BBC – Travel – The unique culture of Japanese convenience stores

In her popular novel, Convenience Store Woman, Japanese author Sayaka Murata tells the story of Keiko Furukura, a worker at an unnamed convenience store who is struggling to find a place in a traditional society due to her status as an unmarried 36-year-old with a blue-collar job.

However, the true star of the unorthodox character’s story is her workplace, described as a tiny ecosystem, aimed not only at providing consumers nourishment, but also infusing their lives with new sources of joy.

“A convenience store is not merely a place where customers come to buy practical necessities,” said Furukura in the novel’s opening pages. “It has to be somewhere they can enjoy and take pleasure in discovering things they like.”

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Although I read the Akutagawa Prize-winning novel before my trip to Japan, the description above struck me as overly romantic. However, as someone who has made the mistake of equating fast food with low quality, I was surprised to find that Japanese convenience stores, such as 7-Eleven, Family Mart and Lawson (the three companies that claim the lion’s share of the Japanese market), served as an introduction to local tastes, leading me to skip the basic crisps I’d usually grab at home in favour of sampling flavours like mayonnaise, ume (a fruit in the plum family) and soy sauce.

I also found myself considering freshly made onigiri rice balls, grab-and-go udon noodles and traditional buns with flavours like pizza, sweet bean and pumpkin cream. It might not have been as utopic as Murata led me to believe, but even as a foreigner who needed help counting her change, the variety of the goods and the ease of finding a cheap lunch left a lasting impression.

It has to be somewhere people can enjoy and take pleasure in discovering things they like

Karen Gardiner, a Scottish writer now based in the United States, lived in Tokyo for two years, beginning in 2005. As a temporary expat, she shared the joy I found in the country’s convenience stores (or ‘konbini’ as they’re referred to in Japan). Any nearby store became a regular part of her routine.

“I’d only buy food from an American convenience store if I was really desperate – actually, I went into a 7-Eleven [in Baltimore] a few weeks ago when desperate and still didn’t buy anything,” she said. “They seem quite grim, like stuff has been sitting there for ages. I think someone visiting the US from Japan would be quite disappointed if they walked into a store here… I’d eat [in Japan] when I was out or on the way to or from work, or just needed a quick egg sandwich or onigiri.”

YouTuber and Twitch streamer Cory May, who recently moved back to Japan after 20 years away from his home country, recalled his first impressions of convenience stores in the US. “I remember how weird it was to see Slushee machines and nothing but greasy hot dogs rolling around under a heat lamp at a 7-Eleven in America,” he said. “It was so weird looking to me for some reason.”

Ginny Tapley Takemori, Convenience Store Woman’s translator, explored some of those cultural expectations while in the US for a promotional event. However, it wasn’t disappointment she remembers experiencing, but rather confusion.

“We were quite surprised that audiences seemed to think that food in Japanese convenience stores was healthy, since that is not the general perception in Japan,” she explained. “We asked our hosts in New York to show us some convenience stores there, and found the food on sale even more junkier than in Japan, so maybe that’s why!”

She continued, “I think the closest you have to convenience stores in the UK are the ones in petrol stations, which really don’t compare – they sell snacks and a few basic household essentials, but that’s about it.”

It is true that the consumer is given an unprecedented amount of choice in Japan’s fleet of convenience stores. In an attempt to appeal to locals, who often treat stores like a hub with multiple trips per week to pick up both food and household goods, new items are constantly introduced, marked with a big red sticker announcing its status as 新発売 (‘now on sale’).

The numbers are staggering: Ken Mochimaru, head of Lawson corporate communications, estimates his company’s 1,463 Tokyo-area stores each stock 3,500 different items, including baguettes stuffed with fried noodles, Pringles-branded instant noodles and pancakes pre-sweetened with maple syrup, with 100 new items introduced every month.

Some of the ever-rotating additions, such as multiple flavours of Kit-Kats (including matcha and the seasonal sakura sake), or thin icing-covered biscuits called Pocky, have gained international appreciation. (Gardiner mentions cream cheese-flavoured Balance Up cookies and sweets called Konnyaku Batake Jellies as two items she misses now that she’s moved away.) But while you can find global favourites like ice cream, biscuits and chocolate bars, much of the convenience store food is often more in line with traditional Japanese flavours. Pancakes filled with red bean paste – a mass-market version of dorayaki – are popular. Mochiko, a sweetened paste made from glutinous rice, finds its way into pastries and ice creams. And then there’s matcha. Biscuits, chocolate bars, cakes – each store contains an ocean of glucose in Japan’s de facto flavour of choice.

There’s also a sense of underlying practicality to each store. Yes, snacks and novelty items are a big part of their trade, but the goal of the konbini is to be a one-stop shop for all household needs. Mochimaru highlights the bento box – pre-made, ready-to-eat meals in a box – as one such example.

Before the rise of the 1970’s feminist movement in Japan, traditional family units meant more home-cooked meals. Now, with additional women entering the workforce, more people are opting for easy-to-eat options. While I eyed an udon noodle bento box marked with 中食 to indicate its status as a nakashoku, or take-away meal, Mochimaru explained I was really looking at a piece of social cause and effect.

The convenience store has emerged as an essential part of people’s daily lives

“The reason why Lawson focuses on nakashoku can be explained by the increase in the number of dual-income households,” he explained. “With both partners working, there is much less time for cooking, and bringing home bentos or ready-made dishes is a much more convenient solution. It helps to minimise the amount of time spent eating and to avoid doing the dishes.”

But more than food, Japan’s convenience stores have succeeded in becoming a required part of many people’s daily lives, because unlike many of their overseas counterparts, they also offer a host of additional services. During her time in Japan, Gardiner recalls buying concert tickets at her local shop, and even now on return visits to the city, will stop in to use the free wifi – something that Mochimaru confirmed is part of his store’s larger vision of becoming a one-stop shop.

“The ongoing diversification of customer needs through the years has made today’s convenience store much more than a convenient place to shop,” he said. “As a facility whose lights stay on 24 hours a day, and which serves as a reliable cornerstone of community infrastructure in emergencies and times of disaster, the convenience store has emerged as an essential part of people’s daily lives. The role it is expected to play has expanded to unprecedented significance.”

Through both selection and ubiquity, konbini seem to have gained cultural significance. And although Takemori, who now lives in a smaller village, no longer makes daily trips to her local shop, she still speaks warmly about convenience-store culture.

“I don’t think Sayaka Murata has romanticised anything about it [in her book], really, although she likes to say that she has taken elements from different stores she has worked in over the years and created her ideal store,” Takemori said. “It is instantly recognisable to anyone who has ever visited one, right from all the sounds [described] in the very first paragraph.”

She continued, “In my translation, I added in sound words (like the ‘tinkle’ of the door chime or the ‘beeps’ of the barcode scanner and so forth) that weren’t in the original to try and recreate this experience for readers who have never been in one. They are very clean, and the store workers are nearly always super attentive.”

A comforting promise, for any shopper.

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