Vending Machines | Sunday Observer

Vending Machines

Ever since they were first introduced in the early 60s vending machines have continued to be one of the most notable and unique aspects of Japanese cities and their proliferation would leave any visitor completely dumbfounded. Today, there are more than five million machines across Japan, one vending machine for every 25 persons, which altogether accrue 60 billion dollars annually. Such a large number of machines in a nation of such a relatively small size means that most urban and even rural neighborhoods have entire rows of vending machines lining their streets.

With their pervasiveness comes variety seen nowhere else, offering commodities ranging from the common snacks and drinks, to the rarer underwear and hot towels, as well as to the downright baffling like stag beetles and adult toys. It’s become something of a meme at this point and to outsiders it seemes like Japan is constantly trying to one up its own ridiculousness. However, there are many circumstances quite unique to Japan that lends itself nicely to the bizarre but profitable popularity of vending machines.

One of the biggest contributiory factors is the grave population decline Japan has been suffering since the beginning of the previous decade. In 2019, Japan’s recorded deaths have outpaced its births by over 500,000 and that number is estimated to grow over time. As a result, there is far less people in Japan than before and this coupled with the large elderly population of a staggering 33 per cent and the lackluster immigration has resulted in relatively high labour costs. By foregoing the need for salesclerks, retailers have found an effective solution for labour costs by replacing them with easy to restock and maintain vending machines.

Similarly, it is important to note that even within the small nation of Japan, (roughly as large as a US state), 75 per cent consists of mountains which means that 93 per cent of the people live in urban cities, which obviously leads to extremely high real estate prices. This of course means that there isn’t much space to go around and companies would find it more profitable to stick a vending machine where they would otherwise have to erect an entire building. Robert Parry, economics lecturer at Japan’s Kobe University, notes“vending machines produced more revenue for each square metre of scarce land than a retail store can.”

Another advantage Japan has is its incredibly low crime rate. While the discussion of gun control brought to light how few gun related crimes took place in the country, they fail to take into account the even more impressive feat of having an incredibly low overall crime rate that is also rapidly decreasing over time. This means that the vending machines which are put out are under very little risk of vandalism or burglary, something that is a huge concern for a nation like the United States. Of course, some risks exist and the solution for that is inbuilt cameras to monitor unusual activity but this has ended up under fire for privacy concerns. Perhaps that solution might have been appropriate in a different nation, but because of the vending machine population density in the country, it might end up overcorrecting things just a little, though reports do exist of areas where the upgrades have been made lowering overall crime, not just vending machine related ones.

The most obvious reason is clearly the convenience of the vending machines to people. With the sheer variety available through vending machines it means that as long as they have the necessary change on them, anybody can sustain themselves entirely on vending machines, covering even things like toiletries and hot meals. Unfortunately, this feeds the current crisis Japan faces with the Karoshi culture, where employees would literally work themselves to death due to excessively long work hours, often by stroke or heart failure. By reducing the need to return home, vending machines allow employees to work even longer hours.

As an incredibly formal and polite culture, Japan’s everyday personal encounters can end up being a draining hassle that most people would like to avoid having to go through just for cold drink on a hot day. Thanks to these vending machines, now the average Japanese blue collar worker can go through their day without having to talk to a single unnecessary person and do things ranging from buying their train tickets, to disposable umbrellas and a pack of cigarettes. This brings up another issue though Japan might not see it that way. It is not uncommon to see cigarette or alcohol dispensing vending machines and most would not even require identification to use. Without human involvement it’s possible and even convenient for minors to access what is actually illegal. However, unlike other nations, Japan isn’t too strict about things like underage drinking or smoking so they are in no hurry to remedy that.

Ultimately, the vending machine’s popularity boils down to the convenience they provide and the automation in the way they go about supplying it. Japan, more than most countries, has great faith in automation and have fully embraced innovation where any other nation would scoff and be wary and while they have come with a few disadvantages, vending machines have undoubtedly helped mould modern Japan into what it is today.