The unique culture of Japanese convenient stores
By Laura Studarus *
The true star of the Akutagawa Prize-winning novel Convenience Store Woman is the convenience store itself. But what is it that makes these shops so magical?
In her popular novel, Convenience Store Woman, Japanese author Sayaka Murata tells the story of Keiko Furukura, a worker at an unnamed convenience store who is struggling to find a place in a traditional society due to her status as an unmarried 36-year-old with a blue-collar job.
However, the true star of the unorthodox character’s story is her workplace, described as a tiny ecosystem, aimed not only at providing consumers nourishment, but also infusing their lives with new sources of joy, bbc.com reported.
“A convenience store is not merely a place where customers come to buy practical necessities,” said Furukura in the novel’s opening pages. “It has to be somewhere they can enjoy and take pleasure in discovering things they like.”
Although I read the Akutagawa Prize-winning novel before my trip to Japan, the description above struck me as overly romantic. However, as someone who has made the mistake of equating fast food with low quality, I was surprised to find that Japanese convenience stores, such as 7-Eleven, Family Mart and Lawson (the three companies that claim the lion’s share of the Japanese market), served as an introduction to local tastes, leading me to skip the basic crisps I’d usually grab at home in favor of sampling flavors like mayonnaise, ume (a fruit in the plum family) and soy sauce. I also found myself considering freshly made onigiri rice balls, grab-and-go udon noodles and traditional buns with flavors like pizza, sweet bean and pumpkin cream. It might not have been as utopic as Murata led me to believe, but even as a foreigner who needed help counting her change, the variety of the goods and the ease of finding a cheap lunch left a lasting impression.
Karen Gardiner, a Scottish writer now based in the United States, lived in Tokyo for two years, beginning in 2005. As a temporary expat, she shared the joy I found in the country’s convenience stores (or ‘konbini’ as they’re referred to in Japan). Any nearby store became a regular part of her routine.
“I’d only buy food from an American convenience store if I was really desperate – actually, I went into a 7-Eleven [in Baltimore, US] a few weeks ago when desperate and still didn’t buy anything,” she said. “They seem quite grim, like stuff has been sitting there for ages. I think someone visiting the US from Japan would be quite disappointed if they walked into a store here... I’d eat [in Japan] when I was out or on the way to or from work, or just needed a quick egg sandwich or onigiri.”
* The article by Laura Studarus, a freelance travel writer and photographer, was first published by BBC.