This page is adapted from the original transcript of NHK’s TOMORROW, broadcast on September 29, 2014
“Hello, Everyone. My name is Daniel Kahl, and today we will be reporting about the Japanese convenience store.”
(Daniel Kahl: Reporter)
Everywhere you go in Japan, you come across convenience stores. There are over 50,000 of them nationwide.
They are open 24 hours a day. Seven days a week!
“I have a kind of a hankering for... This is a regular Japanese bento.”
On offer are box lunches, fast foods, vegetables, desserts, drinks, alcohol...
...daily commodities, magazines, stationery, etc., etc., making up a total of more than 3,000 items.
Moreover, you can pay your public utility bills, send postal items, book tickets, make photocopies, send faxes, print out digital photos, use an ATM, have clothes dry-cleaned, and enjoy a variety of other services.
“The concept of convenience stores stocked with everything and found everywhere, arrived from the U.S.A. in the 1970s. They evolved to meet the needs of Japanese consumers. I think today’s stores are unique to Japan.”
(Naomi Kato: Consumer Affairs Consultant)
Convenience stores continue to expand their customer base by coming up with new services.
Around 2,000 convenience stores were damaged by the earthquake and tsunami in the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011.
However, 90% of them reopened within two weeks. They were continuing to evolve to meet the needs of the disaster-stricken areas.
“I’m so glad you’re OK!”
Daniel Kahl, an American who speaks the Yamagata dialect fluently, has lived in Japan for 35 years.
He loves the Tohoku region, and has been striving to provide support to it ever since the earthquake.
“After the tsunami, I came up here many times myself driving a truck and carrying food, and household goods for people in the affected areas here. Every time I came up here, you know, I got hungry in the middle of my trip and so I often stopped by at the convenience stores. Convenience stores in Japan are so common that Japanese people rarely ever give them a second glance. But for people coming from other countries, Japanese convenience stores may come as a bit of surprise. How these convenience stores were able to help out so much after 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Northeastern Japan? How were they able to become a life line? How were they able to continue for so long helping the people in the affected areas? That's what we are going to take a look at today.”
Daniel first visits Yamamoto-cho, a coastal town in the southeastern part of Miyagi Prefecture.
Around one third of the town’s 12,000 houses were damaged by the earthquake. The residents had to face the reality of being unable to obtain daily necessities.
“We experienced many difficulties. All the stores were closed at the time.”
“I went everywhere, even to the neighboring town, but all the stores were closed.”
Even shops that had not been badly affected by the earthquake and tsunami remained unable to open because of prolonged blackouts and a lack of water.
But there was one convenience store that continued to operate even immediately after the earthquake.
(Yoshishige Matsuda: Owner, Yamamoto-cho, Takase Store)
“Nice to meet you.”
“You’re Daniel Kahl! I’ve seen you on TV many times! I never dreamed of meeting you here at my store. It’s so nice to meet you!”
This store is located on a national highway.
Luckily, it escaped damage from the tsunami, which stopped just 50 meters away.
As Matsuda and his staff were putting the goods scattered by the earthquake back on the shelves, people from the surrounding area began flooding in looking for food.
“We had no time to clean up. All we could do was deal with the customers. When I had a moment to stop and look around, I realized that everyone had a full basket, and they were lined up in a circle right around the store.”
“In a full circle all around the store?”
“Yes. And there was no noise at all. They were all dead silent. That’s when it hit me that something really terrible had happened. It was a very serious situation.”
They were rushed off their feet serving the customers. The biggest problem was the power blackout. They could not use the cash register. Matsuda resorted to using a solar-powered calculator.
“173 yen times four.”
(Convenience store staff)
They manually punched in the numbers one by one.
“Even the calculator couldn’t be used in the dark. So I parked my car in front of the store and switched on the headlamps so that I could use it.”
“The headlamps shone on the calculator?”
“Right. Customers would sometimes stand in front of the lights, and I’d have to ask them to move!”
“So you used this area as the check-out counter?”
Matsuda kept the store open even the day after the earthquake. The blackout and lack of water continued and some of his employees could not come to work. But there was a reason he wanted to keep the store open despite the terrible conditions.
In 2006, five years before the earthquake, his store was badly damaged by a landslide after heavy rain and he had to close it for two months.
The sight of disappointed customers being turned away remained etched in his memory.
“The customers were relying on me, and it was my job to meet their needs. That’s the merchant spirit.”
Before opening the convenience store, Matsuda had operated a small local store for over 20 years, selling food and vegetables.
The local people had always helped each other out. Now it was his turn to help, and that is what kept him going.
“Many of Japan’s convenience stores were originally local, family-operated rice or liquor stores. They changed into convenience stores over time, so they have very close and strong ties to their local communities.”
(Naomi Kato: Consumer Affairs Consultant)
But it was not long before Matsuda faced a major problem.
“In less than a week, the shelves were completely empty.”
Convenience stores in Japan operate under a very efficient system in which products are not held long in stock, but replaced as soon as they are sold.
In the wake of the earthquake, this strategy became a disadvantage, and Matsuda’s store quickly ran out of goods.
