Books / Culture

Is it socially irresponsible to work for minimum wage?

Over the past decade, a trend has been creeping into workplaces around the globe. It’s the steady, insidious drift away from the concept of the “dignity of work” toward a new “indignity of work” in which careers are disposable gigs, a living wage for full-time employment is optional, and nobody would ever dream of working in a convenience store when they grow up.

Keiko Furukura is, at age 36, just another employee at Smile Mart, a generic convenience store in a busy business district of Tokyo. Keiko has been working at Smile Mart from the day it opened 18 years ago and has received neither promotions nor encouragement to aim higher since her first day on the job. To the casual observer, she’s a lonely, unambitious failure trapped in a dead-end job.

But to Keiko, life is perfect.

This is because Keiko is not a neurotypical woman. Though undiagnosed (but not for lack of trying over the years), both she and her family have known since her earliest days that she’s not “normal.” Shunned by other kids, constantly reprimanded by teachers, and dismissed by specialists, eventually she learned to avoid negative reactions by being silent and self-effacing.

Her self-imposed isolation from society comes to an abrupt end, however, when she applies for a job at a convenience store. Under the clearly communicated rules of behavior set forth by the Smile Mart Corporation, Keiko thrives. Not only does she become a model employee, she finally learns how to interact with others.

“I was good at mimicking the trainer’s examples and the model video he’d shown us. It was the first time anyone had ever taught me how to accomplish a normal facial expression and manner of speech.”

Author Sayaka Murata, who has written 10 books and racked up numerous literary prizes in Japan, drew on her own experience as a part-time convenience store worker to write Convenience Store Woman, the first of her novels to be released in English. This multifaceted gem of a story is the ideal introduction to Murata’s work, and its incisive beauty depends entirely on Keiko.

Convenience Store Woman book review

Keiko is perhaps the most unreliable of unreliable narrators in the entire canon of 21st-century literature — not because she lies to the reader or to herself, but because her perception of reality is utterly and irredeemably skewed. She makes this fact clear at the outset of the book.

“I was born into a normal family and lovingly brought up in a normal suburban residential area. But everyone thought I was a rather strange child.”

Keiko was a strange child indeed. She was a child who suggested the family cook and eat a dead bird she found at the local playground. She was a child who believed the best way to break up a schoolyard squabble was to brutally beat a little boy with a spade. She was a child who decided to diffuse a tense moment in the classroom by yanking down the teacher’s skirt and underwear.

“Then they held another teachers’ meeting and my mother was summoned again.

“‘I wonder why you can’t understand, Keiko…’ she muttered helplessly on the way home, hugging me to her. It seemed I’d done something wrong again, but I couldn’t for the life of me understand what was the problem.”

The brilliance of Convenience Store Woman lies in the way these incidents gradually dissolve into the background of the story, forming a hazy mist of half-remembered details. As the plot unfolds, the reader forgets the odd things Keiko has done, just as Keiko has forgotten them over the years. Her regimented lifestyle and her quirky methods of interacting with people seem logical, reasonable, and — especially within the rigid, rule-bound world of the convenience store — socially acceptable. Until, that is, the other characters remind the reader that Keiko is not experiencing the world as they are, nor do they see Keiko as she sees herself. These stark moments flash across the page, only to quickly disappear. But each leaves behind a subtle stain on Keiko’s credibility that never quite fades.

When asked by a stranger to justify why she has spent nearly two decades working in a low-wage, low-skill job, she gives him the excuse her sister taught her to recite by rote. In response, “he stared at me as though I were some kind of alien.”

Later, her sister, a tireless source of support throughout their lives, abruptly loses patience with Keiko out of nowhere — but not really out of nowhere.

“‘Will you ever be cured, Keiko?’ she looked down, not even bothering to remonstrate with me. “‘I simply can’t take it anymore. How can we make you normal? How much longer must I put up with this?’

“‘What? You’ve been putting up with me?’”

But the most poignant reality-check comes when Keiko’s manager impulsively invites her out with the rest of the convenience store employees for an after-work get-together.

“‘You must come out for a drink with us next time, even if you do come alone.’

“I’d never known before now, but apparently they all went out socializing together now and then.”

Keiko, who has assiduously aped the clothing, facial expressions, and speech patterns of her coworkers for years in an effort to fit in has fooled none of them. And she has been excluded in ways she isn’t capable of conceptualizing.

The one weakness of Convenience Store Woman — and it’s a significant one — is the catalyst for Keiko’s desire to finally change how people see her. Author Murata’s choice of agent (yep, it’s a man) feels poorly conceived and hastily inserted into an otherwise polished plot. None of Keiko’s reactions to the enormous upheavals he introduces into her life ring true, with one exception: her response when he comes between her and her job. For Keiko, there’s only room in her heart for one love, and she committed to it 18 years ago.

In a world where minimum wage workers are dismissed as unworthy of a living wage — a world in which a best-selling novelist like Murata must work at a convenience store to make ends meet — there’s something deeply affirming about a story in which work provides meaning and dignity to a life that would otherwise go largely unlived.

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