In the US, 7-11 offers slush and sad chicken, but in Japan, convenience stores have just about anything you could want.
If you’ve ever been to Japan, chances are you’ve stopped at one of the country’s countless convenience stores. A far cry from its standard American counterparts selling lottery tickets and gasoline, these neatly curated and polished institutions are the last word in convenience.
Called konbini in Japanese (an understandable abbreviation of konbiniensusutoa), enter the smaller stores and you’ll be greeted with a lively tune, welcoming calls from staff, and an array of services, foods, and specialty products. The take-out meals offered are often seasonal, there are designer clothes in some, and in others you can even pay bills, buy concert tickets and pick up packages at the counter.
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As many as 50,000 convenience stores are scattered across Japan, and Tokyo is home to 7,000. There are so many of these stores in the capital that it can be difficult to walk for a few minutes without seeing one. Competition among convenience stores is fierce, and standards are so high that customers expect services like freshly brewed coffee, spotlessly clean surfaces, and a high level of service.
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One at each corner
The three cornerstones of Japanese convenience stores are 7-Eleven, Lawsons and FamilyMart. These big names are the market leaders, pushing trends and vying for profits, but there are also Ministop, Daily Yamazaki and Poplar, which are not as prolific but still popular.
Recently, these daily institutions drew international attention when foreign journalists in Tokyo to cover the Summer Olympics took to social media to share their wonder at the capital’s convenience stores. Unable to move freely around the city to experience Japanese cuisines, the konbini provided a special insight into Tokyo’s store-bought gastronomy.
Longtime fan Matt Savas became so fascinated with the stores that he and his friend Michael Markey decided to start Conbini Boys: a podcast dedicated to all things konbini in Japan. Both provide news on the “latest and greatest” in the world of Japanese convenience stores, including fried chicken tastings and reviews of new products. For Savas, Japanese convenience stores “couldn’t be more different” from their American counterparts.
“7-Eleven in the United States is a dumpster. Would you dare to eat a chicken wing from this hot box? The pizza is cardboard with melted cheese,” says Savas. “[In contrast], 7-Eleven Japan is beautiful. It is a shining beacon full of wonder. juicy boneless chiki [fried chicken]sparkling floors, fresh (and canned) coffee and plush restrooms.”
So while subpar hot food may be the norm in the United States, Japanese stores have spent the past 50 years refining their products to meet their discerning clientele. Like Gavin H. Whitelaw, sociocultural anthropologist at Harvard said recently The New York Timesthe konbini are an entity in their own right: “They have been indigenized, one might say, to such an extent that they bear no resemblance to their brothers elsewhere.”
Konbini is more than just a necessity. They are a destination and an experience that changes with the season. Meals, more gourmet desserts and mugicha (barley tea) are all catered to reflect the weather while offering accessories such as umbrellas and flip flops.
Even the in-store soundtrack tinkling over the speakers reflects the micro-seasons: summer is heralded by instrumentals muzak by the Beach Boys and “Under The Sea” by the Little Mermaidwhile fall means warm renditions of pop classics such as ABBA’s “Waterloo,” among others.
Pushing seasonal items by the minute is part of the fierce competition between different chains. Colorful banners hang in front of stores advertising the latest baked goods or fried chicken, often accompanied by the smiling faces of J-pop bands. One such recent taste bud trend is the maritozzo; sweeping Japan from a bakery in Fukuoka, it has since been taken over by 7-11, who have responded by selling their own fresh take on the cream-filled, orange-tinted Italian pastry.
Alongside this ever-changing sensitivity to trends, there are also the basics. Classic konbini dishes such as egg salad sandwich, onigiri (rice balls), and golden, crispy katsu (chops) in the hot box keeps customers coming back and proves that fast food doesn’t always have to be synonymous with poor quality.
“The state of America’s convenience store hot box is tragic. The food is inedible,” adds Savas. “The konbini has chiki, amazing corn dogs, great grilled chicken, and don’t even get us started on the Nikuman– these steamed buns filled with pork are outrageously good.
A community connection
As delicious as it may be, it’s not just about the food. The real convenience of a konbini is in its mind-boggling range of services. Generally open 24 hours a day, the standard range of services includes an ATM, photocopier and printer, postal services and even a fax service (yes: Japan is still heavily dependent on faxes).
Easy in-store payment systems allow customers to pick up tickets for things like movies, Disneyland and transportation. And for those who don’t have a Japanese debit or credit card for online shopping, there’s often the option to make payment at the counter in a konbini – just show a code and pay. Free Wi-Fi is also available for anyone who wants to use it.
While all of these services are convenient for most city dwellers, they are essential for those who live in small towns and villages. Konbini also represents a lifeline for people who might otherwise be cut off from services, especially Japan’s elderly population.
How deeply konbini have taken root in their communities is evidenced by FamilyMart’s naming as “Designated public institutionby the Japanese government. This means that its national network of stores is ready for use in the event of a disaster, providing emergency relief supplies, coordinating transport and carrying out recovery activities in disaster-affected areas – even the stores themselves will serve as emergency evacuation sites.
With an emphasis on convenience and high-quality service to the customer, Japanese convenience stores are on a whole other level than their American counterparts. Developed over decades, they have grown to be part of the culture of modern Japan.
As customers’ lifestyles change, the humble konbini responds. The coronavirus has seen the rise of contactless payments, self-checkouts and home delivery services, while concern over plastic packaging has prompted some chains to introduce more environmentally friendly alternatives in order to reduce waste.
Although there have been questions about the need to open all stores 24 hours a day, which has led to some places reducing their opening hours, it seems that konbini will continue to be a staple of the daily life in Japan. But nothing is perfect. The Conbini Boys have one change they would like to see in the future: “We hope they will serve rotisserie chicken one day. It would be an exceptional addition.