JLPT BC 142 | Convenience in Japan

JLPT BC 142 | Convenience in Japan post image

My wife and I had just arrived in Paris for our honeymoon. Due to our flight being delayed, we were about 2 hours later than we originally planned. We were both fairly hungry, but it being a strange place we weren’t familiar with, we couldn’t find a place to eat.

My wife, exasperated, said “Aren’t there any convenience stores?”

To which I replied, while holding back a chuckle, “No, this is Europe, this is France, there are no convenience stores.”

Living in Japan, it is easy to assume that any developed country would have convenience stores on every corner, because well, they’re convenient. But, they seem to be really common in Japan (and albeit other Asian countries) because I believe there is an emphasis on convenience here.

It seems to be built into a lot of the way things are, with some very notable exceptions.

The space myth

Everything is so packed, and there is no space is the common idea about Japan. Indeed, Japan is actually slightly smaller in area than the US state of Montana. Trying to cram 127 million people into the area of Montana could get a little tricky.

Japan isn’t the most densely populated country though. It ranks 9th most dense for countries with more than 10 million. Some notable more dense countries are Taiwan, South Korea, India, and the Netherlands. So, although packed, they are in no danger of running out of space, especially with the whole shrinking population thing.

So there is some space left to be developed. You could, in fact, buy a sizable house in the countryside for a very reasonable price. My wife’s family has a chunk of land in Shiga that is just sitting there because it is not worth it to even sell it.

So what gives? Wouldn’t people try their best to get their own little chunk of land? Well, apparently not.

Condo buildings (called mansions in Japan) go up all the time in the city.   They are always showcasing or advertising a new one and they typically sell out as planned. These mammoth 20+ storey buildings or even complexes (with several long flat buildings interlocked with each other) generally fill up relatively fast for a country that is suppose to be shrinking.

Japan actually has around a 13% vacancy rate for its housing.  Meaning that 13% of the houses in Japan are empty and not being used. These are mainly located in the countryside or somewhat inconvenient places like the side of hills that require steep climbs to get to.

When we were looking for a house, if a house was more than a 20 minute walk from the station it was virtually worthless. We actually almost decided on one of these because you can get a fabulous house for a little money. The downside is that you have to drive or bike everywhere you want to go, which if you calculate all the costs of parking and gas, wasn’t worth the money you save.

Our old apartment was about 25 minutes from a major station.  I remember telling students that and they were completely shocked by the fact that I walked that far. But hey, we wanted a decent sized place for a reasonable price. And rent in the Kansai area can be pretty expensive even though housing prices are generally down.

Convenience stores

Convenience stores are the Crown Jewels of Japanese innovations. It’s like they sat down and tried to pack everything they could into these little guys.  Lawson is by far the most common, but there are several variations of these magical shops.  Although bemoaned by some, they seem to have those little emergency things that you seem to need at odd times of the day.  Need a dress shirt? covered. Need a tie? gotcha there.  Need tickets to that sports thing you want to go to? Yep, covered.  And underwear?  Yep, just in case ya know it’s 3am and you need a pair.

Mmm, just like from a pastry shop!

Mmm, just like from a pastry shop!

They even have miracle food that never seems to age, which I’m sure is perfectly healthy for you.  On top of that, they have elaborate, rather expensive sweets, just in case you get a burning desire to eat a fancy chocolate cake or forgot to get one for your sweet heart for Christmas.

All joking a side, there have been several times when a convenience store has really helped me out.  They just seem to have everything that you would need.  From beer to quick food, they are a big help when you are wondering around the city and just want to snack and walk instead of sitting down and taking in a meal.

They also, of course, have a lot of things you don’t need like excessive salt and preservatives, junky food, and relatively high prices. The oden that sits out for hours uncovered is a little suspicious looking as well. And they don’t carry any kind of medication. So, if you have a sore throat, a cold, or a headache that just happens to be bothering you, you’ll have to look elsewhere.

Speaking of ubiquitous things in Japan, vending machines are absolutely everywhere as anyone who has been here can attest to. And they vend you absolutely everything from drinks to bouquets of flowers. I even saw one with fresh eggs you could buy. They are kind of like the mini version of convenience stores.


