The ridiculous amount of vending machines are impossible to oversee when you come to Japan. They are on nearly every block, down alleyways, in front of convenience stores, supermarkets, in both residential and commercial areas, in shopping streets, and even on mountains like the famous Mount Fuji. They serve useful and interesting things like bread in cans, or video games. Starting to appear in the 1950s, Japan is now home to more than 5 million vending machines in total, and is therefore world leader when it comes to quantity and density. There is approximately 1 vending machine per every 23 people, and they achieve more than 60 billion US-Dollar every year. And they appear in a an amazingly variety. The machines sell any types of soft drinks, coffee, tea, cigarettes, candy, soup, hot food, sake and beer. Why are there so many of them in Japan?
One reason might be the high population density and expensive real estate prices. Japan is one of the most population-dense countries in the world. 75% of Japan is covered with mountains, that means that cities, where 93 percent of the Japanese population lives, are very crowded. It also means that space is a precious good, and unsurprisingly led to high real estate prices for decades. This is one reason why people don’t have a lot of room to store consumer goods and for Japanese companies it is easier and cheaper to stick a vending machine on a street than open up a retail store.
Japan also don’t have to fear about vandalism or property crime. Japan has also one of the lowest crime rates worldwide. This includes homicide and robbery as well as vandalism. Vending machines are rarely broken or stolen, even though they store tens of thousands yen inside and are also housed in dark alleyways or empty streets.
Another reason for popularity of vending machine could be the fascination about automation in general. Japan is obviously obsessed with automation and robots and put high trust in them. Even if you go to a restaurant, you often have to choose and pay for your meal at a machine.
While people in the rural parts of Japan usually commute by car, people living in the big city centers have to walk a lot. Even if there are train and subway lines or bus connection, you still spend a lot of time on foot while walking to the station and to your destination. The average time to the next station is about 10 minutes. In the summer, Japan is very hot and humid and in the winter it can snow depending on the location. So when your are walking in the barely bearable summer heat, ice cold sport and soft drinks or green tea feel like an oasis. Thousands of pedestrians will use these vending machines to purchase a delicious cooling off beverage. Same for the winter, where you can get some warm tea or coffee.
Other interesting facts:
The proper vending etiquette: Japanese people rather like to finish their drinks at the machine than walking on the street with it. This could result from the lack of trash cans, but you mostly can find some next to machines, and drinking isn’t permitted on the trains.
Disaster Relief: Thousands of Japanese vending machines are programmed to provide free refreshments during times of emergency, like earthquakes or tsunami. They contain back up batteries or generators, so they can run even without power.
High Tech vending machines: JR East Water Business’s “Acure” vending machines are even equipped with facial recognition software and a touchscreen display. It can recommend drinks based on your age and gender, and advertises its products while taking into account the time of day and the season. It can also be coupled with a smartphone application that allows customers to pay for items beforehand and even gives a discount. Buyers can get the products by holding their smartphones over the machine or pay with other electronic payment systems.
Now some examples of vending machines you probably only find in Japan: