Konbinis are squeezing the sweetness out of Japan

Words: Sean Michael Wilson. Illustration: Yuka Morita

I live in Kumamoto City on Kyushu, in the South West of Japan. I am sad when I walk around my local area and notice that hardly any old-fashioned, independent family-run businesses still survive. Those that are still operating seem to be in trouble. In Japan, many small shops have been run out of town by the big chains, especially convenience stores, known as konbini.

There are six kobenis in my district yet there remains only one old, independently-run grocery shop. It’s run by a couple in their late 70s and it has been there for 56 years. If I can, I always make a point of going there for milk, eggs, tofu and snacks, rather than to the corporations. 

The chain stores don’t need my money. Family Mart Ltd reported an annual profit of 43.5 billion JPY ($400 million USD) for 2019-2020.

FUJIKAWAGUCHIKO, YAMANASHI, JAPAN – APRIL 12, 2017: FamilyMart convenience store under Mt. Fuji. FamilyMart is the second largest convenience store company in Japan.

However, I hope that if I spend even just 1,000 JPY in an old shop, some of my money will go towards covering its rent, or paying the hospital bills of its owners.

A few old Japanese people still go to my local shop for a chat. And, as I am the only western foreigner who goes there, the couple who run it often give me free mikan oranges – just to be nice. That’s never happened to me in a corporate konbini.

Here my main complaints about the domination of this retail sector by what I call the ‘King Konbinis.’

  1. In corporate stores, people don’t hang around just to chat. This means a loss of community spirit and can cause a sense of isolation for elderly people.
  1. In corporate stores, the staff cannot give anything free to their customers – just to be nice.
  1. In corporate stores, the staff don’t own the place and have little say in how they’re run. They lack the sense of pride and responsibility which comes with being your own boss.  
  1. In corporate stores, the money mostly goes to serve a rich elite in some distant metropolis. How much commitment does a firm like Family Mart have to a local area like Kumamoto City in Kyushu?
  1. In corporate stores, the style and food is always the same. I know it means consistent quality but there’s a lack of diversity and individuality. 
  1. In corporate stores, the food is mostly sourced from corporate food producers. It doesn’t come from local suppliers. 

So, please support local shops, folks. It helps build communities and if you’re lucky, you might even get some free mikans!