The land of the vending machine

Japan is the vending machine capital of the world.  Whether you’re in the middle of Tokyo or the Japanese countryside, you are never far from one of these popular and ubiquitous machines. According to the Vending Machine Manufacturers Association, Japan has the highest number of vending machines per capita, with about one machine for every 23 people.  Major beverage manufacturers including Coca-Cola, Kirin, Suntory, Asahi, Pokka and DyDo operate most of the millions of vending machines.  Japan’s high population density, limited space, and low rates of crime and vandalism make vending machines incredibly popular.  So what makes Japanese ones so unique?

First, they are everywhere (mostly outdoors).  You won’t find one on every corner; you’ll find three or four (or more) on every corner, street, station, train platform (and in some trains), office building…even on the top of Mt. Fuji.  Second, they sell just about anything you can imagine from the normal to the unique to the bizarre.  The majority of vending machines sell non-alcoholic beverages, mainly soft drinks, tea, juice, energy drinks and coffee.  Other items include cigarettes, alcoholic beverages, ice cream, instant noodles, rice, disposable cameras, batteries, fresh flower bouquets, cooked food, umbrellas, magazines, etc.  Companies are also using vending machines for PR or branding and marketing purposes.  (See picture of Dole banana vending machine found in Shibuya.)

Third, they are technologically advanced.  Vending machines here light up, play music, talk (some in the local dialect), have screens with advertisements, sell hot and cold beverages in the same machine, etc.  Manufacturers are constantly coming up with new technologies and innovative ideas.  Coca-Cola is introducing a new LCD touch panel to “make them more fun” and give advertisers a way to interact more with customers.  Hitachi is apparently inventing a vending machine that uses near-infrared light to scan your finger vein to identify a customer.

While vending machines in Japan are convenient, clean and reliable, the sheer number of them running 24 hours a day means a lot of energy and a huge impact on the environment.  Going green is a big trend in Japan today and vending machines are starting to change as well.  Although the number of machines doesn’t seem to be decreasing, some operators are taking steps to be “greener.”

-Coca-Cola introduced its “eco-ru/solar” vending machine, which has solar panels and uses energy-efficient LED lighting, heat pump, HFC-free refrigeration and vacuum insulation.

Fuji Electric created the E3 vending machine, which also has a solar panel.  In the cooler months, this machine grows moss on its sides as insulation.

-Dydo & Pokka donate part of drink sales to forestry and other ecology projects.

In some Western countries like the United States vending machines are becoming more and more obsolete.  They generally sell non-alcoholic beverages (often just one type) or snacks in offices, hotels, hospitals, airports or cafeterias.  While there are some specialized vending machines used for PR or marketing purposes, they are extremely rare.

Although there are differences in culture (i.e. vandalism, shopping habits, etc.) the advances in Japanese vending machines mean that they are becoming more convenient, energy efficient and practical for a wide variety of uses.  Perhaps Japanese vending machines (such as ones used in place of cashiers or attendants at quick serve restaurants, kiosks or parking areas) could be introduced into other countries and cultures in the future.

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