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Convenience Store Woman – Sayaka Murata

by Venky

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Conformity is the handmaiden of society. If monotony greases the finely lubricated wheels of capitalism, ‘received wisdom’ acts to eliminate every force that attempts to buck the trend of convention. Japanese author Sayaka Murata, in her 10th and possibly most critical novel, “Conveyance Store Woman” reveals in an idiosyncratic way, the effect of conformity in the lives of people in general, and women in particular. Outrageously funny, yet ominously instructive, ‘Conveyance Store Woman” is a paean to every oddball trying hard to lead lives his/her own way. The oddballs that are you and me.  

Keiko Furukura is 36, unmarried, and a worker in the Smile Mart, a convenience store outside Hiiromachi Station. Keiko, however, is not just any other ordinary worker at Smile. Appointed on the very first day the store opened for business (1st May 1988), Keiko breathes and lives the store. An unbelievable eighteen years spent at the store, has resulted in every pore of Keiko’s animate being assimilating and absorbing the sights and sounds of the Store. The transformation is so arresting and complete, that Keiko begins using ‘store speak’ even while conversing with her friends, of whom, there are only a few.

Keiko becomes the very training manual which she unfailingly goes through every day before the store opens for business. “Irasshaimase” (a phrase originally used by marketplace sellers trying to bring customers closer to their particular stall), “welcome”, “certainly”, “right away Sir” etc for Keiko, transcend from being a mere stereotypical set of rote politeness to uncompromising principles that become the cornerstone of life itself.

Keiko’s family, though, is a bundle of nerves. Apprehensive about a career that is heading absolutely nowhere, concerned about ambitions that seem to have reached a cul de sac, and an age that is dangerously close to shutting out childbirth, they do their best to “fix” Keiko, imploring with her to find at the earliest a therapist, or as an alternative, a husband. A bemused and clueless Keiko just cannot understand why people close to her are torn by such distress over her martial and job status, and consider her an “oddball”. The convenience store bestows upon her as good a normalcy as can be attained anywhere. “This is the only way I can be a normal person,” muses a convinced Keiko. She can “hear the store’s voice telling what it wanted, how it wanted to be.” She “understood it perfectly.”

Enter Shiraha, an obnoxious, unhygienic and feckless man in his thirties. Habitually laconic, Shiraha joins the Smile Mart as a trainee, just so that he can hit upon a potential marriage prospect, either amongst the staff at Smile or even some of their customers. Shiraha is one of the rising ‘hikikomori’ breed in Japan, men who retreat from the public domain, by taking refuge within the confines of their homes, where they play video games, watch television or simply keep staring at the ceiling.

The repulsive misogynist, Shiraha gets fired from his job for stalking a customer. Fed up with the constant goading and insulting jabs from her friends, and their spouses, an exasperated Keiko finally decides to “take in” Shiraha into her apartment. This arrangement will be beneficial to both parties. While Keiko’s friends would stop harassing her about her disinclination towards sex and marriage, Shiraha would not be known as a doofus incapable of getting even a girlfriend. “It appears that if a man and a woman are alone in an apartment together, people’s imaginations run wild and they’re satisfied regardless of the reality,” notes Keiko.

The chauvinistic Shiraha sleeps in Keiko’s bathtub and lectures her about her wasted life even as she provides for him. “Everyone will assume you’re a sexually active, respectable human being. That’s the image of you that pleases them most. Isn’t it wonderful?” Before helpfully and hastily adding, “there’s no chance of me ever penetrating a woman like you”.

The story of Keiko Furukura is a tribute to conformity as well as homage to wrecking it. While it is absolutely a piece of cake to second guess Keiko’s ‘voluntary vulnerability’, such a guess is also tangentially off the mark since Keiko garners the courage to lead her own life in exactly the way in which she wants to. Keiko is emblematic of Henry David Thoreau’s impassionate plea to humanity: “If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away.”

We are all (at least a vast majority of us) unwitting cogs in the capitalistic wheel. We inhabit a society where conformity is compartmentalized, with each section carrying its own weighty label: work; marriage; children; house; luxuries etc. The one missing label and the most important one at that is the regret that comes much later when the excess baggage has either been dumped or it successfully ends up consuming us. Sayaka Murata, through Keiko enlightens and warns us to pay heed to the fact that we still have a choice.

Meanwhile it’s time for me to don my best professional demeanour and commence my corporate proselytization session, “every transaction that is carried out between entities within the Group must be reflective of an arm’s length arrangement. This is because….”

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