One of the few signs of things returning to normal in Tohoku is the reopening of convenience stores. In the six prefectures making up Tohoku, and in Ibaraki Prefecture, a third of the 3,700 stores closed after the quake-tsunami due to power, water and infrastructure failures.

Nearly all, however, have reopened, with “bento” meals being delivered once again to most stores twice or three times a day. Use them or not, convenience stores are a central pillar of Japanese life. For many people, the sight of empty shelves at convenience stores was distressing. If anything seemed reliable, it was the delivery schedules of convenience stores.

After the quake, convenience stores did their part by providing basic goods and services, but the seemingly efficient distribution networks quickly became paralyzed. The logistics centers for sorting and shipping were concentrated in too few locations with few or no alternative routes. Cut off from suppliers, and from electricity, convenience stores quickly became nothing more than metal shelves and warm refrigerators, both empty.

The lesson of the stores is not only about the frailty of distribution networks, but also about planning. It is not that the companies could have perfectly envisioned such extensive damage, but over the years, they became over-reliant on inflexible, centralized networks with out-of-date contingency plans. If that sounds familiar, it is.

Both the government and the nuclear industry stumbled for the same reasons in their responses to the crisis. The convenience stores, though, seem to be recovering more quickly. Unquestionably, the convenience stores were a great help to many after the quake and tsunami. They provided necessities until they ran out. They did their job.

Now, most stores are operating at reduced hours and stocking fewer items than their usual product lineups. What they provide is helpful, but is no substitution for more serious assistance. The future convenience offered by these stores may be uncertain if Tohoku has power shortages this summer.

The past business model relied on bright lights, perpetual refrigeration and abundant energy for everything from cash registers to ATMs to microwave ovens. That setup has never been energy-efficient, but like so much else in Japan, it will have to be very, very soon.

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