Why Vending Machines Are So Popular In Japan

Why Vending Machines Are So Popular in Japan

Right now, I am visiting New York. There are not many vending machines here, like there are in Osaka, where I live. Surely, there must be a good reason for Japan having all those vending machines. Turns out there are several.

Stroll through the cities. Stroll through the countryside. You'll see 'em. Known as "jidouhanbaiki" (自動販売機) or by the shorter "jihanki" (自販機), the machines are a feature of the landscape wherever you go in Japan.

The country has the highest ratio of vending machines to landmass in the entire world. As the country's official tourist organisation points out, Japan is currently home to 5.52 million vending machines. That's a lot.

From bread in a can to crepes, the country is home to an array of unusual vending machines. Vending machines have been used to sell questionable items, like hallucinogens and piracy devices. (Although, the infamous panty vending machines are more fiction than fact.) The vast majority either sell cigarettes or drinks (either cold or hot, soft drinks or alcohol). That's somewhat fitting as the first vending machine in Japan, rolled out in 1888, sold cigarettes.

It was during the 1960s, as the country rapidly grew during the post-World War II years, that these machines also spread even further throughout the country, offering people an easy way to shop and vendors an easy way to sell.

Why Vending Machines Are So Popular in Japan

Picture: StanSmith_jp

Japan is home to a slew of major beverage companies, including Suntory, Itoen, Kirin, Itoen, Calpis and whatnot. Beverage companies need places to sell, well, their beverages. Vending machines are a convenient and easy way for them to do that. Ditto for Japan Tobacco and its cigarettes.

Since vending machines are now a key part of the country's retail infrastructure, people are accustomed to not only seeing vending machines, but using them. At this point, it's less that vending machines are popular, and more that they are interwoven into Japanese society.

Japanese people are not surprised the country has so many vending machines. They are surprised that other countries don't.

Why Vending Machines Are So Popular in Japan

Picture: zelda_brave

These machines can sell both the product and the company itself. The sides of the machines clearly state either the beverage or the company's name. That way, you not only know what kind of drinks are sold, but you get PR for corporate brands themselves, whether that's Asahi or Calpis or Dydo.

In recent years, the vending machines themselves have become increasingly billboard-like, getting wrapped in anime, video games, or even American comic book characters.

Why Vending Machines Are So Popular in Japan

Picture: travel_mirra

Then, companies are also using these unattended sellers more as publicity stunts and less of an actual spot to buy a particular product. For example, women weren't buying bras from a vending machine, but the lingerie company behind it was pushing it for PR.

The development and expansion of vending machines doesn't exist in a vacuum. There's a history of "unmanned sellers" (無人販売所) in Japan. They're vending machines minus the machine.

Usually, they're in the countryside and they usually sell vegetables. Shoppers are supposed to pick out the food they want at the stall, and then leave cash for whatever they purchase at the unattended food stalls.

Why Vending Machines Are So Popular in Japan

Picture: 大瀬の館

Note that Japan is not unique in having unmanned food stalls, as they can also be found in many other countries throughout the world. Vending machines are ultimately a modern version of these stalls.

Since Japan has one of the lowest (reported!) crime rates in the entire world, continuing to fall year after year, food stalls like this still exist.

What's more, the Japan National Tourism Organisation says that the country's low crime rate is why there are so many vending machines in Japan — because the machines can be left outside and are rarely vandalised. However, it does happen.

Why Vending Machines Are So Popular in Japan

Picture: kinugawamiyabi

Vending machines are also helped by the fact that in Japan, protests and demonstrations typically don't turn violent or end in looting. This helps ensure that the machines aren't damaged, making upkeep far easier.

It's a knock-on effect: Since the machines are in working order and are not defaced, customers feel comfortable using them. If they were constantly vandalised and damaged, that might not be true.

Why Vending Machines Are So Popular in Japan

Picture: JREaruaru

It's easy to explain Japan's love of the vending machine with its love of technology. There's an element of truth in that, especially considering the latest Japanese vending machines, which feature large screens that can also tell you about the weather or current events. Yet, the tech assumption is also an oversimplification.

Why Vending Machines Are So Popular in Japan

Picture: karakajp2

Here, technology is used for convenience — to make it easier for companies to sell products and to make it easier for consumers to purchase them. This isn't simply a manifestation of an affinity towards technology, but rather, a manifestation of a desire to make life easier on both the venders and the consumers.

So, like the unmanned vegetable stalls, or the plethora of convenience stores, vending machines make certain products available in a convenient fashion. But they also do that in a cost-effective way. Operating a vending machine is cheaper than opening an actual shop.

Why Vending Machines Are So Popular in Japan

Picture: yatacrowlancer

Yes, the number of vending machines in Japan borders on overkill. Sometimes, you come across machines that you wonder if anyone even uses. Abroad, city streets with rows and rows of vending machines are emblematic of the modern Japan. Go to Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, and often, you'll also find vending machines.

Why Vending Machines Are So Popular in Japan

Picture: Kotaro_915

You get the feeling that the machines are a soft sell, which you don't get from a staffed shop. Sometimes, the machines are wrapped so they don't stand out and distract from the setting. These exist in case you need a drink and not necessarily to sell you something to drink. There's a difference.

Vending machines, thus, are symbols of not only how safe Japan is, but also how convenient it is. Need something to drink? No worries, there will be a vending machine. Japan has you covered.

These machines are not uniquely Japanese. What is unique is the way the country has embraced them, though, and made these coin-operated boxes their own. The few vending machines I come across in New York are just that: vending machines. That's fine. But in Japan, they're so much more.


    Two words. Used. Panties.

      For a very brief period in one particularly seedy area of one particular prefecture, until the three people running it were arrested for it, yeah.

