Friday. 19/4/2019

The Monocle Minute

Opinon / Fiona Wilson

The price of convenience

The idea of machines replacing humans once seemed like a distant fantasy but in Japan, which is confronting a diminishing population and a shrinking workforce, the reality is coming home sooner than expected. From this summer, convenience store chain Lawson will be trialling unmanned night-time operations at two of its shops. Between midnight and 05.00, the two unstaffed outlets will only be open to registered Lawson shoppers who have a QR code to unlock the door; items will be paid for with smartphones or self-checkout machines. If it goes well, the system could be rolled out to other branches (Lawson has about 15,000 around Japan).

It is a depressing prospect. The convenience store – conbini – is such a feature of life in Japan; it’s a place where people get their morning coffee, pay their bills, buy baseball tickets or just flick through magazines. In its own strip-lit way, the conbini makes for a comforting community of strangers. Devoid of people (and those services that won’t be available at night) it doesn’t seem quite so cosy. Of course, it is impressive that the idea of a fully stocked shop without staff is even possible; the shelves and cash machines would likely be stripped clean in any other country. But do we really want our convenience to come with a sense of isolation? The curious allure of the Japanese conbini was caught in Sayaka Murata’s bestselling novel Convenience Store Woman, which is about an observant conbini worker. It is hard to imagine an unmanned shop inspiring award-winning literature.

Affairs / USA

Donald through by default?

The redacted edition of the Mueller report was published yesterday and its most revealing portion uncovered why Mueller was not able to exonerate Donald Trump on an allegation of obstructing justice. Mueller’s team investigated the allegation through the prism of a longstanding protocol in US politics: a sitting president cannot be charged with a crime. Investigators, the report’s legalese states, were therefore not able to conclude that "a crime did not take place", leaving Trump very much on the hook. So, what happens now? Democrats will have to decide whether they pick up where Mueller left off or leave that to prosecutors once Trump has departed office. A perceived assault on the president will play poorly for them ahead of the election in 2020; focusing on policy may be more of a boon to their electoral chances, as it was in last year’s midterms.

Elections / Spain

Back to the polls

Spain will head to the polls next week as the country contests its third general election in four years. Prime minister Pedro Sánchez’s Socialist party was forced to call the vote after Catalan separatists withdrew support for his budget earlier this year. But after a tumultuous few years in Spanish politics, might next Sunday’s election finally calm the waters? “The latest credible opinion polls here suggest a big shift to the Socialists as election day approaches,” says Sebastian Balfour, professor emeritus of contemporary Spanish studies at the London School of Economics. “If that’s the case they might be able to cobble together some sort of coalition with left-wing parties, rather than rely on the support of Catalan separatists. But – with about 40 per cent of voters yet to make up their minds – it’s all still to play for.”

Politics / New Zealand

Opposing the opposition

New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern’s star continues to rise following her response to last month’s deadly shootings at two Christchurch mosques. Her Labour party has widened its poll lead over centre-right National, which is fuelling doubts over the future of Simon Bridges as the opposition party leader. It wouldn’t be the first time that Bridges’ authority has been questioned: he has already been involved in a series of internal spats with fellow party members since being appointed last February. As MPs head into the Easter break there’s mounting speculation that his colleagues are ready to challenge his leadership; veteran politician Judith Collins is being touted as one of the favourites to replace him. It may take a miracle for Bridges to resurrect his political clout.

Sport / North and South Korea

Worth a shot

South Korean president Moon Jae-in has appealed for another summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un. South Korean football officials, however, are less collaboratively inclined: they have decided against the idea of working with the North to jointly host the Women’s World Cup in 2023. Citing a lack of co-ordination as a reason, this week South Korea’s football association (KFA) submitted a solo preliminary bid to stage the football tournament, entering a contest against eight other countries. The KFA can still change its bid to include North Korea before the final deadline for submissions to Fifa on 4 October. The countries have shown unity through sport in the past, most recently when athletes from both nations walked together during the opening ceremony of the 2018 Winter Olympics (and fielded a joint women's ice hockey team). With nuclear talks stalled and tensions rising over the North’s test-firing of a guided missile yesterday, not using sport to build goodwill would be missing an open goal.

M24 / The Urbanist

In praise of the city airport

Bigger planes and more flights have forced many cities to move their key airport far from the centre. But there is something special about watching the city from above as you land in what feels like the middle of it. This week we ask what makes a great city airport.

Film / Greece

Athens: The Monocle Travel Guide

The weekly pilgrimage to a ‘laiki agora’ is at the heart of Greek lifestyle. To celebrate the launch of our latest book, Monocle Films takes stock at one of its favourite Athenian food markets.

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