Why does Japan get all the cool vending machines, anyway?

Photo: Wikipedia

Photo: Wikipedia

When he tried to quit smoking, the writer David Sedaris distracted himself from his lingering cravings by changing his surroundings: specifically, he moved to Japan for a few months. Not only did it help him kick the habit, it gave him a great deal of material for his hilarious and observant stories.

In his book When You Are Englufed in Flames, Sedaris tells of his and a French Japanese-language classmate's astonishment at Tokyo's abundance of vending machines:

“Can you believe it?” he asked. “In the subway station, on the street, they just stand there, completely unmolested.”

“I know it,” I said.

Our Indonesian classmate came up, and after listening to us go on, he asked what the big deal was.

“In New York or Paris, these machines would be trashed,” I told him.

The Indonesian raised his eyebrows.

“He means destroyed,” Christophe said. “Persons would break the glass and cover everything with graffiti.”

The Indonesian student asked why, and we were hard put to explain.

“It’s something to do?” I offered.

“But you can read a newspaper,” the Indonesian said.

“Yes,” I explained, ” but that wouldn’t satisfy your basic need to tear something apart.”

I think about that conversation every time I return from Asia to the States. Loyal Boing Boing readers, of course, know the joys and oddities of Japanese vending machines well from posts on their contents (hot ginger ale, live crab, lobster, bananas, deep-dish pizza, bread-in-a-can, the ubiquitous coffee and cigarettes), their history (and "lives"), and innovations in the field (such as a hand cranks, biometric scanners, and even vending machine-shaped disguises for women).

One time in Japan, I went to the vending-machine rich city of Osaka to interview Kotaku's Brian Ashcraft on my podcast, Notebook on Cities and Culture. Ashcraft is a longtime Osaka resident, and has made himself into something of an expert on Japanese vending machines, writing about their variety, the differences between them and American vending machines, the ones that serve crepes, and the truth about the ones that supposedly sell used schoolgirls' underwear.

More recently, Ashcraft covered the reasons for the popularity of vending machines in Japan, all 5.52 million of them, not just in the major cities but in the suburbs, the countryside — everywhere. He cites, among other factors, the Japanese love of technology, the coexistence of Japan's many major beverage companies and their usefulness as advertisements for those companies, their publicity-stunt potential, and the country's long history of "unmanned seller" stalls (as well as the astonishingly low crime rates that make them viable, though the unthinkable does happen).

We might also consider the Japanese tolerance for what the West would call "overpackaging," as Japan observer Roland Kelts discusses in the clip at the top. I interviewed him as well, and in that conversation the half-Japanese Kelts tells of his own incredulity, when first he worked in Japan, at seeing a group of local adolescents hanging out every night beside a machine selling $10 fifths of whiskey, no ID required — yet never buying any, let alone smashing the thing up.

Maybe they just had a kind of respect for such a hallowed device.

"The few vending machines I come across in New York are just that: vending machines," writes Ashcraft. "That's fine. But in Japan, they're so much more."

For me, they offer a constant reminder that I myself come from a land whose impulsiveness and insecurity turns a pleasure as simple as a can of green tea on a nighttime stroll into an absurd proposition. This is why we can't have nice things, America.

Notable Replies

  1. bwv812 says:

    I believe a big part of the prevalence of vending machines (and convenience stores) in Japan has to do with their strict system of price controls and minimum prices. This results in a can of Coke or whatever being basically the same price in a vending machine or a supermarket, giving people no incentive not to shop at vending machines, or not at convenience stores.

  2. I think Ashcroft might be a bit off base on the long history of unattended stalls having something to do with. Those are pretty common anywhere rural. There's one right around the block from my house. Its very common here for farmers, or even families with large gardens to put out a stall with a coffee can or cash box for self service. This time of year its mostly fire wood, and that's pretty much the major way to buy and sell firewood here. And I'm in the NYC metro area.

  3. It probably depends on what sort of town/neighborhood he lives in. I'm assuming Indonesia is like many countries, there are places where people will steal the wheels off of your car, and other places (richer or more rural places) where you and the vending machines are fairly safe. My impression is that all of Japan belongs in the latter category.

  4. I'm old enough, just, to remember when New York City subways had chewing gum vending machines.

    They were built to nest inside the I-beams you see on the platforms. The were maybe 2' high, and built like the proverbial brick shit house, if the shit house was steel.

    They had little windows in which you could see the four - or - five chain-like tracks the sticks of gum (about the size of Chiclet) were stuck in. You put a penny in a slot corresponding to the track with the flavor you wanted, and turned a knob to make the track advance downwards, pitching the stick into a funnel and out into a little dish on the outside of the machine.

    P.S. Just remembered: One of the flavors offered was "pepsin." Some kind of digestive thing?

  5. Resident of Japan since 97 and part of a household that now owns a cigarette vending machine, allow me to offer some thoughts.

    Q: Why are vending machines so common in Japan?

    A: In either densely populated urban environments or sparsely populated rural environments they offer an economic method for merchants to sell high volume/low margin items 24/7 without the expense of keeping the retail store open all the time. Amazing how such a simple answer can be provided without resorting to any sort of orientalism!

    Q: Why do vending machines in Japan sell so many different things?

    A: As with any retail channel, vending machines will sell whatever people will buy and are a very easy channel to test new or seasonal products. Hot ginger ale didnt do very well and did not come back this winter. Too bad, I liked it. Cheap umbrellas never go out of season so you find those machines at some major train stations.

    Q: Why is there a low instance of vending machines being damaged in Japan?

    A: In general there is a very low rate of this sort of crime in Japan. A full answer would be beyond the scope of a BBS comment but let it boil down to cultural standards.

    Put it where the sun doesn't shine Colin Marshall. This sort of end comment adds zero value and provides no insight at all. I'd be willing to suppose that the lower instances of vending machines in certain parts of the US probably have more to do with less restrictive retail trade laws which allow more shops to stay open 24hrs as well as 24hr transportation infrastructure in major cities, both of which are not equivalent between the two countries.

    Maybe they just had a kind of respect for such a hallowed device.

    A more likely explanation is that generally even in urban environments in Japan, people still know other families around them and with constant passers by the kids know that there would be consequence for buying alcohol from the vending machine. Believe me, there is nothing "hallowed" about the machines themselves.

    Formal price controls don't exist for things generally sold in vending machines except for cigarettes which have very strict price controls. Selling cigs above or below the set prices will result in losing your license to sell tobacco products and possibly a criminal charge. I know this because when my wife inherited a tobacco sales license and cig vending machine, the local rep from Japan Tobacco came by to explain our duties to us.

    For things like drinks which are more common, in the past there was something like unspoken collusion to keep fixed retail prices but these days it is not uncommon for the same sized drink to be found in a range of prices between different vending machines or retail outlets. A 500ml bottle of Coke goes for ¥88 at the supermarket and up to ¥150 in some vending machines in my wife's hometown. Canned drinks range from ¥100 to ¥130 in vending machines in my neighborhood in Tokyo.

    Price variance can be a response to 24hr convenience stores based on a comment made by a neighbor of mine who has four drink machines outside his shop. As for cigarette machines since no price variance is allowed, there are fewer these days now that 24hr convenience stores are allowed to sell cigarettes and use of a vending machine requires a specific ID card issued by Japan Tobacco to "prove" the age of the purchaser.

    I barely remember those but they were interesting in design!

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