Loitering in 7-11 with Convenience Store Woman Author Sayaka Murata
Why Convenience Stores Are Microcosms of Society
An editor, two fans, and an author who just wrote a novel about convenience stores walk into a 7-11 on a windy day in March. The store is in Tokyo, not far from the Imperial Palace. The author is Sayaka Murata, who became one of the most famous women writers in Japan in 2016 when her novel, Convenience Store Woman, won the Akutagawa Prize, Japan’s most prestigious literary award. The novel, which became Murata’s English language debut when Grove Atlantic published it last week in a translation by Ginny Tapley Takemori, details the life of Keiko Furukura, a single woman in her mid-30s who has been working at a Tokyo convenience store, or “konbini,” for half of her life—just like Murata herself.
Murata and I have plans to sit down in a café and discuss her writing, but first, I suggest we stop by a konbini. As we enter, Murata casts a practiced eye around the 7-11. She worked here until she became so well known as an author that she had to take a job at a different chain. Her frilly beige blouse and carefully tumbled curls set her apart from the 7-11 staff, with their sensible hair and red, orange, and green uniforms, but Murata hovers as if she might be called back into duty at any moment. Until just a few months ago, Murata still worked as a convenience-store cashier, a supposedly dead-end job she had done for almost 20 years while publishing 11 novels and story collections and two works of nonfiction.
Murata made her name by writing about women in extreme situations: in her (yet-to-be-translated) 2014 novella Breeders and Killers, any woman who contributes 10 children to the regime gets to murder any one person she chooses. Convenience Store Woman, on the other hand, is set in a fixture of Japanese life so mundane it lies almost below notice, even as it quietly reflects social changes—more elderly customers, more foreign workers. In this novel, Murata channels her signature weirdness not into the world she creates, but into her misfit protagonist. Watching her sister soothe her baby nephew, Keiko eyes a cake knife and thinks: “If it were just a matter of making him quiet, it’d be easy enough.”
Keiko only begins to feel like she has a place in society when she becomes a cashier and takes her place in this carefully scripted world. (The 7-11 cashiers say “Irrashaimase”—”Welcome!”—for every customer who enters.) When, after a marriage of convenience, her new husband pushes her to quit and find a “real” job, Keiko must decide between what she’s supposed to want—a career, a family—and her beloved store.“Murata hovers as if she might be called back into duty at any moment.”
Even when Keiko shops at a rival konbini, she can’t stop herself from rearranging the shelves and giving pep talks to staff. Like her fictional stand-in, Murata is always a clerk, never a customer. On our visit, she is drawn to the beverage area, where she methodically rotates every bottle of oolong tea until they are all facing forward. Her editor, Nanami Torishima, says, “You’re a pro!” Murata then makes a beeline for the snack aisle, where she pulls a bag of consommé-flavored potato chips aside to reveal a spring-loaded plastic stand that pushes items to the front. “Products should be like a wall. That’s what I was taught when I was working here. To make it like a beautiful wall,” she intones.
It is morning, the quiet before the rush. “Between noon and one, we can get about 1,000 customers!” chirps Murata. The store is between seasons: it’s early March, so cherry blossom products are just starting to dot the store with pink. But winter items still line the shelves. We buy some cherry blossom iced tea and a bag of Country Ma’am, Japan’s most popular chocolate-chip cookies, in a limited-edition flavor: cream of chicken. The packaging shows both a stack of cookies and a hearty bowl of creamy stew, replete with carrots, broccoli, and mushroom. Murata takes a cautious bite, then delivers her verdict. “This is one of those products that people might buy once, and then never again.”
In the conversation that followed, Murata and I, along with another reader, Naoko Sato, who helped translate, spoke about the inspiration to be found in convenience stores, the divide between the real and the fantastic in Murata’s work—a divide arguably blurrier in Japanese fiction than in other national literatures—and finding sacred spaces in everyday life.
Fran Bigman: When did you first have the idea of writing a novel about working at a convenience store?
Sayaka Murata: I wanted to write about it someday, but I thought I would write about it when I got older and quit the convenience store. Before I wrote this novel, I was writing other stuff, but it wasn’t coming along that well. Then suddenly I realized I should just try writing about the convenience store, and I finished the novel within six months. It was so quick.
FB: Is writing that quickly unusual for you?
SM: I usually write slowly. Perhaps I could finish it quickly because of the main character. She is a bit of a strange person and has a different personality than my previous characters, and I really wanted to write about her, so the words came out faster and faster.
Naoko Sato: How is this novel different from your earlier work?
SM: I started off writing realistic novels, and then suddenly I started writing some that were strange, like one about people who eat dead people. With Convenience Store Woman, I wanted to write a novel barely within the boundaries of normal reality. So it’s like when I tried to return to realism after writing weird novels, I produced something that became not just a realistic novel but also a bit of a strange one.
FB: Does writing realistic fiction feel different from writing dystopian and speculative fiction?
SM: It feels the same to me, because when I was writing the strange dystopian stuff, I was trying to make it mentally very realistic. I tried to write about characters’ real feelings even in a strange setting, like when I was writing Dwindling World [Murata’s yet-to-be-translated 2015 novel set in a Brave-New-World-like society in which people no longer have sex to have kids].
FB: Do you think there is room for the mystical in our technologized world? I am thinking of your short story “A Clean Marriage,” your first work in English translation to be published outside Japan—readers can find it in Granta’s Japan issue of 2014. The story is about reproduction through a machine, but that reproduction is conducted like a spiritual rite. Your protagonist in Convenience Store Woman sees these stores as modern-day sacred spaces.
