RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
In Japan, space is at a premium. And it's full of popular convenience stores that cram everything from Kleenex to rice balls into a few square yards. Walk five minutes, and you'll run into one or a half a dozen. But they're not just a place for Slurpees and snacks. Since more than a quarter of Japan's population is now 65 or older, convenience stores are changing to serve this growing market. NPR's Ina Jaffe covers aging. And she takes us to the city of Kawaguchi.
INA JAFFE, BYLINE: At this convenience store north of Tokyo, you'll find products that an American consumer would never find tucked between the aspirin and the candy bars. For example, there is a whole rack of ready-to-heat meals in colorful pouches. They're rated from levels one to five depending on how hard it is to chew what's inside.
MASAHIKO TERADA: (Through interpreter) The higher the level is, the less need for you to chew. In the end, it's porridge.
JAFFE: That's Masahiko Terada, the manager of this store that's part of the Lawson chain. Of course, not all older people have trouble chewing or cooking, so Terada points out a fresh-food section for all vegetables and meat. It's cut up and packaged in small amounts for the increasing number of older people living alone these days. Then there are the dozens of products intended not so much for older consumers as for their caregivers - for example, items to help people who can't bathe or brush their teeth without help.
TERADA: (Through interpreter) So basically, we have this lineup of products so the elderly don't need to go to the big supermarkets. They can use this store as a substitute.
JAFFE: Because older adults make up nearly 27 percent of Japan's population, they're a market that can't be ignored, says Ming Li, who works in communications for Lawson.
MING LI: (Through interpreter) We try to accommodate the changes in society. That's our role. So the current situation - having various products to meet the needs of senior citizens - that's a challenge we're taking on.
JAFFE: The convenience store industry in Japan is dominated by three major chains. Lawson comes in second. The leader is 7-Eleven, which is now owned by a Japanese company. The industry, says Li, is highly competitive.
LI: (Through interpreter) So we're like, OK, if one chain is doing something, then we'll do it too. We're always introducing new products for the customers.
JAFFE: In fact, other chains are also experimenting with services that might appeal to older consumers, like home delivery of meals or locations alongside pharmacies. This store in Kawaguchi is part of a special line called Care Lawson. Right now there are just six, but the company plans to expand to 30 by early next year. And these Care Lawson stores have another special feature - people like Mika Kojima.
MIKA KOJIMA: (Through interpreter) I make sure that I'm always prepared to listen with a smile on my face.
JAFFE: Kojima is a nursing care manager. She's stationed at this Lawson store. In fact, the franchise owner of this store is actually a nursing services company. Anyone who comes in can ask for her help. For example, she'll go to an older client's home to make sure it's set up so they can live there safely. And she'll connect families with adult day care services.
KOJIMA: (Through interpreter) Someplace the elders can go and interact with the others if they can't be left alone when their family members are working during the daytime.
JAFFE: Kojima works out of a tiny office next to a cafe area meant to give older people a place to hang out and drink tea or watch television. This is where she sees most of her clients.
KOJIMA: (Through interpreter) People in the neighborhood come in for tea, and they start talking to me. And they come in four or five times a week.
JAFFE: So most of the time, she deals in tea and sympathy - one of the oldest therapies in the world, coming soon to a growing number of convenience stores in Japan. Ina Jaffe, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.