A Grudge Match in Japan: One Corner, Two 7-Elevens

New York Times -- May 01
HIGASHI-OSAKA, Japan — Across Japan, it can seem as if there’s a 7-Eleven on every corner.

Now, on a single corner in a working-class suburb of Osaka, there are two.

The unusual pairing is the latest manifestation of a grudge match between one of Japan’s most powerful companies and, arguably, one of its most stubborn men.

Mitoshi Matsumoto, a franchisee, ran one of the two 7-Elevens until the chain revoked his contract in 2019 after he dared to shorten his operating hours. For over a year, his store has sat empty as he and 7-Eleven have battled in court over control of the shop. Fed up and with no end in sight, the company decided on a stopgap: It built a second shop in what used to be Mr. Matsumoto’s parking lot.

The conflict’s outcome will determine not just who gets to sell rice balls and cigarettes from one tiny patch of asphalt and concrete. It could also have profound implications for 7-Eleven’s authority over tens of thousands of franchise shops across Japan, part of a convenience store network so ubiquitous that the government considers it vital to the national infrastructure during emergencies.

7-Eleven has gone to surprising lengths against Mr. Matsumoto. It hired a team of private investigators to watch his store for months, collecting grainy video that, the company asserts, shows him head-butting one customer and attacking another’s car with a flying kick. It has also compiled a dossier of complaints against him, including one over a bungled giveaway of “commemorative mayonnaise.” And now it says it plans to charge him for the cost of building the second shop next to his.

The company maintains that it moved against Mr. Matsumoto simply because he was a bad franchisee. But he argues that it is no coincidence that the company’s view of him dimmed sharply after he said he would defy its rigid demand that stores stay open around the clock.

Before his seemingly small act of rebellion, the company had deemed him a model worker. He had received praise for, among other things, having the highest sales of steamed pork buns in his region.

After his decision, 7-Eleven threatened his business and eventually cut off his supplies and sued to take over the store. With its actions, Mr. Matsumoto says, the company is sending a message to other franchisees: The nail that sticks out gets hammered down.

- New York Times