Narrator Keiko Furukura is 36 and unmarried; in fact, she has never even had a boyfriend. She has been working as a convenience store clerk since 1998, when she first left home to go to college and moved to Tokyo. Seeing a help-wanted ad for a new convenience store slated to open soon in an office district near her apartment, she applied for a part-time position and was hired as one of the store’s first employees—trained and on the job from opening day. Eighteen years later, she is still working at the same store, still on part-time status.
Keiko grew up in a typical Japanese family of four, including a little sister two years younger, but from the time she was still quite small, her parents worried that there seemed to be something a little bit “off” about her. When some boys in her elementary school class got into a fight, for example, she went to get a shovel and hit them with it to make them stop. She simply saw it as a practical and effective solution, but others didn’t see it that way, and she couldn’t understand why. Incidents in which she displayed an unconventional or even shocking turn of mind occurred with some frequency. After many long years of being treated as—and feeling—abnormal, the convenience store job came with a detailed “Clerk’s Handbook” that prescribed how to interact with customers and what to do in every situation; by completely immersing herself in the role of convenience store clerk, welcoming customers enthusiastically when they entered and crisply responding to their requests, Keiko felt for the first time as if she’d become a “normal working component of society.”
In her 18th year with the store, a 35-year-old man named Shiraha joins the staff as a part-timer. Shiraha declares publicly that he’s there to find a wife so the world will start treating him like a proper adult. But in addition to being a slacker, he behaves like a stalker with female members of the staff as well as customers, and he is quickly let go. Unable to pay his share of the rent, he runs out on his roommate, and since he also owes his family in Hokkaido too much money to be able to go crawling home to Mom and Dad, he is effectively homeless. Keiko comes to his rescue, suggesting that if all he’s looking for in marriage is social acceptance, the two of them should simply go down to city hall and register. She brings him back to her apartment and begins caring for him almost as if he were a pet. Shiraha shuts himself up in the bathroom, shows no interest in finding a job, and eats whatever Keiko feeds him. For Keiko it is as if she has taken in a con man or pauper from the street, but to her little sister, her friends, and her colleagues at work, it appears Keiko has finally fallen in love like a normal person, surprising as that seems, and they are all happy for her.
Shiraha becomes puffed up, saying Keiko is a loser with three strikes against her for being an old maid, a virgin, and a convenience store clerk, and it’s only because of him that people now think better of her. In order to address his own debts, he pressures Keiko to get a proper full-time job with better pay. Keiko acquiesces and quits her job, but since she has made the convenience store her entire life for so long, she feels lost. One day, en route to a job interview with Shiraha, she stops in at a convenience store she passes and it rekindles her sense of identity. Even though she’s in her interview suit and not an employee of the store, she begins going up and down the aisles straightening things up according to her long-practiced habits. She realizes that even before she is a person she is first and foremost a convenience store clerk, and decides to skip the job interview. Shiraha leaves, and Keiko sets her sights on finding another part-time convenience store job.
The story draws on some of author Sayaka Murata’s own experiences, and at the press conference following the announcement of her Akutagawa Prize, she not only confirmed that she continues to clerk at a convenience store, but declared that the convenience store is “sacred ground” to her. In addition to portraying the difficulties that women face in Japanese society if they choose to remain unmarried and support themselves, the work also more broadly illumines the deep hold that traditional social expectations—and the need to fit in rather than to stand out—continue to have over all segments of Japanese society.