However, there was one type of product which was appreciated by everyone...
Frozen fast foods that had been kept in the freezer during the blackout and had remained frozen.
As soon as the electricity supply was restored, Matsuda began cooking and serving various hot items.
“This brings back memories. This food gave me strength to carry on when I was going around doing volunteer work.”
In the days after the earthquake, it was impossible for most people to heat up items without any power supply. It was still very cold in Tohoku in March, but freshly fried hot food provided many people with strength and courage.
After the earthquake, this major convenience store chain began installing simple kitchens at all its stores.
This is a new service launched since the 3.11 disaster, allowing hot food to be served even when supplies are not available from headquarters.
“After the tsunami, convenience stores in this region played a critical role in helping people get back on their feet. But that was only possible because of the incredible devotion of the employees and the managers of each and every shop. Speaking with Mr. Matsuda today, I felt that I got somewhat of a glimpse of that, what do you call it, shopkeeper’s dedication to their community. And, of course, the chicken was pretty good!”
Convenience stores have been playing an increasingly vital community role since the earthquake, propped up by the strength of having nationwide networks.
Trucks provided temporary delivery services of goods from relatively unaffected areas.
This enabled 90% of the affected stores to reopen within two weeks after the earthquake.
The major convenience store chains are also trying to expand their customer base by striving to meet the needs of disaster-stricken areas.
Kesennuma City in Miyagi Prefecture is one of Japan’s biggest fishing ports. Over 8,000 people here lost their homes, and they were forced to live in temporary housing.
Daniel heads for a temporary housing complex located on a hill. A major convenience store chain has launched a new service here.
“This is a so-called temporary housing facility.”
People began moving into the houses here in May 2011, two months after the earthquake.
Around 300 people in 100 households still live here.
“Hi! It’s been a long time.”
“We’re still alive!”
(Norifumi Sato: Temporary housing resident)
Daniel met Norifumi Sato, who sells local tea, and his mother, Shigeko, when doing a TV interview shortly after the quake. They are meeting for the first time since then.
“How’s life in the temporary housing?”
“We’ve got used to it.”
(Shigeko Sato: Temporary housing resident)
“Is there a store nearby?”
“Well, it’s a little far from here, so we have to take the car.”
“So you need a car, and this is at the top of a hill.”
“It’s hard walking back.”
At first, the biggest problem faced by the residents was the lack of stores nearby.
This prompted Kesennuma City to ask a major convenience store chain to open a store on the premises, two months after the complex was built.
“Come in over here. You can see that it’s a… Space’s quite limited here.”
The store was built on land left over after the housing complex was completed, so it is only a quarter of the size of normal convenience stores. But as for the selection of goods on sale...
“Body soap... they’ve got like shampoo, and all different kinds of things. Oh, they’ve got...”
“This is something kind of unusual. You don’t see these in other countries, really. This is called a ‘noshibukuro’...”
“Oh my gosh! They even have a cash machine here. Wow, it’s amazing how much they can pack into this small space here!”
“Hello. You’re a bit pressed for space! But you have pretty much everything as far as I can see.”
“Yes, I think we have most of the basic necessities.”
(Shino Yoshida: Store Manager, Kesennuma Park Temporary Store)
Normal convenience stores sell around 3,000 products, but here there are only 800. But the products have been gathered so that everything needed for daily life is available.
“With daily commodities, we only stock one or two types of the most popular and inexpensive products. For example, there are numerous types of toothbrushes available, but we only stock what’s really necessary and what people often use.”
On the other hand, the store sells a wide variety of vegetables and processed foods.
“Hello. What are you going to buy?”
“Just a few things...”
“Something for lunch.”
The store targets the elderly who do not have cars or bicycles, and cannot travel far for shopping.
The store aims to be like a community ‘refrigerator’ for the people living in the neighborhood.
It is just past noon.
Shino Yoshida, the store manager, starts gathering items from the carefully arranged shelves. She fills a basket with them, but these are not products whose shelf life has expired.
“Can I ask what you’re doing?’”
“I’m loading the van with things to take to the temporary housing complexes.”
This store also provides a mobile retailing service. They visit several temporary housing complexes in the city.
The chain had been planning to launch this service for a long time, but the earthquake drove them to become the pioneer. The service is now provided not only in Tohoku, but around the whole country.
“Do you take the same items every time?”
“Well, I know most of the customers, so I have a pretty good idea of what they want.”
She also loads items that customers ordered last time she did her rounds.
“I received an order for these large pickled radishes.”
“So you take orders, too.”
The small truck is loaded and heads off.
The first stop is a temporary housing complex on the outskirts of the city, about 20 minutes’ drive away.
This complex is also located on a hill, with no shops nearby.
They visit her twice a week, always at the same time.
“This is the mobile store, delivering items for your daily needs.”
Here comes the first customer.
“What did you buy?”
He has been looking forward to the pickles he ordered last time.
“You can’t live without pickles?”
“I can live without them, but they’re nice every now and again.”
“Are they called ‘ice cakes’? They’re on sticks.”
