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An ode to outcasts: Up close and personal with the “Convenience Store Woman”

Belonging equates to happiness—or so we were told.

By Caly Bautista | Thursday, 20 April 2023

Title: Convenience Store Woman

Author: Sayaka Murata

Genre: Contemporary Fiction, Short Fiction, Japanese Culture

Rating: 3/5


In this unexpectedly feminist novel by Sayaka Murata, readers enter the world of a 36-year-old convenience store worker whom society refuses to leave well enough alone. 


Meet Keiko Furukura—the most hardworking personnel a Japanese convenience store could possibly have. She is quick in clearing lines up at checkout during rush hours. She instinctively knows whether rice balls or sandwiches will sell more at certain times of the day. Her lively greetings of “Irrashaimasé!” make customers feel at home inside Smile Mart, the beloved convenience store she has been serving for 18 years. But behind this seemingly casual tale about an enthusiastic cog in the machine, Murata trails readers further inside her heroine's mind to tell a rather brief and straightforward story of a neurodivergent woman’s struggles with understanding societal expectations and gender role conformity.


Odd child, odder woman

“It seemed I’d done something again, but I couldn’t for the life of me understand what was the problem.”


From suggesting a dead budgie to cook yakitori to hitting classmates with a spade to stop a fistfight, the young Keiko had the most peculiar solutions to the adversaries that came her way. It is only after university that Keiko responds to a “help wanted” notice in Hiiromachi Station Smile Mart, instantly falling in love with the ins and outs of working in a convenience store. However, her dilemma just seems to age alongside her. Loved ones and peers who had once been keen on teaching her normalcy became the same people who stared in horror at her lifestyle devoid of marriage, children, and a high-paying job. 


The deadpan tone Murata uses to embody Keiko is befitting of her unusual character, whether done intentionally or a result of stylistic language being (literally) lost in translation. With this, readers may find both humor and unease as Keiko goes through her life-long confusion as to why the world wishes to “cure” and repress her distinctive quirks.


With every novel comes a nuisance

To further emphasize Keiko’s innate indifference towards others’ opinions, Murata creates a contrast in the form of a misogynistic outcast named Shiraha. By taking pity on her fired co-worker and his tiresome “Stone Age” rants about society’s unchanging pressures on men, a parasitic partnership develops between the two. As Shiraha reluctantly hides away in Keiko’s apartment, running from his monetary debts and his own failed attempts to comply with gender norms, he convinces Keiko of how she’ll “benefit” from the arrangement: people will finally stop poking their noses into her life when they discover she’s finally living with a man. 


Regardless, despite evidently being a mere plot driver, Shiraha’s character was effectively written in terms of reiterating Keiko’s ikigai—aside from making the more feminist reader’s blood boil with his every crooked remark. While readers are sure to fear for Keiko’s story after taking Shiraha under her wing, they are certain to feel relief in its light aftermath. 


Overall, despite its absurd characters and setting, “Convenience Store Woman” remains relevant as a contemporary piece. By empathizing with Keiko’s passion for her convenience store after growing up a misfit, we get to reflect on our own identities, flaws, and shortcomings that we fear the people around us will never accept. At the end of the day, the desperation for conformity is not just a matter of man versus society—it is also a woman's battle with herself.


By the end of this beach read, readers get to face the question: What’s stopping you from pursuing your “convenience store”?


“Convenience Store Woman” is available nationwide in physical bookstores and Fully Booked Online.