by

Pulp Fiction was right – the funniest thing about other cultures is the little differences. The radically different customs and traditions in other cultures make sense to us, but our similarities? Now those are weird.

Take for example convenience stores. They’re pretty much ubiquitous in both Japan and the United States, but some little differences set them apart. And a lot of the time, those little disparities make a world of difference.

American Convenience Stores

If you’re unfamiliar with American convenience stores, you’re not really missing out on a whole lot. Generally, they’re attached to gas stations, and are seen as kind of scuzzy places.

American convenience stores don’t offer a lot of high-end products, but if you’re looking to buy cigarettes, gum, or three-day-old hot dogs, then they are the place to go.

Thank you, but no.

And convenience store bathrooms? They’re cesspools of disease and filth where superviruses are born. Convenience store bathrooms are places where you might be tricked into thinking syringes are standard issue.

In short, American convenience stores are places I only visit when I need to pay for gas (or have a Slurpee craving). Now Japanese convenience stores, on the other hand, couldn’t be more different.

The Konbini

There are a few things that Japanese convenience stores (or konbinis) have in common with American convenience stores.

First of all, there are a couple of American convenience stores that made it across the Pacific. 7/11, Circle K, ampm, and Lawson all have franchises in Japan. Well, kind of. Japan has absorbed a lot of these companies and made them into Japanese companies

Circle K in Japan

ampm recently got bought up by a Japanese convenience store, and Circle K combined with a Japanese chain called Sunkus. Lawson is now virtually unheard-of in the USA, and the Japanese 7/11 franchise actually got so big that it bought out its parent company.

And that’s not even mentioning all of the homegrown Japanese konbini chains like Family Mart, Ministop, and a bunch of other, smaller chains.

What Makes Them Better

But what sets the konbini part from your average, everyday American convenience store? For one, they do everything.

One Stop Shopping

Not only is there the typical convenience store fare of food, magazines, manga, and other assorted goods, but they sell concert and amusement park tickets. You can pay your bills, withdraw money from an ATM, and use the copier. Some sell clothes and other wares.

Konbini chain Family Mart has even considered getting into the funeral business. If that’s not one-stop shopping, I don’t know what is.

The Food

Konbini food, believe it or not, is actually pretty decent. Unlike the microwave chimichangas you’ll find in American convenience stores, konbini food appears edible and sometimes even fresh.

Not only are there convenience store staples like candy, chips, and soft drinks, but the hot food at a konbini is what makes them shine.

From the cherished onigiri riceballs to bento meals, pre-prepared konbini food isn’t half-bad. Some onigiri are even wrapped in such a way that the seaweed isn’t touching the rice, preserving its freshness and crispiness.

Even the TV-dinner style (not frozen) bento are pretty great (for the price, at least). If you want, you can get your meal warmed up for you in a ridiculously strong microwave. What should take a minute or two takes a fraction of that. I wish I had a microwave like that at home.

Drinks in a konbini aren’t limited to Slurpess and drip coffee, either. They offer hot drinks that are closer to a cafe a than old coffee grounds that are usually offered at American convenience stores. Of course, there’s also all the staples like tea, fruit drinks, and all the standard Coke and Pepsi fare.

Safety

One notable difference between American and Japanese convenient stores is the safety-factor. I read somewhere a while back that 24 hours konbini actually became a sort of safe-haven for women in Japan. If they thought someone was following them, they could go inside one of the brightly lit stores and wait a while before continuing on.

Besides that, though, they just have an overall feeling of “safe” to them. When I go into an American convenience store, I get out as quickly as possible, assuming that at any moment a gun wielding lunatic will be coming in demanding all the money (and then I’d have to use my super powers to save the day, and that’s just inconvenient if you ask me).

Of course, Japan is a generally safe country already, but while we’re comparing I feel like it ought to be brought up.

Loitering

Konbinis also tend to be a great place to loiter. I don’t know about you, but in America you don’t see people standing around for hours reading magazines. Konbini in Japan are a great place to do this. Even if a store clerk minded, they’d be too polite to tell you to leave (they don’t mind, though, everyone does this).

