Any first-time visitor to Japan is likely to encounter a variety of strange phenomena during their travels here; squat toilets, giant insects, speedy trains and kawaii mascots for everything from potato chips to life insurance all are endemic to Japan. However, nothing quite makes an impression on visitors like the abundance of luminescent, softly humming vending machines that seem to spring from the ground like weeds in both urban and rural locales and even at the top of Mt. Fuji.
Y500 for a can of hot cocoa?!
The diverse contents of Japan’s vending machines–called jidohanbaiki or jihanki in Japanese–has been thoroughly chronicled, as the existence of machines selling pornography and panties makes perfect fodder for the writers and consumers of expositions detailing the quirks and eccentricities of Japanese culture. But in spite of numerous articles featuring “15 of Japan’s weirdest vending machines,” articles that address why Japan has so many of these machines in the first place are few. Japan is home to a jaw-dropping 5,582,200 vending machines. That’s one vending machine for every twenty-three people living in Japan. Why are jidohanbaiki in Japan so numerous, and why do they exist in even the most seemingly arbitrary locations? There are actually a number of reasons why vending machines are so prevalent in Japan, regardless of their contents.
First of all, the Japanese economy is cash-based. In other parts of the world, credit and debit cards are used with more frequency and it is uncommon to carry around large amounts of cash or change on one’s person. In Japan, though, using cash is still very much the norm. Furthermore, Japan possesses high-value coins in addition to bills, which means that at any time a resident of Japan is likely to be carrying a great deal of change as well as paper money. Especially now that the sales tax has increased by 8%, goods are priced in awkward denominations, resulting in leftover change jangling in your pockets and wallet. Buying a drink from a machine is a quick and easy way to quench thirst while getting rid of cumbersome change at the same time.
Japan is safe. Low crime rates in Japan not only ensure that it’s safe for people to walk around with large amounts of cash, they also protect the nation’s population of vending machines. Unlike in other countries, vending machines in Japan are unlikely to be tampered with and are generally safe from vandalism. (Although recently counterfeiters have managed to deceive jihanki with specially made fake 500-yen coins.) Therefore there is little concern about the placement of vending machines, leaving location options virtually unlimited.
Japan is pedestrian-friendly. Many residents of Japan commute to work on foot, by bike, or by train. Even here in Ishikawa, where car ownership is much more common than it is in Tokyo or Kyoto, many students and office workers still walk, bike, or rely on public transportation to get to school and work. Therefore it’s advantageous to drink companies and vending machine owners to position their machines along commute routes. Outside train stations, near bus stops, and along sidewalks are all prime spots for machines to lure thirsty commuters. In more populous areas, machines placed near entrances and exits to busy subway lines also attract customers on their way to work and school.
Vending machines turn a profit. In Japan, anyone who owns sufficient land can own a vending machine. Either the machine is purchased and owned exclusively by the buyer, who then collects all the profits but must restock the machine, or a contract is made with a beverage company which installs the machine and restocks it in exchange for payment of electricity fees and a portion of the profit. If a landowner is lucky enough to own property that is on a commute route, near a train station, or in a place where people consistently congregate (near a park, etc.), they can supplement their income at an average amount of 20,000 to 40,000 yen per machine per month. The money collected from vending machines is passive income. All the owner has to do is obtain a machine, restock it regularly (or rely on a beverage company to restock it), then sit back and let the machine collect money. Judging by the number of vending machines in Japan, this is a pretty attractive opportunity for many Japanese landowners.
A vending machine in Fukushima Prefecture, brought inland and deposited in a field by the 2011 tsunami.
Vending machines are profitable in both urban and rural areas. About 80% of Japan’s population lives in urban areas. A spot along a walking commute route or near a subway station in an urban area like Osaka is a golden opportunity for a vendor…but so is a location near the center of town in a rural community that has few conbini. In a town with limited brick-and-mortar vendors, consumers will patronize conveniently-placed vending machines instead. Vending machine owners can take advantage of their surrounding infrastructure to insure that their machine makes money, regardless of their placement in a rural or urban communities.
Japan has extreme weather. Jidohanbaiki famously sell both hot and cold items. Not only does this benefit the more capricious among us (“Hmmm…yesterday I had chilled coffee, but today I feel more like hot coffee! I’m such a fickle minx.”), the sheer numbers of machines selling both warm and cold drinks provide brief respite from Japan’s unpleasant weather. In Japan, hot, muggy summers give way to cold, wet winters, and as we all know quite well, Japanese homes often lack central heating and air. Therefore, who would begrudge a hot drink to warm you up on your bitterly cold commute, or a cool beverage to ward off impending heatstroke on a hot afternoon?
Japan has a national affinity for automata. Japan already has an international reputation as a world leader in robotics and manufacturing. Engineering tweaks to the existing vending machine technology further promote Japanese innovation. Japanese vending machines which can simultaneously keep hot drinks hot and cold drinks cold seem basic in comparison to the Acure Vending Machine, which determines the age and sex of the consumer and suggests drinks on a sleek digital touch-screen. Another example of vending machine innovation is Coca-Cola’s new energy-efficient “Peak Shift” machines, which cool drinks at night to avoid peak energy demand hours during the day.
A Coca-Cola “Peak Shift” vending machine, distinguishable by the Polar Bear logo.
The Acure Digital Vending Machine, which can approximate the age and gender of the consumer and use that information to suggest products.
Making vending machines quicker and more efficient and even adding interactive capabilities is important in a society with an aging population. As the employable population in Japan decreases, people will increasingly have to rely on automation and technology for tasks previously accomplished with manpower, including beverage vending.
My prediction for the future of jihanki: mobile vending machines that follow you around until you get thirsty again.
Interestingly, in my search to answer the question “Why does Japan have so many vending machines?” I found many explanations describing how the Japanese national character draws consumers to vending machines rather than into shops. Common stereotype dictates that Japanese people are meek and shy, so it follows that they would prefer making a purchase from a robot rather than engaging with another person, which is why Japan has so many vending machines. This explanation falls flat. Judging from the popularity of self-checkout lines in supermarkets, smartphones and messaging apps, and drive-thru windows in the U.S. and elsewhere, avoiding human interaction for the sake of comfort, convenience, or time is not a uniquely Japanese trait. As listed above, there are myriad logical reasons why Japan has so many vending machines so there’s no need to rely on fallacious generalizations.
So, the next time you’re feeling thirsty or cold, are in a hurry, and want to get rid of some of those pesky coins weighing down your wallet, rest assured that there’s a vending machine nearby, ready to satisfy all of your beverage-related needs.
“Vending Machine” (Wikipedia)
“What’s So Interesting About Japan’s Vending Machines?” (Japan Monthly Magazine)
“Earn Up to Y500,000 per month with a side business in ‘independent’ vending machines” (Japan Today)
The Wild and Wonderful World of Japanese Vending Machines (Kotaku)
Karin is a second-year ALT who now knows more than she ever predicted she would about vending machines. In her free time she enjoys climbing mountains, cooking, and reading.