Trinkets and trash: convenience stores and the poetics of paracapitalism in contemporary Japan
Gavin Whitelaw (International Christian University)
Increasingly, convenience stores, or konbini, are seen as synonymous with Japan. Introduced to the island nation in the 1970s, the American convenience store franchise model and associated distribution system have restructured Japanese retail at the national and local level, transforming the neighborhood corner shop into a competitive commercial force with global ties and mass appeal. Indeed in 2008, Japan’s konbini sales topped 7.8 trillion yen, surpassing those of the department store for the first time in history. In the following paper, I seek to explore at the consequences of convenience store expansion in Japan from a different angle. Interested in the ways that a “globalizing” retail template articulates with local forms and practices, I explore examines how the post-consumer consequences of convenience stores and hypermarketing—specifically unsold and discarded product—continues to circulate in what I call a paracapitalist market system. Drawing on nearly two years of participant observation as a convenience store clerk in Japan, I follow products in their post-shelf lives. In doing so illuminate the roles played by corporations, workers, and consumers. In particular, the paper focuses on a genre of product called omake (promotional gifts) and how the regimented obsolescence of products and speed of marketing campaigns enliven the exchange processes. By accompanying these “insignificant” trinkets from the corporate drawing board to online auction sites and toy consignment cubicles in Tokyo’s Akihabara district, in this paper I consider how a global retail institution predicated on uniformity, rationalization, and efficiency enables, even necessitates the evolution of quasi-illicit forms of economic exchange. Tracing the flow of plastic trinkets through various hands and spheres of value, I show the convenience store to a critical “embedder” for formal and informal economies.
Markets, moneys, and mobilities: transnational organizing