Satoshi Azuchi’s “Supermarket: A Novel”

Reviewed by Juliet Grames

Image of Satoshi Azuchi’s “Supermarket: A Novel”

In 1969, a dapper and promising young man named Kojima leaves his comfortable position at a renowned bank to come work at his cousin's supermarket chain, an adolescent company with good returns but also many challenges before it. Kojima, a starry-eyed idealist, thinks the supermarket will offer the sense of fulfillment that his soulless job at the bank lacked. Little does he imagine the dramas that unfold over the course of his first year at Ishiei Supermarkets: the employees lobbying against him, the cooked books he will have to answer for, the roofs that will crumble on his watch. Will Kojima manage to save the company from its own messes, and still guarantee there is toilet paper for every customer who wants it?

It's a conceit that an American reader might, at first blush, find a little silly, but Supermarket is anything but. The novel takes itself quite seriously, and so will the reader, whether he intended to or not. Supermarket is a representative of an entire genre of "business novels" in Japan, most of which celebrate the sacrifices of dedicated employees and the unexpected hurdles and challenges of day-to-day business. And while the idea of a company as protagonist may strike an American reader as unusual, the "business novel" is neither corporate nor soulless, and the drama of the story is quite human and engrossing. After all, for most of us, it is tiny and ostensibly silly concerns at work—shall we or shan't we discount this rotten tomato?!—that become the most challenging pieces of our everyday lives. In the recreation of this very real and perhaps underappreciated human drama, Azuchi has succeeded, and with panache.

For a book that is exactly what is promised by the title—a novel about a supermarket—Satoshi Azuchi's 1981 classic is a charming and inescapable read. Azuchi's novel unfolds with a nearly ironic (and prototypically "Japanese") corporate earnestness that may amuse English-language readers. The improbably riveting plot twists include a mammoth heist of unstylish off-season turtlenecks, an elaborate ring of criminals who smuggle the best cuts of wagyu beef, and a coupon for eggs gone horribly, ruinously wrong. Although Azuchi never quite lets us into the personal lives of his characters, we do get a glimpse into their thought processes, hints at their hopes for office romance, inklings that their home and personal lives have been indelibly effected by the level of their commitment to their company. The first two-thirds of the book are fraught with the tension of a misunderstood rivalry between Kojima and the incumbent store manager, who seems to be at the head of all the shady dealings in the meat and clothing departments and who commands the loyalty of most of the staff. Kojima battles this hostility and his own troubled marriage, all the while fearing that his rival is bleeding the company dry. Thank goodness, though, it all turns out to be a misunderstanding—for in the end, all the managers are admirable, hardworking people hellbent on Ishiei Supermarkets' success.

Supermarket seems to be a one-hit wonder for Azuchi, whose only other writing has been nonfiction on corporate management. Supermarket was his debut novel and, like many debut novels, smacks of autobiography. Much like the lovable Kojima, Azuchi left a bank—the well-respected Sumitomo Corporation—when he was tapped in 1970 at age thirty-three to work at a supermarket chain called Summit. When he wrote his debut eleven years later, he called it Distribution Industry, which would be retitled Supermarket in a later reissue.

With this knowledge of Azuchi's background, his intention for Supermarket becomes less than clear. Is it simply fictionalized autobiography? A straightforward episodic soap opera whose zany suspense focuses, unexpectedly, on vegetable displays? Or is there a greater message at work? Is it an allegory, a commentary on the business practices that destroy and make us, and on the human emotions that cause us to undermine our own best efforts? It is impossible to say, although whether this is a quality of the novel itself or what is lost in cultural translation is an equally unanswerable question.

In many ways, Supermarket is a tribute to a generation of success-driven post-War rebuilders and company workers. This new corporatism was hardly a phenomenon unique to Japan, and as such there is resonance beyond the borders of Japanese culture. However, this resonance has its limits. The story begins in the late sixties, at the inception of a particular corporatizing boom, and it can hardly be imagined that the workplace was an entirely friendly arena for women. Though we may feel righteously glad that the store manager explodes with anger at a young man who rapes a female colleague, we are then asked to overlook the contradictory gesture of the same manager when he decides to take the younger man under his wing as a protégé, so as to keep an eye on him. It is frustrating to see the despicable evade justice, but Azuchi's portrait of Japanese corporate misogyny, flippant as it is, comes across simply as a sad but realistic element of the period. Similarly, Azuchi draws attention to the stigma that a sympathetic character is worried about incurring if his secret gay life is uncovered. Although Azuchi doesn't take a concrete stand on these social issues, his brief references to the struggles women and gay men experience in Japanese corporate culture stand out as small moments of social commentary in the novel.

Although the book has been a backlist classic for the publishing house Kodansha these last three decades, it has been made available in English for the first time this year, in Paul Warham's competent translation. Warham, who has also translated The Cage, a yakuza potboiler by Kenzo Kitakata, has a steady hand with English rendering, and the translation is nearly devoid of the red flags that often awkwardly mark Japanese books in English: vague sentences, excessive passive voice, and the uniquely Japanese combination of hyperbole and understatement that so unfortunately comes across as melodrama in English. There is the occasional exception of a pun with no comfortable equivalent—for example, when one character jokes that he heard "inedible fur seal" instead of "an equitable fair deal," humor that simply fails to carry into English whatever its original intent was—but otherwise Warham's translation is as smooth and accessible as a novel originally written in English. This smoothness is nicely balanced by Warham's use of Japanese indicators—"san" instead of "Mr." or "Miss" in conversation, for example, or "Gah ha ha!" as a Japanese-style phoneticization of a robust laugh—which leave a Japanese flavor in the highly readable text.

That Satoshi Azuchi's now-beloved classic is available in English at all is thanks to the Japanese Literature Publishing Project (JLPP). Particularly in this era of slender profit margins, spiraling costs, and flatlining book cover prices, publishers find taking on an unknown foreign author and absorbing the cost of the translation all at once is daunting, or even impossible. To its great credit, the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs launched the JLPP initiative in 2002 to offset the potentially crippling translation costs so that foreign presses are more enthusiastic about taking on Japanese literature in translation. Supermarket was a well-chosen candidate for this initiative, since it is a novel that will be of certain entertainment to a fairly wide readership: anyone with retail experience as well as enthusiasts of Japanese literature and culture.

In 2009, we are asked every day to confront the role of the corporation in our individual lives, and are taught to see it as an antagonist, a source of unhappiness. In Supermarket, we see the situation flipped: the role of the individual in the life of a corporation, where the corporation is not a monster but a fledgling dream, struggling to survive. With its untiring attention to the tiny details of our professional lives, Supermarket offers its readers both a reminder that our jobs can be fulfilling and inspiring and hope that our personal efforts may contribute to something grander than ourselves. Supermarket puts the heart back in the concept of a company, and could not be published for an English readership at a more timely juncture.

Juliet Grames is an editor of fiction and nonfiction at The Overlook Press, an independent publishing company in New York.