This review is for the novel Convenience Store Woman(コンビニ人間) by Sayaka Murata(村田沙耶香). This novel has won the Akutagawa Prize, which is one of the most famous literary prizes in Japan. It was such a hit in Japan, that is was translated into English as well. This is a review for the Japanese version of the novel.
I bought this book at Kinokuniya at Chicago for 9.99. It took me a few tries before I was able to purchase this book. I had a hard time paying so much for such a short book! I was finally able to do and am glad that I did. I am happily awaiting the day I am able to move back to Japan and spend all of my time in used book stores and libraries. I hope that day is coming sooner then later! But who knows with COVID.
Why did I pick this book?
The cover of the book and my love of Japanese convenient stores is what really drew me into this book. I often use the website BookMeter, to look for new titles and keep track of books that I want to read in the future. I saw that this book was really popular and decided to give it a try. When I saw it in the book store and read the first few pages, I knew that I had to buy it.
This it the story of Keiko, a Japanese women in her 30’s who works at a convenience store. From a young age, Keiko found she had a hard time fitting into the world around her despite having a loving and protective family. Due to the reaction of others and the amount of time her parents were requested at school, Keiko was aware that sometimes her reactions to situations were not appropriate. But she was left not understanding why. She knew that her parents wanted to help her to be better. Not wanting to worry her parents, Keiko decided to do her best to be ‘normal.’ She decided to become more passive and quiet. Using this technique, she was able to get through junior high and high school without many issues.
While in university, she found a new convenience store opening up while she was lost and fell in love with the emptiness of the store. Once the job started, she knew she found the right place for her. Everyday, everyone who worked on the store put on the same uniform and filled the same role of convenience store clerk. During training, rules covering everything from actions, to speech, to greetings was covered in great detail. Keiko found that if she did exactly as instructed or as seen in the store manual, she was praised and found great pleasure in performing her role at work well. She thrived in this rule filled environment where people’s expectations were so easy to understand. Even after graduating, she stayed in her role as convenience store clerk and became the longest standing employee in the store.
Now in adulthood, Keiko who has made it her life goal to be as normal as possible, started to struggle with not meeting age related milestones. In order to be ‘normal’ she should either have a good job or be married now that she is in her 30’s. While she is working full time, her job is not considered a ‘real career’ due to her status in the company that she works for. The excuses that she had used in her 20’s to cover up for why she was different had stopped working. She had become concerned about how to fix these issues and decides to make big changes to put herself back on what she feels is the right tract to ease the hearts of those around her.
My experience reading this book
Reading this book was a light and enjoyable experience, but a bit disturbing at the same time. It only took me a few days to read this book as it was so short and easy. I even reread the whole book while I was writing this review.
I loved the vocabulary repeat factor in this book. While every book I read increases my Japanese ability, I feel that my active and passive vocabulary has increased more then usual. The use of simple grammar as well I think has really helped to drill some of the forms into my head more.
In the beginning of the book, I hardcore related to the main character Keiko. In Japanese culture, like the main character in this book, I always felt that there were strict underlying rules to social interaction and that no one was teaching me the rules. This book has confirmed that how I was feeling was true!
The more my Japanese language ability the progress, the more it seemed that people expected me to naturally follow these unspoken rules. Every time I broke one, I could see it on the face of the Japanese people around me that I made a mistake. I used to wish that someone would just take the time to explain the rules to me, but no one every did. Even when I did slowly start to learn the rules and ways to properly react to certain situations, I found that my knowledge was not always reflected in my natural reactions that jumped out of me. Even though I was able to ‘read the air’ that never stopped me from creating awkward situations by accident.
Even the parts about the main character copying the speech pattern of those around her… that’s something I do as a language learner! Shadowing is following along in videos or audio and trying to repeat exact what was said in the same exact way. I use to pick actresses who speaking style I liked and become like them. It really made me laugh when the main character spoke about her speech style being explained percentage wise of those around her who have influenced here. I don’t do shadowing right now, but I wonder what percent of Naka Risa I used to be.
