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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.

7 eleven roof

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 course.

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.

a girl and a catThe 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.

Easy streets
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.

dog"There's 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."

moonSo how 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 back."

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?"

sheThere is 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 occasions."

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.

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