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The Convenient Truth About Japan

Strange things are afoot...

Strange things are afoot…

As Ted most famously said to Bill, “Strange things are afoot at the circle K.” And indeed it’s not just the Circle K but also 7-11, Lawson, Minimart and the other lesser known brands of convenience stores up and down the breadth of Japan that something amiss seems to be going on.

Convenience stores, or as they are known in Japan, ‘Konbini’ stores seem to be at the heart of ‘pop culture’. They are bastions of consumerism, glowing beacons for the masses; inviting them to consume 24/7, every day of the year. No day is sacred, no minutes silence ever observed. There is always time to buy the latest candy or browse through porno cartoon magazines. The young and the dumb and the lonely congregate inside and outside and indulge in the trivial and the superficial as if it were a religion. I’m always tempted to slip in a bit of Baudrillard when I get on the topic of consumerism; and this time it seems appropriate. From a foreigner’s perspective ‘konbini culture’ and its obsession with plastic packaging, small servings and moronic latest fashions serve as timely reminders of the other ‘deeper’ side of Japanese culture – of monks practicing Zen, dignified ladies in kimonos pouring tea, of artfully simple arrangements of rocks and moss, of shrines, of traditional crafts, of inscrutability, of haikus wistfully noting the seasons, of wood prints, of geisha. Baudrillard describes places that seem to make their opposites more real as “these ‘imaginary stations’ which feed reality”. His most famous example is Disneyland. Disneyland is such a fantasy and such a consumer paradise that it serves to make the surrounding area more ‘real’. Of course he goes on to say that this is an illusion in itself. Everything is surface:

The simulacrum is never that which conceals the truth – it is the truth which conceals that there is none. The simulacrum is true.

It’s this conclusion that I’m not sold on. We might live in a world where the image has replaced the word, where style triumphs over substance, where the signifier has detached itself from that which it signifies; nevertheless, I find something very real in the stories of people’s lives. The anecdotes of everyday folk that rarely make it into the media have the weight of truth for me and somehow the sum of several small tales seems to add up to something greater than the sum of its parts. In short the particular can lead to the universal. This is the principle behind a lot of serious fiction. What I write isn’t fiction or that serious, but I aspire to reach the universal through my localized tales of travelling and recreational drug use. The universal that I endeavour to create is that we do indeed traverse our way through a tripped out, tripped up existence that makes sense only in a stoned and humorous way. It is my overarching theme. And so what better and more unlikely vehicle could I find than the Hello Kitty stupidity of konbini world.

The first convenience store was opened in Dallas, Texas in 1927 by the Southland Ice Company, which eventually became 7-11. Since then the convenience store has become a worldwide phenomenon that threatens to over-run the planet. Wikipedia claims that the convenience store has its roots in the American general store, the Australian milk bar and the British corner shop but for me that seems like slanderous allegation because general stores, milk bars and corner shops were locally owned businesses and not soul less corporate owned empires or franchises. They were specific and not generic, they served the community not drained it. However, this might be the deeper point – the generic must come from the specific. The cancer is formed by the malformation of the healthy.

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Despite the chain store idea originating in the states, it is Japan that has taken the franchising notion and exploited it to the max. Like reggae bars in Thailand or Irish pubs anywhere in the world, they are ubiquitous and for many represent the apotheosis of globalization – monoculture, poor quality, the false choice of branded products and the false economy of single servings that are packaged in layers upon layers of quality plastic. For the French the convenience store represents all that is crass and wrong with Americana – uncouth fodder only fit for those lacking in all culture and taste; and for the British the convenience store marks the end of the cherished institution of the corner shop where everything is expensive and out of date, but the nearest place to buy fags, a newspaper, a carton of milk and some king size rizlas. Each corner shop with its own delightful personality manning the till often ready to make passing small talk with the regulars was a place uniquely local and British. As an Englishman, I say it quite plainly – fuck 7-11 and their standardized bullshit turning our corner shops into moronic McDonalds with uniforms and regulations (oh the joys of getting a sneaky bottle of wine on a Sunday from a friendly Indian dude).

Anyway, the convenience store or konbini has found its ultimate spiritual homeland in Japan. No other soil suits the formulaic shop better (other than perhaps Taiwan). There are over 50,000 konbinis in Japan and the number is growing by an average of 1,000 a year. Konbinis thrive thanks to the Japanese notion of prompt and efficient service and their love of convenience while living their life on the hop.

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A million bachelors survive on konbini box lunches, 10 million stock up on ciggies daily at the convenience store, and disturbingly thousands find the need to purchase a fresh pair of underwear at the minimart around the corner. School kids gorge themselves on snacks before and after school. The ‘naughty’ teens with nowhere to go, hang outside the down town 7-11 to flirt and show off their snazzy cell phones and spangly fashions. The homeless go there in search of fresh left-overs. The alcoholics go there in the wee hours of the morning to top up on booze, the clubbers make a final stop there to get energy drinks before crashing out. Mad people go there to get a captive audience; and convenience stores are among the first choice venues for kleptomaniacs. All of this is a side of Japan that foreign commentators and the indigenous media chose to gloss over. It’s not gangland violence, ghetto deprivation, domestic abuse or big time corruption; but it is representative of something that touches many of the 120 odd million who inhabit the islands of the rising sun. And for this reason I’m going to relate a few choice anecdotes I’ve found in the press and that were related to me by my Japanese wife, who has the dubious honour of working the all night shift at the konbini in downtown Z, next to the train station. The establishment where my wife works is normal in every external respect in terms of products and protocol; but individuals work in the place and; however much I criticize the populace, individuals patronize the place.

