Phan Hoang Tu Linh feels she has gotten the hang of working in a Japanese convenience store now, but she admits she found it tough at first.

“We have three cash registers in our store but only two lines to wait in,” says the 23-year-old Vietnamese national, who came to Japan to study at a Japanese-language school in Tokyo in July 2017 and started working part-time at a convenience store two months later.

“One of the customers went before another customer who was supposed to be first, but I didn’t see it because I was too busy,” Phan says. “The customer got really angry and started shouting at me that they were supposed to be first. I felt really bad after that. My co-workers all told me that there was no need for the customer to get so angry and that it wasn’t my fault. Sometimes people bring their stress from the workplace and take it out on us.”

Phan is one of an estimated 55,300 foreign nationals currently working at Japan’s four biggest convenience store chains: Seven-Eleven, Lawson, Family Mart and Mini Stop.

Nepalese store clerks Hom Bahadur Karki (left) and Bijay Syangbo pose for a photograph at the Lawson store where they work in Tokyo
Nepalese store clerks Hom Bahadur Karki (left) and Bijay Syangbo pose for a photograph at the Lawson store where they work in Tokyo’s Shinagawa Ward in November. | DAN SZPARA

As recently as five years ago, foreign-born clerks were something of a rarity, even in Tokyo. However, a shortage of Japanese workers and an increase in overseas students looking for part-time work has created a modern phenomenon that anyone who has shopped at one of Japan’s 55,000-plus convenience stores in recent years will likely have noticed with their own eyes.

“The number of overseas students in Japan has increased and almost all foreign store clerks are students, so that’s a big reason,” says Hiroyuki Chiba, a human resources manager at Lawson, Japan’s second-biggest convenience store chain, who says the number of foreign clerks at the company’s stores has increased by 130 percent over the past year.

“The other reason for the increase is that working at a convenience store is still a popular part-time job for exchange students,” he says. “They all come here to study Japanese, and if you work in a convenience store you get the chance to use Japanese regularly, which means you can improve quickly. The fact that you can learn Japanese and earn money at the same time makes it a popular job.”

Nepalese clerk Hom Bahadur Karki refills shelves at a Lawson store in Tokyo
Nepalese clerk Hom Bahadur Karki refills shelves at a Lawson store in Tokyo’s Shinagawa Ward in November. | DAN SZPARA

Japan had a total of 311,505 foreign nationals on student visas at the end of 2017, according to Justice Ministry figures. That marked a 12.3 percent increase from the previous year and a jump of around 100,000 from five years ago.

Student visas allow foreign nationals to study at language schools, universities, vocational colleges and technical colleges in Japan while also permitting them to work up to 28 hours a week. That limit is raised to 40 hours per week during school holidays, as long as the student does not work more than eight hours a day.

According to a 2015 survey conducted by the Japan Student Service Organization, around 75 percent of foreign exchange students in Japan had part-time jobs. These typically include working in restaurants, takeaway meal shops and factories, and, increasingly, convenience stores.

“I worked in a hotel when I first came to Japan, but it was tough so I quit and got a convenience store job instead,” says Bijay Syangbo, a vocational college student from Nepal who came to Japan in April 2016 and has been working at a Lawson store in Tokyo’s Shinagawa Ward for the past four months. “I had to carry a lot of heavy things — suitcases and things like that. I prefer working in a convenience store.

“You can apply the things you’ve learned at language school to working in a convenience store,” he says. “There are lots of different ways to say things in Japanese. The Japanese that I learn at school isn’t the same as the Japanese that people use in their daily lives. I’ve become able to understand a lot more. I don’t get much time to speak to the customers but I hear a lot. If you don’t learn how people speak in everyday life, you can’t understand Japanese.”

Convenience store companies operate a franchise system in which they supply goods, branding and training materials to the stores, which are owned and run by independent owners. Lawson’s roughly 14,000 stores nationwide are operated by around 6,000 different individuals and companies.

Hiring and training is the responsibility of store owners, and judging an applicant’s Japanese language ability is down to an owner’s discretion rather than any set qualification. As store clerks are required to deal with customers, stock shelves, take inventory, sell revenue stamps and process bill payments, among other tasks, insufficient language skills can cause problems.

