There is the temptation in the West to see what comes out of Japan as playful and slightly weird. A quote by Ruth Ozeki on the American cover of Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman describes the book as “quirky, deadpan, poignant, and quietly profound, a gift to anyone who has ever felt at odds with the world.” Underneath, a happy looking onigiri shaped to look like a smiling girl lies on a plate that itself has been placed on a light pink cloth, against a bright blue background.
You wouldn’t know from any of this that Murata’s brilliant novel is only quirky and poignant if you ignore the sheer desperation that lies at the heart of its protagonist’s being — a woman who cannot possibly face her intended role in a rigid society that finds no place for individuality and who thus decided to stay in the kind of job typically reserved for people who in actuality will pursue something a lot more serious and ambitious the moment they can.
Why stay in a job where all you do is to stock shelves and repeat the same small set of phrases — Do you want chopsticks with this? Do you want this warmed up? Do you have a points card? — for years and years? Even the translated title does not match the Japanese original (“Convenience Store Person” — the rejection of traditional Japanese womanhood is an essential aspect in Murata’s work).
The book is not quietly profound at all: it is profound alright, but the despair of its protagonist at times is hard to bear. In fact, even the word despair does not get to the heart of the lone worker, because it implies the hope that there might be something better to attain. But no, much to the disdain of her family, Murata’s protagonist has completely abandoned the idea of fitting in and hoping for something “better”, meaning, inevitably, a better job, marriage, and children that then are to be taken of. That idea of better strikes her as infinitely worse.
There’s absolutely nothing quirky about Convenience Store Woman, and the fact that so many people in the West started reading it by mistake might just be the luckiest accident in the recent history of literature. It’s a great book, worth every moment of a reader’s attention, even if said reader might have come to it accepting something a lot sweeter (and possibly fun).
Even as Murata’s novel is quintessentially Japanese, given its specific setting, at its core lies one of the main problems of our neoliberal world, namely the fact that unfulfilled lives have become the norm in societies whose ideas of a person’s value has shifted decidedly towards the economical.
Regardless of whether you’re working at a konbini in Japan, stocking shelves at a Walmartaget somewhere in Middleofnowhereville, USA, tending to the cash register at ALDIDL in Dumpfhausen, Germany, getting by, if barely so, adds insult to the daily injury of an existence that at some stage appeared to have had a lot more promise.
What if you simply throw away the idea that you need to conform and get a radically different job? What if you decide to rent out your own time to strangers simply to do nothing, to, in effect, become a modern-day Bartleby? This would appear to be a strange idea, certainly one that would result in the kinds of reactions encountered by Sayaka Murata’s protagonist. But it’s exactly what Shoji Morimoto set out to do. Correspondingly, the book billed as his memoir is entitled Rental Person Who Does Nothing.
In fact, from the book it becomes relatively clear that Morimoto, a married father in his mid to late 30s, did not actually write the book (that would be doing something). Instead, he responded to a set of questions and a writer and editor put together the book. The writer, it is noted, “is not a particular fan of Rental Person” (it’s not clear why this piece of information is given).
It’s very important to realize that Morimoto is not any more a pointless slacker than the protagonist in Convenience Store Woman. It’s also important to realize that the Western publisher’s information was put together to sell books: “Rental Person provides a fascinating service to the lonely and socially anxious.” “A fascinating service” is exactly the kind of thinking that Morimoto more or less explicitly rejects. And only a few of his customers are lonely and/or socially anxious.
At the core of the book lies that basic idea that in principle, nobody has to accept the ways value is attached to people in today’s neoliberal societies. There is, after all, a different value, a value that is a lot more meaningful, even if that value might differ from person to person. And it is exactly that value Morimoto is after.
To begin with, on a job Morimoto does not actually do nothing. He will do quite a bit. What he will not do, though, is to offer anything that feels wrong to him for whatever reason. He might be happy to accept a job where someone tells him about something, but he will not when there is something expected in return, such as giving advice. The reasons for this are a lot more profound than you might imagine.
The occasional mention of the wife and family hint at the basic fact that Morimoto is in fact a responsible person embedded in a social structure. He is, in other words, no slacker. It’s just that having thought long and hard about life choices, he has come to the realization that what is the standard is no fit for him (this mirrors part of Convenience Store Woman). For example, and I will have to admit that this hit home pretty hard, he realized that an academic career would be pointless for him, given that he neither fits in and nor has the sense of dedication required to study models of earthquakes all day long.
There also are two siblings, or rather there were. There is an older brother who was unable to cope with Japan’s rigid way of interviewing for work and who thus never found a job. And an older sister took her own life for very similar reasons. It’s the quiet desperation conveyed here that sits at the core of Rental Person Who Does Nothing. Morimoto could have adopted a similar route, but he preferred not to.
Instead, his book centers on embracing the fact that we all suffer from any variety of things that do not serve us well but that we grin and bear regardless. Morimoto simply won’t. And he helps those who reach out to him to deal with theirs, such as when he accompanies a woman to a restaurant so that she can have a dry run for job functions. As it turns out, she has turned down all such work arrangements simply because it gives her anxiety (resulting in physical discomfort). After his job is done, Morimoto notes, she found the confidence to confide in her boss who, it turned out, eagerly provided accommodations for her.
In many ways, Morimoto’s book is the polar opposite of any episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, the brilliantly funny comedy that centers on people being unable and/or unwilling to conform to societal restrictions while pretending that there actually is no problem. At the core of any of Morimoto’s jobs sits the realization by another person that they have to simply admit that there is something they are unable to do on their own. So instead of pretending (Curb style) they hire Morimoto to help them, and the helping is almost entirely passive (hence the “does nothing”).
In effect, many of the encounters are dates, except that they are stripped of all expectations of a deeper — actually any emotional involvement. You need someone to sit with you under the cherry blossoms because going on your own would be too weird? Well, Morimoto will come along. In fact, at times merely asking him for the job does the trick. At some stage, someone asks him to watch them clean their kitchen (there might or might not be bugs). Morimoto rejects the job. A little later, he is being told that it was the asking for the help that nudged the person into the cleaning.
As mentioned above, there are specifically Japanese aspects to the book, whether the cherry-blossom viewing, the grueling job interviews, or whatever else. But these only sit on top of problems that are only too common: how do you deal with something you’re unable or unwilling to do? How do you build your own self of worth and value in a society that attribute these only in too narrow a fashion? How can you be a well formed person and accept the way you are if you somehow are a little bit different?
I’m worried that the perceived Japaneseness of Rental Person Who Does Nothing might make people overlook its rather universal core. Then again, maybe enough people read the book by mistake — expecting something a lot different, only to stumble upon the big holes in their lives: maybe we all could have more fulfilled lives if we collectively accepted a much wider range of what makes living life worthwhile?
Shoji Morimoto: Rental Person Who Does Nothing; translation from the original Japanese by Don Knotting; 192 pages; Hanover Square Press; Hanover Square Press; 2024