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Thursday, 19 July 2018

Book review: Convenience Store Woman, Sayaka Murata (2018)

This gentle comic novel yet contains trenchant social commentary aimed at the core of the contemporary Japanese urban experience, dealing as it does with sex, marriage and children. It was originally published in Japanese in 2016 as ‘Konbini ningen’ (“convenience store people”) and won the prestigious Akutagawa Prize in the author’s home country. This is her tenth book but the first to have been translated into English. I read the book in one afternoon. It is quite short and a ripping yarn that keeps you turning the pages.

Since the asset bubble burst in 1992, Japan’s economy has performed sluggishly and its population is actually shrinking as there is virtually no immigration to speak of. Poor economic performance has meant that for many young Japanese only part-time work has been achievable. It is hard to save money to buy a house and start a family when your income is limited and you have little job security. In the post-war period of rapid economic growth prior to 1992, Japanese men had traditionally entered employment and stayed with the same company for the whole of their lives before retiring on a pension furnished by the employer. This compact between employer and employee is a rarer commodity now than it had been previously.

It is in this context that the book should be read. The strange Furukura and the lazy sociopath Shiraha are also broadly analogous as types to the disaffected, dreamy young men who muddle through life in the novels of Haruki Murakami.

For women in Japan, finding a job and working was always something that you did before getting married and settling down to perform the essential role of looking after children and a household. For many it still is and often women are expected to quit their jobs after they marry. But the long period of economic weakness that has burdened Japan since the bubble burst has disturbed conventional patterns of living for many people in the community.

Keiko Furukura (“furui” means “old” and “kurai” means “dark”) is single and 36 and works in a low-status, temporary job as a convenience store sales clerk. As a child, she had been impetuous and unconventional and the life of a worker has given her existence a structure that fulfils her even though other people think she is strange not to have a “proper job” or a husband. But she thinks that the store “fixed” her when she had been broken. People’s prying questions trouble her although she doesn’t know what to do about them until she meets a new employee named Shiraha (“shiroi” means “white” and “ha” means “tooth”).

During the day, Shiraha goes about performing the tasks of stocking the shelves and serving customers with a lacklustre attitude that grates on the conscientious Furukura. He has a chip on his shoulder and believes that the world has treated him unfairly. He starts to stalk a customer after he is fired from the store and Furukura finds out that he hasn’t been able to pay his rent. She invites him to her home and he takes up residence there, sleeping in the bath and coming out to eat when he is hungry. He has an idea for an internet business but is not interested in getting a job. Shiraha convinces Furukura that his living there is good for her, and she finds when she talks with friends and family that they agree. They are curious about the new guy in her life and she begins to see benefits from having Shiraha around.

The way that convention determines how people conduct their lives is essentially the lesson that this book conveys. Peer pressure and pressure from family are so powerful in determining whether we feel satisfied with the choices we make as our lives progress, especially, the author wants to say, in conformist Japan. The book moves inexorably toward its crisis as the leech-like Shiraha manipulates the oddball Furukura for his own selfish purposes, and the denouement is very funny. It is laden with echoes of what many Japanese really think deep-down: that work serves an essential role in furnishing the individual with important facets of his or her personality. The stresses that the fraying of the fabric of the traditional worker-company relationship has put on salary-men has been difficult for many to navigate.

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