If you’re the loitering type, konbini are a great place to do it at. American convenience stores? Prepare to be yelled at by a grumpy employee.

Oh, And They’re For Everybody!

I think American convenience stores have pretty specific markets. When I envision a US 7/11, I see sketchy middle aged dudes and groups of no-good teenagers (damn kids!) hanging around inside the store.

Konbini, on the other hand, attract a pretty broad audience. They’re seen more as small corner stores for anybody to use. Not to mention, they’re pretty convenient, even when you’re not looking to get cigarettes and booze.

[hr]

I would also recommend a write up about konbini from one of my favorite Japan blogs, This Japanese Life. You can check it out here.

Which is your favorite konbini store? What do you like to get there? Tell me in the comments!

P.S. Konbini lover? Follow Tofugu on Twitter.
P.P.S.  Check out Tofugu on Facebook and Google+.

[Header image source]

  • Anonymous

    Maybe it would be interesting a comparison between konbinis and regular markets.
    I mean, they seem just too good to be true – why should someone ever need anything else?
    Are regular markets that more expensive?
    Thank you ;)

  • Anonymous

    Sounds like the convenience stores in Japan are more like one-stop shopping centers in America like Walmart or Target and less like our type of convenience stores.

  • http://www.facebook.com/Casanters Casey Harris

    I worked at a 7-11 in Japan when I was studying there.  It was actually kinda fun.  

    And pretty much lived out of a Fami-Mart for atleast a year.  If I couldn’t buy it there or at 99, I didn’t need it.

    And you could get pretty much everything there.
    Damn, it’s those little things that make you miss Japan the most.

  • Krystal

    Ah, but Japanese convenience stores aren’t that big. They’re the same size as ours! They just let you do more stuff (^∇^)

  • http://twitter.com/hello_peep Jessie Ann

    Konbini was one of my favorite things when I went to Japan. The bento was so good! And everything was pretty cheap! It’s also one of the many things I missed when I had to come back home. I shed a tear every time I walk into a 7/11. Thanks for the article! ^^

  • http://twitter.com/rick_ramone rick ramone

    さあーあ、親が寝たから…..
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ziX1oQRiA3w

  • Michi79kw

    I loved my Lawson 100 store down the street. They sold cheap good produce. I did half my grocery shopping there.

  • julied

    You forgot to mention that the restrooms (as long as they have western toilets) are beautiful.  I will forever love the コンビニ. 

  • http://www.survivingnjapan.com/ Ashley

    Konbini are definitely quite convenient over here! Although just a note that not all have ATMs. 7-11 does, but Circle K just recently started putting in ATMs. Others may depend on where you go. In the cities I think it’s a fairly safe bet though, but just in case. :)

    I also feel like more often than not the bathrooms are kind of gross though (someone mentioned nice bathrooms in the comments), but I tend to avoid konbini bathrooms. I’ve also been to some really nice convenience stores in the States (usually along main travel routes), but still, they don’t have everything a konbini does!

  • http://www.survivingnjapan.com/ Ashley

    Konbini are much more expensive than regular markets for most items. You can get a better deal going to to the local supermarket (they’re also cheaper than vending machines.) You pay for the convenience factor, more or less.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jackyl3 Jacky Lee

    コンビに!!! konbinience xD
    Im quite a kuishinbou (someone who loves to eat) and so whenever I have a sudden craving for desserts, bread or some chu-hi, I always pop down to the nearest konbini which was about less than 5 minutes away. So convenient.

    I miss nikuman, chu-hi, fukimidaifuku so so much >.<

  • Elmer Snagelhof

    I once got a piece of pure anko covered in something…white…at a Lawson! I thought it was cake by the way it looked…

  • Anonymous

    Do they have wifi? And if they do, why would you ever leave one?

  • http://www.facebook.com/jackyl3 Jacky Lee

    like Ashley said, Konbini is just for convenience. Regular markets does have its advantage with cheaper goods and plus it has a wider range of products. Also meat/vegetables which you wont find in Konbinis.

