If you’ve not yet been to Japan, you may have trouble picturing the ubiquity of vending machines, which stand in their dozens on seemingly every street, in every public space – even in forests, along hiking trails, selling insect repellent! Vending machines are so ubiquitous, even in picturesque scenes from which they’d be banned in other countries, that one wonders if Japanese even see them.
But they certain do love them. With more than five million machines stationed throughout the archipelago, Japan has the highest concentration of vending machines per capita in the world, and sometimes it seems that one can satisfy nearly any immediate need.
Indeed, the variety of products one can get in a vending machine in Japan is mind-boggling: Not just the many cold and hot beverages, as well as cigarettes, condoms and small toys, but everything from bananas and ramen to surgical masks and sake are available at the push of a button.
The first Japanese vending machine was invented by Tawaraya Koshichi, a tobacco vendor who took out his patent in 1888, but the Japanese love of vending machines really took off after World War II, and each year has seen more machines selling a larger variety of products.
In Japan, vending machines are useful in more subtle ways than mere convenience: Since every Japanese social encounter is potentially a complicated, subtle conversational dance that can grow exhausting even to the Japanese, vending machines remove the social interaction, and hence, anxiety, from simple purchases.
Vending machines don’t just benefit customers. In a country with sky-high real estate prices and relatively high labor costs, a merchant may find that a vending machine produces a much higher profit margin than a retail store, with all of its overhead.
Japan is also a logical place for vending machines for another reason: In this low-crime country, such machines are also more secure from the theft and vandalism they would likely suffer in other countries.
So what do Japanese vending machines offer? Drinks are the most common product, but they are by no means alone. Among the products one can buy at the drop of a yen are…
Ramen – Well, of course! A simple bowl of ramen requires little more than hot water to create something quick and simple.
Surgical masks – The Japanese love of these simple items, used to protect against both germs and pollution, makes them a no-brainer.
Eggs – This has got to be all in the packaging, because the idea of an egg (or six) crashing down out of a vending machine doesn’t compute. But the Japanese are also experts on packaging, so why not?
Flowers – You’re not going to get a classic Ikebana arrangement out of a vending machine, but if you’re on the way home, or on the way to pick up a date, grabbing a bouquet from a machine sounds perfect.
Socks, underwear, bras – These are items that could come in handy in an emergency – as long as you can find a machine that dispenses them when that emergency strikes.
Sake or beer – Machines in Japan can be programmed to check identification so that alcohol isn’t sold to minors. Some machines are said to be operated on the honor system, which could only work in a rule-following country like Japan.
Umbrellas – With Japan’s unpredictable weather, being able to grab an umbrella at the right moment sounds like a good business.
Flying fish soup – Yes, that is a whole flying fish in those glass (or clear plastic) jars. We cannot vouch for its edibility.
Fishing bait – These are presumably available mostly around lakes, the ocean and rivers for unprepared fishermen. We haven’t seen this one, but it seems a logical product for vending machines.
Bread in a can – Bread is not a Japanese staple, but since many Japanese are enthusiastic eaters of other cuisines, the convenience of this may outweigh its questionable edibility.
Some of the latest vending machines have an added feature that has apparently proven popular: Face recognition software can assess your gender and age and offer drinks that might be popular with your demographic – for instance, a sweeter drink for a younger person.
More entertainingly, some drink vending machines in Japan even have an added feature: A roulette wheel that spins when one makes a purchase, so that one may end up actually winning a second drink free. Another type of vending machine delivers a short video clip of comedy routines along with the drink dispensed.
Less entertaining, but more essential, are the vending machines that have been programmed to dispense necessities during an emergency. These “free vend” machines can deliver water or even emergency information such as evacuation routes during a natural disaster such as an earthquake. One hopes never to have to rely on a vending machine for potable water, but it is good to know that these popular machines are there to slake even the most desperate thirst.