SM: Yes, I strongly think that there is a spiritual feeling in our society. Perhaps I feel it exists in purer forms. Since we are not told what to believe like people were in previous generations, experiences like childbirth are cut off from ritual more and more. But often, many people suddenly find something and start to strongly believe in it. Like in Japan, now there are many women who love to go to shrines. Such places are not where we go with our parents any more. We go to shrines because of our personal relationships to them.
FB: The experience of work, especially low-paid work, is not a very common theme in Japanese literature, is it?
SM: I think there are novels about work set in companies, but perhaps it is rare to write a novel about a woman working part-time at a familiar place like a convenience store. There are some novels about company employees, but a novel about a part-time job is perhaps unusual. Working part-time at a convenience store is often considered a job that anyone, even a student, can do, so having a main character doing it at the same age as me, like 35 or 36, is a bit strange.
FB: Keiko, your protagonist, has never known how to follow the unwritten rules of society. When she starts working at the konbini and acts according to the manual, however, she feels more comfortable. Does the structure of the konbini mean freedom for Keiko, or does it constrain her?
SM: I think Keiko was the most natural when she was as naked as nature intended, like in kindergarten, when she was able to say what she would like to say. But when she started working at a convenience store, she became so constrained by it, and those constraints turned her into a very human creature. When she wears the mask of a cashier, she can act like a human, as if she were a human. It’s not her original self, but it enables her to meet people who accept her and don’t treat her like a weirdo. She was freed from her isolation, so in that sense, it meant freedom for Keiko.“When she wears the mask of a cashier, she can act like a human, as if she were a human.”
FB: At the beginning of the novel, Keiko thinks that working at a konbini makes her “a normal cog in society,” a “normal” human being like everyone else. At the end, however, she declares to her husband, “More than a person, I’m a convenience store worker.” Does her idea of “a normal human” change over the course of the story?
SM: Yes. At first, she started working part-time at a convenience store because she wanted to be seen as normal. But as she got older, people started to think it was strange for her to keep doing that. So she starts to pretend that she was having a relationship with a man, and then people around her treated her like a normal person again. But then, it wasn’t what she wanted anymore. Loving a convenience store became more precious of a thing to believe in than being a normal person. The convenience store became as important to her as a church. So at first becoming a normal human was her longing and her goal, but in the end she came to want something different.
NS: Why did you depict characters who have no sexual desire? Sexual passion, sometimes uncontrollable passion, is such a strong theme in your earlier works. Is Keiko’s desire for the konbini a substitute for her desire for people?
SM: I didn’t want to write a novel that was fleshless or bloodless. I wanted to depict the body. And the body is about many things other than sex; I wanted to write about bodies that were physically tired or in pain. Though there are no sexual bodies in Convenience Store Woman, I wrote about bodies in motion and bodies at work, so I think my appetite for writing about flesh and blood was satisfied even though I didn’t write about sex.
FB: Could you say that the konbini is a character in its own right?
SM: First I thought about what kind of store it should be. The store is also an imagined one. I made up a store that I like, so I can say that it is one of my characters, sure.
NS: You mean an ideal konbini?
SM: Yes, it is an ideal store. They do morning meetings properly; there is a clerk who is good at making pop-up ads; it is moderately crowded in the morning and at lunchtime; the clerks are eager and try to make it a better place; and there is a person who takes on a leadership role. The stores I have worked at have always lacked one of these elements, so I tried to make a perfect store that combines all of them.
FB: How is the konbini the same as the real world, and how is it different?
SM: I feel the passage of time at convenience stores, like they are microcosms of society. When I was a college student, there were many foreign clerks from Korea or China, but now they are from various countries like Vietnam or Myanmar.
NS: So convenience stores have to evolve as the real world evolves?
SM: Yes, they have to change according to the real world. They have to think ahead and respond to particular needs, like selling vegetables to suit the needs of aging society.
FB: Can you say the konbini is a utopia, dystopia, or both?
SM: For me and also for Keiko it is both a utopia and dystopia. It is a utopia where you can make people happy, make friends, or feel less gendered. In the sense that it welcomes various people, it may have a utopian element. But it also has a very cruel side, like excluding clerks who cannot work very well, so it is also a place of cruel reality. You get yelled at by customers even if you don’t do anything wrong, but you have to respond to that with a smile, so sometimes it may seem a scary place. But I like even that aspect of convenience stores.
FB: Why do you like the dark side of convenience stores?
SM: At convenience stores you see not only the beautiful aspects of people but also hear the voices of the customers in their most natural state. I don’t get upset when I get a glimpse of the true inner frustration of my customers because it is also a part of them. I guess I just like human beings.“At convenience stores you see not only the beautiful aspects of people but also hear the voices of the customers in their most natural state.”
FB: Are konbini places where people don’t have to put on an act?
SM: I heard a woman say that a neighborhood convenience store is a place you can go to without putting on any makeup. This isn’t true of other places, like family restaurants. I think konbini is a place where we can go in our most natural state.
FB: Do you develop a relationship with regular customers at the convenience store you work at?
SM: Regular customers often speak to me. One of the customers who buys the same coffee every day recently asked me, “How have you been?” because I was absent from work for a while because of receiving the Akutagawa Prize. When I was a college student, I often saw female clerks receiving love letters. It happens all the time at konbini. It’s happened to me.
FB: Is there competition among co-workers at the convenience stores you’ve worked at?
SM: We are more like friends. The best clerk wears a badge, but not many clerks aspire to be the best.
FB: Even though the company wants a competition, maybe the workers resist?
SM: Perhaps they want their employees to win a badge or compete to sell the most gift-with-purchase items for summer, but we are not so motivated by that system.
FB: Do you see Convenience Store Woman as a critique of Japanese society? Is it a critique of the globalized super-capitalist world of work we all live in?
SM: I don’t write novels to criticize, so I think it is a description. As I keep describing, the main character is tormented by the world, so it may seem critical. But as an author, I try to describe very precisely.