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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Azuchi Satoshi

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To purchase Supermarket

Title: Supermarket
Author: Azuchi Satoshi
Genre: Novel
Written: 1981 (Eng. 2009)
Length: 329 pages
Original in: Japanese
Availability: Supermarket - US
Supermarket - UK
Supermarket - Canada
  • Originally published as 小説流通産業 and then re-titled 小説スーパーマーケット
  • Translated by Paul Warham

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Our Assessment:

B- : sincere but obvious business novel, of some cultural/sociological -- and little literary -- interest

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
San Francisco Chronicle . 18/2/2009 Ron Loewinsohn

  From the Reviews:
  • "In addition to having simplistic characters, the novel is unwittingly sexist and homophobic; women and gays turn out to be the cause of many of the wrongs that Kojima struggles to correct. In spite of these weaknesses, Supermarket gives readers a multilayered glimpse not just of corporate Japan but of a complex human organization. Even more important, it offers insights into the difficulty of perceiving the spiritual dimension of relationships." - Ron Loewinsohn, San Francisco Chronicle

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The central figure in Supermarket is Kôjima Ryôsuke, a young man with a promising career at a major bank who gives it up and takes up the challenge of working at his cousins' supermarket chain. He starts there in 1969 and, while most of the novel centers on his early struggles to help run the business, the story continues to the mid-1970s (when the fruits of his labor are evident).
       The Ishiei Stores supermarket chain is fairly small, but has been expanding for several years now. They seem to do good business in the clothing and sundries departments -- yes, 'supermarket' here means a very general store -- but lose money on their fresh produce and meat and fish (i.e. the grocery store basics). Kôjima is brought in by Ishikari Seijirô, the cousin he is closer to, but it is the older, Ishikari Eitarô, who is the (very hands-off) boss who actually owns the company. Seijirô would rather quit and open a calligraphy school, and while there's a competent man who has gotten things into what appears like shape, Ichimura, well ... "the best businessmen don't always make the best managers." So Kôjima is to join the company and be groomed to take over.
       The observant and meddling Kôjima immediately sees lots of what is wrong, and makes some suggestions. Employees are wary -- and Ichimura's supporters want to gang up against him -- but some of the changes prove very effective, from pricing to the display of food. This isn't very exciting, but it is modestly entertaining: typical workplace fiction with a focus on how to achieve success.
       There's also a much deeper-seated rot, however, though it takes Kôjima a while to figure that out. He has his suspicions, but it's difficult to find proof, especially in a business culture where questioning another man's actions is almost impossible to do without causing great offense, and bringing heaps of problems.
       Even when Kôjima and his supporters feel certain about what is going on, they're very slow to take action -- even when:

