Convenience Store Woman by Japanese writer Sayaka Murata has an interesting conceit: Keiko has absorbed the life of the convenience store to the point where she hears its noises even when she is at home, and as she goes through her days she constantly thinks about what happens at work at certain hours, whether she’s at the convenience store or not. The book is done nicely with Keiko in this context, but someone like Philip K. Dick would have made a five-star novel out of this one. As it is, it’s 3.8 or 4 stars. But then again, Keiko could never be just a self-aware robot, just as no human, whatever the circumstances, can be that. I also appreciated the twist toward the end where the book becomes more about gender roles. That part was powerful too, perhaps even more so than the thread about the convenience store. It’s a fast read and one that I recommend.
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The read is important on several levels, not least because Japan is the land where the government of this aging country is investing in the development of robots to help the elderly in the future and where more and more robots are already finding their way into the homes of older people living alone and into nursing homes.
I’ve seen documentaries on TV and videos online where older people seem to have a lot of fun with these robots, some of which look like furry dogs that love to be petted, for instance. While many of Japan’s humanoid-looking robots (at a fraction of the height, which makes them cuter) do help with important tasks, such as fetching things, elderly people there seem to be head over heels excited about the simulacra they provide, such as engaging in short conversations, for instance. Or, in the case of dog-like robots, acting as if they really appreciate being petted.
Where does Convenience Store Woman (affiliate link) come into this? Well, thinking of robots made me realize that they do what we expect them to do. People will never be like robots, under no circumstances, and regardless of Keiko’s statements to the contrary, but consider this: compared to the West, Japan is a collectivistic society, where people are expected to fall into certain roles and relationships. But now also consider that compared to certain other Asian societies, though, Japan appears more individualistic. Taking the two perspectives together, Japan is both a society where some women buck patriarchal expectations and decide not to get married—and some men, especially young ones, decide to spend their time cocooned at home playing video games and foregoing social contact as much as possible (this is called hikikomori in Japanese)—and where communities expect their members to follow certain paths in life. For young women like Keiko, according to other employees at the konbini, her sister, and her small group of friends, this would have involved finding a better job and then getting married and having children.
In a funny way, and making allowance for some personal traits that suggest Keiko may have some psychological problems, Keiko reflects both currents in Japanese society. She’s an upstanding member of the community of employees at the konbini and yet she’s also a maverick who decides to welcome Shiraha into her apartment, despite knowing that he’s misogynistic and quite the parasite. And the reaction of people around her is similarly double-edged: they don’t like that Shiraha is taking advantage of Keiko but at the same time they like to deceive themselves that he may make a good husband sometime, after all.
For more about this novel, I’d say read the book (affiliate link). It’s worth it. And it’s very short too, only about the size of a novella.
To a happier, healthier life,