While convenience stores are a common sight across the world, the Japanese have truly mastered and embraced the concept perhaps more so than any other country with countless stores and a well developed “convenience culture” driven by fierce competition between stores vying for customers. In short, convenience stores, or konbini for short, offer an interesting look into contemporary Japanese culture and have even made their way into many manga and anime. Read on to learn more about what makes Japanese konbini special, a little bit of history behind the “Big 3” chains, and some examples of convenience stores featured in anime. Let’s check out!
The Japanese Konbini Experience
Walking into your typical konbini seems rather similar to any ordinary convenience store at first glance, you’ll usually hear a little jingle as you enter the door and see shelves stocked mostly with various snack foods and some everyday household goods. The most obvious difference is having way more Japanese products, as you would expect, but it’s worth mentioning that konbini usually have a larger amount of fresh premade meals available like onigiri, sushi, yakisoba, etc. along with your more typical section of heat lamp-warmed fried chicken and such near the cashier and a small bakery section with cheap donuts and things like melonpan. Onigiri and sandwiches in particular often see a lot of new varieties and promotions to keep things interesting and you also have the option to have an attendant warm up your meal in a microwave.
Konbini, in general, are impeccably well run, very clean, and mostly inexpensive. Many of them also sell alcohol, adult magazines, video games, and manga, which might be a bit different from your local stores; but what sets konbini most apart is the sheer amount of services offered. Not only do most have ATMs (a bit more on that later), konbini also serve as places to buy tickets, such as admission to the Ghibli Museum and music concerts, and can even be used as a pass-through of sorts for paying almost any kind of bill, including rent, utilities, online shopping, taxes, etc. (which can be especially helpful if you want to pay for these in cash) as well as shipping and receiving services, photocopy and fax.
The world’s largest chain of convenience stores is also the biggest player in Japan. Originally founded in 1927 in Dallas Texas as Tote'm Stores, the first 7-Eleven in Japan opened in 1974 in Tokyo and, after a series of mergers and acquisitions, has been under Japanese ownership by parent company Seven & I Holdings Co. since 2005. This strangely means 7-Eleven is also technically a bank (7 Bank) as well as the same company as Denny’s family restaurant in Japan. Some other quirks of 7-Eleven in Japan include their ticketing services being built right into their fax/photocopy “multicopy” machines (instead of being standalone devices) and the store’s background music being original instrumental covers of classic pop songs.
The second biggest konbini chain in the country, FamilyMart (often shortened to Famima) is a Japanese original, first started in Sayama, Saitama in 1973. While still largely similar to most other konbini, FamilyMart is known to have more variety in hot food options with their “Famima Kitchen” line and their jingle that plays whenever entering has become very iconic. FamilyMart has recently seen a lot of international expansion, especially into Asia in countries like Taiwan and Thailand, and previously even operated a small number of stores in Los Angeles, California under the humorous name of “Famima!!” from 2005 to 2015. The store was also featured prominently in the epilogue of the hit 2019 comedy film Tonde Saitama (Fly Me to Saitama) as an example of the rise of Saitama’s power.
Similar to 7-Eleven, Lawson was originally an American brand, beginning with a regional chain of stores in Ohio started by dairy farmer James "J.J." Lawson in 1939. While the American chain went through several owners, with the remnants now converted into Circle K stores, the current Japanese company is wholly separate (majority-owned by Mitsubishi) having grown tremendously since the first store opened in Toyonaka, Osaka in 1975. Lawson is likely to be the favorite of anime and game fans due to their frequent collaborations and speciality-themed stores such as the awesome Dragon Quest Lawsons in Nipponbashi and Akihabara and “Owson” stores in Sendai and Roppongi themed after their appearance in JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure: Diamond is Unbreakable. The related company Lawson HMV Entertainment has even done production work on anime series such as Kimi no Na wa. (Your Name.) and Noragami. Lawson also operates many Natural Lawson stores, which feature more healthy food and drink options, and has pushed for more environmentally friendly practices for konbini like the installation of solar panels in thousands of their stores.
Konbini in Anime
Convenience stores have appeared in countless anime, albeit often with a slightly altered named like the previously-mentioned Owson in JoJo, but usually are not the focus, an example being Subaru’s visit to a Ministop at the very beginning of Re:ZERO (which is an actual store in Chiba for those looking to go on pilgrimage, we might add). One possible exception is Konbini Kareshi (Convenience Store Boy Friends), which focuses on a group of high school boys who always stop at a konbini on the way home from school to talk about their relationships. Konbini Kareshi was another anime Lawson was involved with.
Altogether, konbini in Japan are a big part of everyday Japanese life that have influenced the larger culture in more ways than one, even making their way into the world of anime and manga. In closing, we’ll mention that there are numerous other convenience store chains like Daily Yamazaki, Ministop, and Poplar, so there’s still more to discover for true konbini konnoisseurs, but we hope you enjoyed this overview nevertheless. Please be sure to leave us a comment below and stick around Honey’s for more interesting tidbits on Japanese culture, anime, and more! See ya~!