Too Little, Too Late? Porn Mags Set to Disappear From Convenience Stores–And So Will Male Courage?

by Kaori Shoji

In Japan, the convenience store “baito” or part time job, is a rite of passage. Teenagers work at their neighborhood ‘conbini’ after school as a way of padding their allowances and college students work graveyard shifts to pay for living expenses. I did it, my friends did it. Most every Japanese person I know has worked at a conbini at one point or another. And in 2016, Sayaka Murata won the prestigious Akutagawa Literary Award with her autobiographical novel “Conbini Ningen,” in which the protagonist woman is addicted to her conbini job, to the point that she can’t think about anything else.

“I know it has a lot to do with the fact that I’m hyper sensitive but honestly, I feel that women shouldn’t have to deal with porn, especially in a convenience store. It’s sexual harassment.”

In case you think conbini work is boring and easy, let me tell you right now that the job calls for brains, guts and ace reflexes. For women, it’s often a test of mental endurance as well. A woman I know, in her late 30s, has been working the 9 to 7 shift at her local Family Mart for the past 5 years. She says the job is fine, except for one thing: she hates handling the porn magazines that comprise a “not insignificant chunk” of the store’s revenue. “I hate touching those things,” said this woman who has been diagnosed as an HSP. “I know it has a lot to do with the fact that I’m hyper sensitive but honestly, I feel that women shouldn’t have to deal with porn, especially in a convenience store. It’s sexual harassment.” Twenty-seven year old Reina, who quit an office job to work at a Seven Eleven run by her mother, says she feels “slightly sick” every time she has to ring up a porn mag for a male customer. “I’ve been at the job 3 years and I still can’t get used to it,” says Reina. “I don’t lose my cool or anything but I get really uncomfortable. I don’t talk to my mother about it but I call tell she knows how I feel.”

But Reina and thousands of conbini workers like her are about to get a break. In deference to the Tokyo Olympics and the expected soar in foreign tourists including families and minors, major convenience stores Seven Eleven and Lawson have announced the decision to abolish all porn magazines from their outlets by August 31st. The third member of the conbini triumvirate Family Mart, has announced that the company has “no intentions of following suit.” Bad news for my HSP friend (who wants to remain anonymous). At her place of work, the porn stays.

Reina says that the announcement gave her much “relief,” though there are some months to go before she’s free from the unpleasantness of handling porn for work. “That stuff is always about rape,” she says. “The covers show women being tied up and the headlines are violent. Frankly, they’re scary.”

In Japan, the public display of porn – rape or otherwise –  has long been a sore point. In 2004, then Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara issued a law that required convenience store porn magazines to be partially bound in cellophane, to prevent casual riffing. “If anyone wants to look at those things, they’re going to have to show some courage, go up to the register and pay for them, right in front of everyone else.” This was a statement Ishihara apparently made to an aide, and later picked up by Japan’s sports tabloids, infamous for their own abundant porn content.

For some weeks afterwards, “show some courage” was a popular, mirth-filled punch line among Japanese men. Whether Ishihara really said those words isn’t the point – the move was classic ex-Governor. Always a gung-ho macho, one of Ishihara’s pet laments was the “pathetic-ness” of the slinky, under-confident Japanese male. He didn’t need to trot out the Olympics to turn the screws on their source of fun.

Unfortunately, his cellophane law simply gave rise to another problem: “harmless porn.” Instead of riffing through X-rated content, men turned to “gurabia,” magazines that featured bikini-ed young women on the covers in provocative poses and more of the same inside the pages. Since the women weren’t nude, the magazines couldn’t be described as hard porn. And the blurbs were all about how “beautiful” or “cute” the girls were so how could it be offensive, right? (Though their cup sizes were loudly touted along with their prettiness) Emboldened by this new wave of accessible and ‘kawaii’ porn, salarimen took to visiting the conbini on their lunch hours and picking up the magazines along with their bento and canned coffees. The early naughts were also about “tosatsu,” or shooting voyeuristic pictures of random young women on the streets, or catching them unawares through open windows. And these photos often found their way into – you guessed it, “harmless porn” magazines, stacked on conbini shelves.

