The Woman (or Man) Behind the Counter

It cannot be denied that Japanese literature is one of the most prominent and storied parts of the world of literature. It boasts Lady Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tales of Genji, considered one of the first novels written in history. It was, however, in the 20th century that Japanese literature started soaring and gaining more global recognition. Names such as Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, Kōbō Abe, Yukio Mishima, Osamu Dazai, Haruki Murakami, and Shūsaku Endō have become household names, not just in Japan but across the world. Their works have become integral parts of Japanese literature and of world literature in general. Not to be outdone, Japanese literature has produced two Nobel Laureates in Literature: Yasunari Kawabata and Kenzaburo Oe. Kazuo Ishiguro, the 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature awardee, is also ethnically Japanese. Collectively, these Japanese writers have written some of the most revered titles in the vast ambit of literature.

In this swirl of prominent male voices, there was something remiss. The lack of prominent female voices during this important period of Japanese literature – at least those that were made available to anglophone readers – is glaring and notable. There were, nevertheless, some female Japanese writers of acclaim such as Fumiko Enchi and Sawako Ariyoshi. In a literary generation dominated by men, they did not let their voices be drowned. It is, therefore, fascinating to witness the recent rise of female Japanese voices. This remarkable rally was ignited toward the end of the 20th century when writers such as Banana Yoshimoto, Yōko Ogawa, and Yōko Tawada slowly started gaining local and global recognition. With more and more works of Japanese literature translated into different languages, this momentum was carried on into the 21st century as up-and-coming voices such as Mieko Kawakami, Hiromi Kawakami, and Emi Yagi are slowly gaining prominence.

Another exemplary writer who is paving her own way is Sayaka Murata (村田沙耶香 Murata Sayaka). Born on August 14, 1979, in Inzai, Chiba Prefecture, Japan, Murata’s interest in reading was cultivated at a young age. Works of science fiction and mystery novels she borrowed from her brother and mother were her springboards into the world of literature. When she entered Tamagawa University, she joined the Department of Arts. She was eventually mentored by the writer Akio Miyahara at Yokohama Literature School. She made her literary debut in 2005 with the novel Jyunyū (Breastfeeding). It was a critical success as it went on to win the Gunzo Prize for New Writers. Her succeeding works also won other prestigious literary awards such as the 2009 Noma Literary New Face Prize for Gin iro no uta (ギンイロノウタ, Silver Song) and the 2013 Mishima Yukio Prize for Shiro-iro no machi no, sono hone no taion no (しろいろの街の、その骨の体温の, Of Bones, Of Body Heat, Of Whitening City).

“A convenience store is a forcibly normalized environment where foreign matter is immediately eliminated. The threatening atmosphere that had briefly permeated the store was swept away, and the customers again concentrated on buying their coffee and pastries as if nothing had happened.”

Sayaka Murata, Convenience Store Woman

In the local literary scene, Murata was successful. She has written novels and short stories. It was only a matter of time before the rest of the world would pick up on her. Sure enough, her long-awaited global recognition came in 2018 when her first work translated into English, Convenience Store Woman was released; it would eventually be translated into 30 additional languages. Convenience Store Woman was originally published in Japanese in 2016 as ンビニ人間 (Konbini ningen). It was an immediate success, an instant sensation that was warmly received by both critics and the general reading public alike. The book sold around 1.5 million copies in Japan alone. The novel was also instrumental in making Murata named one of Vogue Japan’s Women of the Year.

At the heart of the Convenience Store Woman was Keiko Furukura, the titular convenience store woman. When the readers first meet Keiko, she was in her mid-thirties and has spent her whole adult life working at the Hiiromachi Station Smile Mart. With over 50,000 stores scattered all over the country – one can easily find one within striking distance – convenience stores (コンビニエンスストア, konbiniensu sutoa), often shortened to konbini (コンビニ), have become an integral part of quotidian Japanese living. Convenience stores such as 7-Eleven, Lawson, and Family Mart have even become tourist spots in their own right because of their quirky offerings. For job seekers, convenience stores provide opportunities. In this eclectic mix of convenience store employees are foreigners, single mothers, students, and seasonal job hunters.

