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Sayaka Murata is seated on a plum-velvet banquette in what must rank as Tokyo’s most intentionally elegant restaurant. She is straight-backed, speaks with a sing-song cadence and is dressed in the prim blouse and cardigan of an off-duty Mary Poppins. With precision, the former convenience store worker and now Japan’s most exciting new novelist places her Prosecco on the only spare bit of table and embarks on a train of thought that contains the word “sex” five times.
Just to her right, where a pair of aunt-types are taking afternoon tea, there is a faint wince. To her left, the chatter between two businesswomen trails off. Our waiter, hovering nearby, takes a half step backwards.
“My parents say they don’t want to read my books because of all the sexual descriptions in there,” says Murata, acknowledging that her comfort levels on the subject are not universally shared. “My brother says he finds it difficult to recommend [the books] to his friends. My friends are just really surprised that I — someone so dopey-looking — write such extreme stuff.”
She isn’t remotely dopey-looking. But the awkwardness of the moment is entirely of Murata’s making. There are plenty of places she could have chosen for lunch where her intense musings about teen awakening, adolescent desire and sexual politics would have floated unnoticed into the ether.
Instead, she has chosen to unravel Japan’s dysfunctional naughty bits, the subject of her bestselling novels, in the tassel-cushioned splendour of La Maison Kioi, an ornate French-meets-mock-Tudor mansion built in 1930 as the residence of the last crown prince of Korea. A rare survivor of wartime firebombs, the creaky, wooden-floored building was repurposed in the 1950s as the Akasaka Prince Hotel — an establishment celebrated for its grace, fine dining and the demure welcome it offered the mistresses of parliamentarians.
In the 1980s, the hotel added on a dazzling white skyscraper that leered over central Tokyo and became symbolic of Japan’s bubble era. When that tower was demolished six years ago to make way for more glass and steel, the old mansion was ludicrously hoisted up and deposited 44 metres away.
It now thrives, after a plush, purposeful refit, as a restaurant aimed at that stratum of Japanese society that equates the smell of furniture polish with top-notch experience. “I once came here with my mother,” says Murata, vague on when or why that visit happened.
La Maison Kioi is a temple to exactly the kind of niceties she so sweetly brutalises in her dissections of modern Japanese female psychology. This is a writer who, two years ago, at the age of 36, joined many of Japan’s greatest modern novelists as the winner of the country’s most prestigious literary award, the Akutagawa prize. Previous winners include Shusaku Endo, Kenzaburo Oe and Ryu Murakami — writers whose work defined Japanese 20th-century literature. The novel that did it for Murata — Konbini Ningen (newly translated and published in English as Convenience Store Woman) — takes just 150 pages of prose to eviscerate three of Japanese society’s most sacred cows: marriage, the workplace and the strained concept of the “normal” life.
A few days after lunch I asked Chiaki Ishihara, one of Japan’s pre-eminent professors of literature, what he thought of her contribution. “She writes radically and with a sense of discomfort . . . It is so new that nobody can imitate it,” he told me.
The central character of Konbini Ningen is a woman who strives desperately to attain a life that family, co-workers and society as a whole might consider ordinary. She enters a sexless, abusive marriage, leaves the convenience store but is eventually sucked back to the deafening imprisonment of Japanese retail. The character’s happiness in the face of this is the novel’s most triumphant ambush.
“People think she is having a hard time, but she is so pure, she doesn’t care at all. She has no doubts. I wish I could live like her, and not think about others,” says Murata, who is herself single and lives in central Tokyo.
Though she describes herself as a positive person, every line — of her four books and of her lunchtime conversation — is charged with the sort of burning satire and societal insight that I suggest would usually come from somewhere very negative. She agrees with the qualification of “usually”, but insists it doesn’t apply to her.
On the face of it, Murata’s literary success seems many degrees more remarkable because she herself toiled at a convenience store for nearly two decades. For some months after winning the Akutagawa prize, she famously continued to work the tills at a convenience store in central Tokyo (Murata has carefully chosen not to name her former employer). She would normally, she notes drily after another sip of Prosecco, be in uniform at this time of day, mechanically greeting every customer with the same training-manual-approved words.
Gruelling work — and yet, as she sees it, a job that put her in a privileged position, with the population of a thousand potential novels passing before her every day. She collected backstories suggested by the timing of customers’ arrival and the contents of their shopping baskets. “All the writing took place in my spare time,” she says, “all the observation took place as I worked.”
Shortly before meeting Murata, I had dipped into the nearest Lawson convenience store as preparation. I have lived in Japan a fair while and considered myself intimately familiar with such places. Japan’s 55,000 convenience stores punctuate the country as near identikit shrines to retail, efficiency and anticipation of customer needs. I visit one perhaps twice a day: 7-Eleven, FamilyMart, Lawson, Mini Stop — they are brilliantly calculated to part the hungry, the thirsty, the lonely, the drunk and the disorganised from their money. Their staff, like Murata, are trained to become the embodiment of the (sometimes excessive) Japanese service ethos. The stores’ 24-hour reliability in a shrinking nation of fragmenting families has given them a uniquely important position in Japan’s sociology. It is a position that, by design, is easy to overlook but which Murata has now thrust into the public consciousness.
So do the opening pages of Konbini Ningen — five paragraphs that catalogue the maddening, relentless cacophony of convenience store activity — ring true? Hideously so. Chiming, clacking, clinking, clattering, clamouring. It is suddenly hard to imagine spending another 18 seconds in Lawson, let alone the 18 years that gave Murata her bestseller. To the first-person narrator of Murata’s story, an unmarried convenience-store worker in her thirties portrayed as having developed a kind of joyous Stockholm syndrome towards the store after 20 years behind the till, this din “caresses the eardrums”.