  • ZXNova

    This is why I love Japan. Even the mini-stores are better. I knew that Japan was much safer in America, so I would expect the mini-marts to have a safe fell too. Yeah… Wish I could go ASAP. Well, I don’t know much Japanese yet,  but I’m trying yup!

  • kuyaChristian

    You guys should write about the differences between 100-yen shops [like Daiso] and your typical 99cent store in the US.
    The konbini reminds me of convenience stores in the Philippines – they’re just as awesome. Have you guys heard of Mister Donut?  You guys should write about that too. 
    Which brings up ANOTHER good point, you guys can also write about failed American franchises that are now basically based in the Asia [and more so Japanese] market. Mister Donut is one of those franchises too. The Mister Donut places here in the US have become Dunkin Donuts and almost all of the Mister Donut francise is in Asia :]

  • Anonymous

    Once upon a time, LA had a Mister Donut…

  • robersora

    We might have no Convenience-Stores here in Austria, our equivalent would be gas stations. The funny thing is, the quality can be very bad (like you described the American version) but also very good too. 

  • giraffe

    Slurpess…. lol

  • John

    Oh chu-hi, how I long for thee.

  • Anonymous

    As far as Slurpees, they’re currently an “experimental offering”. A few 7-11s here and there are popping up with Slurpee machines (two flavors: Coke and Fanta… melon?) but it’s far from widespread. Not that there aren’t plenty of other things to choose from.

  • http://twitter.com/jyuichi jyuichi

    Strange but true, Lawson’s was actually an Ohio chain that became so big in Japan they gave up on the US market and relocated. My father was in shock to see Lawson’s again when he came to Tokyo.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/4VS6JK7S4RVRDFSBKH5CV6NLPU StephS

    Hashi, I have always enjoyed your topics, this one…not so much. You generalized the US convenience stores too much. I can agree that most convenience stores are pretty nasty, But I took offense to the generalizations about many of the points you made. 

    I work for a Circle K in Ohio. We all take steps to make sure that our store is clean, our food is fresh and that our bathrooms shine.  There are some of us that take pride in what we do and it reflects in the work we do by keeping our store looking great. I feel perfectly safe working where I do as a woman.  Our store is brightly lit and we have frequent visits from the local police department.(some of the Officers love our coffee) We also have a range of people that come in, from young to old and everything in between. (Very unlike your vision.)

    I realize that this was supposed to be a comparison topic, shining a lovely light on all the things we love about Japan, but please don’t undermine the rest of us to make a point.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/4VS6JK7S4RVRDFSBKH5CV6NLPU StephS

    They didn’t “give up” per say.
     Lawson’s was owned by Consolidated.When Consolidated owned the rights to the Lawson name and brand, they came to an agreement with the Japanese company Daiei  to open Lawson’s in Japan.  Consolidated sold its US company to Dairy Mart and all the old Lawson’s in the US became Dairy Mart. Then Dairy Mart was bought out by a Canadian company, Couche-Tard.

  • Bryan

    You can also buy concert tickets and pay for Amazon orders from konbini. If you don’t trust your neighbors, you can even have packages delivered to the shop to pick up.

    One note, though, Lawson actually started in Ohio, not Japan. The US branch has simply gone out of business.

  • Meganini

    Yeah, I wouldn’t compare them to Walmart or Target. I’d say they’re more like what our convenience stores should be. Just take what we have here and idealize it (including awesome ice cream choices!).

  • Meganini

    I miss going to the konbini and getting little pancakes and bringing them back to our hostel in the morning to eat with a cup  of coffee. The pancakes already have syrup between them, so my kids and I would just heat them up for a few seconds in the microwave and have a delicious breakfast! I miss Japan!

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_NMMV6AXYY4MPQ67ULYXG542TKA Jen

    Actually, Lawson is not a home-grown Japanese combini. It was originally an Akron, Ohio based milk company that used to deliver milk door to door (old school style). They then grew into a convenience store chain and were later bought by another company.

    My parents got milk from them when they were kids and were amazed to see a piece of nostalgia living on in Japan.

    Edit: Oops, looks this someone’s already pointed this out. Serves me right for not refreshing this page for 10 hours.

