At 163 pages, this book invites consumption in two or three bites, like eating a rice ball or other snack food from the store. It’s better, though, to nibble. The protagonist is a very unusual woman and her observations and story are highly unsettling. I read it again immediately and find it lingering in my mind, like the flavor of an exotic food upon the palate.
Keiko, a social misfit from childhood, makes an unlikely heroine. She doesn’t understand why her family is so anxious to ‘cure’ her and have her behave like everyone else. It’s not hard to sympathize with them when Keiko uses a shovel to clobber a classmate on the playground. Everyone wanted him to stop beating up another child so she simply took effective action; the adult reaction baffled her. So it goes until she learns to not speak or act; she no longer stands out. She hasn’t changed internally, though. Stroking the cheek of her baby nephew, she finds it strangely soft, like stroking a blister. When her sister tries to quiet the child’s crying, Keiko looks idly at a knife on the table – it would be easy enough. It’s a chilling moment. She doesn’t act on those thoughts any more but still wonders why people don’t use the simplest means to accomplish what they say they want.
A job in one of Japan’s ubiquitous 24-hour convenience stores is a common temporary job for many, quickly left behind for a ‘real’ job or marriage. The structured routine of the store proves ideal for Keiko, however. Indeed, she feels “reborn” as a worker. She stays on for 18 years as managers (currently #8) and staff come and go. The store manual tells her how to act, other female staff provide models of clothing and speech which she can mimic, and the work gives her a sense of purpose. She thinks she’s finally pulled off being a person. We see that’s not quite the case outside the store environment when her sister pleads with her to go to counseling because ever since you started working at the convenience store you’ve gotten weirder and weirder.
The Convenience Store is both microcosm and metaphor of society. Both are forcibly normalized environments where foreign matter and exceptions are removed. Unruly customers, expired milk, and unreliable workers are expelled from the store. Young adults (especially men) who don’t pursue careers or (especially women) marriage are shunned, culled from the herd. Any oddity in a person’s life is massaged and interpreted until it can be explained and fit into a conventional social pattern.
Nothing is static or uniform, of course, despite the bemused comment of an elderly customer that this place never changes. Keiko reflects that all the units of the store – products, staff, customers – are constantly being replaced with the same but different units, like the cells of her body. The old lady was like one of eighteen years earlier, the eggs sold today are like those of yesterday but different, and she herself is a unit that will be replaced. Problems of the world intrude into this controlled environment too. A recently hired foreign worker, chronic staffing shortages, and a mentally deranged customer hint at the labor and social crises in Japan.
The author is very clever to let Keiko tell her story; a reader almost automatically feels a sympathetic interest in a narrator’s point of view. But the ambiguities and uneasiness created by such a heroine are considerable. Keiko, whose name means “happy child”, is not happy nor does she understand or want “happiness”. She sees society as a kind of hive or herd in which everyone unconsciously copies others’ behaviors – infecting each other like this is how we maintain ourselves as human is what I think. She has admirable qualities as an employee but her complete identification with the store is deeply odd. She is bereft when she leaves her job and can no longer hear its voice caress her eardrums.
The novel is a deft and deadpan satire of that universal human inclination to sort and explain everything/one into familiar patterns and categories. It’s easy to criticize Keiko’s conventional family and workplace for the excessive pressures for conformity that we associate with Japanese society. But I found myself trying to ‘understand’ her too, though in a more enlightened way of course. The English language edition subtly guides our expectations with the translation choice in the title. The title is more properly translated as Convenience Store Human or Person. (The word is also used as urban slang and in Dragonball circles as an insult meaning something like “idiot humanoid”.) “Woman” is a significant change and closes off a more open reading at the outset by emphasizing gender and the individual. My feminist instincts were easily engaged when she’s badgered to marry, or to find a more worthwhile job, or when she’s not promoted despite her exemplary performance in the store. Her return to a store that ‘needs’ her, crying out to her in its distress, feels like a victory and affirmation of personal choice. But really? What will become of her when she’s unable to meet the physical demands of the job, when she’s a worn cog and an unusable tool?
I think “Human” is a more interesting title, as well, as it encourages us to think about those qualities that make us human. Keiko in some respects seems like an AI construct of a human being; she’s a humanoid robot designed to serve this complex structured machine called a Convenience Store. How different, we should wonder, is our own life? how unreflecting our judgments? The career professional never unplugged, the retail worker whose personal life is captive to erratic shift scheduling, social media pressures to have a shiny smiley life – we can see much of contemporary life mirrored in this insightful and entertaining novel.