Shelf Lives and the Labors of Loss. Food, Livelihoods, and Japan's Convenience Stores

GaVin HamiLton WHiteLaW

A Vignette: The Evening Shift

At 8 p.m. In Daily, a konbini (convenience store) in central tokyo, a young clerk places a shopping basket at his feet and begins examining the prepared foods arranged inside the store's open refrigerated cases (see figure 5.1).1 His task is to comb the shelves and remove all “loss” (rosu)—food products nearing expiration. The clerk starts with the packaged rice balls (onigiri). He turns the first item over and scrutinizes the consume-by date (shōhikigen) printed in bold on the white label stuck to the back of the package. Methodically but with considerable speed, he works his way through shelf after shelf of sandwiches, obentō (riceand noodle-based lunch boxes), single-serve salads, and chilled desserts. Each item gets inspected. Most items remain on the shelves, but some do not. When the clerk's mission concludes at a heat-lamp-warmed case incubating deep-fried snacks, there are two shopping baskets filled with nearly ¥8,000 ($88) in perishable food products resting at his side.2 Combined, the baskets are worth about as much as his take-home pay for a double shift. Gripping one basket in each hand, the clerk staggers behind the counter and into the back room, or backyard (bakkuyādo), of the store, where wakamatsu,

135 Daily's senior manager (senmu), sits at a desk in front of the store's computer. The clerk deposits the baskets on the floor beside wakamatsu and returns to the counter.

Wakamatsu is a heavyset, middle-aged man and the youngest son of a shop owner family. He is also a fifteen-year veteran of the convenience business. Reaching into the basket closer to him, he plucks a fried noodle (yakisoba) obentō out and presses a barcode reader to the label. Beep! The item appears on the monitor, and wakamatsu strikes the “enter” key with his index finger, officially registering the unsold product as “food waste” (shokuhin haiki). Although on the computer screen the yakisoba lunch box moves with digital seamlessness from the world of commodities into the realm of trash, the product itself does not go directly into the garbage. Wakamatsu places it into an empty basket on a chair to his right and grabs another product from the stack of food to be processed. The beeps of the scanner and the clicks of the keyboard are punctuated by short grunts as wakamatsu bends in his chair to scoop up item after item. Upon recording the contents of the first basket, he pauses to stretch. After staring for a moment at the growing pile of decommissioned food, he reaches over and selects a fried pork cutlet sandwich. He tears the package open, takes a few bites, swallows, and then turns back to face the next basket of loss waiting at his feet.

Scenes such as this are commonplace among Japan's forty-seven thousand convenience stores, or konbini, as these shops are popularly known. Japan's major chains are concerned about freshness and food safety and stipulate that store franchisees must adhere to a strict policy of collecting, recording, and disposing of unsold food products on or nearing their consume-by date. Such practices contribute to staggering statistics about Japan's annual food waste. According to a 2013 newspaper editorial, Japan discards between 17 million and 23 million tons of food each year; 23 million tons of food is worth ¥11 trillion, equivalent in yen to Japan's total annual agricultural output (“an appalling waste of Food” 2013). In just a single twenty-four-hour period, tokyo alone generates six thousand tons of food waste (ibid.). This is enough food to sustain approximately one-third of the city's own population for an entire day. Household food waste and loss resulting from the production and distribution process are also included in these statistics. The convenience store is readily singled out, however, for the role it plays. In 2003, Japan's Ministry of agriculture reported that six hundred thousand tons of Japan's food waste were “loss” recorded by convenience stores and supermarkets. The amount of food waste generated annually by this segment of the retail industry alone can feed a city

Figure 5.1

Gavin Whitelaw arranging and checking store lunch box selections

Of 3 million people for a year at the minimum daily nutritional requirement levels set by the world Health Organization (wHO) (Ōsako 2005, 1).

Sobering data on unsold products and food waste expose the darker side of convenience culture and are a sharp counterpoint to media-driven depictions of convenience stores as rationalized retail cornucopias. But while these stores may epitomize “disposable society” (tsukaisute shakai) in Japan, a significant portion of unsold convenience store food does not wind up in the garbage. Many store owners and workers take issue with the rules regulating how food products are to be treated in their post-shelf lives. Franchise operators, like wakamatsu, are disturbed by the sheer wastefulness of throwing out perfectly edible products that they are essentially buying from the chain headquarters. They ignore corporate directives and turn to eating their losses— literally. Although recorded as waste, a wide range of prepared and packaged convenience foods—rice balls, obentō, sandwiches, salads, oden (hot stews), Desserts, bread products, milk—actually make their way into the mouths of owners, their families, their staff, and others. In this chapter, i explore food— unsold yet edible food—as a site of uncertainty, discomfort, and even negotiation for those running one of the most rationalized and efficient retail systems on the planet. Digging deeper into issues of disposability that are so readily associated with the convenience store, i examine post-commodity consumption practices and behind-the-counter gleaning to understand how store owners and staff struggle with and informalize a highly formal retail system.

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