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Konbini: the life-changing Japanese magic of convenience stores
Those placid, inviting shelves are a battleground in disguise.
Eagle-eyed readers may have noticed I ran not one but two essays last week. Henceforth I’m aiming to continue this heroic pace, while setting one of the two weekly posts to paid-subscriber only. I don’t want to put the whammy on myself (or you) by over-promising, but also I’m working on some new sorts of content better suited for the wilds Beyond the Paywall. Stay tuned — and please consider becoming a paid subscriber if you don’t want to miss out.
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On to the main event. I went on the Japan Eats podcast last week (Spotify, Apple). Please give it a listen! This was exciting to me for several reasons, not least of which because, hey, I’m someone who eats. But mainly because I wanted to talk about something that few visitors to Japan, or even residents, seem to notice. Rightly or wrongly (and I’d argue wrongly, but that’s a discussion for another time), Japan is often portrayed as nation of people who are deeply averse to conflict. Yet one unfolds in plain sight, right under our noses: the battle for mindshare on the shelves of konbini (convenience stores) and their upscale cousins the depachika (department store basement shopping arcades.)
Konbini are such a ubiquitous presence in Japan’s urban landscapes that I will admit to not having really paid attention to this angle until several years back. They seem like such placid and inviting places. The epiphany came when Hiroko and I were observing a conflict of a more literal sort, in an Eighties movie whose opening scene was set inside an American supermarket. “You know,” she murmured, as a shotgun blast sent Sylvester Stallone careening through a mountain of Rice-a-Roni boxes, “everything in there looks just like it does today.” And she was right! Sure, Sly’s blue-tinted aviator shades and oh-so-carefully cultivated stubble marked the era, but the supermarket itself — the layout, the packages and their brands, all of it from far-flung 1986 looked virtually identical to what you’d see in an average American grocery or convenience store in 2023.
Hiroko still may not have completely forgiven me for spending a “movie night” on Stallone’s Cobra, but I remain indebted to the film for highlighting this critical difference between American and Japanese markets. And it is particularly acute when it comes to convenience stores.
America invented the convenience store. I spent quite a bit of my childhood in the local one in suburban Maryland, bathing in the redolent aroma of overcooked hot-dogs and stale cigarette smoke under flickering fluorescents, alternating bites of processed meat stick and gulps of slushie while pumping quarters into Final Fight. (An iconic scene of which, in a truly meta twist, actually took place outside of a convenience store.) Yet despite these fond childhood memories, or perhaps because of them, as an adult I found myself actively avoiding setting foot into convenience stores unless absolutely, desperately necessary. Convenience stores feel like stops of last resort, where, as Kevin Smith’s Clerks would have it, "just because they serve you doesn't mean they like you,” or as in the Cohen Brothers’ Raising Arizona would, gunfights erupt over pilfered diapers. Or David Lynch’s Twin Peaks, where malevolent supernatural entities plot their intrigues.
Pretty grim stuff compared to Japan, where romance blooms at the konbini! Titans like 7-11, Lawson’s, or Family Mart are more than stores; they’re oases, even inspirations for widely-hailed works of literary fiction. Warm in winter and crisply air-conditioned in summer, obsessively cleaned, and always there right when you need them. And the foods are great! Sushi that doesn’t terrify? An egg salad sandwich good enough to impress Bourdain? Check. Washed down with cucumber Pepsi? Sure, why not. You could spend an entire online career devoted to cataloging the latest and greatest additions to the lineups (hello, conbini boys!) By one count, over a hundred new items are introduced every month. But those shelves represent precious real-estate. Sales are tracked in realtime, and woe betide any product that fails to meet expectations (goodbye, spaghetti-flavored popsicles, a bold experiment that plunged “Gari-Gari-kun” maker Akagi three hundred million in the red in 2014.)
I don’t mean to sound like a one-man cheering squad for konbini. There’s a dark side, too. Many, actually. Profits are brutally slim. Owners are forced to comply with arduous directives from parent companies, exempt from labor laws designed to protect workers, and forbidden from collectively bargaining for better treatment. For many employees, harassment from obnoxious customers is a problem. In part because of this there aren’t enough applicants to fill the jobs, leading to the development of tele-operated robots that could replace the human presence altogether. (First AI came for our kimonos, now it’s coming for our konbini…)
The bottom line — I promise, I’m getting to one — is that ferocious competition lurks within those seemingly serene interiors (which, by the way, are actually cunningly designed to funnel customers into various sections of the stores like human pachinko balls.) And that competition is what makes Japan’s convenience stores such dynamic spaces, offering a mixture of familiar comforts and regular surprises. That’s a difficult sweet spot to hit. The American market’s a competitive place too, of course, but I don’t think “surprise” is the adjective most associate with the convenience store experience there, unless we’re talking about a robbery or a case of salmonella.
I’m often asked what the next big trend I see making the leap from Japan to America is. I’d like to think Japanese -style konbini might have a chance. Especially because, and this might surprise you, the American 7-11 chain is entirely owned by the Japanese, and has been since 2005. Pioneered in America, improved in Japan, and exported back to us again: it’s the story of transistor radios, comic books, video games, jeans, and so much more of the stuff we take for granted in our modern lives. Who knows — maybe konbini will be next. Just hold the spaghetti-flavored ice cream.