Open all hours
It's midnight - do you
know where your dinner is? In today's eat-on-the-run world, chances are your bento
is lurking in one of Japan's 50,000 konbini. Christine Booth
dishes out the reasons why.
Illustrations by Yukiko Leitch
It's 3am. You wake
up with an uncontrollable craving for a cold drink, chocolate, ice cream and a men's
eyebrow styling kit - so what do you do? Head for your nearest convenience store, of
We live in the most convenient city in the world - it's official. Tokyo has the planet's
highest density of 24-hour shops in the world, and a vending machine for every 27 people.
If you wanted a more constant supply of food and drink you would need an intravenous drip.
The first convenience store, or konbini, opened in Japan in 1974. In
25 years the number has grown to over 50,000 and it continues to increase at a rate of
over 1000 a year. The 7-Eleven chain is the largest and most successful. It is the
country's leading retailer of a variety of merchandise, including magazines, soft drinks,
instant ramen and sandwiches. Each branch stocks an average of 3000 products, of which up
to 70% will be changed every year to maintain customer interest. 7-Eleven introduced the
concept of point-of-sales retailing. The company receives product information immediately
when a sale is made, enabling a rapid response to consumer trends. Profits continue to
soar, despite the downturn in the economy. Last year 7-Eleven netted profits of over JY195
billion. As the country's work force puts in longer and longer hours in an attempt to
boost the struggling economy, so the demand for convenience food increases.
The convenience store business is fiercely competitive. Major chains spend huge amounts of
money on advertising and marketing and each company aims to be the first to introduce a
new service or product. But what really draws the customers? According to Noda Kenji, the
manager of a Tokyo convenience store, this summer it will be the range of drinks. "In
the hot weather, cold drinks are the biggest-selling product and it is important to stock
the most popular brands." At the moment, bottles of flavored water (of which there is
a vast selection) are top of the pops.
With so many convenience stores to choose from, it is no longer simply location which
determines where we shop. The majority of people live within easy access of more than one
24-hour shop. So do you have a preference? Is one tuna onigiri the same as
another? When people were asked about their favorite konbini, Tokyo opinion was divided.
7-Eleven was the overall winner, particularly for its range of ice creams and lunch boxes,
but Kuroda Manabu, a steel researcher, favors their biggest rival, Lawson. "When I
was a student I lived on convenience food. I conducted a survey on all the different lunch
boxes and Lawson's were definitely the best quality." Family Mart is popular for its
fresh fruit and vegetables, and because it stocks stationery and snacks from the trendy
Muji store. Italian student Andrea Beffani swears the spaghetti Bolognese at AmPm is the
best in Japan.
It is not only the products that influence our choice of shop, it is the people. Sally
James has boycotted her local Family Mart.
such a dirty old man working there. When he gives me my change he strokes it into my hand
and leers at me. It's revolting. He quite puts me off my ready meal." Yuga Masao, on
the other hand, can't keep away from a certain Circle K. "I've got a really bad crush
on a woman who works there. For the past six months I've been hanging around the shop, in
the hope she'll notice me. Of course I always have to buy something, and this is a real
problem. I try to impress her by buying sophisticated nibbles, and I make sure I only buy
one of everything so she knows I'm single. Sadly, she still doesn't know I exist, whereas
I am considerably poorer and six kilos heavier." Vic Love is more concerned with
covering her tracks when she is on a snack forage. "If I've already bought some
crisps or chocolate in one shop I am always too embarrassed to go back in again. I'm sure
the staff will notice how many snack items I've bought and compare them unfavorably with
the size of my arse. I tend to do a bit of a konbini crawl."
The darkest hours
There are over a million people working in convenience stores. The majority of employees
are students, working part-time. Part-time work in Japan, however, can mean working about
40 hours a week. Typically, students work nights or early mornings and then go straight to
college. Kubo Noriko is supporting herself through college by working the night shift in
her local convenience store. "When I first started working nights and studying during
the day I used to get so tired I would burst into tears for no reason and once I even
fainted at school. Now I've trained myself to survive on very little sleep and I have
become an expert at taking naps. Sometimes when the store is not busy I get the chance to
grab some sleep or catch up on some studying. Although I'm constantly tired, I often
perform better in exams than students who don't have to work. Being so busy means I really
have to organize my time. Some students have so much free time they get lazy." Wages
start at JY750 an hour, with a 50% increment for unsociable hours. "The money is
really bad," says Noriko, "But this is the only kind of work students can get in
Japan - if you want to keep your clothes on. One good thing is we're allowed to take home
any leftover meals, so I hardly ever have to buy food."
