Konbinization and the Wider World of Waste
“Observant participation” (wacquant 2003, 2005) in the convenience store culture had its gustatory dimensions for me as an anthropologist. I was given and ate a lot of loss over nearly two years of ethnographic research. Following an interview with a family running a Lawson convenience store in shizuoka early on in my study, the owner's wife, who was also the store's tenchō (manager), rushed out to the street as i was leaving and pressed a bag of expired rice balls and bread snacks into my hand, apologizing that there wasn't more to offer me but noting that these foods would keep me from getting hungry on the train. Only a half hour before, i had observed her decommissioning the food in the shop's backyard.
Halfway through my fieldwork when i was fully embedded as a store clerk (see whitelaw 2008), the convenience store became my kitchen. This experience intensified my appreciation for the various roles that loss plays in the life of this institution. For one month i consciously lived out of these stores, using them not just for work but also as a place to find sustenance, socialize, and relax. I conducted most of my financial transactions there, posted all my mail in them, arranged to meet people at the stores, and made ample use of their bathrooms and trash receptacles. I referred to the experiment as “konbinization.”
My intentional embrace of convenience-store-as-life-support was not without precedent. Since the mid-1990s, Japanese authors have explored the possibilities of the convenience store diet (see Kon'ya mo konbini ga yamerarenai! 1994). Clerking at a store provided me, however, with an opportunity for far greater immersion. Another obvious influence on my methodological turn was the film Supersize Me, a “shockumentary” by director Morgan spurlock in which he chronicles a month of him eating nothing but McDonald's food. However, my interest in konbinization differed from the approach spurlock took in his film. I was less interested in a gratuitous, belly-churning exposé on the legal, financial, and physical costs of Japan's convenience food hunger. Spurlock's investigative punch was in drastically altering his lifestyle to accentuate the habits of the average american. He limited his daily exercise and diet while increasing his visits to not one but three doctors for their professional opinions on how his health was faring as he ate his way through Ninety-three consecutive McDonald's meals. The study i envisioned demanded a different set of parameters. I wanted to keep doing what i was already doing (studying convenience stores) but do it more intensively and consciously than my initial methodological structure allowed. Also, restricting myself merely to food was too narrow a focus considering all the functions convenience stores fulfill in people's daily lives.
After two full weeks of konbinizing, my refrigerator flushed itself out and reached a steady state of near emptiness. All the food products fit on the top shelf. For the first time in my life, i knew exactly what my refrigerator contained. But by the end of the second week, i was also feeling a pinch. Not in the stomach but in the wallet. I ate mostly prepared foods, and my daily consumption was costing me between ¥1,800 and ¥3,000 ($19–32). Such costs encouraged me to take on more shifts at Daily and accept more unsold food. I froze the food that i couldn't consume immediately, a technique i had gleaned from my conversation with wakamatsu mentioned above. On occasion, i would give unsold food to my landlord. He was grateful and never refused my offers. Meeting a friend for dinner became harder a few weeks into my project, when acquaintances got sick of my warm invitations to dine at Family Mart or 7-eleven, so i focused my convenience commensality on “loss” meals during my store breaks. I lingered after my shifts to nibble and chat. It felt nourishing not to be alone, even in the dim, cramped confines of the store's backyard.
During my month-long immersion in convenience life, i also took to throwing away much of my waste in store trash cans. In the course of just the first week of convenience living, i amassed twenty-eight plastic bags; six plastic straws; thirteen pairs of chopsticks; eleven plastic spoons of various sizes; a few plastic forks; and two ten-liter trash bags of plastic plates, covers, cellophane wrapping, and Pet bottles (recyclable plastic bottles). In tokyo, almost all convenience chains take part in municipal recycling programs. Whereas in the United states one is lucky to find a recycling bin outside a store, in Japan there are several containers for different types of recyclables: non-combustibles (plastic products, styrofoam material); combustibles (newspapers, magazines, food products); cans and glass bottles; and Pet bottles. Whether a plastic bag is a combustible or non-combustible depends on the person who is doing the discarding, but i found that the non-combustible trash can was usually brimming with bags, and many of the bags were from different chains than the store whose trash can i was using.
On my daily visits to store waste bins, i also crossed paths with people, Usually men, tugging small carts or suitcase dollies with cardboard boxes lashed to them. These people paid quick visits to the combustible trash cans and fished out magazines and comic books. They didn't dig or pull trash out. Like a bee collecting nectar, they hovered for a moment, popped one hand into the mouth of the receptacle, and then withdrew the item they wanted. In a blink of an eye, they were off down the sidewalk to the next convenience store. On one occasion, i followed a particular gleaner on his rounds starting at Daily. His pace wore me out, but thanks to him, i learned the location of half a dozen new stores. Japan's rojōseikatsusha (people living on the street) earn part of their living by gleaning and recycling from convenience store trash cans (see figure 5.3). In addition to magazines, the street people also collect cans that they redeem for money. Until 2006, one kilogram of cans earned the collector ¥116 (around $1 at that time), though the rate fluctuated (sakaguchi 2007, 43). Can competition around convenience stores is fierce according to a street couple interviewed by architect and activist sakaguchi Kyōhei. Tokyo convenience stores, including Daily, typically lock their large trash bins in order to guard against waste and recyclables being disturbed by humans and animals, including the city's sizable crow population (Kirby 2011). As a way around these measures, some street people establish private agreements with store owners to allow them access to cans and other “recyclables”—including unsold food.
Several studies have been conducted to examine the patterns of people living on the street. In 1995, the forced eviction of thousands of street people from major parks around Osaka prior to the asia-Pacific economic Cooperation summit and a similar roundup before the 2002 world Cup soccer tournament prompted economists at Osaka University to study why street people congregate in certain urban areas. The project team members were surprised to find that convenience store density and access are statistically more important in street life settlement patterns than proximity to welfare offices or even public hospitals (suzuki 2002). In 2005, members of the same team assisted with a survey of street people in tokyo's sumida ward. Eight percent of the six hundred people surveyed in this study specifically reported eating expired convenience store food (Mizuta et al. 2005, 37). Much of this food may not have come from the trash but reached the street people through the backdoor beneficence of store owners and staff, an activity memorialized in the award-winning film Nobody Knows (Dare mo shiranai). In the film, based on a true story, four abandoned children living in the tokyo metropolitan area survive in their suburban neighborhood through the largesse of
Gleaning from a convenience store's trash can
Sympathetic convenience store attendants who take pity and share what is presumably unsold food.