Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2791
Keiko Furukura is attuned to the rhythm of the Smile Mart. She knows that the woman who takes a cold drink from the refrigerator has just selected her final item, the man who jingles coins in his pocket will buy cigarettes, and the customer at the register who glances, almost...
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Keiko Furukura is attuned to the rhythm of the Smile Mart. She knows that the woman who takes a cold drink from the refrigerator has just selected her final item, the man who jingles coins in his pocket will buy cigarettes, and the customer at the register who glances, almost imperceptibly, at the hot-food cabinet should not be disturbed as he or she decides whether to order something. She knows the sounds of the convenience store so well that her “body responds automatically.” The rules of her world are ingrained; she does not have to think, only respond.
Keiko remembers little of her life before she was “reborn as a convenience store worker.” She knows that despite being raised in the suburbs by an ordinary, loving family, she was thought to be a strange child. She recalls the time in nursery school when she and her classmates found a dead parakeet in the park. Most of the children cried over the little blue bird, which “must have been someone’s pet,” but Keiko wasn’t sad:
One girl started to ask: “What should we—” But before she could finish I snatched it up and ran over to the bench where my mother was chatting with the other mothers.
“What’s up, Keiko? Oh! A little bird … where did it come from I wonder?” she said gently, stroking my hair. “The poor thing. Shall we make a grave for it?”
“Let’s eat it!” I said.
“Daddy likes yakitori, doesn’t he? Let’s grill it and have it for dinner!”
She looked at me, startled. Thinking she hadn’t heard properly, I repeated what I’d said, this time clearly enunciating my words. The mother sitting next to her gaped at me, her eyes, nostrils, and mouth forming perfect O’s. She looked so comical I almost burst out laughing.
The first time Keiko saw the Smile Mart was accidental. She was a university student who had gotten lost in an office district on a quiet Sunday, and the convenience store was still a vacant space located on “the ground floor of a pure white building converted into what looked like an aquarium.” A small notice on the window said “HIIROMACHI STATION SMILE MART—OPENING SOON! STAFF WANTED.” She received an allowance but liked the idea of a part-time job. She called the next day, interviewed, and was hired.
An employee from the head office led the fifteen new hires through their training. They learned to smile and greet customers and to raise their voices and say their lines with spirit.
I was good at mimicking the trainer’s examples and the model video he’d shown us in the back room. It was the first time anyone had ever taught me how to accomplish a normal facial expression and manner of speech.
As an eighteen-year-old on the store’s opening day, Keiko felt she had finally become normal, a part of society. She liked the way the employees, “very different-looking people of all ages,” who had appeared so out of place on the first day of training, had been transformed by their uniforms and set phrases into the “homogeneous being known as a convenience store worker.” Now a thirty-six-year-old, she still likes it. All of the other original hires have left, but Keiko is still here.
Keiko tells her friends Miho, Yukari, and Satsuki that she has a chronic condition, one that makes her too weak for a proper career. It had been her sister’s idea, an excuse for why Keiko continues to work in a dead-end job. Now that they are in their thirties, however, Keiko’s friends are becoming suspicious. They ask her why she isn’t married, if she has ever been in love, if she’s ever even dated anyone. Her sister gave her advice for this situation, too: “You can just give a vague answer to a personal question, and they’ll come to their own conclusions.” But Keiko forgets to be vague, and her friends appear uncomfortable.
I wished I was back at the convenience store where I was valued as a working member of staff and things weren’t as complicated as this. Once we donned our uniforms, we were all equals regardless of gender, age, or nationality—all simply store workers.
Keiko’s store manager asks her to keep an eye on the new hire, a man named Shiraha, who will be working with her on the day shift. Right away, Keiko senses trouble from her lazy and pompous new coworker. As she teaches him for the second time how to properly stock the store displays, he explains with irritation that he should not have to:
“This sort of work isn’t suited to men,” he muttered. “After all, things haven’t changed since the Stone Age, have they? Men go hunting and women keep the home and gather fruit and wild herbs while they wait for the men to come back. This type of work is more suited to the way women’s brains are set up.”
When Keiko asks Shiraha why he came to work at Smile Mart, he explains that he is looking for a wife. He hasn’t been impressed by the female employees, and the women who work in the surrounding office district are too “domineering” and “haughty” for him. It’s been this way since the Stone Age, he says. The strongest hunters get the best women. Keiko listens to his invective and consoles herself with the belief that he will be fixed.
