| Arts & Culture
Rekindle A Cure to Feeling Like You Need to Be Cured: Talking to Sayaka Murata in Tokyo
I go to Japan, pulled like a magnet, to see what is mine, undiscovered or forgotten; to see what will never be mine; and to find some way to reconcile the two.
The first time I went to Japan, I was afraid of feeling like an alien. Though I am half-Japanese, I had this idea (informed mostly by the film Lost in Translation ) that Japan was a place of intense foreignness. A place where everything from the food to the language to the quality of light was Extremely Different.
But when I went, I discovered something far less tidy: I was both alien and not. Sometimes I was confused for being native Japanese. Sometimes I was very obviously not Japanese enough. A Japanese student told me, unprompted, that if I learned the language, I could “become famous, like a television host” because of my mixed heritage. Belonging dangled before me, drifting in and out of view.
That trip unlocked in me a sense of cultural belonging that—until I walked down an Asagaya side street alone, without my white friends, in new Uniqlo flowy pants, looking more or less like everyone around me—I’d never before experienced. The food my mother made was regularly available in the convenience stores. Artifacts I recognized from our Buddhist temple dotted shrines on practically every street corner. Though I was not fluent, my pronunciation of those elementary vocabulary words was nearly perfect, a sense memory from my childhood Saturdays in Japanese school. The experience was like scavenging a pitch-black corner of my identity I’d let cobweb over.
In the four years since that first trip, I’ve been back twice more, pulled like a magnet, to investigate this feeling—to see what is mine, undiscovered or forgotten; to see what will never be mine; and to find some way to reconcile the two.
My investigation also included reading as much Japanese literature as I could, and I was particularly excited to read Sayaka Murata’s Convenience Store Woman (translated into English by Ginny Tapley Takemori) , to spend time with this curious protagonist. The titular character of the prolific Japanese novelist’s first English-language translation—Keiko—is a misfit in almost every area of her life, except for the aforementioned convenience store. Human behavior confounds her, and so she has built a quiet life mimicking others’ voices and reactions, reading in their facial expressions expectations for her own. And while everyone around her feels she must be in some kind of psychological pain—lacking a romantic relationship, wasting eighteen years as a sales clerk, void of common empathy—Keiko is perfectly at peace with her simple, solitary life. She finds solace in the sameness and rote interactions of convenience store work.
In Japan, I was both alien and not. Belonging dangled before me, drifting in and out of view.
Growing up, Keiko’s older sister tells her to say she is “not strong” as a reason for why her life is different, why she has no love life or career. But Keiko asks her sister for a new excuse, since people don’t seem to be buying it anymore. “When something was strange,” Keiko thinks, “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 wanted to hit them with a shovel to shut them up . . . ”
My throat tightened the first time I read that. And later, when Keiko witnesses someone talking down to the convenience store manager, she thinks, “When you work in a convenience store, people often look down on you for working there. I find that fascinating, and I like to look them in the face when they do this to me. And as I do so I always think: that’s what a human is.”
I like to think of myself as an extrovert with passion, relationships, and ambitions. I am not Keiko , I thought as I sat down to read. But when these passages gutted me, I acutely remembered a very recent self I’d so quickly packed away.
I, like Keiko, am thirty-seven years old and childless, and until a few months ago, was unmarried—and had been single for the previous five years. When you are a single and childless woman in your thirties, you are subject to a constant barrage of questions and judgment about why you’ve deviated from the norm. I spent holidays and cocktail parties answering questions like: Have you considered freezing your eggs? or Don’t you think it happens just when you aren’t looking for it? or, the worst one of all, Have you tried online dating?
I felt like a woman who was failing to fulfill her potential, instead of a woman who was simply living, working a job, writing a book, taking up boxing. I had no romantic narrative to help people make sense of me, so they attached the prevalent anxiety about aging out of biological motherhood, and I became a void of that confluence. My world became smaller—my apartment, the gym, the café where I wrote—because in my own spaces I made sense to myself, where I wasn’t subject to arbitrary standards. But outside those spaces, I was strange.
Even before my first trip to Japan, I’d felt like an alien in my own life, which was probably why I was so afraid of feeling like one my first time in Japan. As a child, Keiko, observing that she doesn’t belong, believes she has “to be cured.” Yes, that, too.
Now, newly married, “cured” of my singledom, my husband and I headed to Japan for our honeymoon. We went because he wanted to see this place I loved. We went for the same reasons everyone does: for perfect onigiri and spotless trains; the ancient silence abutting neon noise; and the careful way sales clerks hand you receipts with both hands, a slight bow, enough politeness to break an American’s heart.
