written by Tadashi Ikuta; art by Naomi Kimura
published by Digital Manga; $12.95 US
Unlike its predecessors in this series (Cup Noodle and 240Z), Project X – The Challengers – Seven Eleven – The Miraculous Success of Japan’s 7-Eleven Stores is relatively restrained in its adjectives.
The thrust of this story is the development of the convenience store, driven by youthful amateurs, and the way it revolutionized the retail industry. The introduction (written in 2001) hopes that it will serve as an inspiration to the salary-men disturbed by the then-current recession. Which makes me wonder… are these stories intended to serve as fables that give the traditionally conforming Japanese culture a bit of American-style individual inspiration?
It’s a particularly relevant question for this volume, since the 7-11 concept was imported from America. The book traces the way a stagnant liquor store became the first 7-11 and the first convenience store in Japan.
In Japan during the 70s, huge department stores and supermarkets were dominant, but building new ones was difficult, due to resistance from existing store owners who resented the competition. They were all competing based on discounts and cheaper prices, a spiral that couldn’t be maintained. A businessman sent to America can’t learn anything from existing megamarts, since America has a lot more land available than Japan and many more cars. During his bus trips across the country, he walks into a 7-11, a small-scale store where everything is full-price.
They research the company and realize that they have a large number of stores producing a huge profit. A long process of negotiations followed. Finally, our Japanese heroes managed to talk the established US company into backing off on many of their requirements.
The Japanese want to obtain the coveted company process manuals, sure that this established plan will guarantee their success. Once they finally get and translate them, though, they find them obvious and “mostly useless”. (That’s convenient for the story, isn’t it, that our heroes have to “use their own ingenuity” to make this all work? That the contributions from the original American chain are minimized or explained away as unique to the US setting?) They all work very hard to make it work anyway, even yelling at the Americans who are negative about their choices that they will “do the rest ourselves”.
The art style, expected for this series, is straightforward and journalistic. Our heroes are determined and passionate to see their ideas pursued, firmly in the heroic style, while those who poo-poo their concepts are drawn more cartoony, similar to caricatures.
In the final chapter, titled “Advancement: Japan Outdoes America”, the Japanese invent the double-door refrigerator, able to be restocked from the back while customers shop in front, and the placement of stores in a concentrated area to allow for more efficient, smaller product deliveries. The book ends with the visit of the American 7-11 corporation’s chairman to congratulate the Japanese on their rapid success, followed by Japanese company reps going to America to save the original company from bankruptcy by sharing their techniques.
My original assumption was incorrect — the message of this series, even when verbally supporting the idea of faith in individual ideas against corporate pessimism, is really about teamwork. None of these stories could have happened without the concentrated work of a number of people, all contributing to the final result. This volume, which directly compares American and Japanese techniques, is firmly behind the “home team”.