A convenience store is a forcibly normalized environment, so the likes of you are fixed right away I thought as I watched him taking his time getting changed. But I didn’t say it out loud.
The following week, Keiko arrives for her shift to learn that Shiraha has been fired for stalking a female customer. Her coworkers laugh at how he would go on about the Stone Age and how he had tried to date a girl from the night shift and even tried to flirt with Mrs. Izumi. “Getting fired from a convenience store at his age!” Mrs. Izumi exclaims. “Hopeless, really. He’d be doing everyone a favor if he just dropped dead, seriously.”
Keiko attends a weekend barbecue at Miho’s house and is soon confronted again by the topic of marriage. A larger group of friends has gathered this time, as well as their husbands, and they are not as accepting of Keiko’s usual excuses. If she refuses to find a real job, she should at least get married before it is too late, they advise. Satsuki and Miho suggest that the men set Keiko up with one of their friends, but Miho’s husband whispers something to his wife, then demurs. The guests become distracted by the food, to their evident relief.
The next thing I knew, just like that time in elementary school, they all turned their backs on me and started edging away, staring curiously at me over their shoulders as though contemplating some ghastly life form.
Oh, I thought absently, I’ve become a foreign object.
In my mind’s eye I saw Shiraha, who had been forced to leave the store. Maybe it would be my turn next.
The normal world has no room for exceptions and always quietly eliminates foreign objects. Anyone who is lacking is disposed of.
So that’s why I need to be cured. Unless I’m cured, normal people will expurgate me.
Finally I understood why my family had tried so hard to fix me.
Keiko has just finished an extra shift at the short-staffed Smile Mart when by chance she sees Shiraha lurking nearby. It is nighttime, and she assumes he is waiting for a woman, so she sneaks behind him and says that next time they will call the police. Shiraha jumps and trembles before realizing who is there, then confirms her suspicion about what he is up to.
Like a man during the Stone Age, he tells her, he will have the woman he wants. Keiko reminds him that he said only the strongest men could have their choice of women. He complains that he is always treated unfairly, and that society is dysfunctional, before beginning to cry. Keiko does not want customers to see them, so she takes Shiraha to a restaurant and buys him a cup of tea.
Shiraha continues to complain about the people who have made fun of him for not having a girlfriend. He compares their laughter to rape. Keiko, who considers him “one step short of being a sex offender,” is surprised by his analogy. She thinks to herself that he must always believe that he is the victim and not the perpetrator. She doesn’t disagree with his skepticism about society, but she doesn’t feel like defending herself. He complains that women have it easy, as they have since the Stone Age, because men take care of them. He asks if Keiko is ashamed of herself.
You’re still in a dead-end job at your age, and nobody’s going to marry an old maid like you now. You’re like secondhand goods. Even if you are a virgin, you’re grubby. You’re like a Stone Age woman past childbearing age who can’t get married and is left to just hang around the village, of no use to anyone, just a burden. I’m a man, so I can still make a comeback, but there’s no hope for you, is there, Furukura?
If all Shiraha wants is a marriage of convenience so people will stop judging him, then how about marrying her, Keiko asks. If he appears to be an ordinary member of society, then he will be left alone. This is Keiko’s motivation as well. Shiraha is aghast, then silent, but begins talking rapidly again once Keiko begins to leave. She learns that he has been homeless since falling behind on rent at a shared apartment, and his sister-in-law won’t allow him to return to his family’s house. Keiko invites him to stay with her.
She lets it slip to Manager #8 that she has been seeing Shiraha. He presses her for details, but she rushes to help a new employee with the till. Noticing that it is nearly lunch and the hot food hadn’t been made, she returns to the back room to get the frozen chicken from the freezer but is cornered by an amused-looking Manager #8 and Mrs. Izumi.
I was shocked by their reaction. As a convenience store worker, I couldn’t believe they were putting gossip about store workers before a promotion in which chicken skewers that usually sold at 130 yen were to be put on sale at the special price of 110 yen. What on earth had happened to the pair of them?
When Keiko gets home, she finds Shiraha lying in the bathtub, fully dressed and watching movies. There are bugs in the other room, he says, and he couldn’t relax there. He’s irritated that Keiko told people that he was living with her. They’ll do everything they can to drag him out and lecture him, he says. They’ll scold her for allowing an unemployed man to take advantage of her.
He is right. The next day, the manager insists that she and Shiraha join everyone for drinks. Keiko hadn’t known that everyone regularly socialized outside of work, because she had never been invited. Now, she listens as the store workers look at a copy of Shiraha’s resume, laughing at his lack of skills. The sounds around her are hideous, nothing like the reliable hum of the store she had known.
Keiko’s sister arrives unannounced to speak with Shiraha. She’s horrified when Keiko explains that she keeps him in the bathroom and provides him with “feed” in exchange for the convenience of using him to appear ordinary. Mami begins to cry, wondering aloud if Keiko can ever be cured. She asks her to see a counselor, but Keiko doesn’t understand what it is that she needs to be cured of. She wants Mami to tell her; Keiko will do whatever she says. Shiraha, overhearing, emerges from the bathroom and apologizes to Mami. “The fact is that I’d connected with my ex-girlfriend on Facebook and we went out drinking together,” he lied. “Keiko was furious when she found out. She refused to let me sleep with her and shut me in the bathroom.” Mami is elated. She lectures Shiraha for behaving so foolishly. Keiko realizes that her sister is happier believing that she is a normal person with a lot of problems than an abnormal person with no problems at all.
It is Shiraha’s sister-in-law who visits unannounced the following day. She is there to tell Shiraha that his former roommates had called to say that he had left without paying rent. His family paid the balance, but they expect him to get a job and pay it back. Shiraha tells his sister-in-law that he and Keiko plan to get married and that once Keiko finds a proper job, he’ll pay his family back from her salary. He is going to start an online business, and once they have a child, he’ll get a job. He has already told Keiko to leave the convenience store, he says. Satisfied, his sister-in-law leaves. Shiraha celebrates.
“I did it! I got away! Everything’s okay for the time being. There’s no way you’ll be getting pregnant, no chance of me ever penetrating a woman like you, after all.”
He grabbed my shoulders in his excitement. “Furukura, you’re lucky, you know. Thanks to me, you can go from being triply handicapped as a single, virgin convenience store worker to being a married member of society. Everyone will assume you’re a sexually active, respectable human being. That’s the image of you that pleases them most. Isn’t it wonderful?”
Keiko’s last day at the convenience store passes without fanfare. She receives a set of chopsticks, a tin of cookies, and a promise of free frankfurters if she visits with Shiraha.
Shiraha eagerly searches for job openings while Keiko imagines what is going on in the store while she is not there. She has always kept herself strong and meticulously groomed, for the good of the store, but now she can’t think of a reason why she should continue. She begins to sleep throughout the day and shower only when Shiraha demands it. She quits shaving.
A month after she leaves the Smile Mart, Shiraha arranges her first interview with a temping agency. They arrive early, and Shiraha says to wait for him while he uses the restroom. Keiko decides to go as well and follows him into a convenience store. She notices a new employee, her training badge visible from the doorway. She hears the voice of the store telling her what it needs: the pasta is on sale but isn’t prominently displayed, so she moves it; the limited-edition, seasonal chocolates are on the bottom shelf in a single row, so she rearranges them; she moves a display of chips. When an employee watches her suspiciously, Keiko touches her lapel as though she is wearing a badge and shouts, “Good morning!”
They think she is from the head office, she assumes, and continues to adjust items throughout the store. She compliments an overwhelmed employee for doing well under stress and suggests that she put out more ice pops before dusting the dirty shelves. She continues to translate the voice of the store. The glass doors are covered in fingerprints. There should be a greater selection of noodle soups.
Shiraha returns and grabs Keiko by the wrist, demanding to know what she is doing.
“Listening to the voice of the convenience store.” The thin pale skin covering his face crumpled in an expression of disgust, but I didn’t back down. “The voice of the convenience store won’t stop flowing through me. I was born to hear this voice.”
She tells Shiraha that she has no use for him. She is eager to get home so she can get herself back in shape. She needs to be able to move “more swiftly and precisely to replenish the refrigerated drinks or clean the floor, to more perfectly comply with the store’s demands.” She pulls away from Shiraha, who suddenly disgusts her. She will call her interviewers and tell them that she isn’t coming, because she is a convenience store worker. She will find a new store.