But we also went because I had to meet this woman who had invented Keiko, who had described the outsider life with such fluorescent clarity. I wanted to ask her, in this country I was trying and trying to belong to, what the solution was—if there was a cure to feeling like you needed to be cured.
While Sayaka Murata is new to American audiences, in Japan she’s anything but an ingenue. She’s published ten novels, and Convenience Store Woman has sold over 650,000 copies in Japan; she’s probably one of the top three most notable contemporary writers in the country right now.
So while I naively expected her to reflect some misfit tropes—disheveled, brazen, and off-the-cuff, perhaps—I got instead an elegant tea in a beautifully mod lounge in her publisher Bungeishunju’s office, talking to a deeply thoughtful, self-aware, and impeccably dressed writer via an interpreter.
I had to meet this woman who had described the outsider life with such clarity. I wanted to ask her, in this country I was trying and trying to belong to, if there was a cure to feeling like you needed to be cured.
When I ask Murata what her obsessions are, I expect her to mention cultural misfits, the sort of people I identify with. But instead, she talks of insatiable curiosity. “For me, what I really want to know is—when you just look at a person, they have these aspects you can’t see from the outside. The desire to know about that is a real source of energy for me,” Murata says.
I wonder if this desire to know is what fuels her other stories, which are notable for their dystopian and speculative takes on society. She mentions her as-yet-untranslated novella Satsujin Shussan , the premise of which is if a woman gives birth to ten children, she can lawfully kill one person (someone please translate this immediately!). “You’re pushing yourself and the character all the way to the edge, all the way to the boundaries, to see where it goes and where it breaks,” Murata says. “That’s the driving force behind my work.”
I want to know about Keiko, where her stark strangeness came from, if it bubbled up from something inside Murata herself. “In my work up to this point, I’ve had a lot of protagonists who murder people or do other terrible things,” Murata tells me. “And it was interesting to me to do something with a character who’s done nothing bad but is questioned by everyone around her—why did you do that? Why are you like this?”
Traveling in Japan has taught me that it is a country full of contradictions and dichotomies, where many things are often true at once; but it’s also become clear that it’s a culture built around adhering to certain structures, whether train timetables or street cleanliness or codes of conduct. Interestingly, there’s a wave of young people in the last decade who have chosen to opt out of the salaryman husband and at-home-mom model of family life. A rising number have never had a relationship or sex at all, and the country’s birth rate is dropping. The character of Keiko seems to fit into this new wave of young people who feel like they don’t belong in the traditional narrative.
I ask Murata if Keiko’s character is a reflection of this “demographic panic,” as a review in the New York Times argued. Is this the boundary and the break she mentioned before? She says she has a friend who’s decided to abstain from sex her entire life, and is sure some of that seeped in, but it wasn’t an overt intention. Instead, she talks about growing up reading science fiction, particularly Shinichi Hoshi stories, and how they educated her about what’s strange and what’s not. “In those stories, an alien would show up and it was normal, not presented as anything out of the ordinary,” Murata says. “I had this awareness come up inside of me as a child that it was a totally possible and plausible.” The boundaries and the breakage she’s looking for in stories are those of the imagination.
There’s a curious effect to devouring this novel in a short time. Murata immerses the reader so completely in Keiko’s first-person perspective that it’s everyone else who seems like an alien. Why should she pay special attention to her new nephew, Keiko wonders, when babies were “just an animal called a baby and looked much the same, just like stray cats all looked much the same,” and I can’t come up with a good counter-argument. When Keiko doesn’t understand how workplace gossip seems more important than the daily promotion on chicken skewers, I found my more logical self nodding along.
But Murata is quick to point out that empathizing with her protagonist isn’t totally a trick of perspective; Keiko, through her diligent convenience store work, is actively finding ways to survive in and serve the world. “More than a person, I’m a convenience store worker,” Keiko says. Finding her place as a cog in the machine of society is how she feels useful and alive. Her disgraced male colleague, Shiraha, whom she lets live in her apartment as they engage in a relationship of convenience, is the opposite.
This is what Murata does, inscribing a place where the only thing she longs to satisfy is her curiosity about what a person is, what happens at the edges, what new thing lies beyond.
“Keiko is taking everything that comes at her,” says Murata. “It’s sort of a sumo thing, to use a Japanese reference. She’s really confronting the thing and looking at the world. Shiraha is running to what’s easiest, to a safe place where he can’t get hurt, where he can stop thinking about all this stuff. Shiraha can’t be pushed to that edge because he’s not questioning himself. He’s not interrogating himself in any way.”
