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True Stories of Life in Japan, pt 4: Combini and Vending Machines

Japan has been crowded for as long as anyone can remember. Even in prehistoric times, when the very first boatload of proto-japanese people landed and set up a settlement, they built their town in an area the size of a basketball court and reserved the rest of the land for a mixture of golf courses and nature preserves. It is the nature of Japan to have very high land prices, which leads to the development of very small homes.

This has had all sorts of effects on Japanese culture, one of which is the fact that the woman of the family is expected to go shopping for food every day to prepare that day’s meal. This eliminates the need for a pantry or for a refrigerator larger than the one an average American might keep in their college dorm room. Though this means that food thus prepared is often wonderfully fresh, particularly as freshness of product becomes an evolutionary pressure in the stores themselves, it didn’t work well for me. It’s not just that I can make from scratch exactly one of each of the major meals (I can make omelettes, deli-style sandwiches, and steak tips with vegetables); my habit has always been to head over to a megastore and stock up on staples once a month. Thusly provisioned, I can spend my time doing things more important than worrying about what I eat.

Luckily for me, I could pretty much do away with the problem of cooking by going to the convenience store and buying a bento. Convenience stores in Japan are wonderful: they’re open 24/7, and they cram every imaginable service into a store the size of a US master bedroom. The fact that they’re open 24 hours is very odd for Japan, as no other type of business stays open then. Even the ATM machines shut down for nights and weekends. Add in the fact that they really are convenient, and combinis become almost magical. Want a hot, fresh meal? That runs about 4 dollars. Pay your bills? Ship a package? They can do that there. You can rent videos there, or stand by the magazine rack and just read. As winter approaches, they carry necessities like knit gloves and hats. If a sunny day suddenly turns to rain, the combini all suddenly have racks of umbrellas for sale. I have no idea how they achieve this level of efficiency, but it beats anything I’d ever seen in the US.

I probably ate more than three quarters of my meals directly from the convenience stores in my area. I had about an average concentration of them around me, meaning that one was 150 meters away from my front door, and there were two others available if I was willing to go as far as 500m. As common as they are, though, Japanese convenience stores don’t even approach vending machines in terms of ubiquity. If there is not a vending machine on every street corner, it is only because of the high local density of streets. There were three immediately adjacent to my house, and dozens in easy walking distance. You can buy anything from Japanese vending machines. Hot-coffee and cold soda machines are the most common ones, but there I saw vending machines which dispensed soup, beer, cigarettes, snacks, batteries, film–if a person were stranded in Japan and prohibited from ever entering a store of any sort, they could probably survive just fine on items from vending machines.

As nice as it was to live that way, I don’t think that I’ll have that kind of lifestyle again unless I return to Japan. I just don’t think that a Japanese-style convenience store and a Walmart can coexist in the same market; one or the other will inevitably be driven under. Does a society look more to price, or to value? Do people prefer that a store stock what’s necessary, updated rapidly, or do they want it to carry everything all the time? Are the employees paid minimum wage, or are they paid enough to be nice? These are all decisions made at a societal level, and I’m not positive it’s possible to make the choices which lead to Japanese style convenience stores without implying a whole lot of other choices which lead to, say, cooperation being a major graded subject in school.

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Comment by silversliver
2007-12-19 00:00:42

I miss the konbini so much! Even 7-11 was awesome in Japan, though they had by far the rudest staff.

Comment by coriolinus
2007-12-19 00:17:52

I think that’s site-dependent. The overnight guy at my 7-11 was very friendly–I think he really appreciated the chance to try his English, and I was probably the only person to ever actually show up at that store at 3am. It was a great convenience for me that general policy required all stores to stay open 24 hours, but it was almost certainly a non-profitable operation in towns the size of mine.


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