While most convenience store employees view their employment as stopgap measures, the same cannot be said for Keiko. She took pride in her job, one that she immediately fell in love with from the first day of her training. Reflecting on this, she remarked that “it was the first time anyone had ever taught me how to accomplish a normal facial expression and manner of speech”. Without missing a beat, she established a routine that gets her from day to day. It was repetitive but she nevertheless found contentment in the performance of menial tasks day in and day out, from restocking hot food cabinets to doing inventory to even catering whims of rude customers. She found comfort in the familiarity of the brightly lit aisles and hot food cabinets that formed part of her domain. In a job that many find a dead-end, Keiko was excelling and even thriving.

To the casual observer, Keiko’s job, and by extension, life were static and monotone. Nevertheless, Keiko, for nearly two decades, found fulfillment and stability in the flurry of activities in the convenience store. For Keiko, there was something oddly satisfying about the chaos. However, her family was starting to get concerned for Keiko. She was already thirty-six years old with not much accomplishment to show. More than that, she was still single even though she was already in her mid-thirties. She was barely showing any interest in the opposite sex. Afraid that their daughter would end up with no one taking care of or looking after her in her middle age, Keiko’s family coaxed her into getting therapy. Better yet, they wanted her to find a husband, settle down, and bear children.

“When something was strange, everyone thought they had the right to come stomping in all over your life to figure out why. I found that arrogant and infuriating, not to mention a pain in the neck. Sometimes I even wanted to hit them with a shovel to shut them up, like I did that time in elementary school. But I recalled how upset my sister had been when I’d casually mentioned this to her before and kept my mouth shut.”

Sayaka Murata, Convenience Store Woman

Despite its slim appearance, Convenience Store Woman is a multilayered story that packed a lot of punch. On one side of the spectrum, the novel was a subtle but astute commentary on capitalism and consumerism. They have become an integral part of a vast factory. They have made our quotidian existence more convenient. Need something quickly? Drop by the convenience store. Need a quick snack? Buy food at the convenience store. Do you want to have some coffee? They have it at the convenience store. Whatever you need, they have it at the convenience store. They have become one-stop shops that, in a way, enable our current society. These stores, after all, find value in providing convenience to consumers who are always on the go and who are always in a hurry.

Beyond these subtle social commentaries on capitalism and consumerism, the novel underlined a malady that has been persistent since time immemorial. We are raised in a society where we are expected to behave in a certain way. We are products of a factory; this was a theme that Murata also explored in her novel Earthlings. As such, we are expected to conform to a rigid set of rules and values. The expectations of women, in particular, are more compared to what is expected of men. The moment their genders are determined, their destinies are set in stone. When they grow up, they are to find a suitable husband, take care of the household, and bear children, nothing more, nothing less. They also have to contend with a patriarchal society that abounds with misogynists, chauvinists, and sexual predators. Those who refuse to conform to the expectations of society are immediately shunned. History has shown how nonconformity is often meted with ostracization. Even minor resistance is viewed as an act of heresy. Heretics are treated as outcasts.

To patrons of the convenience store, she was the woman behind the counter who diligently performed her job. But as the story moved forward, one can surmise that Keiko is not your typical convenience store woman. She was a misfit. Her family does not understand her behavior. At school, she was often out of place. She also did not have any friends, making her an easy target for school bullies. For having a different perception of and response to reality, Keiko, as society has taught us, was shunned by those around her. The way her family responded to her inclinations as an adult, i.e. pushing her to seek therapy for doing something she was passionate about, was indicative of this. A classic adage comes to mind: we fear things we don’t understand. And once we are afraid, we respond irrationally.

But is Keiko truly an innocent bystander who lets life happen around her? As the readers dig deeper into Keiko’s psyche – the first person perspective allowed her to inhabit the minds of readers – something more sinister manifested. The way she responded to situations can be morbid, even hurtling toward the psychopathic. To break out a schoolyard fight, she bashed her classmate over the head with a spade. One time, she considered eating a dead budgie she came across at the park. In all of these instances, she was perplexed by how everyone around her responded to her actions and quandaries. Working at the convenience store made her even more perplexed by human behavior. Perhaps the most chilling response was when her sister’s baby was crying. She thought that the quickest way to make her stop was to stab the baby with a knife.

