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.