HIGASHI-OSAKA, Japan — Across Japan, it could appear as if there’s a 7-Eleven on each nook.

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

The uncommon pairing is the newest manifestation of a grudge match between one in all Japan’s strongest firms and, arguably, one in all its most cussed males.

Mitoshi Matsumoto, a franchisee, ran one of many two 7-Elevens till the chain revoked his contract in 2019 after he dared to shorten his operating hours. For over a 12 months, his retailer has sat empty as he and 7-Eleven have battled in court docket over management of the store. Fed up and with no finish in sight, the corporate selected a stopgap: It constructed a second store in what was once Mr. Matsumoto’s parking zone.

The battle’s consequence will decide not simply who will get to promote rice balls and cigarettes from one tiny patch of asphalt and concrete. It may even have profound implications for 7-Eleven’s authority over tens of 1000’s of franchise outlets throughout Japan, a part of a comfort retailer community so ubiquitous that the federal government considers it important to the nationwide infrastructure throughout emergencies.

7-Eleven has gone to shocking lengths in opposition to Mr. Matsumoto. It employed a crew of personal investigators to look at his retailer for months, gathering grainy video that, the corporate asserts, reveals him head-butting one buyer and attacking one other’s automobile with a flying kick. It has additionally compiled a file of complaints in opposition to him, together with one over a bungled giveaway of “commemorative mayonnaise.” And now it says it plans to cost him for the price of constructing the second store subsequent to his.

The firm maintains that it moved in opposition to Mr. Matsumoto just because he was a foul franchisee. But he argues that it’s no coincidence that the corporate’s view of him dimmed sharply after he stated he would defy its inflexible demand that shops keep open across the clock.

Before his seemingly small act of rise up, the corporate had deemed him a mannequin employee. He had acquired reward for, amongst different issues, having the very best gross sales of steamed pork buns in his area.

After his determination, 7-Eleven threatened his enterprise and finally minimize off his provides and sued to take over the shop. With its actions, Mr. Matsumoto says, the corporate is sending a message to different franchisees: The nail that stands out will get hammered down.

The combat taking part in out in an Osaka courtroom can have ramifications for 7-Eleven and the remainder of Japan’s main franchises, which management the overwhelming majority of the nation’s greater than 50,000 comfort shops. 7-Eleven accounts for practically 40 % of these, and its enterprise practices, for higher or worse, have lengthy been considered because the trade customary.

“The outcome of this trial will have an enormous impact,” stated Naoki Tsuchiya, an economics professor at Musashi University in Tokyo. “A loss would be a considerable blow to the company,” however a win would “shift the balance of power away from the franchisees and toward corporate HQ.”

Mr. Matsumoto ran the primary of the 2 7-Elevens from its development in 2012 by way of the tip of 2019. Situated on a busy avenue close to one of many largest personal universities in the area, the shop has been shuttered for 16 months, musty, darkish and gathering mud.

The second 7-Eleven, a scaled-down model of the store subsequent door, is being constructed as a service to the neighborhood, the corporate says, after residents expressed concern that the empty retailer was a safety subject. The new store has the knocked-together look of the momentary housing that springs up in the wake of a pure catastrophe. When the ending touches are placed on in the approaching days, it is going to be operated — 24 hours a day — by 7-Eleven itself.

For many of the seven years that Mr. Matsumoto operated his 7-Eleven, he faithfully carried out the calls for for round the clock operations, which enhance company income however might be expensive for franchisees, who shoulder the labor prices. The tempo grew to become unsustainable, although, as assist grew to become more durable and dearer to search out — an issue that grew extra acute after his spouse’s loss of life from most cancers in the spring of 2018.

In February 2019, he introduced that he would shut his retailer from 1 a.m. to six a.m. every day. 7-Eleven started pressuring him to return to round the clock operations, his protection crew wrote in court docket filings. Mr. Matsumoto, who prides himself on being persistent and plain-spoken, didn’t again down.

He went to the information media and described the trade’s harsh labor situations, together with his personal days working 12 hours or extra. His story hit a nerve in a rustic the place overwork is rampant and generally deadly.

His willingness to criticize 7-Eleven in ways in which most different franchisees wouldn’t made him well-known. It additionally solid a light-weight on the hidden prices of ultraconvenience in Japan, the place comfort shops fulfill lots of life’s each day wants and are sometimes held up as symbols of the nation’s exceptional effectivity and customer support.

7-Eleven stood down in its conflict with Mr. Matsumoto over his shorter hours. But his relationship with the corporate, which had all the time had some issues, reached a breaking level in October 2019 when he introduced that he would shut the shop totally for at some point, on New Year’s.