One thing I like about ordering things off the Internet here in Japan is that if the deliver truck misses you, you can request they deliver the package in a specific window the next day. I don’t know how many times I had to stay home all day in the States waiting for a package or worse, find my package tucked away somewhere extremely well-hidden.

And inside the house, there are a variety of miracle devices that make life a little easier. For instance, your typical microwave usually doubles as an oven. Our refrigerator has a compartment that you can put things, unwrapped, into it and they will stay fresh. So, if you have a pack of ham slices and don’t want to bother putting it in a Ziplock, you can simply throw it in that drawer and seal it up.

Finally, in more modern homes and apartments the shower room doubles as a dryer, which comes in real handy on rainy days. It also sucks out the humidity after a shower so you don’t have mildew mess to deal with. And of course in winter It has a heater you can use to keep it nice and toasty in the shower room.

Inconvenience still looms

Internet services don’t seem to be as big here as they are in the States. For all the talk of Japan being a tech giant they don’t seem to use computers much. Desktop computers are not all that common.  Most people prefer to use just there phones and now tablets. I’ve even heard some teachers complain of high school students coming to their class never having used a desktop. It’s rare, but it sometimes still happens.  A few of my students don’t have a laptop or desktop anymore.

This has led to just an utter lack of good internet services.  The interfaces for online banking are reminiscent of something you might see 10 years ago – very bare-bone menus, main options are not usually highlighted.  Every time I go to check my credit card balance I still have to dig around to find where the darn button is.  And this is something that I would think most people would like to know.  I mean, it’s important to know how much you are going to pay next month right?

There are also big time security fears.  Some people I know refuse to do any kind of internet shopping due to fear of their money being stolen.  Banks have elaborate and overly complicated, hence defeating the whole purpose, security measures.  One of my biggest pet peeves is that they usually don’t accept romaji for answers to security questions.  So, I have to answer questions like ‘What was the first car you bought?’ in katakana, which of course my first car did not have a Japanese name.  Even Japanese cars don’t have Japanese names, like Prius.

There seems to be a relatively slow, around 2 year lag time, for most of the internet innovations to hit Japan.  In my opinion they need to be borrowing more from the greats abroad.  Rakuten, the biggest and most popular Japanese online merchandiser, has a mess of a website.  Buying things there takes a lot of patience, although they do usually have better and more unique products than Amazon if you are willing to wade through it all.

And one of the biggest inconveniences of all, is well women’s rights.  Although things are improving at a snail’s pace.  Apparently it is still okay to jeer and make sexist comments.  And, good luck finding any kind of help with day care or nursery school, or getting back into the workplace after having a kid unless you have a well-established job before you have kids.

What do you think?

Is convenience a thing in Japan?  Is it really inconvenient here?  Just the same as everywhere else?  Let me know what you find the most convenient and least convenient about Japan in the comments below.

Photo by Amy Ross and Yuya Tamai

{ 6 comments… add one }
  • Joost August 7, 2014, 11:31 pm

    Just got back from my overseas holiday and the missus noticed the same; no convenience stores when you need them, lol. And shops being closed on Sunday is something that takes a few Sundays to get used too again. But on the other hand, people don’t have to staff them, meaning potentially more family-time something that seems to be absent in Japan for most families.

    Coming from an IT background it’s hard to coop with the infrastructure I come across at most workplaces these days. Especially in typhoon season the papers are flying through the shokuin shitsu several times a day with teachers running after them to pick them up… Paperless office? if they only would start to use email or sharepoint facilities twice as much half a forest can be saved I think.

    Internet companies do offer either very fast internet connections or very slow ADSL connections… And depending on where you’re from, they can feel quite expensive. The problem however is not the connection itself, it’s how providers setup their routing (to many layers) and the connection to mainland US. If I need a fast connection it’s for streaming video from overseas, which even with a fiber optic line is impossible due to it’s design. And streaming services in japan like Hulu aren’t just complete enough to keep me subscribed.

