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Last Updated on January 29, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1136

Capitalism and Alienation

Keiko, a part-timer, works five days per week at the Smile Mart in Hiiromachi. Her day shift lasts from nine a.m. until dinner, and throughout it, she remains on her feet, constantly in motion, receptive to the needs of the store. Her hourly pay is meant to cover the repetitive stresses on her body, and Keiko ensures that she will remain well-conditioned, sufficiently rested, and fit for work. To this end, she visits her family and friends infrequently, eats the barest nutrients necessary to sustain her, and maintains a scrupulous grooming regimen.

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Karl Marx’s theory of alienation would interpret Keiko’s devotion to her job as being a symptom of the capitalist perversion of her “species-essence.” She often refers to herself and those around her not as people, but animals. Keiko celebrates her loss of humanity, her transformation into a partially sentient Smile Mart training manual. She describes her first day on the job:

I looked around and saw a man approaching with lots of discounted rice balls in his basket. “Irasshaimasé!” I called in exactly the same tone as before and bowed, then took the basket from him.
At that moment, for the first time ever, I felt I’d become a part in the machine of society. I’ve been reborn, I thought. That day, I actually became a normal cog in society.

When Keiko invites the unproductive yet demanding Shiraha to live with her, he agrees on the conditions that she will keep him hidden from people who would ask him to contribute, and she will provide his food. He tells her that he will not be paying rent but insists she is getting the better deal. She accepts.

“Ah. Well, I suppose there’s not much point in me demanding payment from you if you’re not earning anything. I’m poor too, so I can’t give you any money. But if you’re not fussy I can provide your feed for you.”
“Oh, sorry. It’s the first time I’ve kept an animal at home, so it feels like having a pet, you see.”

Keiko’s diet consists of damaged goods from the convenience store: dented cans and fresh-food items that have reached their expiration dates. These things cannot be sold to customers but can be sold to employees, the lesser of the two vessels. She is both a subject and an object of the Smile Mart. The store is alive only through her body.

Duty to Society

Since the Stone Age, as Shiraha would say, human society has been founded upon the division of labor. In Keiko Furukura’s modern-day Tokyo, traditional concepts of gender and class have rendered her a subversive person. She is not supposed to work a part-time job in her thirties, especially not at a convenience store. By her age, she should have either achieved a position befitting a college-educated employee or else have married and had children.

Shiraha, arrogant and work-shy, is not even responsible enough to have a driver's license. He cannot keep a job, cannot support a family, and deflects criticism of his choices onto a dysfunctional society at large.

“A dead-ender,” Manager #8 says to Mrs. Izumi, “The worst type, just a burden on society. People have a duty to fulfill their role in society either through the workplace or the family.”

Unable to take care of himself, Shiraha relies on the support of those who are more committed to fulfilling their duty. When he cannot get a wealthy businesswoman to marry him, he settles for Keiko, a fellow undesirable, who is at least capable of providing for herself. Even Manager #8 and Mrs. Izumi are thrilled to learn that their socially stunted coworkers are in a relationship. If not responsible, Keiko and Shiraha should at least be respectable.

Keiko’s sister and friends are also relieved to hear that she has a man living with her and has therefore been “cured.” When they ask what he does for a...

(The entire section contains 1136 words.)

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