Conbini Ningen: Sayaka Murata

Conbini NingenWARNING: Potentially controversial opinion ahead! Are you ready? Are you sure? Okay, here it is then…

I find the type of literature that receives accolades and awards in Canada to be very earnest and generally in a similar vein. I think everywhere in the English-speaking world, “serious” books tend to be favoured with the “serious” term “literature”, and that books written by men or books written about men or both tend to be deemed “serious literature”. But I feel like Canada has its own narrow and particular version of “serious literature”, and if someone is not living some kind of hard-scrabble life in the pages of your novel, you are not going to win the Governor General’s Award or even Canada Reads. There must be hard times or else how can we know it’s literature?

And this, friends, I find deeply boring. I don’t think you need Hard Times™ to make a work of fiction that is meaningful and relevant and life-changing. I even think that genre fiction is just as serious and meaningful as “literary” fiction. I know, I know. I hear you all out there, gasping and clutching your pearls. But I promise you, the way Ancillary Justice uses language to break down conceptions of gender is just as real and meaningful as the sparse economy of The Vegetarian in revealing the fundamental contradictions in the way society treats women.

Obviously, these earnest, serious books are not the only things being written in Canada. But they do tend to be the ones that win the awards. So I tend not to read the award-winning books in Canada. It’s much more interesting to me when an author takes a concept that is considered outside the realm of the serious and makes me think about some bigger issue. Which is why I do tend to read award winners in Japan. The two big prizes— Akutagawa and Naoki—spread the love across a wide range of works, maybe because they’re each awarded twice a year, rather than once, and because the Japanese publishing industry offers so much more to choose from than its Canadian counterpart. Either way, a big “Akutagawa Prize winner” splashed across the obi of a book is enough to make me pick it up and read the back at least. (And maybe I can only say this because my writer/reader self grew up outside the Japanese context and was force-fed CanLit. Native J-readers are probably rolling their eyes every time the Akutagawa Prize is announced.)

So when I came across the latest Akutagawa winner at my local bookstore, I was already interested. But then it had the intriguing title of Conbini Ningen (Convenience Store Human), and I was sold. I didn’t even read the back. I just sort of vaguely assumed that it would be the tale of someone who believed that if you can’t buy it at the conbini, you don’t need it, a fairly commonly held idea. But no! It is the tale of someone who works at said conbini! And has worked there for eighteen years! And to be honest, some of my appreciation of this book stems simply from the way it reveals some of the inner workings of the beloved conbini. But it is so much more than that!

Keiko is wrong. Or at least, that’s what she’s been made to believe her whole life. The things she is inclined to do or say are seriously frowned upon by everyone around her. After a few notable incidents as a child—whacking another child with a shovel to put an end to a scuffle with another child, flipping her teacher’s skirt to get her to shut up—she realizes that the way her mind works is not the way that the world wants it to work. So she goes into stealth mode: she speaks only when spoken too and watches her younger sister and the other people around her for clues on how to behave the “right” way. And she stays in stealth mode right through to university, her family worrying about her the whole time, wishing she would “get better.”

And then she gets a job at a convenience store, and her family rejoices. At last, Keiko is being “normal.” She is, at long last, a “tool the world can make use of”. But then she never leaves the convenience store. And when this sort of job is intended to be a stepping stone on the path to company employee to marriage to children, this is a problem for the rest of the world, despite the fact that Keiko is immensely satisfied with her life. A fact which is clearly seen in the way she describes the sounds of the convenience store in the opening paragraphs of the book. These sounds regulate her world; she hears them even after she leaves the convenience store and returns home to her small apartment. And to be honest, I would have happily read a book that did nothing but document her life at the conbini. The look behind the scenes was so fascinating. Conbini Ningen has definitely changed the way I interact with conbinis.

Which I’m sure this was not necessarily Murata’s goal in telling this tale, but given that she has spent her own adult life working at a conbini, I have no doubt that she would be pleased if this were to be a side effect of reading her book. But her main focus seems to be on how we create our identities within the confines of the society we live in (with a not-so-implicit criticism of the norms of that society and how and for what purpose we are socialized) and what even is identity anyway. Keiko is fully aware of the fact that she borrows mannerisms, ways of speaking, and other bits of personality from the people around her. She notes coolly that she is using the slight upspeak of a younger woman who works with her at the conbini, and she keeps an eye on the personal effects of a colleague her age so that she can make sure to shop at the same stores, so that she looks like a “normal” woman her age. At every step, Keiko is broadcasting the fact that she is merely mimicking what is expected of her as a woman of a certain age, clearly letting us know that she has no idea what any of these expectations mean or why people expect them of her.

I love seeing a character who is so comfortable with herself, but so aware that she is not “right”, that she does not fit into the structures of the society she finds herself in. It is a recurring conversation I have with a certain friend, that idea that we feel totally normal until we step outside. And then as women of the wrong color in worlds where another color is the dominant norm, we are reminded at every moment that we are weird, we do not belong. So Murata’s too-perfect portrayal of this strange tightrope walk felt extra real for me.