    Online banking… exactly! As an experiment I requested access for my JapanPost bankaccount. Internet crime is stepping up here in JP too, but they don’t seem to worry that much about their security design. They do put a lot of warnings on the website, making sure people are scared to death to use their interface… but they don’t require to change your password every x-time. Rakuten’s interface is a bit better and they do require a one-time password these days. But the interface is just one big advertisement page where you have to search well to get to the page for wire transfers or history.
    In the Dutch media, Japan was chosen the safest country for using internet… I think because people here tend to use the internet for other things, less for banking and buying online etc. Also, English or non Asian languages are probably easier to use in regards to phishing mails.

    Another horror in Japan are the cellphone plans in my opinion. Sim-only isn’t really a thing over here and contracts go for 2 years and automatically renew for another period for two years. Even if you have done a 2 year term and you forgot to cancel you’ll be stuck with them or you have to pay 100 dollars for breaking the contract. Also DoCoMo, Softbank and AU charge more or less the same prices for calling and internet, price fixing as we call it overseas, but here in Japan it seems to be allowed. When I came back from my trip I still had a Dutch SIM card with some credits. It worked out that roaming with Vodafone’s holiday plan worked out cheaper than calling with my DoCoMo contract.

    • Clayton MacKnight August 8, 2014, 12:23 am

      I know of a few people that stream Japanese Hulu here pretty successfully. They have a lot of shows, but of course not the whole library, and I heard the movie selection is a little limited. I heard NetFlix might be trying to expand soon, hopefully they will hit Japan first. Tsutaya has started a streaming service, but they really haven’t promoted it or touted it at all. I don’t even think it is mentioned at their stores at all. It is kind of a secret service they put out to compete with anything that might sneak up on them.

      I heard that sometime in 2015, all phones should be sold ‘unlocked’ or SIMフリー as they say in Japan. They have been pushing to open up the market for awhile. I don’t know how it compares to Dutch services, but it is actually a lot cheaper to buy an iPhone here then in the states, as long as you want unlimited data (which is actually a little limited, but still better than the States). The reason for it being cheaper is because they lock you into contracts. Not saying I prefer it. By the way, you can get SIM-only. A lot of the SIMs are data-only, but there are ones like this one, that offer a phone number as well. Most of them sublease the Docomo network, so it has pretty good coverage. I use this one for my Nexus 7, a little messy to setup, but once you have it locked in, you are good to go. They are not user friendly, you will need to know Japanese fairly well or have someone help you, and be a bit of a geek. I figured it out though, so it isn’t rocket science.

      Here is a brief article about using SIM only -> https://www.mondaiji.com/blog/japan/general/10181-life-in-japan-how-i-cut-my-mobile-phone-bill-in-half
      And actually Docomo provides unlocking for SOME phones -> https://www.nttdocomo.co.jp/english/support/procedure/simcard/unlock_dcm/
      Although the iPhone is notably absent from their list of unlockable phones.

      • Joost August 8, 2014, 12:47 am

        Hi Mack,

        Yes, you’re right. Things are starting to change, for the good I hope. The Amazon-sim is a “bmobile” sim-card and I’ve researched them for a while probably making the change to them as soon as my contract finishes in September. I’m not a heavy data-user and hence the default 7GB or even the Lite 3GB packages offered are too much for my needs. On the other hand some of my coworkers complain they don’t have enough (fast) data to last the month. Bmobile offers a bit more variation in their plans, https://www.bmobile.ne.jp/fd/1gbfree.html

        One thing to keep in mind is to think about which handset you’re going to use with them. Docomo offers sim-unlocking for some yennies, making it able to use it on Bmobile, BUT thethering will probably not work as DoCoMo locks that in their ROM (Android OS). If you’re running an Android you can root your phone and install a custom rom as a workaround.

        I hope that when they sell phones simlock-free they’ll stick to the manufacturer’s basic ROM so everyone can keep updating there phone even if its older than one or two years… At DoCoMo it seems as soon as the new summer line-up is out they forget about the millions of handsets they sold the summer before…

  • Cure Dolly August 8, 2014, 11:37 pm

    And Docomodake is so cute too. But I doubt if they consult him. He would look after all the old customers nicely, I am sure.

  • Tom August 11, 2014, 8:48 am

    Do you mean a 13% Vacancy rate, or a 87% Occupancy rate?

    • Clayton MacKnight August 12, 2014, 9:37 am

      Ooops, vacancy, not occupancy, not sure how I got those crossed. Thanks for the correction.

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