When Japan imports a concept, they really pick up that 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, 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. If you’re out in the sticks, you’ll probably still find a konbini on any main road. These chains are all household names here, but the big daddy of Japanese convenience stores, with over 19,000 locations, is 7-Eleven.
Growing up in the U.S., with a 7-Eleven always somewhere nearby, I 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, a majority of that company’s shares are in turn owned by Seven-Eleven Japan Co., Inc., based right in the heart of Tokyo, which was no small surprise to me. 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 Japanese post office (which is also a bank and an insurance company), and good old 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 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. For me, having been familiar with only the U.S. 7-Elevens, that’s a funny image.
You may also have noticed that Lawson doesn’t sound like a very Japanese name, either. That’s because this very large chain of nearly 13,000 Japanese konbini actually grew out of Lawson’s Milk Company of Ohio, which was purchased by Daiei, the Japanese supermarket company, in the 1970s.
So you can see that, when a foreign idea starts to catch on in Japan, they get 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, the emphasis is on convenience.
A Japanese konbini has pretty much the same stuff as an American convenience store, in the broad strokes. 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 at the konbini, or buy concert or sumo tournament tickets from a vending machine there. There is often 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 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 perfectly legitimate and not at all suspicious reason. 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 or stockings, panties, and whatever essentials you need to make it through what will surely be a long day. And you can pay for your purchases with the train pass everyone in Japan carries, if you don’t feel like dipping into your cash.
As usual in Japan, the service is impeccable. The clerks are invariably polite and friendly. 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. 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 just come in to use the bathroom, although it’s polite to make some small purchase on your way out.
In keeping with this spirit, the freshly made food is better, on average, than I’ve found in American convenience stores. The salads, sandwiches, noodle dishes, fried chicken, croquettes, French fries, oden (one-pot winter soup) — all of it is of decent quality, and not left to sit around around all day getting greasy and disgusting. My colleagues and I frequently go down to the nearest konbini and pick up a bento for lunch, which is not something I would ever do back home. You can buy single beers and single servings of sake 24 hours a day, with no shut-down on the alcohol sales at 2:00 am. And sometimes there is 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 come home from, 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 nice, because it’s easy to pick up a beer for the walk home if I suddenly feel like it. It’s not a worry, since there’s no hang-up about sipping it in public. In fact, not to encourage any misbehavior or anything, but this same lax attitude extends to the ID check as well. The 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. I’m sure you’re thinking, “Surely such a system could never be abused,” 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 years old.
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.