Variety and innovation of this sort have been at the heart of the conbini experience in Japan for a half-century. Whitelaw, the Harvard professor, told me that onigiri (rice balls) were the first traditional foods here to receive the conbini treatment. They’re sold in clever packaging that keeps the seaweed dry, allows for easy assembly and comes in seemingly endless permutations.
“They have taken a very handmade, homemade convenience meal — a ball of rice that has sustained Japan for eons — and wrapped it up and innovated it into something that is high cuisine, conbini cuisine, that is constantly changing,” Whitelaw said.
Onigiri have sustained me through these Games, too. Popping one or two (or three or four) of them into my bag before running to an event has been a surefire way to stay fed.
My favorite conbini innovations were the simplest ones: a corn dog I bought at 7-Eleven came with a sauce packet designed so that a single pinch sent ketchup and whole-grain mustard shooting simultaneously from a spout, like two synchronized divers.
Some items, on the other hand, required more assembly than an Ikea desk. Cold soba noodles came stuck together in an unappealing, floppy brick. But after applying the many plastic-wrapped accouterments — tsuyu sauce, scallions, wasabi, frothy grated yam, a gooey egg — my hesitation melted into contentment.
It’s important to pause and note that the conbini experience does animate some mental dissonance. First, extreme convenience of this sort requires an incredible amount of plastic packaging. Second, it’s hard to ignore how these store clerks are perched on the front lines of Japan’s unending coronavirus fight — in our case, serving customers deemed too risky to enter any other stores — and yet they are among the lowest-paid workers in the country.
A small consolation of this pandemic, Whitelaw said, might be greater appreciation for these businesses, which are heavily relied upon but sometimes taken for granted.