I am a lover of Japanese literature. I studied Japanese in primary school (but it sadly is not one of the languages that stuck in my head), and I have had an affinity for Japanese culture, art, and food. When I came across Sayaka Murata’s work, Convenience Store Woman, I knew I had to get my hands on a copy. I love that you can get this book in pastel pink or blue, although my local store only had the pink version.
Keiko Furukura, the main character of Murata’s short fiction novel, does not fit in the world around her. Ever since she was a child, she has struggled to understand basic human emotions and passions. I would not be surprised if Furukura would be diagnosed with some sort of developmental disorder like autism if she had received medical help. At school, she has hurt other children, and even though her family has hoped she would be cured of her ‘strangeness’, she remains odd to them. The fact that she gets very little help from medical professionals is a reality for most people with some sort of disorder that affects mental health and mental processes. In particular, women are less likely to be diagnosed with autism than men because the disorder presents differently in women than in men.
With that said, Keiko does find her place in the world. In the convenience store that she has worked in for the past 18 years provides her with comfort and consistency. Her life purpose is the store. She eats food from the store in the hopes of becoming one with it. Her life revolves around serving the store. She does not attempt to find other jobs or a different life until her friends and family start to ask her why she still works at a convenience store parttime at the age of 36.
Keiko is unmarried, living in small and meagre accommodation, and only works parttime. For the friends and family around her, she is wasting her life. She should get married, have children, and stop working or at least pursue a more challenging career path. The question of whether Keiko is useful is something that comes up throughout Murata’s novel. If people are doing useful work, they are raising families, working towards work promotions and the accumulation of wealth, and generally producing capital for society. Keiko’s unambitious notions of work do not align with these neoliberal ideals of self-promotion or capitalist wealth production. So Keiko struggles with her life, not because she is unhappy with it per se, but because the people around her tell her that she does not fit into their notions of success.
When Keiko meets Shiraha, a horribly misogynistic man who has just started working at the convenience store, she realises that she has found a way to satisfy her family and peers. When Shiraha loses his job for stalking women in the store, Keiko finds him and asks him to live with her. In her mind, if she had a man at home, she would be fulfilling one of the societal criteria she needs to be ‘useful’. Shiraha reluctantly accepts Keiko’s offer, and he sets up camp in her bathroom doing nothing all day. Shiraha, for different reasons to Keiko, is also a ‘useless object’ because he does not fill the typical alpha male ideals.
“People who don’t fit into the village are expelled: men who don’t hunt, women who don’t give birth to children. For all we talk about modern society and individualism, anyone who doesn’t try to fit in can expect to be modelled with, coerced, and ultimately banished from the village.” p89-90Shiraha has some interesting things to say despite his terrible attitudes.
Keiko even quits her job at the convenience store and begins to search for other work. This seems like the final step in her integration process. Even though this looks like a narrative of growth and personal development. the progress of the narrative subverts the classic genre of the Bildungsroman and flips it on its head, rather sardonically.
Keiko soon realises that her life with Shiraha and a life outside the convenience store are just not for her. She would rather be a ‘useless object’ then try to conform to societies capitalist ideals. She is happy in her convenience store world. This small 24/7 world makes sense to her and she rejects all outside notions of success. She finds strength and peace in her work, which is all anyone can really hope for in life.
So why is society so hell-bent on making everyone conform to traditional gender roles and wealth production? Murata shows us, with a sharp wit that existing outside of the norm is okay. And maybe, if Keiko were not hounded by her family and friends to conform, her life would have been a lot easier?
Have you read Murata’s novel? What do you think it means to be useful in society? As always, share the reading love.