Of Place and Wind 8: The delicious convenience store

Tetsuya Kaida assesses the unique characteristics of Japanese convenience stores which are also known as ‘konbini’.

While we’re on the topic of food, I might as well say a few things about convenience stores, the places where you can always get something quick and simple to eat. In Japan, convenience stores are known as ‘konbini’. This is just one of the large number of strange English-like words in the Japanese language. We call personal computers ‘pasokon’, air conditioners ‘eakon’, cinema complexes ‘shinekon’, mother complexes ‘mazakon’, etc. For some reason there is a lot of kon-kon in all of them. But I guess I’ll leave the topic of language for a later discussion.

The things I usually buy from the convenience store include onigiri rice balls, inarizushi, which is sushi stuffed in pouches of fried tofu, 100 percent fruit juice, health tea, Haagen Dazs ice cream, xylitol chewing gum, Frisk mints, Jagariko potato sticks and some of my other favorite snacks.

One does not go to a konbini for real food, but for intermediary, bonus flavors at the periphery of the food repertoire, which can be conveniently purchased here. Moreover, the risk that you may not find what you are looking for is close to zero. At least it has never happened to me. By its very existence, the convenience store guarantees that, once the crave hits, you can always please your palate within ten minutes.

The reasons for that are plentiful and might include
- The close and fierce competition among franchisers;
- The fact that the fate of a convenience store is ultimately decided by the population dynamics of the particular area, street or train station where it is located, as well as by the interplay with other shops in the neighborhood;
- An effective combination of real-time, point-of-sale product management and a shelf replenishment system of three to four deliveries a day, based on the analysis of factors such as season, month, day of the week, time of the day and weather, and of their impact on sales;
- The shop design, which is constantly renewed to improve visibility and facilitate the selection and transportation of products;
- Merchandise variety, ranging from food to medicine, cosmetics and other daily necessities, plus corners for test-marketing new products and auxiliary services including bank ATMs, delivery services, utility bill payment and reservations and sales of all kinds of tickets;
- A twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week schedule;
- Ease of access from the street and availability of abundant parking space;
- Popularity of convenience stores as landmarks and meeting places.

Since the first Seven Eleven opened in Japan about thirty-five years ago, convenience stores have developed into a new retail business category, successfully inserting themselves into the everyday lives of the Japanese in ways no other shop could. Allegedly, there are about 50,000 of them in Japan at the moment. Japanese convenience stores are also opening outlets around the world, achieving recognition for their ‘just right’ degree of cleanliness and completeness.

In this sense, konbini are a mirror of the Japanese spirit, with its sense of time, pursuit of convenience, level of self-indulgence, fondness of novelty and, at the same time, its realistic expectations.

While the parallel may seem a bit extreme, there is a certain similarity between the convenience store and the room where the tea ceremony is performed – the ‘tea room’ –, which aspires to symbolically represent the universe within its narrow boundaries. The trend for retail stores around the world is to get larger and concentrate in shopping malls, or to shift to mail order systems and electronic networks. In contrast, a facet of the daily lives of contemporary Japanese people is condensed into the about 100m2 of the convenience store. And the fact that it doesn’t even occur to anyone that these stores might be a little too cramped is another aspect that adds to their Japaneseness.

I also feel that convenience stores serve to establish minimum standards and conventions for human interaction, particularly for junior and senior high school students. Although at an age when rebellion against parents and teachers is the norm, there is a certain good vibe about the groups of kids hanging out in front of the convenience store on their way back from cram school. All of a sudden, they would get serious about separating garbage. “Hey, that’s burnable!”. “No way, how can you burn this?”. They are quick to criticize behavior that might disturb others. “You’re in the way if you stand there”. Or otherwise they might tease a slim, good-looking friend: “Hey, if you keep eating like that, you’ll get metabolic syndrome”.

Not so long ago, it was common to see teenagers slurping their cup noodles in the parking area of the convenience store and then leave the cup behind, half full of soup. However, such attitudes are becoming increasingly rare and a sort of ‘konbini etiquette’ has started to develop. It might be just my imagination, but I think that this change is not an effect of adult influence, having instead occurred naturally as a new generation is replacing the previous one.

As new places and systems emerge, the generations they target embrace them wholeheartedly, exploring their possibilities to the fullest. But then, in a way similar to the oscillation of a pendulum, this sudden surge in interest is followed by the reverse reaction of the next generation. Finally, as time passes and several generations engage in experimentation and selection, balance is achieved in a full-fledged product or use pattern.

Why write so much about convenience stores? Well, because this is another glimpse they offer into the Japanese society, where various equilibrium forces seem to be naturally at work, independent of the awareness of those involved.

Examples of the ‘equilibrium habits’ of the Japanese might include the following:
- On an escalator, you are expected to stand on the same side as the people in front.
- In fast food restaurants, orders are made on a first-come-first-served basis, in a casual but disciplined manner.
- In self service food courts, you clear your tray and garbage from the table and return the chair to its original position when you leave.
- Newspapers and blankets should be picked up from the floor before getting off an airplane.
- On planes or bullet trains, you should refrain from kicking the seat in front of you.
- You tidy up your room before you check out of a hotel.

A certain ‘aesthetic of departure’ must have been passed down among the Japanese. Although not entirely related, I would like to mention in this connection a phrase that has been haunting me for a while: ‘reverberations that make you want to return’.

I guess that at this point I’ll just go to the konbini to get my Cookies and Cream Haagen Dazs. If I happen to run into those teenagers, I will thank them with a smile in my heart.

By Tetsuya Kaida

(This article originally written and published in 2010.)