The Japanese love vending machines! In fact, one of the things I enjoy about living in Japan is the overabundance of vending machines. The machines are everywhere! They are so many vending machines in this country, you are never far from your next indulgence. Not only do they dot the urban landscape like gum underneath elementary school desks, they can also be found, quite literally, in the middle of nowhere. You can buy almost anything from a vending machine: cold drinks of water, tea, and soft drinks, hot drinks of coffee or tea, juice, athletic drinks to replace electrolytes, hot and cold sandwiches, hot and cold soup, full hot meals, rice, fruit, vitamin and energy drinks, cigarettes, batteries, candy, ice cream, sake, beer, and even eggs. That’s right, you can even buy fresh eggs from a vending machine! And the machines never seem to malfunction, meaning they always regurgitate the drink requested when the button is pushed. And cold items are always cold and the hot are always hot.
There are also some unusual items that can be bought in a vending machine. Items such as: a shirt and tie combo for the businessman that stays out too late at the karaoke bar and needs a change of clothes for the morning train to work, music CDs, personal grooming tools, and slightly used women’s underwear (Gross!…I know nothing about them, although I’m told that those vending machines have now been discontinued, as well as the sake and beer vending machines, to cut down on temptations of the perverted and alcoholic consumption by underage drinkers).
Not only do they dot the urban landscape like gum underneath elementary school desks, they can also be found, quite literally, in the middle of nowhere.
Why is Japan in love with vending machines? I did some fact finding. According to The Japan Times journalist Tsutomu Washizu in 2007, the reasons why the Japanese love vending machines are the following: cost of labor (no clerk or retail space is needed…just someone to fill the machine on a regular basis), dense urban populations with expensive real estate (vending machines take up very little space and a there are a lot of people walking around), lack of crime (many vending machines are directly wired into local police boxes, so no one messes with them), cash based society (even now in the credit card/digital age, Japanese primarily use cash), and the Japanese culture has always been obsessed with automation/technology and robots (case in point: a Giant Gundam robot on display in Tokyo).
During my vending machine research, I learned that there are approximately five million vending machines scattered across this island nation of Japan. According to Business Insider Japan, there is one vending machine for every twenty-three people and sales from those machines, according to the Japan Vending Machine Manufacturers Association, exceed $60 billion USD each year. That is a lot of pocket change!
There are many psychological, social, and cultural reasons stated by experts for the popularity of Japanese vending machines, but for me, they remind me of happy times, good friends, and they are just so convenient! Just this morning I was in a rush to catch a train and had to forfeit eating breakfast. No worries…vending to the rescue! I purchased a small cup of corn soup at the train station and it was scalding hot! I smiled, set the cup down, and thought ‘Only in Japan’. My wife and I used to meet friends in the Bikan Historical District of Kurashiki during our first Japan experience. We met at a place we called “The Happy Spot”, which was actually just a set of old, stone steps that led to a river framed with weeping willow trees. We never had to lug our “refreshments” with us due to the fortuitous placement of a couple beer vending machines that always spewed forth ice cold beers about fifty or so paces from our “Happy Spot”, which is probably why we were so happy at that particular spot! These days, the beer machines are gone, but vending machines are still on the job. It is a quiet relief to know that as I head out into the Japanese winter and start feeling a little under the weather, there will be a vending machine ready, willing, and able to administer a small bottle of vitamin C to ward off the sniffles. Now, if I could just find a public trash/recycle bin!
Source of vending machine information:
1. Business Insider Japan
2. Japan Vending Machine Manufacturers Association (JVMA)
3. The Japan Times
© 2018 Gregory Vessar