And as I commented in my notes while reading the book, “You know a writer is compelling when she has you literally rolling your eyes and making faces on the train at unpleasant characters.” Murata has somehow managed to reach into the darkest corners of Twitter and pull out a repugnant man who would be right at home on the most misogynistic Reddit threads and make him the turning point for Keiko. She painted such a painfully real portrait of Shiraha that I actually found myself biting my tongue, like I was going to start telling him where to shove it. 

With the entire novel written in Keiko’s voice, we are always given Keiko’s view of people. And she is generous. Or rather, she just doesn’t see things from the perspective that we might see them. In this way, Murata gives us new insights into seemingly-old characters. The repellant misogynist becomes a figure worthy of compassion. And the store itself becomes almost human. The conbini is as much a character as any of the humans that populate the book, and Murata describes it as lovingly as a character like Keiko could possibly see it. Honestly, I hope this Akutagawa win encourages some publisher to commission her to write a memoir or something about her own life as a convenience store clerk. I had no idea that “convenience store” was a genre I wanted to read, but here we are.

8 thoughts on “Conbini Ningen: Sayaka Murata

  1. Considering this book won one of the highest prizes in Japanese literature, I would assume that the Japanese language skills needed to be able to read this and appreciate it fully is out of my reach.

    From your description of the story, it seems to me that it’s also a commentary on Japan’s homogeneity? There is always societal expectation everywhere, but Japan, from what I’ve seen, is more suffocating. The people on the surface seems to be very similar to each other. When you have that sort of society, the pressure to conform becomes even bigger. I might be way off the mark here, though.

    • Not necessarily! The language isn’t that difficult, actually. The main character is so straightforward in her thinking that she doesn’t get incomprehensibly verbose. And it’s not that long of a book. If you can read light novels, you should give this one a go.

      And yes! It is totally a comment on the homogeneity of Japan. There’s so much to unpack in this book, and this is one of the things I wanted to say, but I just didn’t have the space. Partly because I think what she’s saying about the homogeneity of Japanese society is more complicated than a simple condemnation. Our main character is stifled by the expectation placed upon her, but thrives in the convenience store, a place so symbolic of Japanese society in so many ways. The author rejoices in the neatly ordered world of Japan the convenience store, but at the same time, chafes against the pressure this convenience store places on the individual. And this is a contradiction I understand and push against every time I’m here. There is the pressure to conform, you are not mistaken there. But there’s also the comfort of everyone having the same basic model of how the world should be/is. And I love that this is so central to Conbini Ningen. It’s such an interesting book.

  2. Trying to fit in when you’re different is not easy. Some people might call it special snowflake syndrome, but I think you can spot that from a mile away. People with this syndrome tend to be flashy and attention seeking. The main character in this book sounds like she just wants to live her life quietly. I reckon I will give the book a try. It’s probably better to buy the paper back.

    I find Japan very interesting in its homogeneous heterogeneity (or is it heterogeneous homogeneity?). Fashion is a simple example. You get to see so many weird styles, incomprehensible clothing and make up, odd experimental couture worn in public etc etc. But after a certain ‘acceptable’ cut-off, you have to stop it, be normal, enter the workforce and start adulting. I had this conversation before with one of my friends who was a ‘delinquent’. She had platinum hair, thick make up, gothic style outfits during her teens and uni, then after graduation, she dyed her hair back to black, she only wears sensible (but still stylish!) clothing and she just bought a condo last month. She said it was expected of her to be independent and mature. Your description of this book reminds me of her. Japan can be such a peculiar insular society with interesting dynamics. If this book can capture that nuance, well, no wonder it won the prize.

    • Yes, that’s exactly it. The main character just wants to live her life the way she is happiest. She’s not trying to be a special snowflake. Definitely try to check this one out. It’s a solid read, with loads to think about re: Japanese society and mainstream society in general.

      I have friends just like your friend! Once you reach a certain age, you’re expected to toe the line here. I think this happens everywhere, but it’s such a pronounced difference here. I mean, even the colours you can/should wear are set in societal stone. I think this book really does capture what it’s like to be faced with that conflict between what you want and what’s expected of you, only the main character’s way of thinking really highlights the absurdity of the situation.

      • Yeah, I noticed that when I visited Japan during the winter years ago. I was a student that time and my Mum bought me this dusty pink thick winter coat and I stood out like a sore thumb in Tokyo. Everyone else wore dark colours.

        Speaking of friends, I saw quite a number of articles written by Westerners saying that it’s really difficult to make long lasting sincere friendships with Japanese people and that they would always be viewed as outsiders. What do you think about this?

      • I don’t know if making lasting friendships is any harder in Japan than it is anywhere else. I think a lot of those articles are maybe written by people there for the short-term or who don’t speak Japanese, so they necessarily are outsiders in some sense, which makes making friends harder. Most Japanese people don’t speak English, so unless you speak Japanese, you’re going to have trouble meeting people and getting to know them well enough to cultivate a friendship.

  3. This is a great review! I really enjoyed this novel, and I think your summary and analysis really hits it home.

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