Murata’s creative interrogation happens during her writing process. She often starts with drawings, she says, filling her notebook full of character or place sketches, and the story and voice comes naturally from there. Writing by hand—“just making my hands move”—is important for Murata to maintain a connection to the semi-conscious part of herself.
I want to know more about this, but it’s a strange process, conducting an interview via an interpreter. The conversation slows, questions of clarity linger, and, as the interpreter, Jocelyne Allen, tells me later, “You’ll never get a true translation.” I long to communicate quickly and fluidly in Murata’s Japanese. The language barrier begins to make me feel uncomfortable, in a space where I’ve come to feel more comfortable.
But this interview is yet another reminder that I don’t own this space. When I chat with Murata’s publishers about my own novel, we each remain mystified about the way the publishing process works in our respective countries. I’m still the alien here. And even married, on my honeymoon, with more of the language and three trips under my belt, I still feel the latent sparking of all my alienations, both former and present. I suspect that’s why Convenience Store Woman has hit so hard both in Japan and overseas: There’s an alienation inside most of us that recognizes the same in Keiko, and in that recognition, loneliness is canceled.
“But she loves the convenience store so much,” Murata says, when I ask whether or not Keiko finally belongs by the end of the novel. “Rather than finding a sense of belonging, Keiko became a sort of creature, a sales clerk. Does she belong, exactly? I don’t know. But she’s happy. She chooses to live that way—she chooses that life, that place for herself to belong.”
And this is the difference between Keiko’s isolation and Shiraha’s. Shiraha complains, “Our society doesn’t allow any foreign objects. I’ve always suffered because of that.” He claims victimhood where Keiko is merely curious and analytical about this strange world: That’s what a human is . He longs for and rejects belonging, where Keiko simply does not consider it. She doesn’t live in that binary. She only is.
Perhaps this is also what Murata does with her writing, continually drawing and inscribing a place for herself where the only thing she longs to satisfy is her own curiosity about what a person is, what happens at the edges, what new thing lies beyond. Maybe that’s the way it is with any of us and our art: The cure to feeling like you ought to be cured is going all the way to the end of expectations, and inventing a new way to be.
After I leave the mod publishing lounge, after the interpreter tells me I will never get a true translation unless I speak the language, my husband meets me outside. We walk for a while in the skyscraper-filled neighborhood of Chiyoda. He holds my hand and asks me about the interview, and I tell him Murata wasn’t what I expected, and that I am enamored with her brain. I want to try to write outside of binaries and create characters that live on the boundaries, and also to know where Sayaka Murata got her dress. I show him the picture we took together.
He wants to show me a weird house he found down the street. It’s a giant Western-style mansion, called Akasaka Prince Classic House, with turrets and gables and stained glass, and he’s right—it’s jarringly different from everything else here. It was light when I entered the interview, and now it’s the precipice to evening, becoming dark and cold, the city transforming into something else, and we stand there and try to understand it.
Maybe that’s the way it is with any of us and our art: The cure to feeling like you ought to be cured is going all the way to the end of expectations, and inventing a new way to be.
When I got rather quickly married, I felt like people looked at me differently. I was no longer a single woman in need of a mate, taking “brave” solo road trips across France, spending holiday weekends writing, not talking to a single soul. I was suddenly a unit, moving through the world with a partner in rent and travel and love. But I was mistaken about one thing, at least. People looked at me differently, yes. But it didn’t make me feel any different. I was still myself, sinking into a Kanazawa izakaya, speaking elementary Japanese in a grocery store, holding a space of aloneness at the center of myself.
My mistake with Japan was similar. The first time I came here, I was afraid it would make me feel a way. But then it made me feel a different way. The way it made me feel was something that already existed inside me, a variegated quality of self-belonging animated by a place that would never fully let me belong. The mistake was my desire to belong to it. To do anything other than try to understand, exist respectfully within its boundaries, and let it expand my curiosity both inward and outward, without confusing that for ownership.
Later that night, I sit in a bar in a basement next to a Japanese man, who tells me in broken English that he isn’t gay, but everyone tells him he is. Okay , I say. He knows everything about the Beatles and asks what my favorite song is. He asks if I own records at home, if I know the words for birthday , cake , death . And finally, he asks why my hair is so dark. I don’t understand what he means, so he asks it again. Why is your hair so dark ?
I am startled. Right before I came on this trip, I abandoned years of dying my hair blonde and went back to my natural color. I was tired of looking like a Japanese girl with blonde hair. I wanted to look like me again. But I don’t tell him that. It’s almost as if he knows, anyway, recognizes my in-between-ness working itself out. I tell him only one of the truths. I was born like this.