“Why don’t you take a look?”
This woman seems to be looking for ice creams.
“I’ll have three boxes of vanilla. Thank you.”
What is she going to do with so many ice creams?
“Can I interview you?”
“Me? An old woman like me?”
“Well, you're the prettiest so far!”
“Oh, you’re kidding!”
“Oh, lots of ice cream! Is this all for you?”
“I give them to my neighbors when they visit.”
“Oh, you’re so kind to your visitors.”
“Well, you see, most of the people here are my former students.”
“I used to be a teacher. I taught for about 40 years. My former students are all very good to me. So I try to give them something back when it’s hot like this. When the truck doesn’t have any, I have to go to Kesennuma by taxi. But that costs about 10,000 yen (*1). So I’m very grateful for this service.”
“Take care, and all the best.”
Yoshida leaves the truck and walks off into the complex…
“Are you OK?”
Many elderly residents live by themselves in these temporary units. Yoshida goes around greeting people who do not want to come out to shop, or are too weak to do so.
“I appreciate being visited.”
“Sometimes come out and see people!”
“This truck back here is kind of interesting to me personally. I traveled all over the tsunami-affected area in 2011 and did a lot of volunteer work up there, and I saw dozens of these trucks selling food to people who had lost all their shops, all over the area. But after that, a lot of shops were rebuilt and, you know, things started getting back to normal. I’m surprised to see that these trucks are actually still in operation. I guess there’s still quite a bit of a need for them”.
Convenience stores were formerly used mainly by young people, but the earthquake experience taught the chains how to cater to the needs of the elderly, and new stores are now springing up everywhere.
“The Great East Japan Earthquake made us all realize how important convenience stores are to our daily lives. Japan has a rapidly aging society, and the lack of nearby shops is becoming a nationwide problem. I think this has created a need for more convenience stores throughout the country.”
(Naomi Kato: Consumer Affairs Consultant)
One city is making clever use of a convenience store to attract customers and help to revitalize the region.
This is the Nobiru District of Higashi-Matsushima City in Miyagi Prefecture.
“Ah, there it is, right there. That’s the convenience store we’ve been looking for.”
This convenience store is the one and only shop in the town today.
It opened in May this year (2014) following a huge demand from local residents.
“Are you buying food for dinner?”
“I come here to buy the little things that I need. I also buy the food we eat every day, because it’s fresh.”
“Even if we forget to buy something, we know we can come here any time because it’s so close. That’s reassuring.”
“I come here when I suddenly realize I need something!”
Nobiru Station on the Senseki Line used to stand here.
The line is currently out of operation, so it became a bus terminal.
The station tourist information center was cherished by the local people.
And this building is where a convenience store was invited to move in.
“And look across there. This is kind of unusual.”
The free space next to the convenience store is used by customers, residents and visitors alike.
This idea was the brainchild of the Town Planning Council, which is striving to restore and revitalize the town.
“We lost all the places where local people could gather. A questionnaire survey revealed that many people wanted this problem to be resolved somehow. We thought that setting up a store would encourage people to come together, so we asked the City Office to help us on December 26th last year (2013).”
(Juro Saito: Chairman, Nobiru Town Planning Council)
After the earthquake, local residents had few opportunities to meet, even when they lived close to one another, but they now have a place where they can get together.
Everyone’s living in temporary housing, so it had been a long time since we met. More than anything now, I enjoy coming here.”
“I like the idea of a place where you can go shopping and bump into friends. Do young people often come here, too?”
“Yes. If we want to meet, this is a very convenient place.”
“Many young people come here as well.”
“To us, since the earthquake the meaning of convenience stores has changed a lot. We’re so much more grateful for having them now.”
The local residents have taken advantage of the convenience store’s ability to attract people to create a place where people can socialize. But the store provides something else as well. That is employment. 10 local residents work here part-time.
“Which high school do you go to?”
“Ishinomaki Municipal Girl’s Senior High.”
(Yu Sasaki: Convenience store staff)
“You go all the way to Ishinomaki? Didn’t you look for work near your school?”
“Well, the buses don’t run late enough, so I wouldn’t be able to get home.”
“But here you can work all you want. Is it fun?”
“Yes, it really is!”
All the store customers and clerks are locals, and Yu says she feels safe working here.
Will convenience stores pave the way to regional restoration? These initiatives in the disaster-stricken areas look certain to expand.
Bonds within local communities grow weaker as people grow older. But convenience stores have evolved in the regions to face issues that the whole country will face in the future.
“I think the thing that left the most lasting impression about this report was that the convenience stores up here in the affected area, in Northeastern Japan, are all trying very, very hard to, you know, match their business model to the needs of the people in the local community: work with the people, talk to the people, understand their needs, and do their best to fulfill those needs. In that sense, I think that’s, they’re doing exactly what they were meant to be. I mean, after all, these are called ‘convenience stores’. They’re trying to be as convenient and as useful to the community as possible, and I think that’s, that’s pretty impressive.”
*1 10,000 yen = approx. US$90 (as of Nov 2014)