“For breakfast I eat convenience store bread, for lunch I eat convenience store rice balls with something from the hot-food cabinet, and after work I’m often so tired I just buy something from the store and take it home for dinner. I drink about half the bottle of water while I’m at work, then put it in my ecobag and take it home with me to finish at night. When I think that my body is entirely made up of food from this store, I feel like I’m as much a part of the store as the magazine racks or the coffee machine.”

Sayaka Murata, Convenience Store Woman

As the story moved forward and as Keiko exhibited different and complex behavior, one is never fully sure of what to make of her. It is in this that Murata demonstrated her brilliance. She managed to underscore several social concerns but, at the same time, she conjured a perplexing character who will capture the readers’ imagination. Is she truly brave and courageous for paving her own path? She does find purpose at the convenience store despite what society and her family says. Or behind that deadpan face lies the mind of a psychopath? Is she a monster? The human mind, after all, is complex but there is a premium in Keiko’s refusal to conform to what society expected of her. There is something endearing, even brave, in how she shirked the conventional to find value in what she loved.

For its unflinching gaze and deadpan humor, Convenience Store Woman reverberated with a personal and even intimate tone. It was Murata reeling the readers in. One can understand why. Murata, while toiling her work as a writer, worked at a convenience store. Her time off from work allowed her to complete eleven novels and two nonfiction books. Her tenth novel even won Murata the prestigious Akutagawa Prize. But even with her success, Murata kept on working in a convenience store, a job she had for nearly two decades. She credited the experience for providing her a rich well upon which to extract ideas for her stories. She was forced to leave her job following the success of Convenience Store Woman. Fame came at a price and for Murata, it came in the form of unwanted attention from an obsessive fan.

Eccentric. Quirky. Witty. Deadpan funny. There are just among the adjectives that can be used to describe Murata’s 10th novel Convenience Store Woman. These are also trademarks of her works. Through the story of Keiko Furukura, the novel explored an individual’s role in society and how it was molded by society as a whole. It also explored gender norms in contemporary Japan, which was also applicable on a global scale. Another layer subtly studied how capitalism has influenced our lives. Asexuality, another subject familiar in Murata’s oeuvre, was also underlined in the story. Deceptively slender, Convenience Store Woman is a lush story that covered a vast territory of modern concerns rendered through the voice of an eccentric but memorable character.

“Look, anyone who doesn’t fit in with the village loses any right to privacy. They’ll trample all over you as they please. You either get married and have kids or go hunting and earn money, and anyone who doesn’t contribute to the village in one of these forms is a heretic. And the villagers will come poking their noses into your life as much as they want.”

Sayaka Murata, Convenience Store Woman


Characters (30%) – 26%
Plot (30%) – 
Writing (25%) – 
Overall Impact (15%) – 

Female Japanese writers have recently been gaining much-needed attention. Among them was Sayaka Murata. Her works, particularly Convenience Store Woman were ubiquitous. At first, I was apprehensive about exploring her prose because of their titles which I found rather odd. I have to reiterate that this was my initial reaction. I eventually relented because my curiosity was too strong. My venture into her oeuvre, however, started with a different work. Earthlings was certainly an eccentric literary piece – as eccentric as Convenience Store Woman – that abounded with graphic images. But here I am again, back to where I was supposed to start. Convenience Store Woman has several layers. I did like the book although it was quite short. It had the same messages as Earthlings but it was less graphic. Moreover, it was a very thought-provoking story, and rightfully so. Before becoming a writer, Murata worked as a convenience store woman. I hope more of her works get translated into English. I am still considering if I should read Life Ceremony, a collection of short stories.

Book Specs

Author: Sayaka Murata
Translator (from Japanese): Ginny Tapley Takemori
Publisher: Granta Publications
Publishing Date: 2019
Number of Pages: 163
Genre: Literary


She’s thirty-six years old, she’s never had a boyfriend and she’s been working in the same convenience store for eighteen years.

Her parents wish she’d get a better job. Her friends wonder why she won’t get married.

But Keiko knows what makes her happy, and she’s not going to let anyone take her awy from her convenience store…

About the Author

To know more about one of the rising stars in Japanese Literature, click here.