If you’re asking yourself why this book review begins with information about konbinis, stick with me for minute. If you’ve never been to Japan, you might be surprised to know how popular convenience stores, “konbinis,” actually are. There are more than 56,000 in Japan ( as of 2020).
Konbini’s are in almost every neighborhood and on almost every corner selling everything from groceries, to (really tasty) prepared food like onigiri (rice wrapped in seaweed with yummy fillings); bento; sandwiches (try the egg! try the egg!); and sushi, among others.
They also provide various services ranging from paying your bills to picking up postal deliveries. Konbinis are open 24/7 and offer some residents the ultimate lifestyle convenience.
Sayaka Murata’s novel, Convenience Store Woman, became an instant hit when released in English in 2018, selling more than 650,000 copies and winning the Akutagawa Prize, one of Japan’s highest literary awards.
And, despite being on my “to be read” list for several years, Convenience Store Woman somehow kept slipping through the cracks until this holiday season.
Book Review: The Synopsis
In Convenience Store Woman, Murata tells readers the story of Keiko Furukawa, a 36-year-old, single, part-time convenience store worker who feels out of synch with the rest of contemporary Japanese society.
Keiko enjoys her job almost as much as she enjoys watching her “normal” co-workers’ behavior. She then sets out to mimic their conduct, incorporating it into her own life. She meets fellow eccentric Shiraha while working at the store. Although initially wary of Shiraha (also single), they agree to pretend to be a couple, hoping to alleviate some of the social pressures they’re both experiencing. What Keiko originally deems to be a good decision soon begins to languish as Shiraha attempts to get her to quit her convenience store job and find a “normal” employment situation.
En route to just such a “normal” job interview, Keiko comes across a convenience store in a state of disarray. She immediately begins to reorganize the shelves, triggering the realization that she is meant to be at a convenience store.
Murata’s portrayal of Keiko and her colleagues illustrates several key issues experienced by many in Japanese society today, such as a steadily dropping marriage rate, an increasing number of single, unmarried individuals, and an overwhelming sense of needing to conform.
Convenience Store Woman: Book Review
Murata allows readers to experience the konbini from customers’ point of view, and if you’ve never experienced one, at the end of the book, you’ll feel like you have. She captures the experience with clear, accessible prose transporting readers across the miles instantly.
Readers will love or loathe Keiko’s eccentricities, apparent from the first page. I’ve heard from many other readers that it’s either love or hate. I’m in the former camp. I found her obsession with the convenience store shelves charming and almost admirable. As the story progresses, Keiko loses some of her quirkiness and begins to accept herself for who she is. With that acceptance, she becomes more identifiable, more relatable.
Ginny Tapley Takemori perfectly translates Murata’s short, concise, staccato prose. Most leisure readers will read this book in under a week; I devoured it in less than a day.
Convenience Store Woman is an ideal introduction to Japanese literature —especially if you’ve always wanted to wade into the waters but weren’t sure where to start.
We can all learn from Keiko’s self-acceptance, especially at a time when we may feel a little more out of step with those around us.