Let me start with the owner and his family. He is a 40 something who bought the franchise and works nearly every day with the help of his father and mother. His story is of interest. In his early days he ran with a bad crowd and got involved with the bozozuku (motor bike gangs) and was on the verge of joining the yakuza. He took drugs, disrespected his elders and was the classic bad apple of the family. His hopes of escape at the time focused on football. He loved the game with a passion and practiced furiously. The moment of truth came when he had a try-out with the local professional club. He thought he was hot shit until he came up against an over the hill Dunga. Although Dunga had the pace of a tortoise on opium, Mr. Boss couldn’t take the ball from him no matter how hard he tried. Naturally the blow of the realization of mediocrity threw Mr. Boss into a dark funk, but a few years later he was to arise from the flames, phoenix like as a clean cut regular guy who got married, had kids and worked his butt off to get a konbini franchise and make a go of it. Oddly enough he is always cracking jokes in the shop about how big his penis is.

Regarding his employees, there is the average collection of 20 somethings who started off imagining the store would only be a temporary thing before getting married or travelling or getting a better job; but for one reason or another stuck at it.

Fried chicken beer

Fried chicken beer

Next there is the middle aged woman who is married with kids. She is kind of useless at the job and takes liberties by taking extended breaks and avoiding the unpleasant jobs like cleaning the toilets. Her family is in a different city. She rents an apartment and seems to have a confused private life. A middle aged paramour often pops in at the end of her shift. She insists on doing as many shifts as possible in order to pay off the mounting debts from her loan shark dealings. All the other workers gossip about her and hate being stuck on a shift with her.

And finally there is my wife, married to a foreigner, sporting a name tag with my family moniker: a covert drug taker and although determined to do a good job, her vision rests on far flung horizons and her thought processes register the insidiously soul destroying nature of the employment. In short a means to an end, and perhaps still better than sucking up the sexist patronizing shit that goes with being an ‘office lady’.

One morning she came home and told me about cleaning up the toilet. Someone had managed to spray their shit all over the small cubicle, like a political prisoner protesting their incarceration. The toilet is regularly dirtied in disturbing ways and is a favourite with the slutty suntanned girls who spend extended periods of time in the John making up and re-charging their mobile phones.

Sadly, on several occasions my wife has come home telling me tales of incipient racism. About customers who read her name card and hear her fluent Japanese and comment on how well she uses the local lingo. One bothersome and slightly drunk customer refused to believe her when she insisted she was Japanese and not a foreigner. Despite the Japanese face and Japanese fluency he refused to accept she could be Japanese with a katakana name. My wife politely and sardonically asked him if he couldn’t perhaps guess how such a peculiar paradox came into being. He shook his head in growing existential nausea until the old lady waiting behind him to get served pointed out the blindingly obvious to him – she’s married to a ‘gaijin’. Something sadly similar happens so regularly that it shows the country is still in its infancy when it comes to understanding the growing multicultural world we live in. A Japanese face isn’t enough, being able to speak Japanese isn’t enough either. Nothing is enough other than being 100 percent mind-numbingly the same as everyone else in all those tell-tale indicators of ethnicity. No wonder the Ainu are pissed off.

Andy Worhol condoms in a convenience store in Japan

Andy Worhol condoms in a convenience store in Japan

One memorable morning, my dearest came back exhausted and told me about a salary man who stood in the store talking loudly into his switched off mobile barking commands about selling this commodity and buying that stock like a character from one of those thought provoking movies that America very occasionally produces. He was obviously a victim of the Global Financial Crisis and was having psychological problems coming to terms with being laid off.

Once a month or so my better half returns back to our abode and tells tales of the store’s dealings with the police. Mr. Boss not only keeps a vigilant eye out for thieves but he also has the store rigged up with cameras, like most konbinis. Everyone knows it, yet the kleptos and desperate homeless still come and try to pilfer anyway. Most of them linger too long over the hard booze shelves; or try to pretend that something just fell into their bag; or that they were always intending to pay. The real kleptos just walk in and take stuff blithely and don’t even try to cover their tracks by buying something. Often the kleptos are little old white haired dears who aren’t hard up but are just losing their marbles. It doesn’t matter who they are, Mr. Boss calls the police regardless. Having been a bit of a bad boy in his younger days he’s very good at catching the light-fingered. In Japan there’s more often than not a police box near the train station; and such is the case in Z. They come within 5 minutes of being called by Mr. Boss. Nine times out of ten the boys in blue arrive and quickly extract a confession of guilt from the wrongdoers; and nine times out of ten the offenders are released with a stern ticking off, especially if they are homeless or obviously mentally disturbed. The notable exception to this observation about the police reluctance to prosecute or even hold law-breakers they pick up at the konbini is somewhat irritating and typical. My wife clearly remembers a homeless bloke with thick mangy dreadlocks and clothes so full of holes that his butt and pubis were clearly visible. He paid for a drink but when he attempted to sit down at one of the tables designated for customers, Mr. Boss called in the men in blue. When the police arrived they treated the incident with uncharacteristic severity – they handcuffed the dude and marched him off to the police station. My wife noted the dejected look in his eyes and really wanted to tell somebody that she sympathized with a man that reminded her of her husband. Naturally she held back. She knew that such an admission of sympathy would only be taken the wrong way.

