When I had the chance to hear writer Sayaka Murata speak at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, I was very excited. I’d spotted the memorable, yellow cover of Convenience Store Woman,「コンビニ人間」at the Japan Centre and on the tube a few times and was really keen to read it.
Convenience Store Woman is a heartwarming look at identity, societal expectations and pressures on women. It shares the story of a woman called Keiko who works at a convenience store in Japan – or, as most people in Japan know them, the conbini (the Japanese title actually means ‘conbini human’). Unlike most convenience store employees though, she has been working there for 18 years – since she left University in 1998. Keiko has seen seven managers pass by and her career there has outlived all of them.
In the world of the convenience store, Keiko feels safe. She understands how to preempt what customers need and want at different times of day, and how to be part of a group of employees who feel like family. Outside of the convenience store, Keiko is not really sure of how to conduct herself and struggles to grasp social cues. She navigates social situations by imitating the behaviour of her colleagues from the convenience store.
One main frustration for Keiko is that although she is happy working at a convenience store, other people are dissatisfied with her position. Keiko is content with life and happy to continue living the way she is. But to others, she is approaching her forties and neither has a ‘real job’ in an office, nor is she in a relationship (let alone married). Society is upset with her. The fact that she has never had a relationship, nor does she desire one, is unsettling to her peers. Her sister, who understands her better than anyone, gives her excuses to use, such as pretending to have some kind of health condition which means that she must have a low-pressure job, or saying that she just hasn’t found the ‘right person’ to date yet. Despite all of this, she still receives looks of pity and confusion – everyone is desperate to ‘fix’ her. All Keiko really wants is to be left alone.
Hearing Murata speak at the Cheltenham Literature Festival really helped me to learn more about the broader context of translated fiction. At a panel discussion featuring Murata, Ginny Tapley Takemori (the translator of Convenience Store Woman), and another Japanese translator, Polly Barton, there was a lively discussion about Japanese-English translated fiction. I think one problem in the UK can be that Asian writers are often boxed into one artificially homogenous category, as if nationality (or indeed ethnicity) is some kind of genre, so I was pleased when Murata said, ‘Japanese women writers are all very unique. I can’t think of anyone who writes like me.’ The panel members praised initiatives like Women in Translation Month (#WITmonth) for drawing people’s attention to the gender gap when it comes to writers who are translated into English. Slowly, things are changing.
Murata was also interviewed at the Festival by Anna James, alongside the translator of the novel, Tapley Takemori. My favourite aspect was hearing the author and translator discuss the concept of being ‘normal’ and how it differs between Japanese and British cultures. Tapley Takemori pointed out that Japan and the UK have different understandings of what it means to be ‘normal,’ and in Japan there is an even heavier cultural emphasis on being in line with the rest of the group and on conforming to societal expectations. Everybody knows their place. Everybody knows where to queue when they line up for the train – it’s marked out on the platform. Everybody knows where they can apply for jobs according to which University they attended. Everybody knows what to wear to work if they’re a サラリーマン (salaryman) or キャリアウーマン (career woman) – a white shirt and simple, black or navy suit. Every woman knows what style of dress is deemed ‘appropriate’ when they’re a teenager, when they’re at University, when they’re a mother. As Murata eloquently and movingly depicts, people’s lives can feel mapped out. Anyone who feels out of the ordinary can feel helplessly trapped on the outside of this.
I think the same can be said for the UK, although it is a little bit different. People still like to know their place, and being different in any way can be seen by society as a bit odd. This creates a lot of pressure for everyone, especially for young people who are still trying to figure out their identity. It was really refreshing to hear Tapley Takemori voice thoughts about cultural differences of which I had been aware but did not yet know how to articulate.
From my experience, growing up with two different cultures, it was confusing to entering adulthood when you have absorbed two separate ideas of what ‘being normal’ means. You feel trapped because of a feeling that you must choose between them. At the same time, by virtue of the fact that you have been exposed to different cultures, you are already different and cannot fit into either mold. This is especially the case if you are a woman because there are patriarchal pressures to deal with as well – different societies and cultures have developed their own patriarchal constraints. It can be difficult and stressful, especially if you’re not really aware of why you’re so concerned with being different. It can feel like a burden.
Convenience Store Woman struck a chord with me on so many different levels. Seeing the world through Keiko’s eyes felt like a weight lifted off my back. It was a relief to see that someone else felt like they were different and felt lost because of it. I think that everyone probably experiences those kinds of identity crises at some point in their life. Everyone else is doing this or that – shouldn’t I be doing the same? Moments of self-doubt creep upon you, triggered by trends or other people’s opinions. Interestingly, the Japanese title for Murata’s novel could be read as ‘Conbini Human’ or ‘Humans,’ referring to Keiko and perhaps also to us, the readers. Aren’t we all a bit like Keiko, trying to work out what we should do in order to be accepted by society? This book certainly makes you question that impulse.
Convenience Store Woman is published by Portobello Books and is available in all good bookshops, £12.99.