Convenience Store Woman

There’s very little real diversity in fiction, I find… especially when it comes to female characters. You will encounter a lot of damsels in distress, feminist warriors, or nerdy schoolgirls. But an eccentric 30-something Japanese woman who isn’t a love interest? Now that’s something unexpected, at least in my reading experience.

Something Truly Different

Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman (2016) sounded relatable, and I dearly wanted it to be good. This book has made waves in the world of Japanese literature, earning many good reader reviews and, as I just discovered, the illustrious Akutagawa Prize. I adore day-in-the-life stories, so the humble setting of a convenience store added to its appeal. As a novella, it is also very short, which is another point in its favor from my perspective.

The story starts by introducing us to our narrator, Keiko Furukura. She is 36 years old and has been working at the same place for close on two decades. She explains that as a child, her hyperrational way of thinking got her into trouble several times, which is why she quickly learned to mold herself into a useful member of society, finding simple work at a 24-hour convenience store where everything runs on a strict routine. “As far as I was concerned…keeping my mouth shut was the most sensible approach to getting by in life.” She leads an industrious (if humble) life, having neither aspirations nor obligations to interrupt the rhythm of her existence, which is totally fine by her.

Comedy or Tragedy?

While I can applaud Murata for giving us an unusual narrator, I have big issues with Keiko’s actual characterization. She displays a potpourri of different traits, including sociopathy/ASPD (with some very creepy thoughts of violence), autistic spectrum, and asexuality. It would have been much better if Murata had chosen just one of these characteristics to focus on. Since they are all jumbled together, a reader with very little understanding of these topics might jump to the false conclusion they are all directly interrelated. This is deeply unfortunate, and I can only hope that discerning readers will do their own research.

Another troubling aspect is that Keiko is rather inconsistent in her logical thinking. As the story progresses, she strikes up an odd acquaintanceship with Shiraha, who is a stereotypical incel—literally, a down-and-out who rages against society while mocking Keiko’s homeliness. I couldn’t really make out why Keiko, in her dispassionate assessment, didn’t stack up the tradeoffs better and make a smarter decision about this person. It just didn’t make sense she would so easily let someone derail her soothing routines, even if there were some initial benefits. I did appreciate the author dealing with this kind of attitude that Shiraha shows, but in the end, I am not sure he was much more than a MacGuffin.

The story is touted as being quirky and fun, and indeed there were some funny moments. The way Keiko mirrored other people’s personalities and speech patterns, and saw other people doing the same, was really on point. On the whole, however, I thought the story was more tragic-pathetic than anything.

How Do You Solve a Problem Like Keiko?

In spite of these serious flaws, what I did appreciate was the overall depiction of how it feels to be a woman who differs from societal norms, especially those of traditional cultures, whether they be Murata’s Japan or the conservative side of the US. It doesn’t matter how good and dedicated a worker you are, or how modest and unassuming your life is…if you’re in your 30s and don’t have a husband, children, pets, etc, you stick out like a sore thumb. Some will view you as a problem to solve, a “less-than,” or (at best) a pitiable oddball.

We see this attitude on full display amongst Keiko’s friends, who try to ferret out her “problems” and come up with “solutions.” Even her own sister is over the moon when she finds out Keiko has a man in her life, though he’s no good:

She’s far happier thinking her sister is normal, even if she has a lot of problems, than she is having an abnormal sister for whom everything is fine. For her, normality—however messy—is far more comprehensible.

In the end, Keiko would just like to be left alone and allowed to contribute to society in the ways she feels she is best equipped to. That is all Keiko wants. And without people like her…who would run the convenience store properly?

6 responses to “Convenience Store Woman”

  1. I’ve not read this but I know what you are saying…

    It would be helpful to have an general understanding of psychological, emotional, mental issues, esp, if there are numerous within the story or particular character, or to only focus on one or two. And today there are SO MANY NEW conditions. Who can keep up?

    I have to say it made me sad for her (and I know there are people like this today) who just want to live quietly in the shadows. (“Keeping her mouth shut just to get along…”) 😦

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes… in my experience, the education on these kinds of topics is still pretty unfamiliar to many, which can make getting help (or just empathy) really hard. I believe in the past these same traits and/or conditions existed – Nikola Tesla comes to mind – but were labeled as something vague “John is melancholy and eccentric… Janet is a maiden aunt…” Either way, it’s quite a challenge for writers to take on. I have often thought that if I were to write a memoir, I must write it all in allegory to make anyone understand! 😉


      1. What an interesting concept for a memoir!! I wonder, has it been done before? Can you think of any off hand?

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Honestly… I can’t think of any 😀 Kafka’s Metamorphosis comes close – it’s certainly symbolic and I am sure the father character was partly inspired by his own father. But what I’m picturing would be told in first person like a normal memoir.


          1. The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston does something very similar to what you’re describing. It’s a memoir at its base, but it weaves in Chinese folklore in a magical realist sort of way, which I personally found very pleasing. One moment she’s watching her parents’ shop by herself, and the next she’s hunting in a dragon through a forest, with such smooth transitions that you hardly realize there’s been a change of scenery (if memory serves, which, admittedly, is not always the case). I imagine you would enjoy it.

            Liked by 1 person

          2. What a neat way to tell the story! That one’s been on my Goodreads list for a long time, but I didn’t know how it was written. Thanks for the reminder, it might be moving up now. 😀


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About Me

Hi, I’m Marian—sharing a fondness for classics and other books here and on my YouTube channel. I’m a Christian, designer, and avid tea drinker, and my home is the beautiful Pacific Northwest, US.


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