Photo:Hsuanya Tsai on Flickr

Vending Machines: Why so Many?

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the word “vending machine” was first used circa 1895. It is defined as “a coin-operated machine for selling merchandise.” Although there are references to the coin-operated machines all the way back in the first century AD, the first modern vending machines were invented in 1880s, dispensing postcards and envelopes.


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The first vending machine in Japan was invented by Tawaraya Koshichi in 1888, who was in the city Shimonoseki (Yamaguchi Prefecture), for a machine to sell tobacco. He also invented stamp and postcard machines that also served as a mailbox.

Then there were drink machines that eventually started to sell beer as well. Then vending machines started to flourish in Japan from 1964 due to the Tokyo Summer Olympic Games.


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The Japan National Tourism Organization claims currently there are about 5.52 million vending machines all around the country.

So why are there so many vending machines in Japan, or rather jidou hanbaiki (自動 販売機) as they are called in Japanese?

The main reason is the safety of the machines and their content. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime classifies Japan as having lower crime rates among the industrialized countries. The 2012 data from the Japan Ministry of Justice records the theft from vending machine as rather low and rare. For example, in 2014 the Tokyo Fire Department reported a total of 26 machines been destroyed within a period of 10 days (one case in Kanagawa). Unlike other countries where vandalism and other security reasons prevent placing machines other than indoors or monitored areas, in Japan they are commonly located outside and in remote areas, even at the top of Mount Fuji. Now they are usually equipped with recording cameras as well.

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Another reason for popularity is the automated performance. This developed from the concept of "unmanned sellers" (無人販売所) in Japan. If you go to the countryside, you may see a small stalls with vegetables for sale without a seller. There is a box to leave money for whatever you pick. Vending machines are seen as almost robots, capable of giving the right amount of change, accepting paper bill notes, IC cards, etc. In Japan, robots are innovations that make life easier, and generally people trust them. Now there are even better vending machines equipped with the touch screen and a facial recognition feature. Such machines determine age and gender and based on that information help the buyer to chose a drink. Males might get recommended coffee or energy drinks after their long working day.


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And finally, they are just convenient. The items on display include snacks, ice cream, bread, chewing gum, cough drops...About 2 and a half million of all the vending machines sell only beverages, as Japan is home to such major beverage companies as Asahi, Suntory and Kirin among others. The number increased thanks to the technology to keep certain temperature. Same machine can keep both high and low temperatures at once. For some older types, you can even visit a whole vending machines restaurant in Isesaki city of Gunma prefecture. The variety includes cheeseburgers, hot toast sandwiches and even glass bottles of coke among others.


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Vending machines are staffed with the hot drinks in winter and cold ones in summer.  You can also get a bowl of hot soup oden. They cook cup noodles on university campuses, pour coffee, and heat meals at the service areas. And as you are waiting for your coffee to be poured, some machines will show you a short cartoon with cute characters. At the train stations they are updated with the latest newspapers and can even save one from getting soaked in the rain by offering plastic umbrellas. Some liquor shops have beer and other alcohol vending machines nearby. There are tobacco ones too, but they require age verification cards.

Vending machines in Japan don’t require Japanese language skills, nor any interaction at all. All you need is to input the coins (except 1 and 5 coins) and choose the item you want. They mostly work non-stop, 24/7, and today allegedly have become more efficient, consuming half of the electricity they used to.  Prices can be a little higher than in convenient stores, but you can also find many so-called “one-coin” vending machines that sell everything for 100 yen only.

Have you landed yet?  Thirsty?  Just walk outside a few steps in any direction, and grab a drink!


Justin Mclean on Flickr

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