Last Updated September 5, 2023.
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.
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.”“What?”“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...
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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 living, Keiko tells them that he does nothing but loaf about. This does not discourage the women from filling in the details. Some men are like that, they say. He’ll straighten out once you get pregnant, they advise. Once she is in her role, they believe, her idiosyncrasies will no longer be a burden.
Mental Illness and Social Estrangement
Keiko’s bursts of violence and disorderly conduct continue beyond the morning she asks her mother to cook the dead parakeet they found in the park. She remembers the time in elementary school when she broke up a fight between two classmates by bashing one of the boys in the head with a small shovel she had fetched from the tool shed. Children had been yelling for someone to stop them, and she had; only, she couldn’t understand why everyone was so upset about it.
She felt the same way after being scolded for pulling her teacher’s skirt and underwear down during class. Keiko had only done it because her young, overwhelmed teacher was crying and hitting her own desk with the attendance book. This frightened the students, who apologized and asked her to stop crying. When Keiko took initiative to “shut her up” by yanking her clothing off, the teacher was “so shocked she burst into tears, but at least she became quiet.”
Keiko knew that her parents felt helpless, so she resolved to stop speaking more than necessary and to quit acting on her own initiative. As she got older, her social withdrawal alarmed those closest to her. Her teachers encouraged her to play outside more and to make friends. A therapist recommended that her worried parents “shower her with affection,” as they had done throughout her life. “And so,” Keiko says, “believing that I had to be cured, I grew into adulthood.”
“When something is strange,” Keiko comes to realize, “everyone thought they had the right to come stomping in all over your life to figure out why. I found that arrogant and infuriating, not to mention a pain in the neck. Sometimes I even wanted to hit them with a shovel to shut them up, like I did that time in elementary school.”
In the social model of disability, it is not the individual who is disabled, but rather the society that fails to accommodate them. Rather than seeking help for her intrusive thoughts, Keiko learns to obscure them by allowing the perpetual noise of the convenience store to soothe her into a comfortable world where she understands the natural order of things. She had tried it their way. She became silent when her voice disturbed people. She met a man and shared her life with him and, in doing so, abandoned the only environment where she had felt competent, supported, and understood.