We've talked on this site before about how Japan's increasingly decreasing population is putting the pinch on businesses, which say they're having a hard time finding enough employees. The country has taken multiple measures to address the problem - everything from revising its immigration policies to allow more foreign workers, to utilizing assistive technology at airports to widen its worker pool.
To be sure, this labor problem is doing nothing to address Japan's overwork epidemic. A combination of pressure from one's superiors and a desire to please demanding customers at any cost leads many Japanese citizens to work far longer hours than they should - sometimes to the point of karoushi (過労死), or working to death.
These two factors have pushed one store owner in Japan to the brink - and he says he's finally had enough.
Japan's largest convenience chain group by far is 7-11, which is run by the company Seven & i Holdings. Contrary to the store's name - which originally referred to the fact that it was open from 7 at morning to 11 at night - most 7-11s, like most convenience stores in Japan, operate 24 hours. Such stores offer not just food and drink, but a large range of services ranging from bill pay to ticket sales to contact lens pickup. It's one of the key services that makes daily life in Japan so convenient.
But Sustaining a 24-7 rhythm has proven impossible for East Osaka franchisee Matsumoto Sunetoshi, age 57, who announced this week that he's not able to hire enough people to keep the store running around the clock, and will instead run the store from 7am to 1am. He also posted a sign in the store window earlier this month announcing the store would be closed 25 hours - ostensibly, to allow him to rest up.
It's not unheard of for 7-11s in Japan to operate less than 24 hours a day. Franchisees can apply for a special stipulation in their contracts that allow them to operate shorter hours. The company said in a statement to the press that it typically only grants this exception to stores located inside of train stations (which stop running around 1am) or inside of office buildings.
Matsumoto, however, is contracted to run a 24 hour operation. And Seven & i Holdings appears hellbent on holding him to that contract. The company has said that if Matsumoto doesn't revert to round-the-clock operation, it will not only strip him of his franchise, but will demand a penalty fee of ￥17M (appr. USD $153K).
Carrying On After Losing His Spouse
For his part, Matsumoto says he's been struggling since his wife, who worked alongside him in the store, died of cancer in May 2018. Within a month or so of his passing, he was back to work, putting in 16 hour days to keep the store going. In the eight months since she's passed, he says he can count the number of vacation days he's taken on one hand. There have even been days when he's had to work 25 hours straight. The only employee he's managed to even interview in 3 years was an older woman, who ultimately turned down the job offer.
To be fair, Seven & i Holdings seems to have been very supportive of Matsumoto when his wife was ill. Most franchisees contract with a separate fee to the holding company to assist with things such as store repairs and emergency services. In Matsumoto's case, the home office sent employees to help man the store so Matsumoto could care for his wife, and go visit his son at college.
After Matsumoto's wife died, however, the support from corporate ended, and Matsumoto soon found himself in his present state of burning the candle at both ends. Matsumoto has been unable to negotiate a formal re-drawing of his contract with corporate, which he says also refused to provide any help in finding capable workers.
Convenience Stores: Critical Societal Infrastructure?
This isn't the first time Seven & i Holdings has come under fire for refusing an owner's request to adjust store hours. The company took heat in 2018 after record snowstorms in Fukui, when it refused multiple requests from store owners to shut their doors early - even one from a man whose wife collapsed while trying to keep the sidewalk shoveled.
But as a lawyer for Bengoshi.com writes, Seven & i itself is probably in a tight spot. It's managed to add 5,000 stores nationwide in the past five years, even amidst a tightening labor market and a rising minimum wage. Odds are good that there are many store owners in Matsumoto's spot, and the company has been caught flat-footed with no plan to support them through the labor crisis.
Why the obsession with keeping stores open all night? Seven & i argues that their stores are critical "societal infrastructure", and need to be kept running 24/7. it also argues that its stores are" safety stations" for people at night, on top of offering a critical convenience to people who work or stay out late. The 24/7 lifecycle also provides a critical window that enables staff to concentrate on cleaning the store and re-stocking shelves.
Additionally, while Matsumoto says he's received support from customers for closing early, it's obvious that Japanese customers love the convenience - and doubtful whether customers en masse in Japan can accept it coming to an end. When the Lawson convenience store chain experimented with closing some of its stores early, it received a wave of complaints, and some stores lost business to the company's competitors.
It's unclear how this situation will continue to play out in the coming years. Either Japan will need a larger of influx of foreign workers than it currently admits, or the Japanese public will need to decide it can suffer through some convenience stores closing early for the evening. Either way, it's clear something's gonna have to give.
(JP) Link: 7-11 Owner Says He's "On the Verge of Working to Death", Will Shorten Hours
「24時間はもう限界」セブン-イレブンFC加盟店が時短営業で本部と対立 - ライブドアニュース
I'm the publisher of Unseen Japan. I hold an N1 Certification in the Japanese Language Proficiency Test, and am married to a wonderful woman from Tokyo.
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