“I don’t have any trouble now, but there were a lot of misunderstandings when I first started,” says 27-year-old Pham Thuy Linh, a Vietnamese national who arrived in Japan in October 2017 and started working at a convenience store two months later.

Pham Thuy Linh (left) and Phan Hoang Tu Linh, both from Vietnam, have part-time jobs in convenience stores in the capital.
Pham Thuy Linh (left) and Phan Hoang Tu Linh, both from Vietnam, have part-time jobs in convenience stores in the capital. | ANDREW MCKIRDY

“It was difficult at first,” she says. “I used to get scolded a lot by the customers. I would ask if they needed a carrier bag and they would reply ‘OK.’ I would think that meant they wanted one but, in actual fact, it meant they didn’t want one.”

About 5 percent of the 200,000 clerks who work in Lawson stores nationwide are foreign nationals, but in Tokyo the figure is close to 20 percent.

Human resources manager Chiba explains that customers tend to be more tolerant of non-Japanese workers in places with large overseas communities, and says potential employees will be held to higher language-proficiency standards outside of Tokyo.

However, stories of foreign convenience store clerks falling foul of customers even in the capital are not unusual. Tokyo-based author Kensuke Serizawa spent a year interviewing around 100 non-Japanese clerks to produce a book, “Konbini Gaikokujin” (“Convenience Store Foreigner”), which was published in May. The experience forced him to rethink even his own behavior.

Tokyo-based author Kensuke Serizawa spent a year interviewing around 100 non-Japanese clerks to produce a book titled
Tokyo-based author Kensuke Serizawa spent a year interviewing around 100 non-Japanese clerks to produce a book titled ‘Konbini Gaikokujin’ (‘Convenience Store Foreigner’). | SATOKO KAWASAKI

“One of the things they told me was that Japanese customers used discriminatory language toward them,” he says. “They would say things like ‘speak better Japanese,’ or ‘I don’t understand what you’re saying.’ From what I gathered, it’s not just a small number of Japanese customers saying things like that. … Japan talks about omotenashi (hospitality), but when I hear things like that it makes me think there’s no such thing.

“I watched the customers,” he says. “Most people in Tokyo will just pay for their things and take them and leave without saying thank you. I used to be the same. Until I wrote this book, I would never say anything. But now I know how it makes people feel so I always try to say thanks, whether the clerk is Japanese or from another country.”

Serizawa believes one reason for the recent rise in foreign-born convenience store workers is that Japanese people have little appetite for the nature of the work, given the low pay on offer. The hourly rate varies depending on the owner, experience, shift time and location, but new clerks in Tokyo cannot expect to make much more than the city’s current minimum wage of ¥985 per hour.

As student visas only allow a maximum 28 hours’ work per week, stretching resources to cover the cost of living can be a struggle.

“It would make things much easier for exchange students if we were allowed to work up to 35 or 40 hours a week,” says Bangladesh national Islam Mohammed Mazharul, who is studying computer graphics at a vocational college and first came to Japan in October 2014. “You can’t make enough money working 28 hours. You’ve got to study and you’ve got to live. The cost of living is expensive in Japan.”

The school holidays, with their extended 40-hours-a-week limit, offer students a greater chance to make money.

Serizawa believes that many have this at the forefront of their minds and come to Japan with the primary purpose of working, not studying.

Recent developments suggest the government has drawn the same conclusion.

In October, the Justice Ministry imposed new regulations requiring Japanese-language schools to be in session for at least 35 weeks a year, after one applicant proposed setting up a school that would be on holiday for half the year.

Statistics released by the Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau in November showed a sharp drop in the number of successful applicants for student visas from certain countries, suggesting authorities are clamping down on people from places perceived to be abusing the system to work.

The approval rate for applicants from Bangladesh fell from 58 percent for the April 2018 term to 3.4 percent for the October 2018 term, while the approval rate for applications from Myanmar fell from 73.5 percent to 19.6 percent and Uzbekistan from 69.1 percent to 4 percent over the same period. In contrast, applicants from China and South Korea maintained success ratings of more than 90 percent.

Nepalese clerk Bijay Syangbo
Nepalese clerk Bijay Syangbo | DAN SZPARA

For all that, Serizawa believes Japan cannot afford to take too tough a stance.

