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 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.
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.