When I discovered the book “Convenience Store Woman” (Japanese title “コンビニ人間”) by Sayaka Murata had won the 155th Akutagawa prize (arguably the biggest prize for Japanese literature), I decided to check it out myself. I purposefully stayed away from reviews or information about the book, and all I really knew was the book was about a woman who works at a convenience store and has some deep connection with it. For example, see this excerpt from the book’s description on Amazon Japan: (with my rough translation)
Regardless how much my classmates questioned my life or career choices, it’s the convenience store–with it’s perfect, by-the-book existence–that enables me to become a smoothly functioning “piece” of society.
The problem I often have with writing reviews is that I don’t want to give any spoilers, but it’s hard to give any useful critique without giving at least a little away. So I’ll first give you my spoiler-free opinion, and then go into some more details for those who want to read further.
Put in a nutshell, the book was a worthy read, especially considering it’s short length (under 200 pages) and that it touches on some important philosophical and societal topics. There is some harsh dialog and sexual references, so this is not a book for children.
If you are studying the Japanese language, this is a great book to read for several reasons. First, the story is real-world based, which means not only that it will be easier to understand, but that what you learn will be helpful in the real world. Second, the grammar and vocabulary is mostly straightforward (with a few exceptions being a few industry terms I hadn’t come across before, like “POP”, and a few slang terms). Of course there is the fact the book is relatively short, and being able to say you read a Akutagawa prize-winning novel is always a cool conversation topic. Just know in advance that you will still need solid grammar and kanji basics to be able to get through this book, so I would say ideally you should have studied Japanese for at least a year or two before you try and tackle it.
Ok, now onto the more in-depth part where there are some things alluded to about the story (mild spoilers).
When I started reading this book, I admit I had high expectations, given it had won such a prestigious literary award. In the beginning, I was very intrigued by the main character’s personality and philosophy about life, and while her philosophy is quite extreme I think there are some real people who think or behave a little bit like that.
The writing style is simple, easy to follow, and there is a good amount of dialog to propel things forward. Although I would call the book more emotion-based than story-based (I felt there was only a few key scenes where something critical happened), up until the last page I was really interested in how things were going to end. Unfortunately, the payoff was mediocre since the ending involved the author spelling out certain things (spoon feeding), as opposed to leaving them to the reader’s imagination. While I won’t say I had guessed how it would turn out, I will say that there wasn’t any great surprises near the end.
Ironically I think this may be one of the reasons why the novel won critical acclaim in Japan, since I’ve noticed a tendency for Japanese novels (and other things like anime) to have stories that end on a vague or even confusing note. This book was, to my disappointment, so much the exact opposite of that.
One of the central themes in this book is the societal pressure from friends, family, and coworkers for men and women in their 20s or 30s to get married and have children, and this is even alluded to in the excerpt of the description I translated above. While I have never lived in Japan, I’ve seen this element in several other TV dramas, to the point I almost consider it over-used. However, I think Mrs. Murata (the author) takes this timely topic and presents it in a straightforward, easy-digestible form that anyone can associate with, and perhaps it is this universality that does make this book deserving of the Akutagawa prize. The element of a ‘convenience store’ itself is also universal in its own right–not only is it something that most people on the planet (in modern societies) are familiar with, but personally Japan’s (relatively) clean, well-managed convenience stores left a big impression on me.
It is interesting to note that this book has several things in common with the novel “Hibana” (“Spark”), by Naoki Matayoshi, which also won the Akutagawa prize recently. I admit I first started thinking along these lines because the paper version of “Convenience Store Woman” I bought had a piece of marketing material on it that showed an endorsement from Mr. Matayoshi saying this was an “awesome” (すごい) book. There are a few other connections, like how the book is relatively short and does not have chapters, though this is probably because of the types of works usually selected by the Akutagawa Prize. But to me the biggest connection is how each of these books is basically a study of a character that embodies a certain philosophy of life, in a sense. I haven’t done much research about Ms. Murata, though I have heard she herself works at a convenience store, and this leads to one other potential connection: both books could be argued to have a semi-biographical element.
I have a few minor nitpicks with the book, for example the slow realization of key thing(s) related to the main character’s life, and why she didn’t try to further her career in line with her ideals. But these things didn’t ruin the book by any means.
While I don’t think enough time has passed in order to say yet whether this book will truly become a ‘classic’, I can imagine if someone were to read this a few decades from now, it could serve as a great window to experience an important part of Japanese culture and society in 2016 (the book was published last year). Also, this book has something in common with a few of the books I read in high school (in English) that were considered ‘classics’: the events themselves in each story weren’t that groundbreaking, but in a handful of places scattered throughout the book there were little philosophical tidbits that glowed and really make you think about life. I think these two reasons are why this book should undoubtedly be categorized as ‘literature’, despite the fact that term is somewhat vaguely defined.
Update: this book was translated to English in 2018 and seems to have become quite a hit in with Western audiences as well.