  • Anonymous

    Thank you both for the answers! Will definetly try both and see what’s better, where.
    ありがとうございます!

  • http://twitter.com/prairiepanda Caddie Frost

    You can find some convenience stores nearly as great as konbini up here in Canada. There are two ways to find them: by going on a road trip, or by knowing someone in the military. The best convenience stores are found in towns that are so small that the convenience store appears to be the ONLY store around(this is usually not true, but to the untrained eye that’s how it looks.) Provost Esso station? PARADISE. The other awesome convenience stores are on all the military bases in Canada. They’re called Canex, and most of them are so well equipped that people living on base never really have to leave for anything. (Of course, boredom and a desire for variety always get people ditching base every day.) I’ve found that you can even loiter in a Canex for a couple hours. Not so much in the small-town stores, where the employees assume you need help and start pestering you after a half hour. It might be different if you actually lived in the town.

  • http://twitter.com/prairiepanda Caddie Frost

    I think I would feel pretty lost without slurpees in convenience stores. Although, I usually only get the craving when it’s really cold out, and Japan doesn’t really get cold, so I might not notice. (And don’t get going about Hokkaido being cold! The coldest I’ve heard from there is -20C! That’s barely enough for frostbite.)

  • Anonymous

    http://mdn.mainichi.jp/mdnnews/national/archive/news/2012/01/12/20120112p2g00m0dm171000c.html

    -29ºC may not be unbearable but it certainly isn’t warm, even by Canadian standards. I’d be pretty surprised if they started rolling out Slurpee machines in Hokkaido this soon anyway– even if they did share your cold-weather craving. ;)

  • http://profiles.google.com/japan.alana Alana Green

    I like being able to pay my bills at any time.  The food at combinis is really good.  You can actually eat something healthy and fresh. And they aren’t as overprices as they are in Canada.

    Each combini has its own thing going for it:

    Lawson has great promos like Hello Kitty kuji and Rilakkuma bonus gifts. Plus, Amazon.jp delivers COD to Lawson.

    Family Mart has great desserts and you can buy SKYPE credit.

    Seven Eleven is best for bento/dinner foods and has an international ATM.  They also seem to have more Western items. But they have a poor selection of bread and drinks.

    Sankus has good desserts but is otherwise crappy.

    Daily Yamazaki….god I hate that combini.

    http://www.alanagreen.blogspot.com

  • Annonyynonnynon000

    Not only bills but online purchases like Amazon.co.jp and airplane tickets!  Don’t forget about that!  SUPER handy.  Some you can even have your stuff delivered there or drop it off there for pickup ^^.

    Annnd some combinis have their own bakeries.  The combini by my house makes fresh breads and cakes everyday.  Of course they’re not as great as an upscale bakery, but pretty damn good for the price

  • http://omipan.tumblr.com/ gavinovz

    Here in Pennsylvania convenience stores are actually very nice, the three leading chains being Sheetz, Wawa and Turkey Hill.  I once walked into a new Wawa in Hamburg that looked freakishly similar to a Japanese convenience store in terms of floor layout. Pennsylvanian convenience stores still lack in all the services afforded by their Japanese counterparts though. 

  • Jon E.

    When I went to Japan in Dec of ’09, we used Lawson and Family Mart like there was no tomorrow! :-)

  • Jon E.

    Your convenience store, which I’ve never heard of or been to before until this article (perhaps they aren’t in GA), sounds absolutely lovely! Unfortunately, that is quite rare here in the U.S, and I think it’s perfectly fair to say so – it’s just fact. Although Circle K is in Japan as well, as is talked about in this post. I know from reading Tofugu for years now that they did not mean any offense at all, especially with a topic like this. Please try not to take it so seriously. As sad as it is, convenience stores in the U.S are simply NOT up to Japanese convenience store standards…one visit to the real thing in Japan will show anyone that. Yours, perhaps, is an exception – and that would be a beautiful exception if it is! I’d love to have a convenience store like yours near my house!

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

     Sorry, I meant no offense! I was aiming for tongue-in-cheek, but I guess I went too far.

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    Whoops, my mistake :x

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

     Sorry Whoops, my mistake. I’ll go ahead and edit in a correction.

