Thoughts on the uniqueness of the Japanese konbini, the subtle science fiction of Convenience Store Woman, and notes from a recent Q&A event featuring author Sayaka Murata and translator Ginny Tapley Takemori.
The UK has the corner shop, the US the bodega, and Japan the konbini. Each of these is not like the other, and the konbini — a derivation of the word “convenience” — is singularly Japanese. Whether it be Lawson, Family Mart, 7-Eleven (forget your experience of scruffy 7-Elevens in the West), or one of a number of similar offerings, buying rice balls and weird sweets from a late-night store is unlikely to be on your first-trip hitlist, but very probably something you’ll miss dearly when back home.
Subtle science fiction
Visiting several Japanese cities across two trips I developed a strong appreciation for the konbini. These ubiquitous beacons of supply are meticulously stocked, usually spotless, and always welcoming. Each night we'd turn our minds to a pre-bed picnic, seeking the reliable glow of the combini the way moths seek porch light. In Convenience Store Woman — probably my favourite fiction book of the last few years — it's Keiko's allegiance to the everyday reliability of the konbini that drives her.
Keiko is defined by two things: the mundane job she performs so expertly, and her inability to meet societal expectations of a Japanese woman. In great detail, we follow Keiko's patterns and calculate her obstacles. There’s a lovely moment when she witnesses a strange man barking orders at customers, foreshadowing her own fate. I found the subtly-played science fiction resonated the most with me: the idea of a konbini-human symbiosis is the book's backbone.
Last week, Geri and I attended a Japan Now panel discussion at Nottingham’s award-winning independent Five Leaves Bookshop. Panellists included the author of Convenience Store Woman, Sayaka Murata, the author of The Little House (which I’ve yet to read), Kyoko Nakajima, and the translator of both books, Ginny Tapley Takemori.
Following discussion and brief readings in Japanese and then English, we enjoyed a little Q&A. Both authors were asked about the use of humour and detail in their books, and in discussing translation, there were reflections on the subtlety and enjoyment of wordplay in Japanese. I particularly appreciated the focus on Convenience Store Woman as science fiction, with the moderator at one point asking Murata both whimsically and accusingly if she writes “under the influence of sci-fi?”.
An audience member made a link to the eerie strangeness found in much Japanese sci-fi; a sense of the “surreal”. The panel suggested that the book taps into a deep existing strangeness in Japanese science fiction, reminding us of the fantasy underpinning manga pop culture, and also in classical Japanese literature and theatre and more recently movies, with reliance on the supernatural and spirit world to tell stories.
Nakajima feels a sense of near-future dystopia in Convenience Store Woman, suggesting there’s something unquestionably sci-fi about the tale. Nakajima also indicated that the book is so popular because we are all a bit like protagonist Keiko; we all think conformity is outdated or damaging — or at least, boring — and that we each think ourselves to be different, at odds with the norm; somehow special and a little non-conformant.
Convenience Store Human?
Geri asked the book’s translator, Ginny Tapley Takemori, a question about the original Japanese book title (Convenience Store Human) and she insinuated a frustration that the publisher pushed for Convenience Store Woman.
I’m in agreement with the panel that the book operates as a near-future sci-fi, and therefore feel that Convenience Store Human is entirely appropriate, or at least more encompassing for the book’s ambitions. Woman speaks to the rigid Japanese patriarchy and elements of the story that are conspiring to have Keiko marry, build a home, breed, and gamely fulfil wifely duties, and that’s essential to the narrative. But as a publisher’s decision, it also feels like an appeal to a particular audience: that this is a book by a woman that other women will enjoy. Japan suffers from great gender imbalance, and I relished the perspective of a woman refusing to fit the expected template. We’re on Keiko’s side throughout as others try to shake her from what they see as a wasted life. The struggle against conformity is an essential thread, but it's encased in something spookier that I loved.
Murata immediately struck me as a kind of IRL Keiko, and she's worked part-time in numerous convenience stores. It seemed clear to me that she also favours Human over Woman. I think it’s an important detail because the books most potent texture is the representation of Keiko as the human component of a smooth-functioning konbini machine. We discover her belief that the store communicates with and through her: she’s instinctively reacting, restocking, replenishing; she’s the flesh and blood interface between shelf and customer in a robotic and symbiotic relationship.
Keiko does not see herself as subservient to the store, and I don’t see it as a metaphor for traditional marriage. She has found her true happiness at the konbini and fears change. There's no burden of shame in this part-time work, not even after eighteen years, with middle-age looming. This is her life because it's her choice, and preferable to literally anything else she can imagine, and there's something quietly heroic about that.
The panel event was part of Japan Now 2019. Programmed by Modern Culture in partnership with the Japan Foundation and Sheffield University. Supported by GB Sasakawa Foundation and the Japan Society.