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This genre means business

Supermarket A Novel; Satoshi Azuchi, translated from the Japanese by

February 15, 2009|Diana Wagman | Wagman, a Cal State Long Beach professor, is the author of the novels "Skin Deep," "Spontaneous" and "Bump."

The Japanese have a fiction genre called "business novels." Like American noir, which reflects our particular tradition of one man against all odds, independent and alone, the Japanese business novel is rooted in their background of amae, translated as "indulgent dependency." The business novel is about one's sacrifice of self for the good of the company, the ability to bow to industrial development. Insights and intrigue about a company's inner workings as well as the psychologies of businessmen and women make these very popular in Japan. There is usually a subplot of personal entanglements, but this is secondary to intricate descriptions of mergers, finances and plans to outwit the competition.

Few of these novels have been translated into English; "Supermarket" has just come to this country, although it was published in Japan in 1984, and it is an interesting introduction to the business novel for the uninitiated.

Supermarkets are an American concept. A super-sized grocery store embodies our easy, abundant lifestyle with bright lights, wide aisles, everything at our fingertips, all located in one place. They are familiar to the point of being comforting. The famous John Updike short story "A & P," written in 1961, uses the grocery store as both recognizable setting and an example of conservative, small-minded values that the main character, a checker, revolts against.

In "Supermarket," set in 1969, the supermarket is new to Japan. It is a fledgling business model, and the challenge is to make it indispensable to customers unaccustomed to shopping that way. Insurrection is the last thing on the mind of Kojima, the main character. He is desperate to make the store succeed and, in the novel's most fascinating twist, fabricates and "cooks" the books -- not to embezzle, but to keep company finances safe and growth moving upward.

Satoshi Azuchi knows his subject. He was an executive at the Summit chain of supermarkets and helped make that company a success. He is excellent at describing the intricacies of fresh produce, meat lockers and discount coupons. And he does a good job with Kojima, a complicated, sensitive man with troubles at home and a flirtation with a company secretary. The minor characters are distinct and their personal stories include a marriage -- after a trip to a love hotel -- and a double suicide. Still, business is what "Supermarket" is about, and business gets the most attention.

The Japanese businessman, unlike the macho hero of an American crime novel, easily apologizes and more easily cries, but not for personal reasons, only for mistakes he made in business. In one of the story's most telling lines, Kojima thinks, "It was easy to claim that nothing was more precious than a human life, but things weren't always so simple." He does nothing to stop a tragic death from happening, because it "would be disaster for the company if the police got involved at this stage."

What makes this novel most interesting for an American reader is its un-American point of view and its glimpse into the aisles of another world.

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