Had Convenience Store Woman (2016 in Japan, English translation 2018) been written eighty years ago, would it have been hailed as a classic of Existentialist literature? It’s narrated by Keiko, a single thirty-six year-old who has been working as a part-time employee at the same convenience store since she was eighteen. Keiko is neuroatypical (a term unavailable to those Existentialist heroes such as Camus’ Mersault) to the extent that most people’s ways don’t make sense to her, so to avoid being singled out and treated as a “foreign object” she has learned to simply adopt others’ behaviours, including their ways of speaking and mode of dress, so as to pass unnoticed, as much as she can.
To this end, working at a convenience store — the highly-regimented Japanese version of one, anyway — is the perfect solution, as the company that runs it supplies employees with a manual that covers everything from personal grooming to what phrases to use when talking to customers. Keiko, then, is in her element there, as it’s a place where it’s completely unambiguous how she should act in every situation. It’s outside the store things are occasionally tricky, but she has managed to fob off her few social contacts when they ask why she’s still single and working in a part-time job — why she’s a “freeter”, to use a term I hadn’t encountered before — with the excuse that she has some vague health problem that makes her too “weak” for a regular job. But then an acquaintance’s husband, meeting Keiko for the first time and hearing this excuse, points out the obvious: if she’s unwell and “weak”, a convenience store is the worst place to work, as she’s on her feet all day.
Keiko realises she’s going to need a new excuse. The solution comes in the form of a character who, in some ways, points to how Keiko’s life could have been had she not chosen to so assiduously fit in. Shiraha starts work at the convenience store but is utterly unsuited to it, and has no intention of adapting to any of its ways. A tall, thin, unkempt man, he makes no bones about finding working in such a place beneath him — while evidently being unable to find anything better — and resents it every time the manager tells him to do something. Shiraha mutters constantly, and quite audibly, how crummy the shop and its workers are, and how wrong it is he should be expected to work there. He constantly harps on about the archetypal “Stone Age”, when men went out to hunt and women stayed at home — sometimes using it as proof that, as a man, he ought to be above working in a convenience store, at other times using it as an explanation for why he is such an outsider, as his life doesn’t fit into the dictates of the mythical Stone Age “village”, and so he’s rejected by society. It’s no surprise, then, when he’s fired from the store — not for slacking, amazingly enough, but for harassing female customers and employees, as he admits to Keiko he only got the job to find a wife, one who could support him in his vague aim of starting an online business.
But where everyone else sees in Shiraha an utter failure, Keiko sees the solution to her problem. If she had a husband, her friends would no longer be asking why she’s working at a part-time job, as it’s a socially acceptable thing for housewives to do. And Shiraha, pretty much homeless and hopeless, is unlikely to get a better offer. He does accept — though in such a grudging way as to make it clear he’s doing her a favour. (Keiko, on the other hand, uses the language of keeping a pet with regard to Shiraha — she talks about his “feed”, when giving him a meal, for instance — her way of adapting to a situation she’s never been in before.) But when she lets drop at the store that she’s now living with Shiraha, things start to change in a way she doesn’t like: her fellow workers suddenly become interested in her as a human being instead of merely a fellow employee, and far from solving her problem, it looks like her carefully balanced mode of life is set to topple completely.
Camus’s Mersault from The Outsider — much more a Shiraha than a Keiko — would never work in a convenience store, and Keiko feels none of the sort of Sartrean “nausea” for normal life that your average Existentialist hero does. She finds it incomprehensible, yes, but sees that incomprehensibility as a practical problem, not a philosophical one. She also seems to have no other priorities. Fitting in has become her entire life, and even her hours outside work are all about preparing for the next day — eating enough, sleeping enough, keeping herself acceptably groomed. When Shiraha appeared in the narrative, I thought he was, basically, her Jungian shadow, openly embodying everything about herself she must be repressing. He’s the embodiment of a stubborn resentment at being expected to fit in, to the extent that he doesn’t even wash frequently. It makes such perfect psychological sense when they move in together, for I can’t help feeling that, deep down in Keiko, there must be some sort of deeply repressed Shiraha of her own.
But Convenience Store Woman doesn’t have that tragic Existentialist-novel ending. Keiko doesn’t share the fate of Camus’ Mersault (executed for displaying such emotional indifference to the death of his mother that everyone assumes he must also be guilty of the murder he’s accused of) but instead might fit into Camus’s interpretation of Sisyphus, whom Camus says we must assume to be happy eternally pushing a rock up a steep incline only to have it roll back down again. In a complex and challenging world, Keiko has found a way of fitting in, despite her inability to understand why her fellow human beings act the way they do. But is her situation one of Existentialist horror — never being truly free — or one of practical choice — even, ultimately, a sort of fulfilment? Her willingness to fit in evolves into a super-sensitive awareness of how her little convenience store world works, until she can respond to its needs instinctively.
Perhaps she can even be read as a sort of Everywoman. Used to consciously adopting others’ behaviours, she’s aware how much everyone else does this, too, though they do it unconsciously. They take on the manner of their social group, they copy one another’s fashion choices, they submit to the way things are without question. At least she’s conscious of these things, even if it’s a consciousness that leaves her puzzled.
In doing the same things — perhaps to greater lengths, but ultimately to the same ends — is Keiko not exercising her Existential freedom? And, doing it consciously, doesn’t that make her that much more an Existential hero?
I don’t know what Sartre or Camus would have made of it, but unlike Camus’ The Outsider, this is no great work of despair about the human condition. Keiko comes to a sort of fulfilment, in recognising that she has, indeed, won for herself a genuine relationship in a life otherwise marked by estrangement and incomprehension. Not her relationship with Shiraha, but with that other living being she understands so much better, and which serves her as much as she serves it: the convenience store.