This Story Will Make You Question What It Means To Be Normal
The Hiiromachi Station Smile Mart isn't just Keiko's workplace — it's also where she learns how to be a "normal" human being. (An excerpt from Convenience Store Woman.)
I arrive at the Hiiromachi Station Smile Mart every morning at eight. My shift is from nine, but I come early to have breakfast before starting. I pick up a two-liter bottle of mineral water, select a sandwich or bun close to its sell-by date, pay for them, and take them into the back room to eat.
In the back room, the security camera in the store is relayed on a big screen. This morning Dat-kun, a Vietnamese guy new on the night shift, was frantically working the till, while the manager ran around keeping one eye on him. I gulped down my sandwich, ready to change into my uniform and rush out to help at any moment.
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.
After breakfast, I check the weather forecast and go over the store’s data. The weather forecast is a vital source of information for a convenience store. The difference in temperature from the previous day is an important factor. Today will have a high of 21°C and low of 14°C. It will be cloudy, with rain forecast in the evening, when it will feel cooler.
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.
On hot days sandwiches sell briskly, whereas on cold days rice balls, meat dumplings, and buns are more popular. The sale of food from the counter cabinets also varies according to the temperature. In our branch, croquettes sell well on cold days. Today there also happened to be a sales promotion running on them, so we should make a lot of them, I noted to myself.
The other day-shift staff always start arriving about now, just after eight thirty, when the door opens and a husky voice calls out: “Morning!” It is Mrs. Izumi, our trusty supervisor. She’s a housewife, one year older than me at age thirty-seven, and rather stern, but she’s an efficient worker. She’s a rather flashy dresser and changes out of her high heels into sneakers by her locker.
“Early again today, Miss Furukura? Oh, that’s one of those new buns, isn’t it? What’s it like?” she asked, her eyes settling on the mango-chocolate bun in my hand.
“The cream tastes weird, and it smells a bit strong, which is quite off-putting. It’s not very nice, actually.”
“Really? Oh dear, the manager ordered a hundred of them. Well, let’s at least try to sell the ones that arrived today.”
By far most of the store workers are university students or job-hoppers, and it’s unusual for me to work with a woman my age.
Mrs. Izumi tied her hair back and put on a white shirt and light blue tie over her navy-blue jersey blouse. When the current owner took over, he made us all start wearing a shirt and tie under our uniforms, although it was never the rule before. She was checking her appearance in the mirror when Sugawara came flying in calling out: “Good morning!”
Sugawara is twenty-four, a loud and cheerful type. She’s a singer in a band and goes on about wanting to dye her short hair red. She’s a bit plump and not without a certain charm, but often used to be late and was frequently scolded by the manager for wearing earrings at work. Thanks to Mrs. Izumi’s forthright manner of scolding and educating her, however, she now takes her job much more seriously and is an enthusiastic member of staff.
Also on the day shift are Iwaki, a tall and lanky university student, and job-hopper Yukishita, who’s now found a proper job and will be leaving soon. Iwaki has also said he’ll be looking for a job and will have to take more days off, so the manager thinks he’ll either have to come back to the day shift or employ someone new if the store is to keep running smoothly.
My present self is formed almost completely of the people around me. I am currently made up of 30 percent Mrs. Izumi, 30 percent Sugawara, 20 percent the manager, and the rest absorbed from past colleagues such as Sasaki, who left six months ago, and Okasaki, who was our supervisor until a year ago.
My speech is especially infected by everyone around me and is currently a mix of that of Mrs. Izumi and Sugawara. I think the same goes for most people. When some of Sugawara’s band members came into the store recently they all dressed and spoke just like her. After Mrs. Izumi came, Sasaki started sounding just like her when she said, “Good job, see you tomorrow!” Once a woman who had gotten on well with Mrs. Izumi at her previous store came to help out, and she dressed so much like Mrs. Izumi I almost mistook the two. And I probably infect others with the way I speak too. Infecting each other like this is how we maintain ourselves as human is what I think.
Outside work Mrs. Izumi is rather flashy, but she dresses the way normal women in their thirties do, so I take cues from the brand of shoes she wears and the label of the coats in her locker. Once she left her makeup bag lying around in the back room and I took a peek inside and made a note of the cosmetics she uses. People would notice if I copied her exactly, though, so what I do is read blogs by people who wear the same clothes she does and go for the other brands of clothes and kinds of shawls they talk about buying. Mrs. Izumi’s clothes, accessories, and hairstyles always strike me as the model of what a woman in her thirties should be wearing.
Infecting each other like this is how we maintain ourselves as human is what I think.
As we were chatting in the back room, her gaze suddenly fell on the ballet flats I was wearing. “Oh, those shoes are from that shop in Omotesando, aren’t they? I like that place too. I have some boots from there.” In the back room she speaks in a languid drawl, the end of her words slightly drawn out. I bought these flats after checking the brand name of the shoes she wears for work while she was in the toilet.
