K tells me as we cross the Azuma Bridge over the Sumida River on a summer morning in August last year, how she followed her boyfriend from Saigon, and he dropped her shortly afterward. She laughs. Below the scarlet bridge, sightseeing ferries ply the blue-brown waters to and from Tokyo Bay. She was shattered at first, then accepting. What can you do, she said. When the person you love falls for someone. You can’t suddenly hate them.
She stayed in Tokyo studying, and found a job at a 7-Eleven near my place in Asakusa. Tourists swarm the Sensoji temple and the feudal-style gate, taking selfies with the powerful statues of the wind and thunder gods, in front of the 700-kilogram red lantern sponsored by the founder of Panasonic.
I barely know her. I asked her out for a stroll and a coffee because I enjoyed running into her at the 7-Eleven, and we’ve swapped emails. She uses various names. K is a nickname. In one message she says, You can call me by my English name, Melissa.
I’m fine thank you. And you? She issues the words like a cheeky challenge. The background music is often the 7-Eleven theme track, Daydream Believer.
She’s feisty and not the sort to take crap. I like how she grins impertinently. It lifts my spirits when I duck in for provisions as I’m hurrying to work, or coming home. When I reach the head of the cash register queue I say, How are you, and she answers, in an accent more British than American, I’m fine thank you. And you? She issues the words like a cheeky challenge. The background music is often the 7-Eleven theme track, Daydream Believer.
Across the bridge we turn north and walk along the riverbank for 10 minutes, under the elevated freeway built for the 1964 Olympics. Is it so easy to chat with her because she’s a stranger? About work and family; my divorce, her breakup, her eight step-siblings under different parents. She asks, What do you like about me. I say, Your sense of humour.
We turn left across the blue Kototoi Bridge, and return downstream among the tourists under the cherry trees, the branches crowded with new green leaves. She orders a matcha latte at the cafe looking out over Skytree. She says she has moved to an apartment closer to the store, with a female flatmate and a stray cat. She wants to become a vet. But she needs to make money, and plans to stay in Tokyo to save up.
She’s in the right place. Japan needs people like K. Many locals don’t like the job. And it’s no mean feat to work at a convenience store here, let alone as a foreigner. There’s a lot you have to learn. At busy times you operate like a robot with rapid pre-programmed moves, microwaving meals, deep frying chicken, counting out change by fanning the notes to show the customer precisely, wrapping and bagging items, extending the bag across the counter with both hands, never failing to call out a greeting when someone enters or leaves.
You stamp and file customers’ gas and electricity bills, help with courier pick ups and deliveries and keep equipment running such as the fax-photo printer and coffee machine. At Asakusa and other tourist spots you will also process duty-free sales for tourists. All in a language you’ve probably just started learning.
Southeast Asian and other foreigners looking for better lives are changing the complexion of these stores. The three major chains – 7-Eleven, Lawson and FamilyMart – last year employed nearly 45,000 non-Japanese part-timers, making up around six percent of their payrolls, according to Kyodo News. For the biggest operator, 7-Eleven, that’s a fivefold increase on the situation eight years ago. In urban centres like Tokyo, the ratio of foreign workers is as high as 20 percent. Lawson has set up training courses for recruits in Vietnam.
The Central Asian republic might seem an unlikely labour pool, but Uzbeks make up many of the night-shift workers around here.
Most of the young people are here as students, since the stores don’t sponsor them for visas. They enrol in language, fashion or business courses at pricy private colleges, and are allowed to work up to 28 hours per week. They perform their jobs boldly, picking up even the small, internalised gestures, like bowing and polite utterances, that put Japanese customers at ease. You almost never see Westerners in the service industry at this level of accomplishment.
I recently moved to an apartment up the street, as my previous flat was to be demolished for a hotel. At the 7-Eleven near my old home, the staff include Japanese, Chinese, Mongolian, Filipino and Uzbek. The Central Asian republic might seem an unlikely labour pool, but Uzbeks make up many of the night-shift workers around here. Many could almost pass as Japanese, and they have fun wrong-footing customers who can’t figure out where they come from, speaking in slang and bellowing exaggerated hellos and thank-yous.
