You can find them just about everywhere. Lines of small vending machines selling drinks and snacks next to shopfronts. A larger one prominently placed next to a park bench. Even novelty ones selling souvenirs specific to the region you’re visiting can be found in a random alleyway. Japan has a great love for its millions of vending machines, and though one wouldn’t go as far as to call them a national treasure, they have indeed managed to embed themselves and become a quintessential part of the scenery.
Japan’s vending machines have taken on something like a life of their own, and some have even managed to become tourist attractions in their own right due to the novelty items they sell. In fact, there’s even a supposed haunted area, which is really just a small alleyway, filled with vending machines that dispense random mystery items. Although paranormal has yet to actually be reported, there is a certain claustrophobic uneasiness to be felt when squashed between a narrow and poorly lit alleyway. Not to mention the often bizarre mystery items that visitors walk away with.
So how did the humble vending machine leave such an indelible mark on a nation?
How Vending Machines Got Popular in Japan
The first modern vending machine was actually invented in 1883, but records show vending machine-esque contraptions as early as the first century in Ancient Greece. Vending machines made their way to Japan as early as 1888 and became widely used to dispense a variety of goods. But they really only began taking off around the late 1950s when the “Fountain Style Juice Dispenser” made waves with its unique manner of dispensing drinks. Vending manufacturers quickly caught onto the idea of introducing novelty into their machines in order to get more people to visit and purchase goods from them.
Another factor that contributed to the rise in popularity of the vending machine in Japan was that machine manufacturers began to lend machines free of charge, which predictably caused the installation of the machines to skyrocket. People began to see vending machines as a way to earn a side income, since many manufacturers also took it upon themselves to manage the upkeep and maintenance of the machines. This meant that it became a rather low-risk investment to earn a secondary income using a vending machine.
Furthermore, prior to 1989, many of the drinks in vending machines were priced at 100 yen. As the Japanese government minted more 100 yen coins, many people found it easy and convenient to use the vending machines to purchase drinks or snacks since they only needed a single coin in order to do so. This created a spike in the usage of vending machines, since they were often readily available and an affordable means to satisfy one’s hunger or thirst. Although the consumption tax introduced in 1989 has caused the gradual rise of vending machine prices, they have managed to become an ingrained part of Japanese consumer culture.
Why Vending Machines Are Still Popular
One big reason that vending machines are still so popular in Japan is largely down to their convenience. The cities in Japan are generally bustling metropolises that never sleep, and this is in no small part because of the work culture of many business people. Japan’s work culture often involves having to constantly be on the go and staying in the office until late.
This often means that food from the convenience store and drinks from the vending machine are a part of a busy office worker’s diet. Furthermore, the nature of a vending is that it is open 24-hours, which means no matter the time of day there will be sustenance available for anyone who has a few yen to spare. Furthermore, as vending machines in Japan have managed to diversify their functions to dispense more than just snacks and cold drinks, it is possible for an office worker to nurse a warm comforting drink or even soup no matter the time of day.
Additionally, vending machines have managed to retain their sense of novelty through various means. One example are the vending machines that have an in-built lottery system. When you buy a drink from the machine, it will essentially spin a lottery wheel, and if you get a jackpot you will receive a free drink.
By developing new technology that allows for new features in vending machines, it helps to preserve the sense of playfulness and whimsy that was demonstrated by the earlier generations of vending machines in Japan. This allows for continued excitement regarding their use and prevents the experience from becoming stale.
Vending machines are a beloved staple of many Japanese neighborhoods. As they have continued to upgrade the technology and diversify the functions that they are able to serve, they have managed to remain relevant and faithfully serve the community. As technology continues to develop, it will surely lead to even more interesting vending machines in the future.