Murata’s novel is a short story that follows protagonist, Keiko, leading the life of a social outlier in Japan. Written in an admiringly clear and succint language this may come off as banal, yet this book is compelling from start to finish. At first glance the story is funny, the writing flows superbly but more than that it offers interesting questions of identity, social attitudes and values. And it does so without any clear moral stance. So the reader is free to find their own meaning.
Though some passages quickly reflect on Keiko’s seemingly inherent “weirdness,” arguably casting her as the perpetual outsider since an early age. But since childhood Keiko has continually tried to assimilate with her peers; her primary goal becomes to not unnerve the people around her. Though her childhood antics are by no means outlandish Keiko is punished for not conforming.
Alienation happens on two levels: Keiko in not understanding social rules, and her surroundings for their unwillingness to engage with her. So when she discovers a convience store, with its own logical rules and better still, a manual on how to act in a socially accepted manner, Keiko shapes herself accordingly after years of hiding her true self.
For me, the primary theme is not that of alienation (in our current society) alone. Does Keiko feel alienation? Maybe she feels only lost in the complexities of social interaction which she doesn’t understand? And what role did those around her play in Keiko’s disconnect from the world? What was the effect of other’s clear feeling of discomfort when interacting with Keiko? Maybe the more interesting question is: what factors caused Keiko to find solace in the sterile lifeless box of light and glass of a convenience store?
This book raises questions about the importance of our environments and how they are actively (re-)shaping a person’s identity. Throughout the text Keiko notices how the people around her change according to the influences of their current social circle; store workers pick up each other’s speaking habits; Keiko’s friends dress codes change in accordance to new friends. Keiko’s lively sister now wears monotone outfits since the birth of her child. These are simple and natural changes, but when placed in contrast to Keiko, who at 36-years old still seems fundamentally lost and clueless, the influence of our environment on our individuality seems fraught. As Keiko thinks:
“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. After Mrs. Izumi came, Sasaki started sounding just like her when she said, “Good job, see you tomorrow!” Once a woman who had gotten on well with Mrs. Izumi at her previous store came to help out, and she dressed so much like Mrs. Izumi I almost mistook the two. And I probably infect others with the way I speak too. Infecting each other like this is how we maintain ourselves as human is what I think.”
Keiko has become a spirit of the supermarket. Some questions beckon: in what way do we ivoke the spirit-identitiy of a housewife, of a career-mind in our places of work? Also do we shape and mold ourselves according to our peer group willingly or unconsciously? Are these all facets ourselves regardless? Do our social circles push us towards aesthetics, ideas and norms that may not be our own once we really think about it? All these identities can coexist in one, but a problem arises when our identities stop growing, stunted by a group unwilling to go towards what may seem strange at first.
But in the store, so vividly written, is as how Keiko must see them; clean, orderly, a clearly defined place. Inside this bustle of a store Keiko finds a place of calm and rest. Free from the dreaded ‘Do you have a boyfriend?’ ‘Why don’t you have any children?’ ‘Why work at a dead-end job!’ But, why throw away that rare sense of belonging? Why fight for more and more and more social status… Why, when you’ve found a rare sort of peace in your life already? However strange it might seem Keiko seems to have find a kind of happiness. Socially inept, naive in the ways of the world perhaps but she seemingly takes pride and comfort in her work, and that is rare.
Maybe above all, Convienience Store Woman can be read as a re-evaluation of social values and finding peace in the daily and banal.
Now, this post is mainly my own thoughts just roaming around freely, by no means this is a set interpretation; only I want others to broaden their view… Though this quote sort of strengthens ly thesis “It started with my desire to create a main character who doesn’t do anything wrong, yet other people find her strange and think, ‘What the hell is she doing?’” (Murata, in japantimes.com)
Some thoughts on reviews
Now, as expected, in many reviews there is the tendency to psychoanalyse Keiko.
“An issue Murata leaves hanging, tantalizingly, is how deranged Keiko might or might not be.” (as written in the New York Times review)
Now, clearly our dear protagonist has emotional issues, but deranged? Is it because once Keiko hit a boy with a shovel when he was teasing others, is it the dead bird she picked up or is it het wish to still beat people with a shovel (but never does) that is the cause for this inspiring thought-provoking thesis. But admitedly the question of sanity looms and makes for an exciting read.
And yes of course, the mythical idea of Japaneseness rears its head unecpectedly here and there too:
“The problem is Japanese society puts the convenience store worker at near the bottom rung of the corporate ladder, and her family and friends worry about her — worry about her not finding a “normal” job or falling in love with a man she can marry. ” (Medium)
Let us also not falll into the well-loved trap of classifying this book as something typically Japanese. This does discredit Murata’s work. Women are still expected to produce children and/or pursue a career. ’til death do us part women have to supply endless justifications for this and above all they must avoid confessing that they don’t want any of that.
But these are some reviews I enjoyed, complete with a summary of the novel:
All in all: you should read it!
Buy on Amazon