I think we can all agree there’s something comforting and fun about exploring supermarkets in other countries. I find Japanese supermarkets particularly fascinating: heart-shaped watermelons for £100, intricately decorated bento boxes, yoghurt-flavoured water, strawberry sandwiches… the list goes on. You can find some of these products in their convenience stores, too. Japanese convenience stores, like their vending machines, can be found everywhere; simply peer down the street in any city and you’re likely to spot three or four.
Exploring another country’s supermarket aisles is a game of spot the difference, something that’s celebrated and bemoaned in Sarah Moss’s Names for the Sea, a book that documents her year of teaching in Reykjavik where, frustrated and homesick, she’d do anything for a block of French cheese. If we’re in unfamiliar territory, a supermarket or a convenience store is a universal. With its harsh lighting, piles of packets and fresh produce, it is a place we can easily contextualise — even if we can’t find the Brie or read all the labels.
For Keiko, the protagonist of Sayaka Murata’s tenth novel Convenience Store Woman, the convenience store is more than that: for her, it is society’s core.
From a young age she has perplexed those around her, declaring they should cook a dead bird found in the park; breaking up a fight in the playground by hitting one of the assailants over the head with a spade; musing over the fact that it would be very easy to make her nephew stop crying by stabbing him with a cake knife. Those around her don’t know about the last one because, by this point, she’s learned to keep such thoughts to herself.
Whereas many of us may go to a corner shop for the passing convenience of picking up food, Keiko works at the convenience store because it is convenient to her existence and she has done so for the past eighteen years. She is content with this. She speaks about her role religiously, claiming that through this work she has been ‘reborn’ into society and become a ‘cog in [its] machine.’ She refers to herself and her colleagues as‘disciples’ who ‘exist only in the service of the convenience store,’ providing a double meaning of the word ‘service’; they are both providing one and performing a church-like role. Keiko’s bible is the convenience store handbook, which teaches her, as she puts it, how to be a ‘normal person.’