With the Misogyny Is Hate campaign in full swing, I though I’d take some time to reflect on the power of female voices in challenging deeply ingrained expectations of women at home and all over the world. One of these voices comes from Keiko Furukura, the protagonist of the international bestseller, Convenience Store Woman, written by Sayaka Murata and skilfully translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori. It was also the winner of the prestigious 2016 Akutagawa Prize, and has been translated into over 12 languages.
Keiko is a 36-year-old woman who has been working at the same convenience store since she was in university (outlasting many of the store’s managers). Much like the railways in Japan, Japanese customer service is extremely efficient. The 24-7 fluorescent lighting is both inviting and sterile, the shelves are always stocked full of neatly lined products, and the staff wear their pressed aprons and ostensible smiles while calling out “Irashaimasen!” (“Welcome!”) with the same sweet, antiseptic voices. And it’s here that social-oddball Keiko finds both refuge and meaning, feeling for once like a “normal cog in society”. “When I think that my body is entirely made up of food from this store,” she says, “I feel like I’m as much a part of the store as the magazine racks or the coffee machine.”
As a young girl, Keiko fluctuates between a harmless spectator confounded by social norms, and a character with an alarming psychopathic streak. There’s the time she offers up a dead budgie she finds on the ground to her mother, suggesting she grills it and serves it to her father. Or the time she breaks up an argument between two boys by violently hitting one over the head with a shovel. But Keiko is nothing but observant, and while not fully understanding why she gets into trouble, she learns quickly to keep her mouth shut and try to act as ‘normal’ as possible. Although kept under wraps, signs of this side of her still slip through into adulthood, and while her sister complains that her new baby’s non-stop crying, Keiko eyes up a cake knife on the coffee table, musing, “if it was just a matter of making him quiet, it would be easy enough.”
However, this is not why Keiko lives her life on the peripheries of society. Keiko is an outcast because she refuses to quit her dead-end job working at the Hiromachi Station Smile Mart, to settle down, to get married and to have children. In fact, she has no interest in sex whatsoever. But worst of all, Keiko is content.
The novel does away with the trope of the powerful business women who ‘sacrifices’ having a family for her work, only to realise too late she’s made a mistake. Keiko doesn’t have grand aspirations, she simply wants to exist without the rest of the world sticking their noses into her business: “When something was strange, everyone thought they had the right to come stomping in all over your life to figure out why.”
Through Keiko, Murata skilfully illuminates Japanese society’s treatment of women who refuse to conform to gendered expectations. We sympathise with Keiko. And this sympathy allows us to question the effects of deeply held misogynistic views on the psyche of a character who simply wishes for the right to exist as she is, happy working away in her convenience store.
Along with expectations pressed upon Keiko, you have the character of Shiraha. A lazy misogynist with no redeeming features, Murata allows him his rants about the ongoing legacy of the stone age, and he often asserts that “Strong men who bring home a good catch have women flocking around them, and they marry the prettiest girls in the village. Men who don’t join in the hunt, or who are too weak to be of any use even if they try, are despised.” And Shiraha certainly is “weak”, and is definitely a character we “despise”. Especially chilling is Shiraha’s stalking of one of the customers who regularly shops at the convenience store, even after his dismissal.
Literature is littered with characters like Shiraha taking centre stage, from the predatory, delusional Humbert Humbert or the psychotic Patrick Bateman. One of the things I loved most about this novel is the way Keiko refuses to engage with Shiraha’s misogynistic rhetoric, instead using him to please the rest of society by letting him move into her apartment and playing house.
And here in lies the true tragedy of the story. As soon as Keiko begins to conform to society’s standards, even if it is all a sham, everything begins to go wrong. Instead of being satisfied, society begins to ask more and more of her, and her haven, the convenience store, becomes an intolerable place where her co-workers interrogate her every decision. Even her sister, despite listening in on how Shiraha treats her, is “far happier thinking her sister is normal, even if she has a lot of problems, than she is having an abnormal sister for whom everything is fine”.
Convenience Store Woman is an incredible novel which interrogates deeply held misogynistic views inflicted on women in Japan, and women around the world will be able to identify with Keiko’s experiences. Although Keiko feels alienated from society, her sharp and witty observations reveal the absurdity of the very society which treats her as someone who needs fixing. Her rejection of these rules make her a threat which needs to be neutralised.
Murata’s well-crafted prose gives a voice to these anxieties and tensions, and out of them a truly intelligent, remarkable novel has been born.