“If immigration was to crack down, I think a lot of these stores would cease to function,” says the author, whose research took him all around the country and also to Vietnam. “I think these foreign workers are so important that the economy would start to wobble without them.”

Convenience stores will have to keep relying on student labor.

On Saturday, the government passed legislation to create new “designated skills” visas and bring in more than 345,000 blue-collar workers over five years from April next year, in an attempt to ease the chronic labor shortage brought about by an aging population.

Fourteen industries, including the nursing care, restaurant and construction sectors, were selected to take on recipients of the new visas. The convenience store industry, however, was not among those included, despite lobbying by the Japan Franchise Association.

Regardless, Japan now finds itself on the cusp of a new era of immigration, where day-to-day contact with foreign nationals will become a greater reality for one of the developed world’s most homogenous countries.

“A lot of Japanese people don’t really want to interact with people from other countries,” Serizawa says. “Even today a lot of people still shy away from it. But I think over the past two, three, four or five years, a lot of Japanese people have gotten the chance to interact with foreign people for the first time through convenience stores.

“A lot of Japanese people still have the mentality that you have to look a certain way to be Japanese,” he continues. “It’s an old way of thinking, but I think it’s changing. I think having so many foreign people working in convenience stores here is helping to change it, little by little. On the other hand, you have places in Europe and America where you have xenophobia and the rise of right-wing extremism. When different types of people mix, you get friction. I think now is the time for every Japanese person to think about how they get on with people from overseas and what kind of country they want Japan to become. The world is watching what Japan does.”

Serizawa predicts that greater automation in convenience stores will reduce the overall need for clerks in the future, but for the time being, non-Japanese workers remain very much in demand.

Since 2016, Lawson has opened a total of four training centers in Vietnam and South Korea, teaching students basic Japanese and how to work a cash register. Human resources manager Chiba says the recent increase in tourists to Japan and the upcoming Tokyo Olympics in 2020 will make clerks who can speak multiple languages all the more valuable.

For Bangladesh national Mazharul, there is no other part-time job he would rather have.

“You can have fun with the other clerks and the customers when you work in a convenience store,” he says. “In a restaurant you’ve got customers drinking and raising their voices and getting angry with you. At a convenience store you’re mostly working with other students, both Japanese and foreign. I prefer that.”

Nepalese clerk Hom Bahadur Karki
Nepalese clerk Hom Bahadur Karki | DAN SZPARA

Speaking from behind the counter

Dang The Phong, Vietnamese, 25

“I’ve been in Japan since 2015. I was at a language school for two years and now I’m in my second year of vocational college. I’ve worked at a convenience store for about 20 months.

“Sometimes I work three days a week and sometimes four. Sometimes I get asked to work extra. ‘No one else can do it, so can you?’ This isn’t something that only happens to me.

“Japanese people don’t want to do this kind of work, so there isn’t enough staff. They get people from Vietnam or Nepal to do it. If we quit, we won’t have enough money to live, so we just have to put up with it. That’s not really how I look at it, but a lot of people do.

“I can have conversations with Japanese people at work, so my Japanese level improves. I work with the same people and do the same shifts, so it allows me to get into a habit. At my previous job I wasn’t always working at a set time. I used to live in Sendai and work in a restaurant. A convenience store is less busy.

“There’s not really so much that’s bad about this job. I experienced a lot of problems with my previous job in the restaurant. They would make the foreign workers do the things that the Japanese didn’t want to do, like washing the dishes or other things in the kitchen.

“The customers here are like my friends. They come in regularly and I speak to them. I enjoy it. Sometimes you get some strange people. You get people who work and build up stress and they don’t have a way to get rid of it, so they come to a convenience store and take it out on the clerk. They’ll just suddenly blow up and you won’t know why.

“Older people have an older way of talking, which is different from what you learn in books. You don’t understand what they’re saying.

“It’s difficult to work in a convenience store if your Japanese isn’t so good. It’s difficult for people who haven’t been here long. You can get away with not really understanding at times, but if it happens again and again, it’s difficult. I’ve been doing this for a while so I know what I’m doing. But for people who just got here, if someone suddenly says something to them, they might panic.

“I still don’t fully understand Japanese customs. I think if people showed a bit of kindness to convenience store clerks who don’t understand much Japanese, it would really help them along.”

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