When Japan imports a concept, they really pick up the ball and run with it. As Exhibit A, I submit the humble Japanese convenience store, or konbini (コンビニ). Japan is home to a number of convenience store chains, such as Lawson, Family Mart, Circle K Sunkus, AM/PM, MiniStop, and more. In an urban area, you’re likely to find at least one of these, and often more, pretty much anywhere you go. Even if you’re out in the sticks you’ll probably still find a konbini on any main road. The major chains are all household names here, but the big daddy of Japanese convenience stores, with over 19,000 locations, is 7-Eleven.
I grew up in the U.S., with a 7-Eleven usually somewhere nearby, so I had always just assumed it was an American company. And it’s true that 7-Eleven’s headquarters is in Irving, Texas, a suburb of Dallas. However, as I learned after moving here, a majority of the American company’s shares are, in turn, owned by Seven-Eleven Japan Co., Inc., which is based right in the heart of Tokyo. This was no small surprise to me. In fact, for an additional layer of corporate goofery, Seven-Eleven Japan is itself owned by Seven & i Holdings Co., which is listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange. The point being that 7-Eleven is ultimately a Japanese company, and has been since November 2005.
It’s interesting to note that Seven & i Holdings does a little more than just run convenience stores. In Japan, 7-Eleven is also a full-on bank. In fact, foreign visitors to Japan are often annoyed to discover that they usually cannot use their ATM cards at Japanese machines, like you can in so many other countries. The two exceptions to this rule are the ATMs at the Japanese post office (which is also a bank), and good ol’ 7-Eleven.
But wait, there’s more. Ito-Yokado is a Japanese department store chain, dating back (under various names) to 1920. And guess who formed Seven-Eleven Japan in the first place, back in the 1970s? Did you guess Ito-Yokado? If you did, you’re right. So what, you ask? Well, so this. All this who-owns-what business means that you can find multistory retail complexes comprising restaurants, clothing shops and multilevel parking structures, with big ol’ 7-Eleven signs hanging out front. If you’re like me and you’re only familiar with the 7-Elevens we have in the U.S., that’s a funny image.
You may also have noticed that Lawson, mentioned above, doesn’t sound like a very Japanese name either. That’s because this large chain of nearly 13,000 Japanese konbini actually grew out of Lawson’s Milk Company of Ohio, which was purchased by Japanese supermarket company Daiei, also in the 1970s.
So you can see that, when a foreign idea starts to catch on in Japan, Japan gets into it 100%. But while it’s fun to explore the many corporate tentacles of 7-Eleven or Lawson’s midwestern roots, the actual storefronts of the various brands of konbini are pretty similar. It doesn’t really matter too much if it’s an AM/PM or a Family Mart or whatever. Once you are inside a convenience store, the emphasis, as the name suggests, is on convenience.
In broad strokes, a Japanese konbini has pretty much the same stuff as an American one. Snacks, sodas, beer, wine, cigarettes, ATM. Everything you need to maintain your healthy lifestyle. But you’ve also got other essential goods and services that add to the air of omotenashi (お持て成し or おもてなし, hospitality), which is a very important concept to the Japanese people.
For example, you can pay your home utility bill or property taxes at the konbini. You can buy concert or sumo tournament tickets from a vending machine there. Often there is free wi-fi. You can buy pre-paid cell phone cards and postage stamps, make copies, print photos and send faxes. You can arrange for same-day shipping of items through one of Japan’s door-to-door delivery services, which can be very convenient if, say, you are traveling and would like to send your luggage to the airport ahead of you. You can even have mail sent to the konbini for you to pick up, if you need that for some not-at-all-suspicious reason. Or, if you’re heading to work after an all-night party or making the “walk of shame,” you can pick up a shirt, necktie, belt, socks, stockings, panties, and whatever other essentials you need to make it through what is sure to be a long, long day. And if you don’t feel like dipping into your cash, you can pay for these purchases with the train pass every man, woman and child in Japan carries.
As always in Japan, the service at the konbini is impeccable. The clerks are invariably polite and deferential. They’ll offer to put your hot and cold items in separate bags, and cheerfully give you directions if you’re lost. They’ll open another register, if available, even if there’s only one person waiting in the check-out line. And I’ve never seen them bum-rush anyone out of the store for standing around reading the manga without buying anything. (I’ve also never seen anyone thumbing through the ample selection of porno mags, though.) Oh, and nobody gives you the stinkeye if you come in just to use the restroom, although it’s polite to make some small purchase on your way out.
In keeping with the spirit of omotenashi, the freshly made food is better, in general, than I’ve ever found in an American convenience store. The salads, sandwiches, noodle dishes, fried chicken, croquettes, French fries, oden (one-pot winter soup) — all of it is of pretty decent quality, and it’s not left to sit around around all day getting greasy and disgusting. My colleagues and I frequently go down to the local konbini and pick up bento for lunch, which is not something I would ever do back home. You can also buy single beers and single servings of sake, and you can do that 24 hours a day, with no shut-down on the alcohol sales at 2:00 am. Sometimes there’s even a small seating area where you can read or eat or just rest.
I love my little family of neighborhood konbini. Depending on which train station I decide to use, I can walk past five or six convenience stores on my way home from work. In fact, I can probably keep at least one in my line of sight all the way from the JR station to my house, now that I think about it. This is handy, because it’s nice to be able to pick up a beer for the walk home if I suddenly feel like it.
And this is not a worry, since there’s no hang-up about sipping a beer in public. In fact, not to encourage any misbehavior or anything, but the same permissive attitude extends to the ID check as well. Standard procedure for this part of the process is to have a button appear on a screen at the register, which you touch if you’re of legal age (here, 20 years old). Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “Surely such an airtight system could never be misused.” But a friend of mine had his four-year-old daughter buy his beer once, and not an eye was batted when she pressed the button to confirm that she was actually, in fact, over 20.
Just don’t expect to be able to buy gasoline at the convenience store. That’s not a thing here yet.
And now, just for fun, here are a couple of photos I took in Akihabara, Tokyo’s electronics and video game nerve center. Right outside the subway station are two 7-Elevens, about 100 feet apart.