If you are a long time American TV couch potato, you would be forgiven to think that all convenience stores everywhere are tiny consumerist hell holes of Slurpees and filthy bathrooms and armed robberies, with an unreliable Apu-like character at helm. Perhaps you will be glad to hear about the comparatively shiny reputations that Japanese convenience stores enjoy. Regarded almost like safe havens here, convenience stores (or combinis) have been feeding and healing and cleaning and clothing millions of Japanese citizens during the many haphazard lunch hours and careless nights they get through each year. C’est la vie.
Convenience stores in Japan started around the 1970s, with 7-Eleven Japan starting the first convenience store chain, and remained dominant till today. Other convenience store chains soon came, including Lawson (which used to be a chain store from the States) and Family Mart (homegrown). Both respectively are the 2nd and 3rd largest chains in Japan now. In total, there are almost 45,000 convenience stores in Japan. In larger cities, they are so ubiquitous that you are not able to walk along a street and not come across a convenience store.
Keeping the tired schooling and working crowd nourished is one of the foremost aims of convenience stores, and they do well by serving staples like onigiri (rice balls), sandwiches, bread and rolls, salads, fried food and of course bentos. They also keep shelves for bottled drinks and beer well stocked. Seasonal food like oden (boiled food in soy-based dashi soup) also come during colder or hotter days. The quantity is not much, and perhaps an ideal amount for a working lunch, and typically cost less than 500 yen (of around 5 USD). During lunch time, busy working people and students crowd in these stores to grab food for a quick bite in their offices and at school desks, trying not to think of how mundanely sad it is that they are forced to be alone by themselves and have no time to have a good lunch…
Convenience stores nowadays also offer other things and services that, well, make our lives convenient. Besides your typical travel-kit shampoo and pain killers and magazines, convenience stores in Japan also let you pay your bills, collect your online shopping in the wee hours of the night, grab concert tickets through their ticketing machine, get microwavable rice… All of this convenience is available 24/7, it is not surprising a lot of us end up being spoilt into irresponsibility and sloth!