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Ministop’s Ending Adult Magazine Sales Hints at Change for Japanese Convenience Stores
[2018.06.14]

In January 2018, the Ministop convenience store chain stopped sales of adult magazines at all of its outlets across Japan. As pornography in print becomes less popular, it may not be too long before other vendors follow suit.

A Surprising Sight

Japanese convenience stores frequently stock adult publications in plain sight of customers, segregating them at the end of magazine racks with rudimentary dividers printed with the words “adult magazines.” While most customers applaud the extensive variety of products and services the shops offer, many also wonder at their casual handling of pornographic material.

Foreign visitors to Japan are also often surprised to see adult magazines openly displayed at convenience stores. A man visiting from New York told me that the law in his state requires stores to place adult magazines out of sight of children, such as behind the front counter, although they can be openly displayed at shops barring minors. A visitor from France explained that in his country ordinary stores do not carry adult magazines and placing them where children can see them gives the impression that Japanese men are comfortable with exploiting women’s bodies.

Tightened Rules in Tokyo

A 1989 survey by the Tokyo Bureau of Citizens and Cultural Affairs found that 92.3% of convenience stores in the capital sold pornographic magazines. However, a major change came in 2004 during the governorship of Ishihara Shintarō when the municipal assembly amended a child protection ordinance to require vendors to separate adult magazines from other publications and display them so that their contents are hidden. Publishers were also asked to label and package magazines as adult material.

Subsequently, the Japan Franchise Association, which represents convenience store chains, asked the Japan Magazine Publishers Association to wrap adult magazines in plastic. At the time, around half of all magazine sales took place at convenience stores, amounting to ¥500 billion each year. As such, the magazine industry could not afford to ignore the wishes of the JFA.

However, the wrapping made magazines prone to slippage when stacked and harder to transport, so publishers instead turned to sealing them closed with stickers. Magazines deemed as pornographic had stickers applied at a ratio of around 100 for every 350 produced so as to have them accepted by convenience stores in Tokyo. This work was completed in bulk by printers and bookbinders, which meant that some of the magazines were also shipped and sold in other parts of the country.

Owners Decide

Adult magazines at a FamilyMart store in Sakai, Osaka Prefecture, are covered with green wrapping. (Courtesy of Sakai municipal government)

How many convenience stores sell pornographic magazines today? When I asked this question to representatives of the big three chains—7-Eleven, Lawson, and FamilyMart—they were unanimous in saying that the decision was in the hands of individual franchise owners. Nationally, a total of 3,000 of 20,000 7-Elevens, 1,200 of 17,000 FamilyMarts, and 2,500 of 13,000 Lawsons do not carry adult magazines.

The 7-Eleven representative said that the company follows all relevant laws and ordinances, while the FamilyMart representative noted that since March 2016 its 11 stores in the city of Sakai, Osaka Prefecture, have complied with the authorities by wrapping magazines in plastic. The Lawson representative noted that adult magazines are the most expensive publications in stores and in many cases make major contributions to sales.

Ministop’s Unilateral Decision

Ministop, Japan’s fourth biggest chain, has taken a different approach from the big three chains by deciding to stop sales of adult publications at all of its 2,300 stores. The company—a subsidiary of retail giant Aeon—was prompted to do so by a movement that began in the city of Chiba, Chiba Prefecture.

As part of efforts to improve Chiba’s image before the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics in neighboring Tokyo, the local government in February 2017 announced a trial initiative at some of the city’s convenience stores to partially conceal adult magazine covers with opaque film. Due to opposition from stores to the increased workload, however, the city abandoned the effort.

Ministop, like the big three chains, had previously left the decisions about stocking pornographic magazines to franchise owners. However, it received a variety of negative feedback from customers, including those who were unhappy that the magazines were where children could see them or who did not like having to walk past them when using the restroom. These along with the initiative by Chiba was enough for Ministop to decide to halt pornographic sales altogether.

Welcomed by Female Staff

A public relations representative at Ministop explained the reasoning behind the decision: “We were already considering making such a move as part of our overall goal of making our stores comfortable and convenient for all our customers. Adult magazines had dropped below 10 percent of total magazine sales, and the Chiba municipal initiative impelled us to go ahead and pull the plug.”

The move came into effect in Chiba—where the Aeon Group has its headquarters—in December 2017, before being rolled out nationwide in January 2018. Many staff, particularly women who were uncomfortable placing the magazines on racks and seeing them in the stores, have welcomed the change.

According to Ministop’s PR representative the chain received a lot of valuable customer feedback regarding the decision. “Around 80 percent supported the move, while 10 percent, mostly men, wanted us to go on selling the magazines. There were also some queries about where we draw the line to define adult magazines. But just as we always bring in other products to replace those that aren’t selling, we see it as a case of simply no longer stocking one category of magazine.”

Online Competition

How do convenience stores decide what magazines to sell? According to Watanabe Hiroaki, a logistics analyst with 22 years of experience managing Lawson stores, supervising store management training, and developing products as a buyer, it all comes down to demand.

“Magazines are sold on consignment, which means that convenience stores can return any copies left over to distributors,” explains Watanabe. “Transporting unsold magazines is an extra cost, so distributors carefully control how many they ship. For this reason, they mainly deliver popular magazines to busy outlets. On the other hand, it is easier to supply medium-sized and small chains with adult magazines, which do not need to be replaced as often as monthlies and weeklies. In red-light districts like Susukino in Sapporo and Nakasu in Fukuoka, convenience stores stock a wide range of magazines with information about the adult entertainment industry. In some stores, sales of these publications alone can amount to ¥300,000 a month.”

Overall, though, he says adult magazines are not strong sellers. “Pornographic magazines cost around 400 to 800 yen, but standard-sized convenience stores only sell about one every two days. What they’re selling is now available for free online, so buyers tend to be older men who don’t use the Internet. In fact, sales of all magazines—not only adult magazines—have dropped by about 60 or 70 percent over the past decade.”

An End to Magazines in Convenience Stores?

The Internet is changing how customers buy magazines and other publications. In September 2017, 7-Eleven began a service whereby regular readers of magazines can order them online or in stores and pick them up at the counter. FamilyMart has teamed up with publisher Goma Books to offer popular ebooks.

In Tokyo there are already some convenience stores that have done away with their magazine section. Perhaps it is only a matter of time before magazines altogether vanish from store shelves.

(Originally published in Japanese on April 27, 2018. Reporting and text by Kuwahara Rika of Power News. Banner photo: Magazines on sale in a Tokyo convenience store, including a section for adult magazines.)

  • [2018.06.14]
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