When you’re browsing through the shelves of a bookstore, “Convenience Store Woman” is probably not the most eye-catching title out there. And it’s not even one of those deceptive titles that embody a different story because it’s literally about a woman who works at a convenience store. You might not think it’s worth reading, and I thought that too, but after encountering several book reviews about it on my YouTube recommendations page, I finally decided to give it a go. It turned out to be a good decision since Convenience Store Woman was such a quirky and enjoyable read. It’s not the most mind-blowing book in the world, nor is it a heart-pounding page turner, but it’s filled with a lot of hard-hitting quotes that make you question the norms of society.
The premise is basically about a 36-year-old woman named Keiko Furukura, who has worked in the same convenience store for 18 years. She’s a bit socially-inept, so she enjoys being a convenience store worker because it’s the only job that provides her with a blueprint on what to say and how to behave. The problem is the people around her don’t think being a convenience store worker is a proper job, so they keep pressuring her to pursue a different career or get married.
The whole story is told from Keiko’s point of view, whose deadpan and puzzled attitude towards life makes for a unique narrative voice. It’s fun to read about her breaking down the essence of human interaction. There was a particular scene where Keiko described herself as someone whose personality was formed by the people around her, and it might seem like she’s the only one who’s mirroring other people because she’s socially-inept, but isn’t that true for everyone else? We’re all shaped by the people around us, and in turn, we also shape the personalities of other people. It’s not exactly a bad thing, but there are times when we would unconsciously change ourselves for the sake of pleasing other people.
“You eliminate the parts of your life that others find strange–maybe that’s what everyone means when they say they want to cure me.”
However, it isn’t much of a choice sometimes. We’re always encouraged to be ourselves, but society still has a specific idea of what a “normal person” is. If you don’t conform, then more often than not, you are ostracised by the community. This is something Keiko struggled with while growing up, so when she got a job at the convenience store at 18, that’s when she finally felt like she was doing something right.
“When morning comes, once again I’m a convenience store worker, a cog in society. This is the only way I can be a normal person.”
Of course, as Keiko grew older, people started having more expectations. It was no longer acceptable for her to simply be a convenience store worker, even though she’s happy with her job. She was constantly advised to either aim higher or settle down with someone, and I think this says a lot about how society views women. Their happiness is rarely considered, and they are always expected to be overachievers or wives, with no room for them in between. This is especially true for Chinoy culture and Asian culture in general. When a woman sets off on an unconventional path, she is expected to be the best and not simply be a work in progress. But even if she did end up achieving what she wanted, people tend to invalidate her success unless she gets married.
‘Well, worth trying, the sooner the better. You can’t go on like this, and deep down, you must be getting desperate, no? Once you get past a certain age, it’ll be too late.’
‘I can’t go on like this? You mean I shouldn’t be living the way I am now? Why do you say that?’
At some point in the story, Keiko meets Shiraha, a newly-hired employee of the convenience store. Despite being a guy who is down on his luck and can’t find a better job, Shiraha still looks down on convenience store workers, as if he isn’t working as one. This also says a lot about society’s attitude towards retail workers in general. The pandemic has proved how invaluable retail workers are, and yet most people still act like they don’t play an important role in society. Retail work is often dismissed for not being a real job, even though it literally churns the wheel of capitalism. Sadly, it’s also the only job that some people have access to.
‘A dead-ender. The worst type, just a burden on society. People have a duty to fulfill their role in society either through the workplace or the family.’
Keiko and Shiraha are both considered to be dead-enders, so they did what society expects of two middle-aged people of the opposite sex: they got together. There was no love or romance between them. Their relationship was purely to appease other people, and it worked. Everyone was happy for them because they were finally “normal”, as if entering a relationship is an acceptable substitute for a career to gauge your success. This is a dangerous mindset, but it’s the sad reality, as a lot of people feel pressured to start a family at a certain age, without giving much thought to their own capabilities or financial status.
‘Keiko, I’m so happy for you. You’ve been struggling for so long, but at least you’ve found someone who understands…’
“She was getting carried away with making up a story for herself. She might just as well have been saying I was ‘cured.’ If it had been that simple all along, I wish she’d given me clear instructions before, then I wouldn’t have had to go to such lengths to find out how to be normal.”
At the end of the day, Convenience Store Woman is a wake up call for us to stop dictating what constitutes the happiness of other people. It’s possible to find happiness even if you don’t do what society expects of you, and this book reminds us to look inward once in a while to find out what truly makes us happy instead of changing ourselves or following the footsteps of other people. This is why I think Convenience Store Woman is worth a read. It’s social commentary disguised as a mundane book, and even if you don’t necessarily agree with the author’s ideas, you’ll still be able to enjoy the quirky and surprisingly funny story.