Photo/IllutrationThis Seven-Eleven Japan Co. outlet in Tokyo advertises it is open for business 24 hours a day. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Back in the 1980s, screenwriter Taichi Yamada rented an apartment to work out of, so he wouldn't be bothered by incoming phone calls--something he could not avoid if he stayed in his own home.

The move worked out fine for Yamada, except for one problem: When he became ravenously hungry late at night and stepped out for a bite, every eatery in the neighborhood was already closed.

But one night, he saw lights spilling out of a store. And he remembered reading in a newspaper about 24-hour convenience stores.

He recalled that moment in his essay: "'Aha! This had to be one of them,' I thought. In the big cities, they'll definitely do well because there must be many people like me."

When did these 24-hour establishments cease to be a rarity? In contemporary Japan, you expect to see more than one in every city block.

However, the situation is now nearing a turning point, so to speak. Industry giant Seven-Eleven Japan Co. is revising its expansion policy.

The chain reportedly intends to close or relocate 1,000 outlets and refrain from adding new establishments.

With many store owners fighting losing battles with labor shortages, expanding the franchise has become virtually impossible.

Across the industry, a move is afoot to review the "open always" policy. On New Year's Day next year, 100 outlets of Lawson Inc. will not be open.

Imported from the United States, convenience stores made phenomenal advances in Japan. Their doors never closed, and they offered the same services anywhere around the nation.

But too little attention was being paid to the immense efforts and sacrifices that had to be made to keep things going.

Yamada wrote a TV drama set in a convenience store and made one of his characters observe: "There must be people who are relieved just to see the lights in a store like ours."

The lights comforted every customer who walked in. Now, we need lights to comfort the people who run those stores.

--The Asahi Shimbun, Oct. 12

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Vox Populi, Vox Dei is a popular daily column that takes up a wide range of topics, including culture, arts and social trends and developments. Written by veteran Asahi Shimbun writers, the column provides useful perspectives on and insights into contemporary Japan and its culture.