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.