Friday, December 17, 2010

Vending Machines Japanese Style

Most visitors to Japan are not long out of Narita Airport before discovering that among other eye-popping sights greatly visible armies of vending machines stand in squad-like clusters on every other corner. Plain and simple, the Japanese adore vending machines. No question that companies like Georgia (Coca Cola), Kirin and Glico have over the years created a market that is hugely served by a near epidemic of vending machines from one end of Japan to the other, across cities and countryside. When the 100 yen coin was first put into circulation in 1967, vending machine sales skyrocketed overnight. They have been a part of daily Japanese life for so long that it wouldn’t surprise me to hear of Japanese visitors to the US suffering withdrawal symptoms. It may not be an exaggeration to say that many Japanese children learn how to operate a vending machine before learning to tie their shoelaces.


Back when I was still new to Japan, maybe a week or two after my arrival, my first time of using one of several vending machines near where I lived turned out to be a memorable experience. When I dropped a 100 yen coin in the slot, the machine—half the size of a Buick—lit up like a pinball machine and belted out, “WELCOME AND THANK YOU FOR CHOOSING DAIDO!” The enormous thing practically shimmied and I had to walk around to the back to see if a woman was hiding there with a megaphone. There was also in my old neighborhood one vending machine that sold nothing but comic books.


Ice cream, cold drinks, beer, cigarettes and other staples are only the tip of the iceberg in the land that gave us karaoke. Machine contents are often decided in relation to location. Near schools there are more juice, tea and milk products; in front of liquor stores you’ll find machines with alcoholic beverages, cigarettes and soft drinks. Wander into Kabukicho, a Tokyo center of nightlife and you are more likely to find machines selling items of a more adult nature, such as neatly packaged worn, but unwashed panties. Over the years there I saw a range of goods including eggs, oranges, fried food, live lobsters, pornography, sexual lubricants and pot plants.


Whatever they are selling, vending machines in the big cities of Japan are state of the art hi-tech behemoths. For example, to prevent minors from buying cigarettes and alcohol, many machines are now engineered to read ‘proof of age’ cards before dispensing the product. Cell phones can be charged with ‘money’ to allow use with vending machines by swiping the phone across a sensor. An article from CNN today reports installation in some cities of solar powered vending machines operable 24 hours a day.


And the new item for sale in these machines now? Would you believe lettuce?


Last, and by no means least, there were 5.6 million vending machines in Japan in 2008, or one machine for every twenty-three people. You never have to walk far to buy a Coke, a beer, a pair of boxer shorts, or a pair of…

7 comments:

  1. Fascinating. With the advent of so many electronic products flowing out of Japan starting in the 1960s, I had the thought that they would conquer the world in a more subtle way than by arms. In the early days I had a portable JVC VHS recorder that was suitcase sized; now I walk around with a cell phone on my hip that has more computing power than the computers on the first moon landing. Thanks to the Japanese, we've come a long way, baby.

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Oak Hill, Florida, United States
A longtime expat relearning the footwork of life in America