Orientalist book cover designs for Japanese novels in translation

Have you ever thought about how a book cover misrepresents a culture? Me neither. Someone I follow on Instagram made this comment about Sayaka Murata’s Konbini Ningen, translated into English as Convenience Store Woman, a few weeks ago.

I thought the person made some excellent points about the book covers.

Grove Press prints this cover for U.S. markets. The objection to this cover is that it’s way too cutesy for a narrative about someone who’s worked for 18 years in a convenience store, with no direction in life. Is there anything in the story about rice balls shaped like a young woman’s face? Does everything from Japan have to look kawaii to sell?

To be fair, though, Rilakkuma and Kaoru, a Netflix show, delivers hard hitting stories about losing your friends in college, fitness machine scams, and loneliness in adulthood in a cute package. It’s so nightmarish that there’s a change.org petition to stop Netflix from showing the show in the kid’s section.

Granta prints this cover for U.K. markets. The objection to this cover is the quote from Vogue: that the story is “as intoxicating as a sake mojito”. Why do publishers and reviewers feel a need to resort to compare Murata’s novel to a pseudo Cuban-Japanese cocktail? Would they advertise the prose in Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story to be as smooth as the sugary glaze on a Krispy Kreme Donut? Does Murata want readers around the world to read her story because Murata has an axe to grind about modern Japanese life, or because Murata as an exotic Oriental writer from the Far East?

Granta seems to have removed Vogue‘s nasty quote from its cover in a different paperback version it sells on Book Depository, but the sake mojitos live on in a bookstore in Hong Kong, where I found the offending copies in salmon pink, pastel blue, and dirty yellow—the palette of a white day out in Vineyard Vines.

Granta also makes this cover. The person had a more general objection to the English translation of Murata’s title, Konbini Ningen. They argued that 人間 is gender neutral. It only means “person”.

For some reason, Ginny Tapley Takemori feminized the title to highlight the protagonist’s gender. Is it because English-language audiences could interpret it as a feminist novel? But translating Convenience Store Woman into Japanese would produce コンビニ女性, which might not be what Murata intended.

Indeed, in this 2016 interview with the Nikkei Business magazine, Murata says that the novel is mainly about what it’s like to work at a convenience store (which she does part time), and how to navigate complex webs of interpersonal relationships (which is actually a recurring theme in her novels):

『コンビニ人間』を読むと、コンビニが好きという思いも伝わってきますが、もちろん単純に肯定しているわけでもない。小説家の目でみると、コンビニの変なところ、少しグロテスクなところも、見えてきたと、村田さんは記者会見などで話していましたが、それはどんなところでしょうか。

From reading “Konbini Ningen”, I can feel that you like convenience stories, but you don’t give convenience stores blind praise. You’ve mentioned this in your press conferences [after winning the Akutagawa Prize], but could you tell me, from a novelist’s perspective, what are the weird, or slightly grotesque things you’ve seen about a convenience store?

村田 国籍や男女を問わず、全く同じ服を着て、男女の差があまりないのです。お店では外国の方が一緒にいっぱい働いているということをずっと経験してきましたが、そういう方が「これ温めますか」とか、コンビニ用語を片言ながらも、だんだんナチュラルにしゃべれるようになっていきます。みんなが、コンビニの店員という形に、足並みをそろえていく感じ、それは前から、おもしろいなとか、不思議だなと思っているところです。
 でも、私は「コンビニ愛」が強いので、書いていて思ったのは、コンビニというよりは、むしろ普通の人間の、コンビニというものを脱いだ普通の生身の人間のグロテスクさみたいな部分に、目が行くようになりました。

Murata: The convenience store doesn’t care about what nationality or gender you have. Everyone wears the same uniform. There isn’t much of a difference between male and female workers. In the store, I’ve worked with many people who come from overseas. Even though those kinds of people can only manage a smattering of convenience store-specific phrases like, “would you like this reheated?”, they naturally become fluent in Japanese. Everyone becomes a convenience store employee in lockstep. I’ve always found that interesting and mysterious.

However, my “convenience store love” is very strong. As I wrote, I realized that rather than the convenience store itself, what I became attracted to was, in fact, the grotesque qualities of living, breathing ordinary people after you strip away the layer of convenience store from them.

『コンビニ人間』では、そこで働いている人たちの、生身の人間としての実態が、ユーモアも交えて描かれています。

So “Konbini Ningen” is about what actually happens in the lives of the real lives of these living, breathing convenience store employees, mixed with humor.

村田 そうですね。いつも自分がコンビニにいるときは、みんなが店員とか店長といった役割やペルソナ(仮面)をかぶっている部分を、素晴らしいな思ったり、尊敬し合ったり、影響し合ったりという中で働いています。でも、小説を書くに当たって、登場人物たちの、その仮面を脱いだ姿、人間の姿というのにちょっと目が行くようになった。何かそういう感じがしています。小説を書くに当たっては嫌な部分も描きたくて、嫌な人間、人間の嫌な側面も書きました。

Murata: That’s correct. When I’m in a convenience store, everything always adopts the persona of a store employee or store manager, and works while thinking that things are going well, people respect each other, and people affect each other. But as I wrote this novel, I became attracted to what the novel’s characters were really like when they take off their personas. That kind of thing. As I wrote this novel, I wanted to write these unpleasant parts, so I also wrote in some unpleasant characters, and the unpleasant sides of human beings.

The employee badge on this third cover is pretty accurate though. To compare, here’s my own FamilyMart badge when I worked at Waseda University’s branch in 2016.

In any case, the gist of the person’s point is: what gets lost in translation when American and British publishers market a popular Japanese novel to an English-language audience? What gets exoticized to bring home the fact to folks that Murata tells a sad story from Japan?