Voices | FOREIGN AGENDA

Unpicking the mysteries of a Japanese convenience store at night

by William Lang

Contributing Writer

“Ping-pong, ping-pong! Ping-pong, ping-pong!”

The automatic doors slide open and you step onto the mat on the inside of the convenience store. A strong smell of freshly brewed coffee hits you from the counter where a woman is making herself a ¥100 cup. There is a zing and a buzz from the photocopier, where a student is copying some pages out of a textbook. A delivery worker is unloading boxes full of sweet buns and rice balls. Some people stand by the magazine rack, flipping through the manga. A woman is transferring her rent payment using the in-store ATM. Several customers wander around the food and drink aisles, choosing between the hundreds of brightly colored options.

Describing such a scene, it is easy to romanticize the Japanese convenience store, or konbini. In some ways it is like a little village, functioning as a bank, post office, coffee shop, supermarket, book store and general store — all in one little space.

Sayaka Murata’s 2016 novel, “Convenience Store Woman,” (published in English last year) has certainly done much to promote this view. It presents the Japanese convenience store as a character as much as a setting in the novel, and as a warm bubble enveloping the konbini worker. The regular rhythms of customers and deliveries, and the myriad of sounds and interactions provide stability and meaning in her life.

Following on from the novel’s translation into English, I read a travel guide to Japan that stressed how important it was for tourists to visit a Japanese convenience store, to enjoy the unique atmosphere and to use the convenience store to “serve as an introduction to local tastes.”

Like conveyor belt sushi, maid cafes and the Shibuya crossing, are convenience stores set to become the next cult draw for tourists to these shores? When I read that line about convenience stores being an introduction to local tastes, it made me recall an experience I had years ago in a konbini in Akashi in Kansai. I was a little hungry and walked into my local store, hoping to pick up a snack.

“Ping-pong, ping-pong! Ping-pong, ping-pong!”

It was a quiet time of night and I was the only customer. The self-service coffee counter was empty, as were the photocopier and the ATM. I walked up to the counter and saw that there were a few pieces of fried chicken sitting behind a glass pane, being kept warm by an electric heater. “Hmm … fried chicken would be great about now,” I thought.

I didn’t speak much Japanese at the time, so I got the attention of the young man working behind the counter and pointed at the fried chicken pieces. “Umm, About these …” I said [“Ano, korera wa?“], meaning to find out how much they cost.

The young man gave a nervous glance to the side and then looked back at me. He shook his head quickly as he looked meaningfully into my eyes and then again to the door at his side. It seemed clear that he was trying to give me a signal not to buy the fried chicken, without being heard by his boss who was in another room off to the side.

“What on Earth?” I thought. Were the chicken pieces out of date, but the boss had refused to throw them out? Had they fallen on the floor? Had the young staff member been promised that he could eat the chicken pieces for free if no one bought them in the next 10 minutes? I had no idea and couldn’t find out. But I decided I wasn’t so hungry after all.

I don’t object to foreign tourists putting convenience stores on their list of things to do in Japan. When I think of the Japanese and then the British stores, there is no comparison. You couldn’t possibly sustain the variety of services and snacks on offer in a Japanese store in the United Kingdom. Like a species of delicate orchid, they require a particular environment to thrive. This would seem to include a huge population density, a largely pedestrian urban culture, and a sufficient supply of workers willing to stay up all night and learn an incredible variety of tasks for minimal remuneration.

However, if you are going to romanticize the Japanese convenience store, then don’t allow the peak-time sounds and smells to be the only basis for forming an impression.

Anyone who has spent any significant amount of time in Japan must have seen the inside of a convenience store when it is like a little village. But what goes on at 4:30 a.m.? What happens to the fried chicken pieces when nobody is there but an 18-year-old staff member on minimum wage and his boss, lurking in the dark underbelly of the store?

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