  • http://www.twitter.com/christaran Chris Taran

    I guess you guys don’t have Sheetz out in California, but in Pennslyvania it sounds like it’s exactly like a Japanese konbini. Clean, good food, tons of stuff to buy, and overall a nice experience!

  • http://profiles.google.com/jonadab.theunsightlyone Jonadab the Unsightly One

    > I’ve also been to some really nice convenience stores
    > in the States (usually along main travel routes)

    Along the route between here and where I went to college, there was a strategically-placed Speedway/Starvin Marvin that we used to visit almost every trip.

    I think that may be another big difference between American and Japanese convenience stores:  Americans mostly go to them when stopping for gas — either on trips, because you’ve got to get out and walk around for a minute and pay for your gas anyway, and so then you’re tempted to buy a drink and whatnot “for the road” while you’re at it, or else locally around town, because you’re on the way to something and may as well take coffee and a donut with you.  It’s difficult to imagine a convenience store staying in business in the States if they aren’t built into a gas station, because when else does anybody go to one?

    > When I go into an American convenience store, I get out
    > as quickly as possible, assuming that at any moment a
    > gun wielding lunatic will be coming in demanding all the money

    Okay, I gotta know:  are you from South Central LA, or do you just watch way too many movies?

    > in America you don’t see people standing around for hours reading magazines

    Umm, no.  How bored would you have to be?  Most people have other things to do with their time, and those few who don’t (teenagers and pathetically lonely retired people, mostly) want to go someplace where they can be part of a social group, not stand around alone in a store reading magazines.  How sad is that?

  • http://www.vietamins.com Viet

    >Umm, no.  How bored would you have to be?  Most people have other things to do with their time, and those few who don’t (teenagers and pathetically lonely retired people, mostly) want to go someplace where they can be part of a social group, not stand around alone in a store reading magazines.  How sad is that?

    Have you ever been to a Barnes and Noble? :P

  • belgand

    We have a few Daiso in the US. There’s at least one in San Francisco and another just south of town in  Colma.

  • belgand

    In some cases you see small corner stores in US cities that approach this level. Mainly in the quality of food. For whatever reason almost every one in San Francisco is some combination of grocery store/liquor store/deli with varying degrees of focus. Almost all of them carry fresh produce, but the quality and selection varies wildly, many carry freshly baked bread, and a few are so notable for their sandwiches or other food (usually ethnic, hummus and dolmas are especially popular, but piroshkis aren’t uncommon in the right places) that they make up for the majority of the business. I know of only a few that really get into serving coffee and hot drinks, but I’ve been to at least one that had couches and tables and sort of half-cafe. 

  • Someone

    Yes, we have to watch TV and crappy TV shows (better things to do :)) I prefer reading (at least in my case)

  • Melly

    I agree, wawa is tops.

  • sodiumion

    The onigiri from 7-E rocks, but FamiMa (Family Mart) has awesome oden, while Lawson’s L-chicken rocks. Meanwhile, I’d always pick Lawson as the first choice.

  • http://www.facebook.com/TakeshiKunX Joe D. Wright

    When I went to Japan a few weeks ago, I almost always found myself at a Family Mart. The one I went to in Tokyo had a crap ton of Anime figures and manga. I also never left the store without a delicious box of Pocky and a pack of One Piece trading cards.

  • flávia

    ai que saudadessssssss que sinto do Nihon…..

  • Alf

    Any idea how I can arrange to have a package shipped to a combini and then pick it up when I arrive in Japan for my holiday?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Britt-Olinder-Stevens/100001695518468 Britt Olinder-Stevens

    Love this! Konbini’s, vending machines, customer service, kotatsu, squat toilets (they’re healthier!), deep soaking tubs, and space efficient homes– all part of my Japanese fantasy. Japan, you’re doing that right!

  • name

    I noticed that too. When I moved to PA I was shocked by how nice the convenience stores where.

  • Kashii-Chan

    The Lawsons near my apartment had fresh produce and eggs as well as all the typical goodies. The eggs were cheaper than the ones in the super market xD