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Home arrow Political science arrow Capturing contemporary Japan: differentiation and uncertainty

Loss and Affect

My konbinization project brought me into more frequent contact with the workers and owners of convenience stores in my neighborhood. I visited the store around the corner from where i lived almost every day. I purchased mostly milk and rice balls at that store, and i made a lot of photocopies there as well, having found the quality of the photocopier to be the best in the area— even better than that in the convenience store next to the public library where i borrowed most of my books and magazines. In a month's time, the store become my “third place” (Oldenburg 1989), a point of regular social interaction outside of work and home. But not for long. Soon after my konbinization experiment ended, the store owner, aoki, whom i had come to know over The course of daily visits, offered me a job working at his store. He knew that i was doing research on convenience stores and didn't mind. The job offer came with an opportunity to study the management practices of yet another convenience store.

Convenience stores are standardized retail formats, and there was much that was familiar to me when i put on a new uniform and started working. But there were differences as well. Aoki's management style and approach to ordering food was one example. When ordering food, which aoki did alongside his wife, the couple relied less on the store computer and the number of items that the store computer recommended they order and more on a handwritten log they kept in a three-ring binder. Maintaining an accurate record in this log book was important to the store, and the couple trained their staff on how the data were to be collected. Recording loss in the three-ring binder was part of the store's informal management.

Despite efforts to reduce the amount of unsold food, it was impossible for the aokis to avoid loss. Unsold food was not discarded but taken for consumption. The redistribution of store loss took two forms. First, certain items were given strategically to particular customers. Such giveaways, known as omake, are long-standing merchant practices in Japan. They are a display of preferential service bestowed upon customers to both thank them for their patronage and encourage their continued loyalty. Although the convenience stores' emphasis on “dry” customer relations and a strict accounting system curbs this practice, owners like aoki could and did use expired food products to add flavor and character to the standardized service provided by their store.

The deliveryman who received packages of pastry while purchasing lunch is a particularly interesting case. Several months prior to my starting my second clerking job, the chain to which aoki belonged cut off contract relations with this deliveryman's company when the chain decided to become a vendor for a new package delivery system offered by Japan Post. All at once, the chain's several thousand stores nationwide ceased to accept package delivery orders from this company. But the bad blood between the chain headquarters and the package delivery firm did not prevent the deliveryman from occasionally dropping by aoki's store to buy food and drink. On such occasions, aoki would relieve me at the counter and slip an expired package of sweet rolls into the deliveryman's bag of purchases. Both men nodded their bows, but no words were exchanged.

The aoki couple also consumed loss and shared it with their employees, Yet they did so in a way that drew them together with the staff. Instead of their simply handing out unsold food to workers, the food was incorporated into home-cooked meals. (Preparing and sharing meals with employees is far from rare in the world of Japanese small business.) The couple would ferry unsold food items into their apartment, where aoki's wife would transform rice balls into steaming plates of fried rice. Expired tofu went into freshly made miso soup or mābōdofu, a flavorful Chinese dish. Obentō were disassembled and recombined with other ingredients into full meals on proper porcelain plates. In the dozens of meals i shared with the aokis and other workers, not once did disposable chopsticks appear on the table. If i had not seen the food leaving the store and the plastic packages and the evidence left by wrappers piled on the kitchen counter of the apartment, i would not have known that lunch was loss. Without children of their own, the aokis found a certain satisfaction in eating with others. Aoki admitted that not everyone was appreciative of their approach, but the workers who remained as employees mentioned that being served a meal distinguished the aoki's operations from establishments where they had worked, convenience stores included.

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