The Inconvenient Truth for Convenience-Obsessed Japan

Japanese Vending MachineIt's the first week of the spring semester. My Japanese friend, Mizuki, and I took our first steps into our just-renovated, spanking new faculty building. I marveled at the gleaming floors and the squeaky-clean interior, while Mizuki suddenly let out a loud groan.

"Geez, where are the vending machines? I'm dying of thirst. This is outrageous!" she fumed with furious indignation which I found disproportionate to the problem. After all, the cafeteria that sells drinks is less than half a minute's walk away!

Then it dawned on me: This is Japan. The birth land of world-leading energy efficiency tech, next-generation green cars, space-age water-saving toilet systems, and of course, where elaborate trash separation rules are upheld with samurai-style discipline.  And yet, this is also the world's premier plastic wonderland where consumers chuck away 25 billion sets of wood chopsticks and mountain loads of PET containers annually, as they feed themselves on cheap takeaway lunch boxes and bottled drinks sold by 24-hour convenience stores and vending machines splattered at every corner of the urban landscape.

In Mizuki's book, vending machines should be as ubiquitous as tap water and electricity, period. Like free disposable chopsticks, over-packaged goods and individually-wrapped cookies, that's "just the way things are".

For someone like myself, coming from a developing country, the perpetuation of certain forms of environmentally-harmful and unnecessary convenient consumption in first-world countries, in spite of all the environmental education they are exposed to, can seem mind-boggling and depressing. 

Admittedly, the much-needed shift to a greener lifestyle is happening at too slow a pace to address all of our urgent environmental problems. So it's encouraging to see some signs of awakening, no matter how small they are.

Japanese Convenience StoreFinally heeding the criticism of environmentalists since more than a decade ago, Kyoto prefecture, which is striving to become ‘a model environmental city', has recently proposed policy plans to request 24-hour businesses, particularly convenience stores, to slash operation hours in a bid to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The move has been echoed by other local governments such as Saitama, Kanagawa and Tokyo.

In a separate but relevant development, the city of Ikoma had announced earlier this year that they will be gradually removing beverage and cigarette vending machines from public facilities as part of its efforts to reduce the environmental impacts of mass-consumption.

No doubt these are rather meek and piecemeal measures, but they are enough to spark fierce debate and condemnation by the affected.

The "What's the Point" Syndrome

From branding the exercise as a ‘witch hunt', to store representatives quoting puny potential emission reduction figures, and experts spouting warnings on the dire economic consequences (the industry employs some 1.6 million people), the outpourings of discontent seem to overwhelm the deeper meaning of the move.

The strongest opposition came from the Japan Franchise Association, which represents the voice of 12 companies comprising 42,000 convenience stores - 40,000 of which are 24-hour ventures.

According to the association, its members accounted for a total of 2.67 million tons of CO2 in 2006, or about 0.2 percent of Japan's total emissions. Cutting operating hours between 11 p.m and 7 a.m., therefore, would only result in an overall industry reduction of 4 percent, which translates to only a pitiful 0.008 percent reduction in national emissions.

Defending his stand in a major national daily, the mayor of Kyoto stressed that the city's policy to restrict store operation hours "was not just about CO2 emissions", but should also be taken as a decisive stance against round-the-clock stores representing a "lifestyle choice" based on "convenience" that has had a negative impact on both the natural environment and social well-being.

To be objective, considering the effect of adjustments made by those affected to cope with the truncation of convenience, such as installing new mini-refrigerators at home to store food bought in the day, and the cost-benefit analysis made by stores, the true emission reductions may be ambiguous. And besides, what will happen to those "de-commissioned" vending machines in Ikoma city, if not relocated to another city to continue spewing gases?

However, ultimately the move would be most meaningful if implemented as a rationalization exercise to streamline the "irrationally convenient" distribution of both convenience stores and vending machines. From personal observation, in streets all over Japan there are simply countless vending machines that are unnecessarily parked right in front of 24-hour convenience stores, a phenomenon which defies common sense.

And if I explain it nicely to Mizuki, I'm sure she'll agree with me that our new faculty building doesn't really need a vending machine after all.

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  • Posted on Aug. 25, 2008. Listed in:

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