Convenience Store Woman by Murata Sayaka was published in 2016 and won the Akutagawa Prize in the same year. Given the popularity of convenience stores, it becoming the titular stage of a contemporary literature in Japan, and in our era, is something natural given the popularity of this sector of retail business. Konbini was introduced to Japan in the late 1960s based on an American convenience store franchise model. In 2018, there were already more than 56.000 convenience stores in Japan. It became a characteristical component of Japan’s everyday life and merged into the neighbourhood landscape. Its convenience has been ever-convenienced since its emergence, and people grew more adapted, then dependent on it. In 2005, Miura Atsushi, a professor and a marketing expert, already declared the era as コンビニ文明 (konbini bunmei) or convenience store civilization and convenience store itself as a replacement of mothers.
Unfortunately, not only the convenience store system itself is far from perfect or sustainable, its convenience comes with inconvenient consequences. Convenience store food, like most retail food, has a shelving life. Each food item has to be scanned by the barcode scanner, translating it into a product of that store, and then when it doesn’t sell, it has to be scanned again and translated into “loss”. In his ethnographic research, Whitelaw (2014) explores how family owners of convenience store deal with loss: they eat them. The food nearing shelving life is not expired, and so they are still edible and are okay to eat. Some owners share this so-called food waste with their family, staffs, and also homeless people, in secret. However, eating those sugary and salty foods might be detrimental to health in the long term. Through Whitelaw’s article, we can step into the behind-door of the convenient façade. And just like other commodified convenience, it comes with the price of inconvenience. Some people have to fail, for the system to find its bug, fix it, and becomes closer to perfect. But the perfection is only for the sake of accruing as much as a profit for the corporation. The system doesn’t have a feature to put people’s suffering into the calculation.
-Whitelaw, Gavin. (2014). Shelf Lives and the Labors of Loss: Differentiation and Uncertainty.
Reading the novel and the research article side by side, I started to think more of the issue of being disposable, or perhaps, it is okay to refer to it as “disposability”. What we can see in Murata’s novel is only the mask of a messy, tons of waste-producing retail system. It doesn’t depict that side of konbini because the main character can only find meaning in her identity as a konbini ningen. The main character describes how she can become one because there is a perfect guidebook for it. This guidebook is a translation tool that turns individual to a clerk, as barcode scanner translates item into a product*. The system of convenience store, just like any retail system, just like any capitalist system, needs to turn something into a countable unit in order to make a profit**.
-From The Mushroom at the End of The World: On the Possibility of Life in Capitalist Ruins (2015) by Anna Lowenhaupt Tsing
* “Wal-Mart pioneered the required use of universal product codes (UPCs), the black-and-white bars that allow computers to know these products as inventory.”
** “Supply chains” are commodity chains that translate value to the benefit of dominant firms; translation between noncapitalist and capitalist value systems is what they do.”
I’m thinking of positioning convenience store as a landscape mark in post-growth Japan. Not sure how it will go. (09/04/2020)