Everyday goods: the Japanese art of convenience

by C.B. Liddell

Special To The Japan Times

Mingei” translates as “folk art” and is connected to objects that are made or used by ordinary people on an everyday basis. Usually this evokes hand-crafted objects, such as ceramics, baskets, items of woodwork, etc. As such, the term is evocative of the era before mass global trade. In modern Japan, with cheap imported items freely available, mingei goods production is slowly dying out, now being kept alive by enthusiasts and hobbyists rather than the common people. This raises the question of what the “folk art” of the future will be.

The free exhibition “Counter Culture: Japan’s Konbini and Elements of Mingei” at the International Christian University’s Hachiro Yuasa Memorial Museum has come up with a radical answer: the konbini, the ubiquitous convenience store and the items associated with it.

“Three hundred years from now, won’t the convenience store be our mingei?,” asks Gavin Whitelaw, assistant professor at the university’s sociocultural anthropology department, who conceived the show.

Admittedly, there is nothing handcrafted about convenience stores, unless you count the way your oden (hotpot) is thrown together, but convenience stores definitely have that everyday quality and close connection to “the people.”

Using a variety of objects from past and present-day convenience stores — including uniforms, character goods, packaging and various items of store equipment — the exhibition traces the development of this modern-day retail concept and contrasts it with Edo Period (1603-1867) retail culture, such as portable peddler’s chests, which also reveal the principle of compactness and efficiency that can be found in the convenience store.

One of Whitelaw’s chief interests is the different ways the two retail systems collected information. He contrasts the sociable and chatty approach of Edo Period peddlers with the more sophisticated and impersonal methods of collecting metadata by today’s convenience-store chains — these would even put America’s National Security Agency to shame.

A till from a store shows the “customer key,” which shop staff have to hit to operate the machine. That, it turns out, is actually 10 keys, which allows the gender and approximate age of each customer to be inputted along with other details of the transaction. Whitelaw explains that such precise data collection accounts for some of the oddities of Japanese convenience stores’ ever-evolving offerings.

“Thanks to the feedback, oden is now a year-round product,” he explains. “They can experiment with flavors, and they can micro-adjust the oden for summer, or for Kanto or Kansai.”

Although originally an American concept, the convenience store has continued to develop in Japan to the extent that some of the Japanese innovations, such as collapsible plastic crates (included in the exhibition), have been adapted in America in what Whitelaw describes as a wave of “reverse globalization.”

It may not be high art, but, after visiting this exhibition, your trips to the convenience store may never be the same again.

“Counter Culture: Japan’s Konbini and Elements of Mingei” at the International Christian University’s Hachiro Yuasa Memorial Museum runs till July 5; open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Free admission. Closed Sat. Sun. and Mon. subsite.icu.ac.jp/yuasa_museum/index_e.html

  • Karen Nakamura

    Looks fun! Can’t wait to go.