The Revolt of Japan’s Konbini

Like a lot of foreigners in Japan, Wilson Chow, an immigrant from Malaysia, works two jobs. In the morning he attends classes at the Koenji International school. From 2 pm until 10:30 pm he works behind the counter at the New Days convenience store near Shinjuku.

Chow is not an illegal alien. He has a valid student visa, and as such is allowed to work 28 hours a week outside the classroom. He isn’t alone. It is estimated that about 40,000 foreigners work in Japan’s convenience store industry while studying on a student visa.

The government recently vastly expanded the range of work visas that that will allow low-skilled workers to live, work, and even bring spouses into the country. There is however no specific work permit for convenience store workers, so Chow gets by on a student permit.

Chow represents one side of the changing demographics in Japan – the difficulty in recruiting foreign help. The other side of demographic change in Japan is represented by the growing number of aging store owners.

Convenience stores – konbini in Japanese – are ubiquitous. They are owned by three major franchises, 7-Eleven, Family Mart and Lawsons. The Ministry of International trade and industry counts 50,000 konbini,

They are important cogs in Japan’s social infrastructure due to the enormous range of products and services that they provide any time of day. Golfers can leave their clubs with the local konbini, which will arrange to have them shipped to the course and returned to the golfer’s home.

One of the main selling points, as with convenience stores everywhere, is that they are open 24 hours day. Customers expect to be able to get ready-made food at any time of the day, especially after midnight.

Nevertheless, many konbini are beginning to revolt against the franchise owners, who insist on making the individual store owners stay open all night despite the difficulties that the owners have in recruiting workers, especially in the 11pm to 6 am shift.

It came to a head when the owner of a 7-Eleven in Osaka unilaterally closed the doors at 11 pm without seeking any permission from the chain. The chain came down hard on the individual store, threatening to terminate its contract.

The chain also threatened to impose penalties of ¥17 million (US$156,100) if the store didn’t go back to 24-hour service. The owner said this was impossible. His wife and partner had died, he said, and he could not see how he could continue to eke out a profit without help from his unpaid wife.

Franchise stores pay royalties to the chain base on profits, which are directly linked to store sales, and so the chains have a financial interest in keeping the stores open round the clock. There is also the question that there might be too many konbini in Japan for anyone to make a profit.

They tend to operate in clusters with five or six stores all within walking distance of each other. Some are literally next door to each other. There are other problems such as demanding too much overtime, low pay for store clerks and wear and tear on the owners, who are usually middle-aged or even older.

The Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) recently ordered the franchise chains to find a solution to the labor shortage problem. Some solutions involve more automation in the past-midnight shift.

Some of the franchise chains, including 7-Eleven, which came down hard on the Osaka store, are being asked to “experiment” with closing up at midnight for a few hundred of its stores.

One apparent solution not being considered is to create a new category of work permits just for store workers. But they are likely to continue being linked to student study visas even though they are pushing the limit on the number of students wanting or needing a second job.

The steady drain on Japan’s workforce because of aging and population decline is forcing the government to do what was once considered unthinkable, namely to open the country to considerable numbers of foreign blue-collar workers.

In 2018 parliament passed a bill that would allow immigrants with valid work permits to live and work legally in Japan including bringing their families with them. This represented a sea change in Japanese attitudes to unskilled migrant labor.

Most polls still show that by a wide margin Japanese oppose letting in more guest workers, often citing arguments made elsewhere, including the United States, that immigrants bring with them increased crime.

Despite these doubts, they will have to get used to having more Asian immigrants. It may be the only way to keep the doors open, at convenience stores and a whole lot of other enterprises.