Researcher says more than half of central Tokyo convenience stores have foreigners working the graveyard shift.

Japanese convenience stores thrive by constantly introducing new products, so that there’s something new on the shelves just about every time customers come in. However, recently many shoppers have been noticing another change: a rapidly increasing number of foreign workers.

Not long ago, young foreign residents looking for part-time jobs pretty much had their options limited to tutoring Japanese learners of their native language or working in restaurants serving the cuisine of their home country. Over the last few years, though, there’s been a surge in the number of foreigners working as convenience store clerks, prompting Japanese author Kensuke Serizawa to look into the situation and write a book, titled Konbini no Gaikokujin, or Convenience Store Foreigners.

According to Serizawa’s research, there are now more than 40,000 foreign convenience store workers employed by the three biggest chains (7-Eleven, Family Mart, and Lawson). Expanding the examination to the 55,000-plus convenience stores nationwide, Serizawa says that roughly one in twenty is non-Japanese.

The majority of these foreign clerks come from other Asian countries, with Serizawa citing China, Korea, Vietnam, Nepal, Sri Lanka, and Uzbekistan as the largest sources. The Japanese government doesn’t give out work visas for convenience store jobs, though, and most of these foreign clerks are also studying in Japan, either at universities, specialized schools, or language institutions.

Student visa holders in Japan are allowed to work up to 28 hours a week, and a common scenario is to attend classes in the morning or afternoon while working night shifts. Late-night convenience store work usually earns the employee a few hundred yen extra compared to Tokyo’s minimum hourly wage of 958 yen (US$8.80), and a Sri Lankan employee at a Family Mart near Serizawa’s home now pulls in 1,300 yen. The author claims that within the 23 central wards of Tokyo, 60-70 percent of convenience store branches employee foreign clerks during their late-night hours.

But while the number of foreign convenience store workers is on the rise, Serizawa is quick to assert that this isn’t a case of foreign labor pushing Japanese job seekers out of the market. Multiple convenience store owners he spoke with said they get few if any Japanese applicants when they post want ads, as convenience store work is seen as a harder job than, for example, working at a karaoke parlor, which pays a comparable wage. And indeed, those late night shifts can make for a difficult lifestyle. An Uzbekistani clerk at Serizawa’s neighborhood branch of Natural Lawson (Lawson’s fancier sister chain, which previously offered breathtakingly beautiful translucent desserts) regularly works through the night, then hops on a morning rush hour train to go to class without sleeping.

With the major convenience stores always looking to expand (Lawson wants to add 4,000 branches in the next three years) and the Japanese government hoping to attract more foreign students (the goal is to increase their number from 270,000 to 300,000 by 2020), it’s likely that foreign convenience store clerks will become increasingly common, and hopefully they’ll all be as valuable of employees as this Nepalese hero.

Related: Konbini no Gaikokujin on Amazon
Source: Gendai via Otakomu
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