Japan’s first convenience store was not, as many suppose, 7-Eleven in Tokyo in 1974 but Mitsui in Kyoto in 1673.
The genius behind it was Mitsui Hachirobei, heir to the sake shop his father had opened a generation earlier. Of samurai birth, the father saw warrior status as useless in the dawning age of peace. He renounced his and went commercial. He struggled, perhaps too much the warrior at heart to really make a go of it.
His son was another matter. Hachirobei was born to commerce. The cloth shop he opened proved the embryo of the Mitsui empire we know today. His boldest innovations (as Mark Weston explains in “Giants of Japan”) were two in number: a single-price system to replace traditional bargaining, and a willingness — in fact, determination — to meet everyone’s wants instead of merely the aristocracy’s. He sold cloth in bits and pieces for small needs (bags, pouches and the like), as opposed to uniquely in large bolts for kimonos. However plebeian the customer, whatever he or she wanted, he supplied. He considered service honorable, not degrading. For customers’ convenience he kept umbrellas on hand in case of rain. No need to thank him — just hold the umbrella high so everyone can see the Mitsui logo on it.
Convenience since then has been fruitful and multiplied, mutating from luxury to necessity. It’s a way of life. We expect it, demand it, shop elsewhere if it’s lacking. It has two aspects: You can buy anything anytime; and you can do anything anytime. Konbini, Japan’s ubiquitous convenience stores, symbolize the first; technology, the second.
It’s pervasive, it’s everywhere, it’s inescapable — which seems a strange way to describe so obviously good a thing, but even good things, in excess, can become cloying, stifling, addictive. The Asahi Shimbun over the past few months has been exploring that theme in an intermittent series of articles titled, “Is society too convenient?”
It is not, asserted 7-Eleven Japan President Kazuki Furuya in an interview the newspaper ran in May. There’s no such thing. His mission, to maximize convenience, is a never-ending one, and so much the better, because there’s always another convenience just around the corner. He and his staff track customer trends in order to stay one step ahead of them. Today’s wives and mothers work and have no time to slave over hot stoves. The modern lifestyle demands instant meals, preferably ones that don’t look or taste instant. Tastes change. Last week’s hit offerings are passe this week and must be replaced by something that will be passe next week. Mealtime, no longer fixed, can be anytime, a half- or quarter-hour snatched between this task and that amusement — hence, instant availability, 24/7/365. And in times of natural or man-made disaster, pray the local konbini doesn’t get wiped out, because often enough it’s what makes the difference between eating and not eating, feeling clean and feeling filthy, having light and being in the dark.
Indisputably true, and yet there are qualms. Part of the series consists of readers’ opinions, and a man in his 80s wrote in earlier this month to say that he’s glad there are no shops in his immediate vicinity. Far from resenting the long walk shopping requires, he appreciates it. It keeps him fit, he says. He wonders if too much convenience, far from serving the elderly, unwittingly undermines them, promoting their ill-health by requiring too little effort of them.
Technology is the other side of the convenience coin. “Too convenient”? Japan is inconvenient almost to the point of being deprived, wrote an irate reader in his 40s. Living abroad gives him a basis for comparison. In other countries, unlike Japan, the ATMs never close. In other countries, unlike Japan, you can deal with the government or City Hall exclusively online.
Still, even in Japan, you can do a lot digitally — so much that life today has very little in common with life 30 years ago, and most would say the change is for the better. Instant communication, instant shopping, instant information retrieval, instant friendships, instant love affairs, all at your fingers’ ends. Even with the odd gap here and there, the life-enriching possibilities are amazing. Carpers tend to be older people who failed to adapt and look sourly on novelty simply because it’s novel.
Or so some might say — not altogether truly. In August, the Asahi published a letter from an 18-year-old senior high school girl recalling (this is not part of the series we’ve been discussing) a recent visit to a coffee shop spoiled, she says, by a small child making a noisy nuisance of himself while his mother, apparently oblivious, stroked her smartphone. The girl looked up from her book and exchanged annoyed glances with an older lady at another table. The lady said, “Better not complain — she may write about you on the Net.” “In that remark,” writes the girl, “I seemed to feel how times have changed.”
Indeed they have changed, and will change more, and faster, change begetting change, so that anyone trying to imagine what life will be like, say, 200 years from now, or 500, courts vertigo. Shukan Gendai magazine stops at the year 2028, by which time, it predicts, convenience will have progressed to where “your boss is an AI smartphone.” Artificial intelligence, already upon us peripherally, may soon elbow us to the periphery. A study the magazine cites by Nomura Research predicts 49 percent of current jobs being taken over by AI. The jobless multitude will enjoy the ultimate convenience: leisure without end and without guilt — though what they’ll live on, and how they’ll spend their days, are problems yet to be solved.
No doubt AI can solve them. Shukan Gendai doesn’t look that far ahead, but pauses, as mentioned, in 2028, when “my boss,” that bane of every employee’s existence, will be pocket-size, all-wise and, above all, easy to get along with. No power harassment, no sexual harassment, no outrageous orders issued to feed his or her ego or mask his or her incompetence. “The only remaining task that will require a human executive,” the magazine observes wryly, “will be to bow and resign to take responsibility if something goes wrong.”
Still unclear is how people will feel about being answerable to a smartphone. Will we, conceding our fallibility, submit willingly to technology’s infallibility? Will we rebel, if only to assert our human dignity? It’s unknown territory. And it’s just ahead.
Michael Hoffman is the author of “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan” and “Other Worlds.”