        Got a link for that? Sounds like an interesting read. And also I'm pretty sure any possible Google search for that will be NSFW.

          Not handy and also don't want to look it up at work, but I'd imagine snopes would have the info. It's definitely passed into the realm of urban myth.


          Not sure if everything on there is 100%, but there's a fair bit of interesting background info.

      4 letters: RTFA
      (Although, the infamous panty vending machines are more fiction than fact.)

    One day they're going to become sentient and deprive Japan of snacks! D:

      It's OK, the 3 convenience stores per block will still serve that purpose. Unless the sentient vending machines deliberately take them out! Oh God! They'll starve!!

        There's an anime in this premise!

    Loved the hot canned corn soup when I was there on holiday!

      I know, right? I keep trying to tell people about it but they just look at me like I'm crazy.

      OMG this lovely little drink accompanied me many times on my Shinkansen (bullet train) trips during my winter holidays there.

    Two things.
    1. France has a similar affiliation with Pharmacies. The number of pharmacies exceeds the number of super markets at a ratio of at least 4:1.

    2. Why is this on Kotaku? Gizmodo or Lifehacker please.

      Because Kotaku is gaming and japanese culture related.

      Kotaku even being comprised with the japanese term "Otaku".

    Hot canned coffee. Not to drink - stick it you your jacket's inner pocket for those cold winter days.

      Not just Coffee, Hot chocolate! I was addicted to a particular one with a Pikachu on the can.

      Hot any beverage on a winter day! So awesome to go up and buy a hot english breakfast tea with milk in a can...

    The hot coffee machines over there are awesome and delicious.

      I never thought to try and lick the machines.

      Next time.

    I think it's really interesting to compare the US and Japan here. In the US various groups sunk a ton of money into trying to make this work, and the only real things that stuck are snack machines and coke machines.
    I think a big part of it is the lie. In western countries advertising campaigns would rather kill themselves than not tell you the cookie you get out of the snack machine is hand made to order by tiny cookie artisans on the spot. In Japan it seems like they're more willing to just say it's fresh and then change the focus to convenience. They know we know 'fresh' is relative to other vending machines, and because they're not trying so badly to trick the customer the machine can just be accepted for what it is.
    Obviously there's a ton of other factors as well. I'm guessing smaller living conditions mean less interest in supermarket bulk savings, more machines tends to mean less visible vandalism, higher population density means a Japanese street might be as busy as an American subway station.

    Last edited 30/01/15 2:30 pm

      I think a lot of what makes it viable there is simple population density. The more people are going past a machine the more likely they are to use it.

      It also probably doesn't help places like the US and Australia that outdoor vending machines are likely to be targeted by hooligans and vandals and ruined. While I'm sure that happens a bit in Japan, generally vandalism is a lot less common.

    Primary reason for their success, as you hint, LOW CRIME RATE.

    If they attempted the same here in Australia.. It would be anarchy! If I knew Japanese I would definitely go live there, oh and yeah had some money to afford it :)

      And yet we have those same farmer's food stores on the roadside in rural Australia.

      Strangely, Japan does not seem to have discovered EFTPOS

    This makes me feel sad about the state of Vending Machines in Australia. Most are either broken down or vandalized by bored teenagers. I'd love to have a thriving vending machine culture in Australia, so much better than trying to find a 7/11 that closes the actual store front at midnight.

    Good article, and good point about the technology being about convenience, I just wish in Japan they would give more emphasis on the convenience of lower grade technology, namely garbage bins!
    There are not enough garbage bins in Japan, which forces you to take your rubbish home and it kinda pisses me off.
    The majority of bins they have are you guesed it next to vending machines, which only accept drink containers!

    Anyway that is my complaint for the day.

      The garbage bin problem is also due to the fact the Japanese culture dictates you bring all rubbish back home and sort them out accordingly for recycling . Their method of recycling is a little more complicated than the plastic/paper/everything else mentality we have over here in AUS.
      I do feel the same as you though, knowing there's a rubbish bin around each corner makes it harder for those lazy bums to throw their rubbish on the ground.

    I've seen the used panties vending machine with my own eyes. In a shop in Akihabara (where else?) on the stairs coming down from one of the many pron levels (bottom level was anime...the next 5 were pron).

    This was in 2010.

      As did I when I visited there 6 months ago. Even took a photo.


        Can't help but wonder if they're only there because of the "infamous legend", just playing up to what people now expect rather than being... uh... natural? Or whatever you might call it.

        I came across chanced upon a rack in one sex shop full of used panties. Each one had a photo in the bag of the girl they came from (eyes/faces black-barred out, where necessary).

        That was creepy.

      it's illegal to sell used panties there, and they don't exist in vending machines. they do have capsule machines (gashapon) that have panties that imply they've been used - from the pictures of the girls wearing similar ones - but they are just the same type. you can also buy bags/packs/etc of "used" panties; i got a pair with a dvd of the girl wearing them as a present recently. but again, they aren't the pair that someone wore just a pair that look exactly the same.

      but if you're that desperate for actual used panties, jump on reddit/pantyselling

    Had a beer from a vending machine everyday during lunch on the slops in Nozawa Onsen. 300 yen. Never gonna happen in Australia sadly.

    Time for some SCIENCE: falling vending machines which were being tipped over by some unfortunates who wanted some free stuff are always heavy, which makes it a good choice of weapon by a strong man in a certain japanese suburb, due to the usual mass of a vending machine which is in the 100kg range, you can guarantee certain death & cratering caused by said projectile. Man, who thought vending machines can be fun

    There's also something about the allure of a quick drink for just a mere 100 yen, never mind that considering the size to your average soft drink can they end up being more expensive.

    Them pictures. So natsukashii.

    I have way too many feels.

    i interesting for this machin
    how much is this contact for me please thank you

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