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.
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?