Text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
Newspapers and magazines and, of course, manga laid out in stands so you can read them standing. ATMs to withdraw money from any bank. All brands of refreshments. White shirts to replace at the last moment before the meeting the one that got soiled. Roast unagi eel (in the summer) and hot oden soup (in the winter). Charges for mobile phones. French wines. Photocopies. Fresh fruit. Coffeemakers for making your own coffee right there. Microwave ovens to warm the box-lunch/obento you just bought. Water heaters to turn the cup noodles into a real lunch (especially if you are homeless or a sarariman in a hurry). Pens and stationary. Toiletries and cosmetics. Cards to offer congratulations to a wedding or condolences to a funeral. Steaming Chinese nikuman buns. Sushi. Public restrooms. Concert tickets. Neckties. Umbrellas. Utility bills payment points. Cigarettes. Whisky, Japanese and imported. Bread. Candy. Ice cream. Flashlights. And –finally!- garbage cans.
These are not all but I doubt if anyone except the people working there can number everything offered by a convenience store or “konbini” (コンビニ) in Japan, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week and in almost every corner anywhere in the country; by combining the available data, by now there must be over 45.000 of them. 45.000 stores ranging from 320 to 2700 square feet, some belonging to the companies themselves and others to franchisees but all of them, an inseparable part of Japanese everyday life; it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that in the half century of their existence (an approximation since there are various theories about when they started) and especially after the time of the financial bubble, the konbini have become one more symbol of modern Japan, gaining an equal place next to the koban police stations, and the karaoke and the pachinko parlors sometimes in the avenues of Tokyo and sometimes in the narrow streets of the country’s countless small towns.
Like all imported ideas, the konbini changed significantly during their incorporation in Japan; Americans to whom the original idea belongs are often impressed with how many more goods and services the Japanese mini-markets offer compared to the ones they have in their country and with how higher the level of customer service is. Probably, because they don’t realize that for the word “convenience” to make sense for the Japanese, it needs to involve much more than any other store –not an easy achievement in a society where “the other” is always more important. By convincing –in practice- the public that in their few square meters they have anything one could ask for, available anytime they ask it, they don’t just satisfy the consumeristic mania of the inhabitants of this country but also their need for pockets of stability and certainty.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.