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How 7-Elevens Are Becoming Lifelines for Japan's Elderly

Convenience stores and the country’s housing agency are teaming up to serve the aging population.

A 7-Eleven employee works in a Tokyo branch. (Yuriko Nakao/Reuters)

Though you’ll find some of the same offerings in a Tokyo 7-Eleven as in an American branch—coffee, doughnuts, fried chicken—Japanese convenience stores are a different animal than their U.S. counterparts.

Aside from selling Japan-specific food like bento boxes and onigiri (rice balls), convenience stores in Japan offer services that make them hubs of their communities. Customers can pay a utility bill, buy concert tickets, or make copies at a 7-Eleven or a similar retailer like Lawson or FamilyMart. In the aftermath of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, convenience stores even set up emergency support centers and sent employees to aid survivors, among other good deeds.

With such a position in Japanese neighborhoods, it’s perhaps unsurprising that over the past few years convenience stores have begun catering more to the country’s aging population. That demographic is growing. In 2016, the proportion of people in Japan over the age of 65 is a little over one in four; by 2035, the ratio is estimated to increase to one in three.

The stores have been stocking higher-quality and healthier food, as well as basic necessities like detergent, toilet paper, and light bulbs. They’ve also instituted new services such as home food delivery, and in some cases have created seating areas so that older customers can gather to socialize and practice their karaoke skills.

By 2035, the share of Japanese people aged 65 and older is estimated to be one in three. (Tour Hanai/Reuters)

The role of convenience stores in caring for the elderly is about to become more official. Japan’s Urban Renaissance Agency, founded by the government after WWII to provide housing to the rapidly-urbanizing population, signed an agreement with 7-Eleven, Lawson, and FamilyMart in early July that enables the stores to open in the agency’s apartment complexes.

The agency runs almost 1,700 buildings across the country, and elderly people make up 40 percent of the 740,000 families living in them. The stores will open in 100 locations primarily in Tokyo and the Kansai region, which includes the cities of Osaka and Kyoto. They’ll offer many of the same elderly-friendly features as other branches, but with the addition of such services as room cleaning and mending, as well as in-store calisthenics. The stores’ operators may also handle maintenance problems on nights and weekends, when agency staff are off duty.

It’s clear that the new stores will aid Japan’s aging population. But since they’re generally planned for more urban areas, they may not reach the demographic that needs them most: the rural elderly.

Ryota Takemoto, a researcher with an institute focusing on Japan’s real estate sector, recently concluded that 60 percent of the elderly in Japan—mainly those in less urban areas—lack easy access to a convenience store.

Takemoto argues that this may become even more of a problem as rural areas continue to depopulate and stores shutter due to a lack of customers and profits. He notes that making rural residential areas denser may help offset the issue.

“We must prevent [the elderly] from losing their access to a convenience store,” he writes, “so that we can use convenience store networks…as an economic and social infrastructure where aging is advancing fast.”

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