keiko and her co-worker turned housemate turned pretend boyfriend Shiraha openly discuss the pressure they are under to be normal, what Shiraha terms "the village mentality of society". Keiko candidly admits that she systematically picks individual coworkers to mimic for a time, absorbing their speech and dressing style, so that people can think her as normal as the next person. Truly, though, she has been her very same self since elementary school, when seeing a wounded bird she joyously ran up to her mother and suggested eating it, to her utter dismay. The most humorous passages in the novel happen when Keiko, who could be on the autistic spectrum or a sociopath, reveals that she has learnt to fake normality through her younger sister's advice:
I thought a moment. I knew it was considered weird for someone my age to not have either a proper job or be married because my sister had explained it to me.
Yet, despite the robotic quality of Keiko's mind and life, entirely driven by the capitalistic push to be efficient and neat, reliable and devoted, she displays an underlying yearning for freedom. Whether or not the result of a pathological tendency, Keiko thrives in her convenience store worker identity. She nonetheless tries to be kind to others, she does not attempt to impose her views and she responds to the world around her in her own Keiko-way. She is happy as she is, even though the perpetual questioning from outside momentarily shakes her beliefs and leads her to one last attempt at being normal. So, even though this novel can easily be read as a critique of modern society, of both its obsession with conformity and the alienation of its metropolises, it is also a quasi-touching portrayal of a different form of subjectivity, one that needs to rely on routines, rules and impersonality in order to function. Keiko is a machine-woman, an organic extension of the convenience store. Could she be cured, through therapy and rehabilitation? But, equally importantly, is it her duty to want to be cured before society can stoop to accept her?