“Oh really? Wait, do you mean those dark blue ones you wore to the shop before? Those were cute!” I answered, copying Sugawara’s speech pattern, but using a slightly more adult tone. Her speech is a rather excitable staccato, the exact opposite of Mrs. Izumi’s, but mixing the two styles works surprisingly well.
“We’ve got quite similar tastes, haven’t we? I like your bag too,” Mrs. Izumi said with a smile.
It’s only natural that my tastes would match hers since I’m copying her. I’m sure everyone must see me as someone with an age-appropriate bag and a manner of speech that has a perfect sense of distance without being reserved or rude.
“Mrs. Izumi, were you in yesterday?” Sugawara called out loudly as she changed by the lockers. “The stock of ramen noodles is in a total mess!”
“Yes, I was here. It was all right in the afternoon, but that kid on the night shift didn’t turn up again so it must have been the new guy, Dat-kun.”
Pulling up the zip on her uniform as she came over to us, Sugawara pulled a face. “What, he left us in the lurch again? I can’t believe it! He knows how short-staffed we are right now. No wonder the store’s falling apart. There aren’t any drink cartons out there at all and it’s the morning rush!”
“I know. It’s awful, isn’t it? The manager says he’ll have to stick to the night shift. He’s only got new people on it at the moment.”
“We’re already having to manage without Iwaki on the day shift since he’s taking so much time off for job interviews. What are we going to do? If people want to leave that’s fine, but they should make sure they give enough notice. Otherwise they’re just making things difficult for the rest of us.”
Hearing the two of them speak with such feeling, I felt a twinge of anxiety. There wasn’t a trace of anger in my body. I stole a glance at Sugawara and tried to mimic the way she moved her facial muscles as she spoke, the same way I did in training, and parroted, “Really, he left us in the lurch again? I can’t believe he’d do that knowing how short-staffed we are.”
Mrs. Izumi laughed as she removed her watch and rings.
“Ha ha ha! You’re really worked up about it, aren’t you Miss Furukura? But you’re right. It’s really not okay.”
I’d noticed soon after starting the job that whenever I got angry at the same things as everyone else, they all seemed happy. If I went along with the manager when he was annoyed or joined in the general irritation at someone skiving off the night shift, there was a strange sense of solidarity as everyone seemed pleased that I was angry too.
Now, too, I felt reassured by the expression on Mrs. Izumi and Sugawara’s faces: Good, I pulled off being a “person.” I’d felt similarly reassured any number of times here in the convenience store.
I’d noticed soon after starting the job that whenever I got angry at the same things as everyone else, they all seemed happy.
Mrs. Izumi looked at the clock and announced, “Well then, time for our morning practice session.”
The three of us stood in a row and started our morning routine. Mrs. Izumi opened the report book and informed us of the day’s goals and matters to be attended to.
“Today’s special is the mango-chocolate bun. Let’s all remember to keep announcing it. Also, it’s cleanliness crackdown time. Lunchtime is busy, but even so let’s be diligent about keeping the floor, windows, and the area around the door clean. We’re running out of time, so I’ll just trust you to get on with it. Well then, let’s practice our phrases, shall we? All together, repeat after me: Irasshaimasé!”
“Certainly. Right away, sir!”
“Certainly. Right away, sir!”
“Thank you for your custom!”
“Thank you for your custom!”
We three repeated in unison the phrases we used with customers, checked our appearance, and one by one filed into the store calling out “Irasshaimasé!” as we went. I was the last to rush through the office door.
“Irasshaimasé! Good morning!”
I love this moment. It feels like “morning” itself is being loaded into me. The tinkle of the door chime as a customer comes in sounds like church bells to my ears. When I open the door, the brightly lit box awaits me — a dependable, normal world that keeps turning. I have faith in the world inside the light-filled box. ●
Illustrations by Ben Kothe / BuzzFeed News.
Excerpted from CONVENIENCE STORE WOMAN copyright © 2016 by Sayaka Murata. English translation © 2018 by Ginny Tapley Takemori. Originally published as Konbini ningen. Japanese edition published by Bungeishunju Ltd., Tokyo. English language translation rights granted to Grove Atlantic, Inc. under license granted by Sakaya Murata arranged with Bungeishunju Ltd. through The English Agency (Japan) Ltd. Excerpted by arrangement with Grove Atlantic, Inc. The UK edition is published by Portobello Books.
Sayaka Murata is the author of many books, including Convenience Store Woman, winner of Japan’s most prestigious literary award, the Akutagawa Prize. She continues to work part-time in a convenience store, which inspired this novel. Murata has been named a Freeman’s “Future of New Writing” author, and her work has appeared in Granta and elsewhere. In 2016, Vogue Japan selected her as a Woman of the Year.