He often has a story about unusual goings on: the massive ATM scam his store was caught up in or an obsessive-compulsive fitness fanatic we call Mr Hai-Hai because he is always saying yes while running on the spot.
I made friends with an idiosyncratic, rake-thin Japanese clerk named Kariya. Always dressed in threadbare corduroy jeans, he chooses only to work the night shift and has an insouciant recklessness and an unhurried cool. He likes to joke with the tourists. And whenever the store runs promotional lotteries, he plunges his hand into the lucky dip box and pull out a handful of tickets from which he’ll give you a winning ticket for whatever drink or snack you want. At 9am he goes home to drink bourbon.
He often has a story about unusual goings on: the massive ATM scam his store was caught up in; an obsessive-compulsive fitness fanatic we call Mr Hai-Hai because he is always saying yes while running on the spot; or some ribald Japanese-English wordplay.
There was also a young Vietnamese clerk named Dung, who has since quit. Slightly built and earnest, with a long face and delicate features, if Dung had a fault it was his conscientiousness. He was often rostered together with a young Mongolian woman who wore a bob hairstyle and heavy, curling black eyeliner that gave her the eye-of-Horus-type look of an Egyptian fishing boat. Kariya reckons it was more like the nose art of a US fighter plane. He told me after they had both quit that she was the type who “always needed someone to upset”, and she never failed to get a rise out of Dung, who came to hate her.
I ran into Dung working at the Asakusa branch of the 24-hour super discount store Don Quijote. He was doing paperwork among the kitchenware, bicycles, fancy dress clothing and cosmetics. He told me “Donqi” pays better than 7-Eleven, and he was now a third-year student in IT. But he was ready to quit. He said, I don’t want to stay in Japan forever. It’s so tiring. Just work, work, work. I’m going to graduate and see what I can do after that.
I lost touch with K then bumped into her on the street one evening. She said she was looking for another job. Later I sent her a message. A couple of weeks later on Christmas Day she responded, Hi Robinson, How are you doing ? It’s been a while since the last time we met at 7-Eleven store, huh?
I took her to lunch at a soba noodle restaurant where we sat on the floor at a low table. She said she had found a job at a marketing company. She quit the convenience store — she didn’t like the Chinese woman manager. Her plan was to get a job with a major Japanese corporation that would send her back to Vietnam. She said she missed her mother and father who are getting old. I said, I also miss my mum, but you have to be where the work is. She said, You can have money, but you can’t buy time with your parents.
She says she likes Japan because it’s clean and safe, and people are nice. But she gives the impression it doesn’t mean much. Tokyo could be anywhere. I noticed when we went to lunch that despite being here for almost three years, she didn’t know how to eat the cold soba with dipping sauce. For a social life she sees other Vietnamese, her flatmate is Vietnamese, and occasionally she goes drinking with other students — Vietnamese, Chinese, Italian, Korean. But it’s hard to get people together as everyone is working and going to school.
Whenever I go back the daughter asks me why I don’t have a kid too. But I can see my friend and her husband are starting to argue every day. They are stressed for money, they have no car, they don’t have their own home.
Our conversation circles back to her future. After lunch we go to my place for coffee, and she says back home, her parents keep pushing her to settle down. But at 27, she is old to get married. This doesn’t seem to bother her. She says, My best friend from elementary school just had her second child and her other daughter is already six, and whenever I go back the daughter asks me why I don’t have a kid too. But I can see my friend and her husband are starting to argue every day. They are stressed for money, they have no car, they don’t have their own home.
K’s plan involves sticking it out for two years before returning to Vietnam. And when she leaves the big Japanese company for a smaller one, she will be able to demand a higher salary. Because of my experience, she says. Because I have worked at the big company. That’s how business works, right? She says, I am getting stronger and getting experience. Experience is like a weapon, and you have to develop your weapon.
Then she advises me to get married again, and have a child, someone to look after me, so I can have a “standard life”. We look out over the jumbled rooftops then she glances down at her phone, and surprised by the time, she leaves.
A version of this story appeared in Mekong Review Feb-April 2018