It does not take long living in Japan to get the feeling you are in the presence of our new robot overlords: vending machines. You encounter the retail dispensers everywhere. Ride the subway? There’s a vending machine. Take a walk in the park? There’s a vending machine. Go to the top of Mt. Fuji? There’s a vending machine.
Coin-operated vending machines were first seen in London, England in the 1880s and it did not take long for the technology to spread to Japan where cigarette dispensers have been reported from 1888. Today the country boasts over five million vending machines, about one for every 23 people which is by far the highest per capita rate of vending machines anywhere in the world.
The main reason that vending machines thrive in Japan is the low crime rate. The machines are almost never vandalized and that means they can be placed in remote areas with every expectation of securely conducting commerce for their operators. Everywhere in Japan becomes a retail opportunity. These machines are also a force for good. During the Great East Japan Earthquake of 2011 there were so many vending machines that they were able to provide on-site disaster relief to stricken areas. With a quick re-programming, the machines supplied over 100,000 free drinks.
So what can you find in all these vending machines? About half of Japan’s automatic vendors are dispensing drinks. But not just the familiar sodas. There are hot drinks as well. And sake and beer and cups of noodles and corn soup and drip-brewed coffee and…well, the list is almost endless. The fun is in the discovery. Here are just a few things you will find in the machines in your travels around Japan.
Fresh Produce. There are sealed packages of sliced fruits and vegetables but that is easy. There is also a machine that grows fresh lettuce under fluorescent lighting ready to be plucked for your dining table for a few yen coins. The machine has 60 heads of fresh lettuce ready every day.
Live Lobsters. Speaking of fresh, you can find a vending machine to give you access to a pool of live lobsters for 100 yen. A giant mechanical claw will pick out your dinner using directional buttons.
Clothing. Never fear for being caught without a necktie in Japan. You can get one from a vending machine. Socks and other sundries can be had as well. And to keep your clothes from getting wet, plop a few coins in the machine and get an umbrella.
Toys. Boxed toys such as cars and trucks and blocks are readily available from vending machines.
There is so much on offer from vending machines in Japan that you may have trouble making up your mind. The country’s engineers have you covered. There are even machines that will choose your beverage for you. Using a face recognition sensor the machine determines your gender and age – with 70 percent accuracy – and then delivers an appropriate beverage for the weather and time of day from a database loaded with consumer behavior buying traits. Welcome, our new overlords.
By Schellack at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons