Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Keiko doesn’t know how to behave in situations that weren’t covered by the Smile Mart employee training manual. It was the manual that taught her how to lift the sides of her cheeks to form a smile, how to attune herself to the people around her, and how to meet their needs appropriately.
She arrives at work an hour early every day, buys mineral water and a food item close to its expiration date, and prepares herself to help if she is needed. For lunch she eats a hot food item, and for dinner she often buys something to take home. “When I think that my body is entirely made up of food from this store,” Keiko thinks, “I feel like I’m as much a part of the store as the magazine racks or the coffee machine.”
Keiko is also made up of the people around her. Her speech is a mixture of Mrs. Izumi, her supervisor, and Sugawara, a cheerful twenty-four-year-old coworker. Mrs. Izumi, close in age at thirty-seven, is who Keiko mimics most in appearance. A “rather flashy” dresser outside of work, Mrs. Izumi is Keiko’s idea of how a normal woman in her mid-thirties is meant to look. Keiko rifles through Mrs. Izumi’s makeup bag, and examines the labels of her clothing and shoes, when no one is watching. Careful not to copy any one person too directly, she adds components gleaned from former coworkers and blog personalities. She relies on her catalog of stolen phrases, tones, and gestures in social situations.
Shiraha is a disgruntled part-time employee who is neither willing to work nor able to accept help without characterizing himself as the victim of an unjust world. Shiraha cannot stand to be told what to do by a “lowly convenience store manager.” Keiko notices the prejudice in his eyes and the roots of his blackened teeth as he complains about the housewives, losers, and foreigners who work pathetic convenience store jobs. He is kept distinct from society no less by his belligerence than by his appearance, which embodies it.
Shiraha represents the antithesis of his argument that men give women meaning. He is homeless before moving in with Keiko but maintains that it is he who is doing her a favor. He says that her womb is too old to be useful, and she is not pretty enough to be desirable, so this is the best arrangement she could hope for. In exchange for making a respectable woman out of her, he wants Keiko to hide him. He doesn’t want to work, have children, or be held to any obligations by a dysfunctional society.
Mrs. Izumi is a thirty-seven-year-old supervisor at Smile Mart. She is efficient always and stern when necessary, qualities Keiko admires in a convenience store worker. Mrs. Izumi is described as a housewife, a term based more on class than employment status. A married woman would not do the work Mrs. Izumi does if her husband were able to provide for her. A housewife’s income is therefore meant to supplement the household budget, not signify a career in its own right. Despite working part-time, Mrs. Izumi retains the respectability of a married woman.
Keiko’s younger sister, Mami, is a new mother to a frail son, Yutaro. Keiko shares a good relationship with her sister, who was endeared to her as a child by her ability to divert their mother from scolding Mami for silly transgressions. The appearance of a protective instinct was inadvertent: Keiko was genuinely perplexed by their mother’s anger and would ask her to...
(This entire section contains 906 words.)
explain it. Unable to verbalize why Mami was reprimanded for something small, while Keiko was never scolded in kind, their mother would abandon her lecture.
Keiko doesn’t understand the fuss her sister makes over the baby. When Yutaro cries, Mami rushes to soothe him.
What a lot of hassle I thought. I looked at the small knife we’d used to cut the cake still lying there on the table: if it was just a matter of making him quiet, it would be easy enough.
Keiko reconnects with Miho, a former classmate, at an alumni reunion. They hadn’t been friends at school—Keiko didn’t have any friends at school—but Miho noticed how “totally different” Keiko had become and invited her to have lunch and go shopping. Since then, Keiko has occasionally joined Miho and two other former classmates, Yukari and Satsuki, for get-togethers. When Yukari confronts Keiko about having changed—“didn’t you use to speak more normally?”—Miho defends her, saying, “I don’t feel she’s changed at all, although it could just be because we meet so often.”
But Yukari was right I thought. After all, I absorb the world around me, and that’s changing all the time. Just as all the water that was in my body last time we met has now been replaced with new water, the things that make up me have changed too.
Keiko’s store manager, the eighth since she was hired, is a hard worker who she has known to be brusque yet businesslike. Keiko is distressed when he takes interest in her relationship with Shiraha, revealing himself to be far less than a colleague. He is just a human male, she realizes, “mindlessly hoping that one of the same species was going to breed.”