Japanese Convenience Stores

 

A convenience store is a world of sound. From the tinkle of the door chime to the voices of TV celebrities advertising new products over the in-store cable network, to the calls of the store workers, the beeps of the bar code scanner, the rustle of customers picking up items and placing them in baskets, and the clacking of heels walking around the store. It all blends into the convenience store sound that ceaselessly caresses my eardrums.

The opening passage of Sayaka Murata’s prizewinning novel Convenience Store Womantakes us straight into the realm of the novel, a realm that will be instantly recognisable to anyone who has ever set foot in a Japanese convenience store, yet a little strange because of the focus on an aspect that most of us will never have paid much attention to before.

A Japanese convenience store is a microcosm all of its own, a compact testament to modern convenience. With names like 7-11, Lawsons, Family Mart and Mini Stop, these stores are a ubiquitous feature of the urban—and rural—landscape, and regardless of the franchise, the layout, stock, and facilities never vary by much, and customers know automatically whereabouts in the store they will find what they are looking for.

On sale is a wide array of soft drinks, alcoholic drinks, yoghurt drinks and smoothies, cold ready-packed coffee or freshly brewed hot coffee, ready-made meals which may be heated up at the cash register, sandwiches, rice balls, snacks, hot snacks to go, pastries, fresh fruit and vegetables, teabags and instant coffee packs and other kitchen essentials, to stationery, basic toiletries, underwear, gloves and hats, sewing kits, magazines and books, cigarettes… the list is endless. You can buy books and magazines, and sit reading them with a coffee if you like, or stand for hours reading your favourite manga without making any purchase. You can also pay your utility bills and college entrance exam fees, buy concert tickets and postage stamps, do some photocopying, send faxes (yes, people do still send faxes in Japan), use the ATM, and the bathroom, and send parcels anywhere in Japan via the cheap and efficient delivery services. And they are super sparkly clean, open twenty-four seven, 365 (or 366) days a year without fail.

Sayaka Murata has brilliantly recreated this world, making it the setting for her rather caustic and at times hilarious observations of modern society and the pressures on individuals to fit in. Through her painstaking descriptions she has elevated this humble entity to something almost akin to an object of adoration, a kind of modern-day place of worship—and even a character in its own right, personified as a lover in her short piece, Love Letter to a Convenience Store. Her protagonist revels in the predictability of the work and the environment, finding comfort in what most of us would have considered a mind-numbing routine as its rules and directives teach her how to live and participate in society, and give meaning to her life.

Murata has irrevocably changed the way I (and probably many other people in Japan) see our local stores. I can no longer pass one on the street without noticing how clean its windows are, or walk around one without noticing how neatly and precisely objects are placed, with all the labels perfectly lined up, and the sounds of the store caressing (or maybe assailing!) my own ear drums. I can’t help smiling at the predictability of the store workers movements and words as they ring up my purchases. I’m not exactly in love, but certainly more appreciative.

It was a joy to translate this novel. Enjoy!

By Ginny Tapley Takemori

Convenience Store Woman is available at all good bookstores now.