In late December, 7-Eleven notified him that it will revoke his contract until he took unspecified motion to revive a “relationship of trust.” It gave him 10 days.

The firm stated it was responding to 2 issues. One, Mr. Matsumoto had attacked it on social media. Two, he had racked up tons of of buyer complaints. (It would later declare, with out offering proof, that it was the most important variety of any retailer in Japan.) It was the primary time, he stated, that the corporate had ever introduced the issue to his consideration. The firm denies this.

The first criticism got here in the months after the shop’s grand opening. Mr. Matsumoto and his spouse had papered the neighborhood with fliers promising a squeeze tube of “commemorative mayonnaise” to any buyer who confirmed up on the primary day.

The mayonnaise ran out in hours, and Mr. Matsumoto ended up telling tons of of buyers to come back again later that week to say their reward. Over a month later, one disgruntled buyer tried to money in the I.O.U., then fired off a scathing criticism when she was refused.

The different complaints vary from critical accusations — berating prospects — to minor quibbles. The file additionally incorporates a variety of complaints from former workers about pay and dealing situations that echo a few of Mr. Matsumoto’s personal complaints about 7-Eleven.

Mr. Matsumoto doesn’t faux that the whole lot at his retailer was good. For years, he had been engaged in a heated battle over his parking zone, the place prospects of different companies would typically go away their automobiles for hours with out a lot as a thank-you.

By Japanese requirements, Mr. Matsumoto’s neighborhood is slightly tough. People minimize in line. They cross the road in opposition to the sunshine. They aren’t afraid to provide a comfort retailer proprietor a bit of their thoughts.

He gave pretty much as good as he bought, he readily admits, and he was not widespread with the neighbors. On multiple event, a shouting match over parking areas ended with a name to the police. They all the time sided with him, Mr. Matsumoto stated.

7-Eleven had by no means appeared significantly in the occasional blowups, however after he declared that he was closing early, it started taking a really particular curiosity in them.

In the summer time of 2019, the corporate employed personal investigators to maintain tabs on Mr. Matsumoto’s retailer, it wrote in a court docket submission. Perched in a close-by constructing, they spent months secretly filming the store’s comings and goings.

The result’s 7-Eleven’s evidential pièce de résistance: 5 movies of what seem like confrontations between Mr. Matsumoto and varied prospects in the parking zone. Two contain what the corporate says are the flying kick to the automobile and the head-butt, however it’s tough to make out a lot of the blurry footage offered to the court docket.

Another video reveals Mr. Matsumoto upbraiding a person in a white van. Two males loitering close by are surreptitiously taping the argument, and the corporate has crosscut shaky footage from their cameras with video taken from the balcony above Mr. Matsumoto’s store to provide a number of views on the trade.

When approached for remark, a 7-Eleven consultant referred reporters to the corporate’s court docket filings.

Mr. Matsumoto’s authorized crew has years of expertise preventing comfort retailer chains in court docket, however one in all his legal professionals, Takayuki Kida, stated that “there aren’t many cases that are full-out war, where 7-Eleven is this set on crushing someone.”

It’s straightforward to see why, stated Mr. Tsuchiya, the Musashi University professor. The consideration on Mr. Matsumoto has already helped spur change in the trade.

In September, a broad inquiry by Japan’s Fair Trade Commission concluded that the comfort retailer trade’s 24-hour-a-day coverage was unsustainable and ordered stores to give owners more flexibility or face doable authorized motion.

Under stress, 7-Eleven has elevated franchisees’ share of income and, through the pandemic, taken a extra lenient stance on operating hours. It shouldn’t be clear how far the modifications will go or whether or not regulators will comply with by way of on their risk.

Mr. Matsumoto is bemused by 7-Eleven’s determination to construct a brand new store subsequent door to his. “Everyone had forgotten about me,” he stated throughout a current go to to the development web site. “Now they’ve put me back in the news again.”

As he watched a crane do excavation work, a passing bicyclist stopped to share a couple of phrases of encouragement, urging Mr. Matsumoto to not let the “big guys” win.

Last 12 months, Mr. Matsumoto says, the corporate provided him 10 million yen, or greater than $92,000, to drop his case. The court docket inspired him to just accept the provide. But he wasn’t . Now, the corporate is attempting the alternative method. Its legal professionals have stated they’ll invoice him ¥30 million for development of the brand new retailer.

Either manner, it’s the identical to him, Mr. Matsumoto stated. “It’s not about the money,” he stated. “It’s about something bigger.”

The similar could possibly be stated for 7-Eleven. A signal in entrance of the development web site sums all of it up: The constructing is momentary.

Win or lose, the corporate plans to tear it to the bottom.

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