do staff pass those long, lonely hours on the night shift? Yabumoto Satoru works nights at
7-Eleven, and he admits it's really boring. "There are hardly any customers between
one and five in the morning, particularly during the week. Time really drags. When
nobody's around we read the magazines and make ourselves ice creams or fried chicken. And
of course we sleep if we can. The cameras record everything we do, but nobody can be
bothered to watch that much film." Sara Hirano recalls a certain employee at her
local Ministop. "A guy on the night shift decided to pass the time by bringing his
trumpet into work. He would start practicing about three o'clock in the morning and wake
the whole neighborhood up. He was a terrible player and we were nearly driven mad. We had
to complain to the manager."
Employees in Japan's service industries are expected to be unfailingly courteous. Behind
that obligatory chorus of irasshaimase and arigato gozaimashita, what do
the staff really think of their customers? "Some people are really rude,"
complains Noriko. "In the evening everyone is tired and they want to be served
quickly. Some of the older salarymen can be very unpleasant. I think they often take out
their work frustrations on us. They know they can be rude to us and we can't answer
Out of hours
24-hour shops also have to cope with the problem of drunk customers. "It can get a
bit rowdy on weekends," says Satoru. "But we don't often get serious trouble.
It's actually very funny. Customers try very hard to act sober when they come in - maybe
it's the bright lights. They put on serious faces and concentrate very hard on not
dropping anything or falling over. They don't realize how ridiculous they look."
Noda Kenji finds the younger customers a problem. "The school kids all hang around
the shop and use it as some kind of club. They read all the magazines but never buy any,
and they mess around outside. I guess there's nowhere else they can meet around here, but
they're bad for business." Satoru describes his strangest customer. "At 2:15am
every night a woman comes into the shop. She always wears a thick coat and hat, even in
summer. She buys exactly the same thing every time - a pork bento and a complete
set of new underwear. She has been coming in every day for about two years. Don't you
think that's a bit weird?"
more weirdness afoot in the convenience store. The contents of the oden pot is
the stuff nightmares are made of. Rumor has it that a boiled octopus tentacle from Shibuya
is starring in the new Star Wars film. Oden is very popular with construction
workers on cold winter mornings, but both customers and employees agreed it is to be
avoided at all costs. "One of my jobs was to clean out the oden pot," says
Satoru. "I found some really nasty things swimming around in that brown soup."
Suzi Delowe, a student, thought she should experience it at least once. "I had a
really bad upset stomach afterwards," she said.
Not everyone in Japan appreciates the convenience of 24-hour stores. The shops operate a
"just-in-time" delivery service to ensure the freshest goods possible.
Convenience stores have no space for storing stock, so they rely on trucks arriving
several times a day. A new shop recently opened in Shiseki Yuka's street. "There are
noisy, dirty delivery trucks arriving until really late at night. This area used to be
very quiet. The store also attracts gangs of youths who ride up and down the road on
motorbikes. They are a real nuisance. I've had to call the police on several
Other problems are the amount of waste generated by over-packaged goods and the poor
nutritional value of the food. The main customers are young people, who buy snack foods
with high fat, sugar and salt contents. This has contributed to the dramatic increase in
obesity among young Japanese. Furthermore, many traditional family-run shops have been
forced out of business by convenience stores. Kuroda Manabu cites another drawback.
"Before convenience stores opened, employees would have to go home at a reasonable
time so they could have an evening meal. Nowadays, my boss knows I can get something from
a konbini, so I am forced to stay later at the office."
Like it or not, convenience stores are now an integral part of modern Japan, and their
consistently high profits mean they are here to stay. Their only serious rivals are
supermarkets, who are increasingly having to stay open late to compete. Chain convenience
stores however have the advantage of having a far greater number of outlets in residential
areas, which is what counts in the late-night shopping business. In the future, companies
aim to extend their range of products and services even further. Retailers are entering
into joint ventures with IBM to provide a computer network capable of handling many new
transactions. We will soon be able to use ATMs, download computer games and book tickets
for travel and entertainment in every store. With all this new technology, let's hope
there is still some space on the shelves for chocolate and lager.