Living Out of the Trash

While some owners, like the aokis, were able to transform loss into a convivial mode of survival, other families struggled. For the ishiguros, loss became a metonym for personal dissolution and despair. Ishiguro Kazuhiko and his wife, Keiko, were approaching their sixties when they became convenience store franchisees for one of Japan's largest chains. Kazuhiko was nearing his retirement, and he started to ponder a fresh approach to the decades that lay ahead. He had worked as a salaryman for the same company for thirty years, was restless in his job, and yearned for a new challenge without a large amount of risk. Owning a convenience store came to mind. He and his wife looked into various chains, focusing on the more well-known store chains, which boasted considerable instruction and “backup” for their franchisees. “we didn't have any experience. We had no idea what we were getting ourselves into,” Kazuhiko said in retrospect.

Kazuhiko admitted that the convenience business fit well with a larger hope he had for his family. Both of Kazuhiko's children were settled abroad. His son was working for an american company, and his daughter was about to begin graduate school. He and his wife hoped that some day one or both of their children would return to Japan and join them in running the Business. A convenience store franchise was a business that he could offer his children.

Taking on a franchise was not an easy decision. Kazuhiko had no experience in the field of small retail. But buffering some of these concerns were resources and experiences that his family possessed. To start with, the ishiguros had financial resources to draw on. They owned a home and were not in debt. Their children were independent, and by taking an early retirement, Kazuhiko would receive a “golden parachute,” enough to cover the startup costs of the business. Keiko also possessed skills that would be helpful in running a store. She had previously held a job in insurance sales and was experienced in customer service. The chain they were courting recognized these assets. The chain's recruiters were looking for families who would make successful and reliable franchisees. Simply being a married couple is not enough; franchise chains use interviews as a way to get behind a couple's salaryman-housewife image to see how the pair might or might not work together in a store management situation. The interest of the wife is weighed more heavily than the enthusiasm of the husband.

Initially Keiko was not excited about the plan. Kazuhiko assured her that they would not be stocking shelves for the rest of their lives. He argued that it was a chance to own and grow a business that would sustain them into their elder years. He foresaw his son and daughter taking on positions in the store and the family expanding the business to two franchises within the first two years, then adding a third store by the fifth year of their contract. Kazuhiko's plan was exactly what many major chains currently outline to prospective owners. Owning multiple stores minimized risk and maximized profit. In the multiple franchise formulation, three stores represented the ideal; one store was likely to be a dud, but the profits of the other two would make up the difference. Kazuhiko felt he had the energy and management skills to build an enterprise. After five or six years he and Keiko could step back and enjoy more free time for themselves, supported by a steady income from their franchise holdings. The store chain's representatives encouraged the ishiguros to think in this way. Like other chains, this company also faced challenges in finding “capable” new owners and in recent years had begun encouraging its prospective franchisees to have a long-term business plan that included license expansion.

Immediately after opening their store, the ishiguros found that running a convenience store entailed far more than they had been trained for. For starters, they faced issues with schedules and staff. Kazuhiko summed the issues up in This way: “there is a lot of discussion about being more independent these days. The convenience store seemed to be an image of that; it seemed to make that possibility a reality. But [i] just didn't understand what running a twentyfour-hour business meant. The headquarters gives you these model schedules of work shifts, showing who is working when. . . . That is not easy to arrange. The headquarters didn't explain this reality. Cultivating a reliable workforce is difficult. It adds to the pressure and unease of the job.” Troubles for the couple mounted. Store costs were much higher than they had anticipated. They had trouble with a worker whom they caught stealing from the store. His forced dismissal brought threats on their lives. Kazuhiko said, “the store was supposed to be our business, but increasingly we wondered for whom we were really working this hard and suffering this much.” Kazuhiko recalled his task each night was to throw away the store's unsold food. He wondered where the know-how was that the corporation was supposed to possess and share with the owners. He questioned why every day his family's store had to throw away so much food, and he would reach into the trash (gomi) and remove things to consume. “i thought, i am living a life in which i am eating trash,” he said during an interview. “i hated this, too.”

Kazuhiko spoke with the company service representative during the visits he made to the store several times each week. The man placated the family by saying that a lot of first-time owners faced such challenges and that with time and perseverance the store's situation would improve. He cajoled the couple into sticking it out. But within several weeks, the couple submitted a handwritten letter requesting a termination of their contract:

Before we began business, we were told that from november onward the store would become profitable enough that we could begin to pay ourselves a salary, but as of november there is still no prospect of our earning any income; night shifts are filled with a sense of terror that we can no longer endure; various costs are higher than were estimated before we began business; estimated store sales were significantly lower than projected; the demand that both the owner and manager must each work for over fifteen hours a day makes it impossible to properly maintain our health.

After several months of hard work to lift store sales and a sizable fine, the couple was released from their contract.

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