Why Japan’s Combini are Increasingly Powered by Foreign Exchange Students

Why Japan’s Combini are Increasingly Powered by Foreign Exchange Students

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College students at combini
Pictures: Jay Allen @ Unseen Japan; Canva
Labor-strapped convenience stores in Japan are increasingly turning to exchange students to work the shifts Japanese workers don't want. In some cases, students are practically running the store.

Japan is inevitably relying on foreign workers to fill in the cracks created by a plummeting population. In combini (Japanese convenience stores)––an icon of Japanese modernity and lifestyle––exchange students are taking up the majority of positions in many stores.

Exchange students run combini

7-11 in Japan

Foreign exchange students are increasingly occupying jobs in Japan’s convenience stores nationwide.

90% of employees working at 7-Eleven in Tokyo’s Akasaka area are foreign exchange students, a manager tells Sankei Shimbun. They hail from eight countries including Nepal, China, and Vietnam and are currently enrolled in Japanese language schools.

Even in cities far from the world’s largest capital, such as Hiroshima, international students keep convenience stores open for 24 hours. In a Lawson store near the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park, more than half of the employees are exchange students from Vietnam, Nepal, Bangladesh, and Myanmar.

Japan’s three major convenience stores––7-Eleven, Lawson, and Family Mart––say that over 10% of their approximately 800,000 store workers are foreign nationals, according to data released this May by Kyodo News. 7-Eleven employs the most foreigners (about 40,000). The chain is followed by Lawson (about 24,000) and Family Mart (about 18,000).

According to the Japan Franchise Association, which includes the three brands, the number of foreign employees has increased by over 20% in the past five years. The bulk of these are exchange students.

Hiring foreign labor as domestic force shrinks

The growing number of non-Japanese employees in convenience stores is part of a broader trend. More Japanese businesses are using foreigners to plug crippling labor shortages that are only going to get worse.


In 2023, Japan saw a record-low number of 727,277 childbirths. By contrast, people over 65 made up 29.1% of the population. The result is a working-age population too small to uphold society. It’s certainly too small to run convenience stores around the clock.

The plight of aging combini owners and workers made news a few years ago in Japan when an elderly owner said he’d no longer run his 7-11 franchise 24 hours a day. 7&i Holdings, the parent company of 7-11, sued him for violating his contract. The resulting backlash forced the company to back down and take a more cooperative stance with aging owners.

In general, Japan has rolled out a range of countermeasures to tackle the population problem. This includes introducing trainee programs for foreign talent and government-run dating apps intended to boost marriages and, in turn, births. Officials have begun to throw Hail Marys as well. One recent proposal sought to redefine the legal age of elderhood from 65 to 70. Another aims to make childcare 100% free.

Night shift workers

College-age people from around the world
Picture: zon / PIXTA(ピクスタ)

Combini are hiring foreign exchange students who are more willing to cover night shifts than their Japanese counterparts, according to store managers.

“Thanks to excellent international students, we’re staying afloat. It’s been difficult to attract Japanese students due to the declining birthrate and other factors. Our 24-hour operation would be unthinkable without foreign students,” a Lawson store owner in Hiroshima tells the local newspaper Chūgoku Shimbun.

In Chiba, a manager of three convenience store locations also depends on foreigners to stay open during late hours.

“Even the Japanese who have no money and are looking for work don’t come in for the night shifts. That’s why most convenience stores’ midnight shifts are full of foreigners. If I couldn’t rely on them, I’d have to close the shop,” he says.

A 7-Eleven store manager in Tokyo says he’s gone to nearby Japanese language schools to recruit part-time workers.

Combini work is considered “simple labor” and thus is not typically eligible work for foreigners.  Only permanent residents, spouses of Japanese nationals, and other foreign residents who have no restrictions on employment are usually allowed to work in combini.

However, foreign exchange students can work part-time for up to 28 hours per week. That makes them a reliable labor force for a number of jobs. It’s a labor force that the country’s major combini chains seemingly can’t afford to lose.

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