At 4 a.m., 69-year-old Tomohiko Otake puts just-delivered “bento” boxed lunches and “onigiri” rice balls on the shelves at the Omiya Takagi convenience store run by Lawson Inc. in the city of Saitama.

Otake, a part-timer, works from 10:30 p.m. to 7 a.m. three nights a week for 875 yen an hour. He applied for the job late last year after seeing a “help wanted” ad for someone 50 or older, thinking his experience in the restaurant business could prove useful.

He and his wife have enough to live on, but he decided to take the job because “it takes 50,000 yen for travel and souvenir expenses” when the couple visit their grandchildren in Fukushima Prefecture.

Going back to work meant Otake had to give up one of his favorite activities, swimming, to do a job that takes physical strength but also offers practical benefits.

Otake is part of a trend. Middle-aged and elderly customers are becoming an increasingly important market for convenience stores as the younger population shrinks.

Lawson plans make its workforce look more like its customer base, increasing the number of middle-aged and elderly part-timers to 20 percent of its total part-time staff of 150,000 within several years because it believes seniors will feel more comfortable shopping at its stores if more of the people working behind the counter are from their age group.

The retailer is paying keener attention to baby boomers, a wave of whom will begin retiring next year.

But despite awareness by many companies of the need to hire older workers, many lack experience employing them.

“Young shop managers don’t have experience supervising elderly people, and don’t know the appropriate language to speak to them,” said Masaru Okamura, a director at Tokyo-based Ten Allied Co., which operates Japanese-style pubs.

The company is trying to lure older staff with bonuses, but creating a workplace where they can put their abilities to use takes time.

Many companies are introducing an extended employment system for older workers to meet the requirements of a revised employment stabilization law for middle-aged and elderly workers. The law requires companies to provide jobs to people up to age 65.

But without special qualifications or skills, older workers can find it hard to land good jobs.

One labor expert expressed concern about possible conflicts between older workers and young “freeters,” who are just looking for short-term employment.

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