     "It's beyond reasonable doubt. We've always suspected something fishy was going on -- we just didn't know what it was. It's like Kitô said: No matter how much profit we make, not one store has really gained the support of its customers. It's because of the falseness of the company.
       Supermarket is fascinating for the glimpse of Japanese business 'ethics' it affords. Kôjima is almost undone within the company when a rumor spreads that he -- a married man, though his wife is almost entirely absent -- has been sleeping with a secretary (a rumor that is false). Meanwhile, an employee who rapes another employee is barely even disciplined (much less reported to the police). And two male employees are blackmailed into keeping silent about (and then participating in) a criminal conspiracy by the threat of exposure of their homosexual affair; when they commit suicide the entire thing is hushed up, and barely any heads roll.
       The major rip-off that has been going on at the store is finally revealed, but that brings out into the open in what dire straits the company actually is: rather than turning a decent profit, the company is deep in the red. Kôjima's solution ?
     "We need to keep the truth from the president. That buys us time to come up with a strategy for getting the company back on the rails within the next few years. In other words, for the next five years, we have to feed the president misleading reports of the company's performance while we work to get the figures back into the black. With any luck we should be able to bring the true figures in line with the reports within five years."
       Not exactly textbook operating procedure, but in a world where any corporate malfeasance is hushed up -- god forbid the customer should know, since it would reflect badly on the company -- this is apparently par for the Japanese course.
       Azuchi is worker-friendly, and emphasizes how Kôjima's success stems from how he is able to make everyone feel that they are part of a large family, working for a common goal. Those who steal from the company aren't fired, much less charged -- it would reflect badly on the company to involve the police -- but Kôjima goes to great lengths to prevent the families of the homosexuals finding out about their sexual orientation (since that, apparently, is too shameful for them to possibly bear). And Kôjima stands up to the boss at the end because of his concern for his co-workers, outraged -- "It was a crime. It made no sense." (unlike rape, embezzlement, and cooking the books, which are apparently okay ...) -- that they put so much work into the company (like that wasn't what they were being paid to do ...) and then have to face ... oh dear, a change of ownership:
Was it right that an owner should be free to sell out the people who had devoted five years of their lives to rebuilding the company ?
       Apparently not, in Kôjima's book (or rather Azuchi's -- whose own career is strikingly similar to Kôjima's).
       Meanwhile, Kôjima's family life barely rates a mention, his pregnant wife going off in a huff to live with her parents as soon as he accepts the new job (though apparently she does join him after a while). When his mother-in-law calls to let him know that he is now a father again he says he can't come visit:
     "I can't, I just can't right now. There are huge problems at work."
       But, touchingly:
     "November fifteenth," he said aloud. The least he could do was to try to remember his son's birthday.
       Don't count on him managing that .....
       Azuchi does try to give the characters some personal lives -- Kôjima is tempted, and at least one happy union takes place (complete with child by the end of the novel), and the gay couple set up a household and everything, but theirs was a fairly tortured happiness and Azuchi did feel obligated to push them off a cliff ..... No, for the most part this is a workplace and business novel.
       Too crowded with the many actors -- from department heads to directors --, far too much of Supermarket remains superficial, even as far as the business goes. Azuchi himself seems to get bored: after subjecting Kôjima to a barrage of baptisms-by-fires he eventually just jumps ahead five years to come up with his semi-happy end, insisting the reader take his word for it that implementing everything was all easy enough and leaving the actual hard work unseen.
       Beyond its revealing look at Japanese business ethics and standards, and an admittedly decent narrative style -- workmanlike, at best, but it plods on well enough -- there's not much to recommend about Supermarket.

       A mediocre novel about Japanese business, Supermarket is also rather dated. The American publisher's jacket copy claims this is: "a perennial bestseller and modern classic in Japan", but times -- and the Japanese economy -- have changed, and one wonders about its current reception and status.
       One also wonders about how the hell this novel was published in the United States in 2009, almost three decades after it was first published in Japan. One reason is that it was: "specially selected for the Japanese Literature Publishing Project (JLPP)" -- i.e. the translation was overseen by the JLPP, and support provided to the American publisher of the book (see also additional titles from the JLPP under review at the complete review). Two decades ago this might have been a reasonable selection (despite being set in the late 1960s and early 1970s), given the interest in the economic powerhouse that Japan was becoming, and in its business practices -- and, in fact, close to two decades ago, in 1991, the University of California Press did bring out a similar 'Tale of Corporate Japan' by Azuchi (writing under his real name, Arai Shinya), Shoshaman (see their publicity page, or get your copy at Amazon.com or Amazon.co.uk). Shoshaman doesn't seem to have had much resonance, and times have changed, even in Japan ... so why, eighteen years on, publish this ?
       Supermarket is a curiosity that is probably worth having available in English; one can never have enough examples of foreign novels, especially from a major market from which so little is translated. But why is the JLPP wasting valuable and limited resources on an outdated book ? Couldn't they support truly contemporary novels that describe how Japan is dealing with the economic crisis the country has been mired in for so many years now ? Wouldn't we all rather be reading those ? (Because I'm pretty sure pretty much no one is reading this.)

- M.A.Orthofer, 15 October 2009

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Supermarket: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Japanese author Azuchi Satoshi (安土敏; actually: Arai Shinya (荒井伸也)) was born in 1937. He is also a business executive.

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