Weird name for a mobile phone konbini

Weird name for a mobile phone konbini

On another morning my dear heart returned home quite rattled by one harrowing experience. A customer repeatedly called her a fool (which is much harsher in Japanese than in English) because she had put the items he had purchased in a bag in a way that wasn’t to his liking. She had even asked him prior to putting his drink and food in the plastic bag how he wanted it done, but he had ignored her question and then seemed to take some type of sadistic relish in criticizing her. She is not the victim type but was unable to tell him to go fuck himself because obviously that’s not good customer service. While she was telling me about this, it occurred to me that perhaps this is one of the social purposes of the konbini. If you have had to eat shit all day or have been on the end of a face losing dressing down at work, what better remedy than to find somebody even less significant than you to lord it over. This unenviable service is usually rendered by the wife. So we could only imagine that he was on his way home and was warming up his wrath or that he was a bachelor.

Nagoya Convenience store bans handgranades

Nagoya Convenience store bans handgranades

A more uplifting anecdote is of an old man with glasses so strong it made his eyes look like flying saucers and a bent over shuffling walk who comes in every morning for a drink and a snack. After months of regular patronage he built up the courage to pay her a compliment. He said she was an angel. Being as she is, she was most disappointed getting a compliment about her looks from a man near blindness and the grave.

Another tale, not from my wife about Konbini life is about a Japanese air force major who stripped down to his socks and entered a convenience store and bought panties and pantyhose. When asked by the police what had possessed him to do such a thing, he said that he had thought it would be a jolly jape. His punishment was 10 days suspension from duty.

I also found the synopsis for a Japanese movie with the daft title “Rubbers 7”. I will quote:

Welcome to Rubbers 7, a small Japanese convenience store with a reputation for some odd owners. Rumors of mob connections and one rather eccentric boss with a passion for Ping-pong tend to keep business low. But when a young, quiet girl is framed for shoplifting and ends up working for the store, can her touch, with the help of her unusual coworkers, including a shy boy and a drag queen, turn the fortune of the store around?

Another news item:

Two men were stabbed with a pair of scissors early Sunday morning in a convenience store car park in Hofu City, police said Monday.
Police said that the two men, aged 38 and 25, were stabbed in their necks at about 3 a.m. outside the convenience store, and that the men were taken to hospital and their injuries were not life-threatening. Police received information that the attacker was driven to the convenience store by a chauffeur service for people under the influence of alcohol, where he bought a pair of scissors and argued with a number of customers and people passing by before stabbing the men and running off.
Police later arrested Katsuyoshi Ishii, a 33-year-old salesman and resident of Hofu City, for attempted murder after tracking him to a restaurant around 7 p.m. Sunday. Ishii said he had been drinking before the incident and admitted to stabbing the men, but denied he intended to kill them, police said.

And lastly ‘The Dogman’:

The dog man

The dog man

This combo picture, released from the Osaka prefectural police on June 23, 2008, shows video images caught on a surveillance camera of a man wearing an oversized black-and-white canine mask while brandishing a knife at a convenience store in Osaka, western Japan. A Japanese animal-lover on welfare went to extremes to provide for his many pets by robbing convenience stores while wearing the mask of a dog. Takaharu Kawata — branded by Japanese media as “The Dogman” — was caught on a surveillance camera wearing an oversized black-and-white canine mask while brandishing a knife. The 28-year-old was arrested in Osaka for hold-ups in which he allegedly stole a total of 587,000 yen (5,470 dollars) in cash, a police spokesman said. Kawata said he resorted to the robberies because he loved animals and was running out of money to feed his two dogs, five cats, five turtles, two snakes and an aquarium of tropical fish.

Well what does all this add up to? There’s the double standard for a start. The konbini can sell pornography and the boss can talk incessantly about his dick, but any type of nudity by the customers is treated with zero tolerance. As an interesting footnote, it is worth mentioning that one of the arguments made for konbinis staying open all night is that they have served as safe havens for women escaping from stalkers and sexual predators. However, for me, what all these random stories demonstrate is that if you want to get an idea of what Japan is really like, you have to scrutinize the generic, kitsch, superficial, low brow and consumerist cultural phenomena. The simulacrum reveals not that there is no reality, but that reality is made up of the crass, raw, naked, weird and not so wonderful.

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For more from Trippy Traveller about Japan go to Trippy Traveller in Japan blogspot