Book Review: 『コンビニ人間』by Sayaka Murata

コンビニ人間 (コンビニにんげん)
Title: コンビニ人間 (コンビニにんげん)
First published: 2016
Published: 2018
Format: Bunko
Translation: Convenience Store Woman, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori
Synopsis of the English translation: The English-language debut of one of Japan’s most talented contemporary writers, selling over 650,000 copies there, Convenience Store Woman is the heartwarming and surprising story of thirty-six-year-old Tokyo resident Keiko Furukura. Keiko has never fit in, neither in her family, nor in school, but when at the age of eighteen she begins working at the Hiiromachi branch of “Smile Mart,” she finds peace and purpose in her life. In the…

“人間はさー、仕事か、家族か、どちらかで社会に所属するのが義務なんだよ。” (p66)

In a society that constantly throws this kind of reminder to your face, how are you supposed to find your place when, at 36, you have neither one nor the other? Through the story of its protagonist Keiko FURUKURA,『コンビニ人間』describes the struggles of those who are “not normal” and won’t fit in the society either because they cannot or they don’t want to.

“あ、私、異物になっている” (p.84)

At 36, Keiko is still doing the job she started 18 years ago, like many other students, in a convenience store. Sayaka MURATA describes perfectly well the unpleasant situations a woman will have to face if she cannot justify her existence either by her work or her family. When she meets a bitter, disagreeable man who likes to complain and who is in his way equally unfit for society, they will organise themselves to confront the social imperatives.

But Keiko is not unhappy in the convenience store where she works, on the contrary! Wearing the uniform erases people’s age, sex and nationality, it puts everybody on the same level. In the store, they are all employees, and every single task required through the day allows Keiko to exist in the society, to play her role.

We come now to another aspect of the book that made me love it so much: the convenience store itself. I read with avidity all the descriptions about it, the work that is required, the importance of greeting the clients with a loud “welcome”, the several little things employees have to keep in mind during the course of the day… all of this to increase the sales and for the comfort of the clients, two facets that go hand in hand in a fascinating way. (I later learnt that Sayaka Murata herself works in a convenience store, no wonder the depiction of it is so vivid!)

To me, the story was well worth reading only for the convenience store atmosphere it conveys. Next time I travel to Japan, I must watch around myself when I enter a convenience store, instead of just heading to the things I want to buy!

“この世界は異物を認めない” (p.89)

But of course, this is not the main focus of the book and what connected me the most to this story is how the author underlines the obligation to justify, to explain yourself as long as you don’t belong to any acceptable patterns.

On the one hand, I think that this is something any reader can relate to, even if you don’t live in Japan. Group pressure, social standards exist everywhere I guess, and societies tend to demand justification to those who step outside the pre-defined routes. On the other hand, this book is about Japanese society, and we learn its rules the hard way, that is, through Keiko’s eyes. It shows a world where one’s life goal is not the search for personal happiness and self-fulfilment but a marathon to complete the challenges the society forces on you (getting a good job, getting married, having children). Achieving it gives you the right to judge the ones who failed…

Though it is very short (161 pages), 『コンビニ人間』is incredibly full of elements and gave me a lot to think about. I felt that, with its two very different protagonists, the story forces the readers to reflect upon their own criteria. While we are afraid of being judged by society, aren’t we also prompt to judge those who don’t fit our own definition of “normality”? This and other thoughts accompanied me long after I closed the book. It is without a doubt one of my favourite books of the year and I heartily recommend it!