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The 7/11 Battle in Japan

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Convenience stores in the U.S. are horrible. Even the “healthy” part of them, which I admit have gotten a little bit better in the last decade, might mean some old bananas, red “delicious” apples, plastic-like string cheese, and maybe some hummus and pretzels. In Japan…..well, I was talking to someone about this last week and he said some people called it “second restaurant.” That’s because the quality of the food in them is….unbelievable. Like you can eat really well. Pretty fresh sushi, at least as good as what you’d get in a Whole Foods in the U.S. Little packaged salads. Soft boiled eggs. Japanese rolled omelets. All sorts of fish stuff. Decent meals to take home if want to heat something up, like udon or ramen. I mean, this is actually good food. The convenience store is a huge deal in Japan. And 7/11 is the dominant force in the nation.

But, one problem Japan faces it that the business culture of the nation continues to demand ridiculous work hours. You can see it on the faces of people still dressed in work clothes at 8 PM on the subway. And thus, it requires services to remain open long hours. In the case of the convenience stores, it requires owners of the franchises to remain open 24 hours. That often means, in a nation where low-wage work is not highly valued and there’s not a lot of immigration to cover the jobs, that the owners of the stores have to work themselves into the ground. One decided to resist and….it did not go well for him.

Mitoshi Matsumoto, the man who has waged a David-and-Goliath campaign against the Japanese convenience store giant 7-Eleven, stood in front of a roomful of the company’s franchisees on Thursday, bowed deeply and apologized.

Mr. Matsumoto has spent the last two and a half years fighting in court for control of a 7-Eleven store that the company forced out of business after he refused to operate it 24 hours a day, seven days a week. His struggle has become a rallying point for thousands of convenience store owners across the country who have bristled against the company’s rigid control of their franchises, hoping that a victory would help them win a measure of independence.

But on Thursday afternoon, a judge ordered Mr. Matsumoto to immediately hand his store in the Osaka suburbs, which he opened in 2012, over to the company and pay around $845,000 in estimated damages for lost business.

After the ruling, Mr. Matsumoto said that he was sorry to have let his supporters down, but that he intended to fight on and appeal the ruling. “It would have been better if we’d gotten a good result, but the push to shorten hours is going to keep moving forward,” he said.

In a statement, a 7-Eleven spokesman said that the ruling was “appropriate,” adding that the company would “work even harder for the patronage of customers in the region.”

The case’s final outcome is likely to have profound implications for the relationships between Japan’s convenience store companies and the more than 50,000 outlets they control. 7-Eleven’s locations account for more than 40 percent of those stores, and for decades the company has been seen as the industry standard.

Mr. Matsumoto’s problems began in early 2019 when he decided he would shorten his store’s hours, closing five hours every night in defiance of company policy. He was exhausted, labor had become increasingly unaffordable, and he had decided that the revenue from staying open into the wee hours did not justify the costs.It was a seemingly small act of rebellion. But standing up to one of the most powerful and ubiquitous corporations in Japan made him a celebrity and exposed the inner workings of an industry that had long been celebrated as a model of efficiency.

This is the story of so much work in Japan, where the workers themselves have little control. There’s a labor movement here, but the US and Japanese conservatives purged it on its radical elements back in the early 50s and like in the US, it’s never really recovered from that. Meanwhile, work culture is more intense here in Japan than it is back home. So the barriers for not having your 7/11 open at 3 AM are pretty well impossible to overcome.

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