‘Strange’ woman finds a place where she can pose as ‘normal’

Courtesy of Grove Atlantic

Grove Press, 163pp. Price: ¥3,322 plus tax

“Convenience Store Woman” by Sayaka Murata, translated by Ginny Tapley TakemoriWhat is normal? This is the key question for readers of “Convenience Store Woman,” a best-selling novel by Sayaka Murata.

Many people try to fit in and meet social expectations to be considered normal. But Japanese society today promotes individuality and diverse lifestyles even while pressure to conform remains strong. “Convenience Store Woman” sheds light on such contradictions. The novel, which won the Akutagawa Award in 2016, challenges social norms in Japan that put pressure on women who don’t follow a conventional life path.

The book is Murata’s first to be translated into English and centers on Keiko Furukura, who has no interest in marriage, childbearing or a career. Since a young age, she’s been seen as “a foreign object.” Early in the book, Furukura narrates a childhood memory in which she startles others by proposing to cook and eat a dead bird found in a park while other children were crying and wanting to give it a burial. To her, picking flowers for the bird’s grave is “murdering” living objects.

On another occasion, she hits a boy over the head with a spade to stop a fight. Her mother has to apologize repeatedly, making Furukura think she did something wrong without understanding why.

Aware that her family hopes she will be “cured,” Furukura tries to become normal, hiding her individuality. Later, she starts a part-time job at a convenience store where work manuals specify everything, from what to do to what to say. There, she finally feels “reborn” as “a normal cog in society.”

After 18 years, she still works at the convenience store. She is an ideal — or more precisely, convenient — worker who never calls in sick and is willing to cover others’ shifts. In the “forcibly normalized environment,” she can play the role of “a normal person.” But outside the store she remains “strange,” unmarried and without any romantic or career ambitions at the age of 36. People around her interfere in her life under the assumption that she is miserable. Yet she is content.

The novel unfolds as she encounters Shiraha, a similarly misfit male coworker. Hoping to get the well-meaning meddlers off her back, she abruptly makes a bold proposal to him. That works at first, but eventually backfires.

One intriguing point of this book is how people who consider themselves normal frame unconventional others as outsiders. As Furukura puts it: “When something was strange, everyone thought they had the right to come stomping in all over your life to figure out why. I found that arrogant and infuriating.”

The pair are seen by others as two of a kind, but Murata’s depiction lets readers see Furukura as rational and normal in contrast to Shiraha, who is short-sighted, sexist and arrogant. He tells her things like: “You’re the lowest of the low,” and “I’m a man, so I can still make a comeback, but there’s no hope for you.” Despite such nasty words, she maintains her composure and even analyzes his behavior: “Maybe people who thought they were being violated felt a bit better when they attacked other people in the same way.”

This book is a light, easy read written with plain prose and humor, while skillfully cutting into social prejudice. Murata’s vivid descriptions of the convenience store are superb, drawing on her own experience as a convenience store clerk.

After reading this book, you may find the boundary between normality and abnormality blurry. I imagine not a few people — including me, single and without children in my 40s — sympathize with Furukura. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has touted a society where all women can shine, but Japan is not quite there yet.

—Ayako Hirayama, Japan News Staff Writer


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