About 10 minutes later, seated with Murata at the absurdly petite tables of La Maison Kioi, she reveals that she, too, may have developed a sense of comfort from constant noise. She can only write in busy cafés. “I cannot concentrate in a quiet place like a library. Other, unrelated things creep into my mind.”
As if on cue, a waiter looking like an extra from an Agatha Christie novel arrives noiselessly at the table and takes our order from Art Deco-style paper menus. Murata has other habits that mark her out from her fellow writers. Since childhood, she has adored Japan’s ubiquitous manga comics, devouring both those primarily written for girls and the ones with more violent, science fiction or fantasy themes discarded by her elder brother. She still reads them voraciously, and lists several current favourites. She then reaches into her bag and takes out a notebook.
She hesitates before opening it to reveal pages and pages of sketches — the characters that will populate her next novel and whose faces she needs to draw in order to describe in prose. The cartoons all look charming enough but she quickly confirms my suspicions that these characters will ultimately feature in something dark. “Some of the themes are similar [to Convenience Store Woman] but there will be more about sexual love in there. I wanted to write a funny book, but the main character has a very hard time as a woman. It will be a very serious novel.”
I ask the obvious question about how much of her is in the main character of Konbini Ningen — and the other women that populate her novels. In Of Bones, of Body Heat, of Whitening City, which won the Yukio Mishima Prize in 2013, she tracks the adolescence of a girl in a rapidly growing town exactly modelled on the suburb of Chiba prefecture where Murata grew up watching concrete encroach upon everything.
“I don’t think I am someone with plenty of ideas,” she says, “and I don’t know why I come up with these weird ways of thinking but I want to use the form of the novel to conduct experiments. In a novel, I can test things that are not possible in the real world, in the hope that something new could emerge from the chemical reaction and teach me something I could never learn from normal life. This has driven me since I was a child and now I feel it all the more strongly. I want to write something unrealistic . . . because I think I can find real truth in it.”
We talk more about what she sees in her customers. “In my novels, I describe a lot of lonely people,” says Murata, whose work at the convenience store found her constantly selling meals to customers who would be eating alone. “In the past, I think the word ‘lonely’ had a negative meaning. Now the sense of the word is different. It depends on the person, but there are more people who actively like solitude. Eating alone. Coming to convenience stores alone . . . many of the central roles in my novels are suffering from adapting to a changing world. They are cornered and hunted by the eyes of society and treated as strange. They would be perfectly happy living alone, but society hounds them for wanting that.”
Small, delicious appetisers start to arrive, followed by two bowls of a memorably excellent hot potato potage, over which Murata lingers delightedly. This collection of items, when combined with water glasses, Prosecco and bread, has stretched the doll’s-house table to capacity. I can see that Murata’s appreciative soup-dawdling is about to cause chaos.
The problem is that she has just launched into a captivating analysis of Japan’s sexless marriage phenomenon — a perennial focus of domestic media attention that is entwined with concerns about the nation’s gloomy demographic destiny, as the population now shrinks at the rate of 1,000 people per day. It is also the inspiration for her 2015 novel Dwindling World, which postulates a parallel Japanese dystopia in which all procreation is performed artificially and sex between husband and wife is treated with the same abhorrence as incest. Despite these constraints, there is an awful lot of sex in the book.
“The couple in the novel get married through online matchmaking but promise to keep it a non-sexual relationship. The thing is, when the novel was published, a young Japanese couple told me they wanted to have a marriage just like this. I have lots of friends who married through online matchmaking and some of them told me that although they liked their husband, they didn’t want sex and only had it, unwillingly, on ovulation day,” she says.
Her spoon remains dangerously untouched on a side plate, and there is no way of catching the waiter’s eye to have my bowl and appetiser plate removed. And in any case, I’m not going to deny Murata the last inch of soup.
“People older than me read Dwindling World and say the place sounds dreadful. People in the same generation say it sounds utopian,” she adds.
The main courses arrive and the logjam I dreaded becomes reality. Murata and I help stack and rearrange things on the table because the plates are the size of small bicycle wheels and the waiter has no hands spare. He can see Murata is still on the soup, but presses on with the delivery anyway, creating a queue of food in front of her and forcing me to decamp a small flower arrangement to a neighbouring table. Murata, whose convenience-store life has been one of logistical perfection, has the look of someone who is quite glad I am paying.
It is all quickly forgiven. Murata savours a superb-looking roast chicken and onion dish, while my mackerel poêle absolves all the front-of-house disarray. We have another glass each of Prosecco and allow the conversation to drift through recent news and domestic political scandal until the arrival of her strawberry vacherin and my panna cotta.
We alight on one odd story of the day — a situation in the city of Kyoto where women who rushed on to a sumo ring to help a man who collapsed with a brain haemorrhage were told by officials to leave the ring immediately as it was sacred and off-limits to women. Murata’s writing is not overtly feminist, but her laser-targeting of the Japanese female condition makes her one of the most powerful de facto critics of Japan’s contemporary gender imbalances.
“If I were born again, I would choose to be a woman,” she says, gathering up her bag, checking its contents and twisting around to the beautiful view from the bay window behind her after nearly two hours with her back to it. There is a darting efficiency to the bag-gathering which has the slightest feel of shelf-stacking. I wonder if she has noticed me noticing that. “The shrapnel left in my mind after having a hard time is very important to me. I was able to discover so many things by being hurt. If I led another life, I would want to lead one in which I was hurt — without that I wouldn’t be able to be the same me.”
Leo Lewis is the FT’s Tokyo correspondent
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