“Harmless Porn”

Now, 15 years later, porn magazines (whether hard or harmless) comprise a dismally shrinking market. In the late 1990s, the conbini magazine market sold to the tune of 500 billion yen a year and the adult genre made up nearly 50% of that revenue. Retail analyst Hiroaki Watanabe says that those heydays are long over, and the market has been reduced by almost 70%. “These days, the main clientele of adult-only magazines are seniors, who don’t have smartphones or Internet access,” he says. Indeed, the aforementioned Reina says that porn mag buyers are nearly always “older men, who never make eye contact and have an air of shame.”

Indeed, the aforementioned Reina says that porn mag buyers are nearly always “older men, who never make eye contact and have an air of shame.” 

 

At this point, Mini Stop is the only major convenience store that has completely cleared theirs shelves of adult mags. This is understandable, as Mini Stop is owned by retail conglomerate AEON known for a squeaky clean, family-oriented image. As for the conbini triumvirate, about one-third of their outlets don’t carry adult magazines, according to the companies’ PR.

The PR for Family Mart stated that ultimately, the company leaves the choice to stock porn up to the individual outlet owners. “Some of our outlets don’t carry magazines at all, regardless of content,” said the PR spokesman. “Anyway, we’re heading toward an era where customers can purchase and download magazine content right at the cash register. Paper magazines will be obsolete.”

Ex-Gov Ishihara probably didn’t see that coming. If a tap on a smartphone is all it takes to buy porn at the local conbini, what’s going to happen to male courage?

Let’s Convenience Store! The Musical: コンビニへ行こう!

In honour of Japan’s Celebration of Cinema Day, December 1st, we’ve reposted some reviews and articles on classic films. Some good, some bad, some epic.

Here is small film classic written up By Amy Seaman, JSRC Senior Cross-over Pop-Culture Editor, Hair Coloring Expert 

What’s not to like about a Japanese love song that is dedicated to konbini and the people who staff them, that consists of a handful of exchange students kanpai’ing and dancing in store aisles? If Yahoo! Japan’s video charts serve as any indication, absolutely nothing.

Having been featured twice on the site’s main page and on various blogs, “Konbini Ikou”, which translates into “Let’s Go to the Convenience Store” is the brainchild of a group of exchange students from Koganei dormitory. Though it originally started out as a school project — evident with a reference at 2:17 — it quickly evolved into a somewhat satirical but endearing music video that has become a hit amongst Japanese and gaijin alike.

I talked to Kansas University senior Noah Oskow, who compiled footage for, edited and subtitled the video, about what it feels like for a somewhat in-joke video to hit the top of Yahoo! Japan’s charts.

Let’s eat some salmon rice-balls. Let’s go to the convenience store. Let’s love Japan once more.

 

A: How did this all come about?

N: My friends were in a “Management in Japan” class at Sophia University and they were supposed to make a video on the subject of konbini. One of them was Alan McMaster, from Australia.

It’s pretty funny. Alan actually wrote the song for a school project and as a way to escape boredom while quarantined in his room due to our dorm manager’s unsubstantiated suspicion of his having bird flu because he coughed once. The song turned out pretty good, so we decided we’d also make a music video to go along with it. And so he and fellow Aussie Stanley Wang, one of the group members who also lived at Koganei, ended up going around and filming these scenes in a konbini. They gave all the footage to me and I edited it all together. But we only ended up having enough to make half of the actual song with that footage. The documentary and the video they made went down really well in class but we just didn’t have enough for an actual, full music video.

After they left that semester, I kind of always wanted to finish it up with some other students. It’s kind of like a tribute in some ways to our dormitory and the konbini we always went to around the dormitory we lived in.

Of course, we all really like konbini a lot, but not probably to the extent that the video would imply. But thanks to the wonderful hard work and amazing acting talents of everyone else in the dormitory, we managed to make that video come into existence. So that’s basically what happened.

A: So it was something that you always thought should be a little bit satirical?

 

N: Well, I don’t exactly feel the need to marry any konbini.

