This novel centres around the life of Keiko, our protagonist, and her personal struggles with conforming to society. The story itself has no overarching plot where the villain is slain and the good guys win, but focuses much more on Keiko’s quest for acceptance within society, not necessarily because she is insecure, but because she wants to exist without scrutiny from a homogenous, conformist society.
The novel begins at the place the reader will spend most of their time, much like Keiko: the convenience store. From the first few words, it is apparent how much dedication Keiko gives to her workplace: always thinking about her customers, she has their mannerisms memorised. For 36-year-old Keiko, who eats, dreams and breathes convenience store, her existence is almost like a planet, days and nights determined by the gravitational pull of the till. Inthe first few chapters, Sayaka Murata sets the scene, emphasising over and over how much Keiko dedicates herself to working there, how to interact with colleagues and customers, preparing us for the inciting incident to come. This is the employment of Shiraha, a lazy and careless employee who is fired within a few days of starting work at the convenience store. However, Keiko realises the opportunity for a symbiotic existence with him, where they would conform more to society and their lives be less questioned as they followed what society deemed to be “normal” for their age group. The conflict arises when Shiraha convinces Keiko to quit her job at the convenience store, and look for more substantial work.
Although this novel may seem like a story about someone who doesn’t fit in, Sayaka Murata provides a greater commentary on Japanese society, brushing on issues such as sexism and the unhealthy relationship Japanese people have with work. When Keiko recounts her childhood memories, it is clear that she has struggled to understand what is appropriate to do and say in daily life, such as when she suggested to her mother that they should eat the dead budgie found in the park. However, Keiko is quite self-aware of her difference from others, opting to remain to herself throughout her adolescence. When she takes on the job in the convenience store, aged eighteen, she finally finds comfort, as the human behaviours she struggled to understand become an unchanging script for her to read.
Even when walking around on her days off, Keiko observes the world outside the universe of the kombini, looking to glean any information about surrounding restaurants or newly built apartment blocks that may influence the influx of customers. But even when acting as one of the cogs in the collective system that Japan praises, Keiko still doesn’t conform. All of Keiko’s family and friends simply cannot process that she wouldn’t want to get married and have children just like them; and the few friends of Keiko who are still unmarried in their thirties see it as a shameful burden. When Keiko tries to conform further by inviting Shiraha to live with her, she ultimately lands in a period of turmoil where she loses track of day and night. It’s not until Keiko steps back into a convenience store at the end of the novella, that she realises where her calling truly is.
The character of Shiraha is also worth mentioning; written rather one dimensionally as what some might describe as an “incel”, he provides both contrast and similarity with Keiko. Although he internalises many of the toxic, sexist beliefs that the reader is supposed to find repulsive, he ultimately doesn’t conform to these ideas, much like Keiko. However, the way Shiraha approaches this issue is radically different from Keiko, highlighting their totally different personalities. Shiraha whines about how unfair life is for anyone who doesn’t conform, which is essentially true, except he is unable to see his own faults. Deep down, he wants to conform because he is insecure, as opposed to Keiko who appears to show no sign of insecurity. Rather it appears Keiko’s desire to conform stems from truly wanting to be unscrutinised by society. When Keiko rids herself of Shiraha and the toxic beliefs he embodies, she is able to tell herself that if she doesn’t care about conforming to what society expects her to be, and that she shouldn’t pretend to conform at all.
As an interesting final note, the original title of this was “Kombini no ningen” meaning “Convenience store human/humans*”. Obviously, this sounds a bit strange in English, but the translated title of “Convenience store woman” deducts from the author’s explanation of the whole novella in three words. When Keiko steps into her uniform, she is no longer a middle-aged woman who lacks a husband and children, but a convenience store worker who is untethered from gender roles and society’s expectations of her, calling out “Irasshaimasé” to every customer. Perhaps,this perfectly explains Keiko’s passion for her work; there, she is comfortable, and when she comes to terms with this, her arc of self-acceptance is complete.