I don’t feel like this when I am in America and I don’t think I would have really been able to related to Keiko if I read the book in English. I think it is hard to adjust completely to a culture that you were not raised in. But I think as time passes and as the amount of Japanese novels I read increases, I am being more comfortable with the role that I play when I am in Japan.
The second half of the book started to feel somewhat like a horror story at times and I still do not know how I feel about it even after reading it for a second time. Seeing life from this new view point has made me worry a bit about my future even though I am married and have a career in what is considered a skilled professional field. But what happens when I stop being useful as I grow older? Kind of a scary thought.
Just to give some background to my current level. I have been using Japanese for a long time now, but just decided somewhat recently to be more serious about gaining fluent literacy. This year I have finished reviewing over JLPT N2 materials and have started on N1. I am planning on taking N1 in July 2020. I mainly use the Kanzen Master series for my JLPT focused studies.
Vocabulary: N2 student level
The words used in this book were very easy to understand. The only time I looked up words was to make sure that I had the reading correct. This is a great book for using context clues to guess at the meanings of words.
While this book does have some furigana over more rare vocabulary words, readers will be on their own finding the reading for kanji for the most part. I do wish that the furigana was more consistently used while introducing new characters in the story. There were times when I had no idea how a character’s name was supposed to be read and had to look up examples of names online just to get a good guess of the reading.
The repeat value of the vocabulary in this book is extremely high! Sometimes I will notice a word that is new to me and see it used on the same page 3 times! Sometimes I will try to skip confirming a words reading, but will be forced to research it a few minutes later. I think this type of writing style is extremely useful to language learners. You will remember the new words that you pick up from this book and understand the meaning of each word fully.
Grammar: N3-N2 student level
The grammar used in this book was very straight forward. While there are N2 grammar points present, I think that someone who has a good handle on N3 level grammar would not have problems understanding this novel.
The first person writing style means that the book tends to favor dialog over heavy descriptions. The descriptions themselves are not written in an overly literary style and should not cause the reader to have many misunderstandings.
All of the characters in this book speak in standard dialect, so I do not see any dialog related barriers.
There are no pop culture references that would will be expected in this book.
One reference that comes up a lot in Shiraha’s talking points is the Jōmon period(縄文時代). This refers to pre-historical Japan around the years of 10000-300 BCE. Basically the stereotypical of a hunter and gather society with tool use. Shiraha likes to bring up this time period quite a bit in reference to his idea that society has really progressed since then. When it was first brought up, I didn’t really have an idea of which time period he was talking about, but as the book goes on he describes it in better detail to the point where readers should be able to fully understand the image he is trying to portray when using that phrase.
This book will teach you exactly how to should act and not act in Japan. If you do not conform to social norms, Japanese people are more likely to point it out and ask why. In every culture in the world, there are expectations of what you should have accomplished by certain ages. But in Japan this does feel distinctly different then the pressures that people might feel in my home country of America. In this book, characters drill in the point that in order for Japanese people to be a proper member of society, they need to be doing something meaning. In this context, by the age of thirty people should be married or too busy working a ‘meaningful’ job as a excuse of why they haven’t had time to get married yet. When I lived in Japan, I did see some of my Japanese friends really feel the pressure as they got into their late 20’s. I do wonder if non-Japanese women living in Japan start to feel the same pressure. I married well before my 30’s so I didn’t really get a chance to feel the societal stress in regard to that topic.
Who should read this book?
I truly think that it is worth a read for all non-Japanese who live in Japan. N2 students who are looking for a light read and a commentary about Japanese society.
This book is extremely short at 161 pages long. That has its good points and bad points. If you can get it for a cheap price, its a great easy read. But for those of us who do not live in Japan, its kinda a steep price for a book that is finished as soon as it starts!
I think that this book is a great beginning novel. The pace of the plot will help capture and keep the attention of those who are used to western story. It is a great book for increasing vocabulary in a way that isn’t overwhelming to Japanese language students.