A: Is there a reason you totally exaggerated it, then?

N: I’m a big fan of satire to begin with and filming ridiculous things. We just thought the idea of a bunch of foreigners just running around and worshipping and loving Japanese konbini was not too far from the truth. Japanese konbini are incredible and if we hadn’t had all those konbini to go to every day to get snacks, I don’t know what we would’ve done. They’re a very important part of our experience in Japan and our experience together. So the idea of exaggerating that a bit with foreigners in Japan just seemed pretty entertaining.

A: It definitely seems like it was fun to film. You mentioned that it started out as a school project and then turned into something that you were just doing for the hell of it, so did you ever think it would get 100,000 views or reach a Japanese audience?

N: I wasn’t sure how it would get out to the Japanese audience. Once it was done and we could kind of see what it was like, I could see that it had the aspects about it that I think Japanese people would find funny and that could make it popular like that. It’s really had its moments of virality, though… it’s been the top video on Yahoo! Japan twice now on two completely separate occasions. It’s not insanely popular, but still.

We’ve been recognised around the dorm and in all sorts of other places, and I’ve found blogs about it with hundreds of comments too. We’ve also found blogs of exchange students in Osaka whom none of us know who use it as the theme song for their dormitory. And when Ciarán Harper, a fellow exchange student, went back to Ireland and tried to show it to some friends in his Japanese class, they asked him, “What, you were in this?! We’ve all seen this, everyone’s seen this!” A lot of us have had that sort of experience.

A: You released “Konbini Ikou” last school year, but every once in a while you post updates saying, “We’re featured on this again!” so it seems like it’s still quite popular.

N: It’s random. There have been five or so times where it’s happened to randomly get on some really big Japanese blog and as a result gets 20,000 views in one day, then after doesn’t get any. It’s weird.  Just recently, Yahoo! Japan had some ‘Foreigners in Japan’ video highlights section and “Konbini Ikou” was up there again, so as a result a bunch more people saw it because of that too.It’s also been shown by professors as a teaching tool in Austria, and Germany, and Ireland, and I’ve had some professors contact me in America about using it as well, which I think is really weird because I’m not exactly sure what you can glean from it information-wise.

A: So why do you think your video is so appealing to Japanese audiences?

N: There’s just aspects about it that I figured Japanese people would like. A combination of gaijin in Japan, not being insanely disrespectful, and singing this song dedicated to the convenience stores… I could tell that a lot of Japanese people would find it really hilarious. It’s this image of foreigners that isn’t the image that they get to see a lot. Usually in Japanese media, when you see foreigners in Japan, they’re talking about Japan and it’s either in a, “look at these crazy foreigners being so foreign” or it’s otaku who are really into the media or whatever. But in this case it’s like, a bunch of foreigners, it’s 20-something of us in there just kind of saying really nice things about a really basic part of Japanese culture that isn’t the media and isn’t anime, and it’s not jpop. We’re just saying really nice things about something that Japanese people themselves tend to really like on a basic level. Because it’s foreigners doing this sort of thing, I think it’s just kind of a unique image for Japanese people to see. What’s been really surprising to me is that a lot of Japanese people don’t seem to be able to tell if we’re being serious or not.

A: At the beginning of the video, you have this whole Nobiam Films thing. Is this something within your dorm, or do you consider yourself a somewhat established filmmaker?

N: Nobiam films is the “film company” that me and two of my friends founded back in like freshman year of high school. We’ve made something like 30 different music videos and films and stuff. They’re all pretty dumb.

A: Do you have plans for future videos?

N: Given the popularity of this and because of how much it’s become a symbol for a lot of us in the dormitory, I think that we will definitely do something again. We’ve also just gotten a ton of demand, where so many people are asking me to film something else. Perhaps I’ll team up with Alan again to make another song or something like that.

We’ll probably make something that’s something like a sequel to “Konbini Ikou” at some point, but other than that, Nobiam Films will keep on making really dumb videos for the foreseeable future.

That sounds awesome, Noah, and the JSRC team looks forward to seeing your next production!