The Japanese are generally a courteous bunch. Conversation with them generally dodges tricky topics in an effort to maintain the ‘wa’, the harmony of the group.
But there is one question that is likely to stir up passions and cause ruptures in friendships like no other question can. A question even more divisive than “Orange juice, juicy bits or smooth?” And that question is: “Which is the best convenience store?”
The Japanese Convenience Store (shortened to ‘Conbini’ in Japanese) is part of the fabric of life in Japan. They are so much more than just a handy nearby shop that sells snacks and drinks. It’s also a place where you can print and copy, send faxes, send parcels, pay bills, pay for concert tickets and go to the toilet. All on a shop floor no bigger than 20 square meters. And the ‘Conbini’ is truly convenient: they are EVERYWHERE, especially if you're in urban Japan. In the mid 1970s there were about 1,000 convenience stores in Japan. Nowadays there’s over 50,000 and counting. Within a 5 minute walk from my house I have 4 Conbinis, the closest of which is less than one minute away. And nearly all of them are open 24 hours, making them handy not just wherever you need them but whenever too.
But there are multiple brands of Conbini out there, over 30, with many other local Conbini names (Ibaraki Prefecture, just north of Tokyo, has a string of Conbinis called ‘CoCo!’ That you will find nowhere else). The Big Three, which you can find across all of Japan, are Seven-Eleven, Family Mart and Lawson. The competition between these three is fierce, and in the bigger cities like Tokyo it’s common to see half a dozen Conbini from any vantage point. They vie for your convenience, always looking for ways to differentiate themselves from the pack and rule on high as Conbini Supreme.
So what’s the difference between the Big Three? And which is the best? Let’s take a look:
When the American company landed in Japan, little could they have known that they’d be so successful that the Japanese arm of Seven-Eleven would eventually buy them out.
Instantly recognisable by their orange, green and red awning and the faux-brick walls, Seven-Eleven is the most numerous Conbini in Japan. Upon entering, you'll be treated to a muzak rendition of The Monkees’ “Daydream Believer” (their theme song).
Seven-Eleven’s strong points include a wide variety of pre-made meals and onigiri, and excellent 100-yen drip coffee: word on the street has it that Seven-Eleven uses the same coffee bean supplier as Starbucks.
Lawson will always hold a special place in this writer’s heart, as it was my nearest conbini to my first apartment in Japan.
Recognizable by their white and blue logo of a milk urn (a homage to their founder, a dairy farmer from Ohio), Lawson are the smallest of the Big Three but are arguably the most socially conscious: thousands of their stores are topped by solar panels, and they have a string of sister stores called Natural Lawson, with a focus on health and beauty goods. They also have a reputation for excellent desserts: don't miss a chance to try their infamous roll cake!
As the name implies, Family Mart (affectionately known as “Famima”) strive to be the most community-oriented. Indeed, out of the big three, it is Family Mart that is most likely to display posters of local events, and whenever my local festival rolls into town the nearby Family Mart is there with a stall of their own, peddling their own goods right next to all the other local wares.
Which is just as well, because Family Mart’s strengths lie in what you see in their hot foods display counter. In particular, their fried chicken is excellent.
And...that’s it, really. For those of you expecting a blow-by-blow account of each Conbini’s strengths and weaknesses, the simple fact is that they are all largely the same. Same prices, same products (except for the own-brand products), even the same layout. And whenever one of the Big Three find a clever way to stand out from the crowd, it is immediately copied by the competition. Like the ever-eternal debate between Pepsi and Coke, sure, there are some subtle differences and you do get the Conbini aficionados who can detail those differences, but to the average Japanese it is rare to actively patronise a particular Conbini name.
So on the off chance that you are in Japan and are asked which is your favorite Conbini, the correct answer is always “The nearest one!”