Vending Machines in Japan

One of the things that attracts tourists to Japan is the omnipresent vending machine. Several vending machines can often be found lined along a single street, and they sell a variety of products. Vending machines are considered convenient because customers are able to buy things 24 hours a day, whenever they are in need. On the other hand, they are often criticized because anyone can purchase goods regardless of age, and also because machines consume electricity as long as they are there, so some say they are wasting energy. 

In any case, let’s explore Japan's vending machines.

History of vending machines

Holy water dispenser

The first vending machine in the world is believed to be a “holy water dispenser” found in a book by Heron, a scientist from Alexandria, Egypt. Using leverage, his machine accepted a coin and then dispensed a fixed amount of holy water according to the weight of the coin. It is said that the holy water dispenser was placed in the temple in Alexandria in 215 B.C. 

The first vending machine in Japan was a tobacco vendor, which was made in 1888 in Bakan (now Shimonoseki, Yamaguchi Prefecture) by Tawaraya Koshichi, a furniture artisan and an inventor. He invented the machine and took out a patent on it. The oldest existing vending machine in Japan was made by the same inventor. It was called “an automatic stamp and postcard dispenser.” A wooden machine with elaborate carving on the frame, it served not only as a stamp and postcard vendor, but also as a mail box. It was made by applying the mechanism of traditional Japanese wind-up dolls (karakuri dolls), and was sophisticated enough to give change and display prices. 

Vending machines became popular in Japan in the late 1950s. The pioneering vending machine was a “Fountain-style Juice Dispenser,” a box mounted with a juice fountain. This was an unprecedented success thanks to its fountain performance and a reasonable price of just 10 yen per paper cup. Later, as companies engaging in the vending machine business appeared and beer companies also entered the vending machine industry, the number of vending machines rapidly increased from 240,000 in 1964 to 1 million in 1970. In 1973, the number exceeded 2 million and by 1984 it had reached 5 million. The number of vending machines in Japan has increased moderately since then.

Reasons why the vending machine business has flourished in Japan

Reasons why the vending machine business has flourished in Japan As of the end of 2008, the number of operational vending machines in Japan was approximately 5,260,000. Why has only Japan’s vending machine industry made such unparalleled achievements when the presence of these machines in other countries is comparatively limited?

Japan’s vending machine

In other countries, for security reasons, the locations used for vending machines were limited to indoor places such as offices, factories, and schools. Customers who buy products from the machines are, therefore, also limited and specified. In Japan, however, its low rates of vandalism and petty crime ensured that vending machines could be placed outside. As the number of vending machines increased, the machines came to cater to a larger number of customers. As a result, the number of users expanded.

In 1967, 100 yen coins made of silver were recast as cheaper nickel coins. Thanks to this, the number of 100 yen coins in circulation, then about 800 million, increased to approximately 1.6 billion two years later, and now stands at more than 10 billion. This large circulation of coins made it possible for the Japanese to use vending machines more casually and frequently.

In the 1970s, a major beverage company created canned coffee and began to sell it through vending machines which could keep drinks either hot or cold. Later, an improved version was produced that could keep hot and cold drinks in the same machine, at the same time. This made it possible with the same machine to sell only cold drinks in spring and summer, then both hot and cold ones in fall and winter.

Another reason why vending machines are so popular here is partly because the Japanese feel close to robots. A vending machine can be regarded as a kind of robot that undertakes chores for the benefit of humans. Japanese people have a positive view of robots, which is described in Japanese animation such as Astro Boy and Doraemon. Most Japanese do not mind buying goods or receiving services from robots.

Popular vending machines in Japan

One drink vending machine in Japan has its own lottery: after purchasing your drink, an electric roulette starts. If you win, you can get another drink free of charge. If you were thirsty and found a row of vending machines on the street, you would end up choosing one with a lottery regardless of the actual products available in the other vending machines.

Unique vending machines only found in a certain place are also popular. The most famous may be canned those which stock oden (Japanese stew) and canned ramen noodles in Akihabara, Tokyo. They have become known as a specialty of Akihabara since they appeared in the media at the end of the 1990s.

Vending machine of Instant Ramen

Instant Ramen: Ota City, Tokyo (Inside Haneda Airport Terminal 2)

Another interesting angle is seen in “drink vending machines with short comedy skits,” which have been installed mainly in rest areas along the expressway. Insert coins, select your coffee and the machine will grind beans, brew coffee, and pour it into the paper cup. During the waiting time – which could last up to a minute - short comedy skits play on the LCD screen for your entertainment. 

There are many other examples of vending machine ingenuity to be found at train stations; “paperback vending machines” which sell the latest books, “umbrella vending machines” in case of a sudden shower, and “business card makers” which are essential in Japan as the exchange of cards as a greeting is very important in business.

Criticism of vending machines

Some say the convenience of vending machines itself is a problem in that anyone of any age can buy things from them.

Since 2008, the majority of tobacco vending machines have featured a “Taspo” age verification unit with an IC card system. Until then, however, anyone could buy cigarettes without any verification. As for the situation regarding alcohol vending machines, the alcoholic beverages industry has started to replace old machines with ones that require purchasers to present either a driver’s license or an ID magnetic card as well as their self-imposed restraint. However, because it has not been legislated by law, a small number of the old vending machines - without age verification systems - still remain in the streets.

Tobacco vending machine

Alcohol vending machine

There is another growing concern over the electricity consumption of the machines. Particularly, drink vending machines, which run nonstop 24 hours a day in order to keep drinks hot and cold, have come in for harsh criticism. The vending machine industry has already developed a technology called “zone cooling,” which can quickly and intensively cool down the products to be sold. There has also been a drive to try to cut energy by using automatic lighting systems with sensors, and by reducing the brightness of the lighting. Thanks to such initiatives, in 2005 the industry finally succeeded in cutting the annual electricity usage per vending machine by half, compared with the energy use statistics in 1990.

The diversified roles of vending machines

Vending machines can be found in streets everywhere. Power is always supplied to them, and recently broadband or wireless communications technology has enabled vending machines to be equipped with fast Internet connections. More and more vending machines also have LCD screens, and they have started to play new roles on various occasions.

Vending machine with LCD screens

One such role can be seen when a disaster strikes. For example, some vending machines have a function called “free vend,” which offers free drinks in an emergency such as natural disasters. This “free vend” actually worked well in October 2004, when the Niigata Chuetsu Earthquakes hit the area. The machines contributed to offer free drinks to the victims. Many vending machines have a sticker on them to show the address of the installed locations. It is very important to be aware of the address when making urgent calls. There is also a vending machine equipped with an AED (Automated External Defibrillator). Another incorporates an LCD screen which will give you vital information, including where and how to get to evacuation areas.

Disaster Response Cup Vending Machine

 Disaster Response Cup Vending Machine: Shinjuku City, Tokyo (Inside Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building)

The LCD screen is expected to serve as a town bulletin board, offering people information pertaining to such things as bus delays, local festivals, big sales in the mall, and so on.

In 2004, Osaka initiated a pilot project of using robots to watch over children on their way between school and home, and citizens in the street, for their safety. In addition to security cameras installed in vending machines to watch over students, the vendors can communicate by radio with children's IC tags in order to obtain their location information, find suspicious figures, and call the police if needed. Osaka has been working to put the system into practice; however, there are some challenges, including privacy issues because of images taken by the security cameras, and the financial problem concerning funding of the scheme.

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The information herein is as of Feb 2018

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