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Sunday, April 15, 2007

WEEK 3

YOU NEED IT; THEY'VE GOT IT

Stroll the streets of vending-machine heaven


Staff writer

Fancy some fresh eggs and veggies to go with your can of coffee in the morning? Or how about some sake with a steaming bowl of oden (soy-sauce based stew) for an evening enkai (party)? Who needs restaurants and supermarkets when you can get all you need from vending machines?

News photo
[To see more photos of unusual vending machines, please see our Photo Gallery]

But wait, there's more.

How about renting a DVD and watching it at home with your partner? If that's your takeaway bag, perhaps you shouldn't forget to buy a pretty bouquet of flowers for your honey, as well -- and a pack of condoms, just in case.

Yes, all these items and many, many more are available from vending machines -- except for your home (and honey), of course.

It is a vending-machine heaven here in Japan. In cities and the sticks, there are machines everywhere, in front of shops, apartments and inside buildings.

According to the Japan Vending Machine Manufacturers Association, there are 5.51 million machines in Japan, taking a total of nearly 7 trillion yen (around $58 billion) a year.

"Vending machines spread in Japan because of people's demand for automation," said Takashi Kurosaki, director-general of JVMA. "Leaving aside the issue of whether this is good or bad, people clearly want to purchase things without having to talk to others."

The history of vending machines in Japan goes back to the Meiji Era (1868-1912). The oldest surviving machine is a wooden stamp- and card-selling device, which is now exhibited in the Communication Museum in Tokyo's Chiyoda Ward.

As venerable as their lineage may be, however, JVMA's data shows that vending machines only really took off in Japan in the 1970s, after the technology to serve both hot and cold drinks was developed. Since the mid-1980s, their number has stayed above 5 million.

Along with the popularity, though, there's criticism.

Visitors and others are often shocked to find how many vending machines there are in Japan selling cigarettes or alcohol -- to anyone of any age without any ID required.

But have you noticed that alcohol-vending machines have become rare recently? Since 2000, when Kurosaki estimated there were 150,000 machines selling alcohol, the JVMA has been cooperating with the alcoholic beverages industry to replace old machines with ones that require purchasers to present either a driver's license or an ID issued by liquor shops.

Now, in stark contrast, there are a mere 54,000 -- 1 percent of all vending machines -- retailing alcoholic drinks. It is a plunge in numbers "due to the cost of replacing the machines," Kurosaki explained, adding that "realistically, the alcoholic beverages industry relies very little on sales through vending machines."

But cigarettes are a different matter, he said.

In 2006, there were 565,200 tobacco-vending machines turning over about 2 trillion yen annually. From 2008, however, to prevent under-age sales, all purchasers will have to use an ID card issued by the Tobacco Institute of Japan.

Once upon a time, visitors and others alike may well have been aghast at the porn goods widely available from machines in the streets. Soiled schoolgirls' underwear was one such item that the world's media swooped on with sleazy glee, along with racks of porn magazines available to anyone who put a coin in the slot.

Now, though, such sidewalk sales are becoming very thin scarce, Kurosaki said -- not just on moral grounds, but because of the rising popularity of online shopping.

"It's not just about being able to make a profit," Kurosaki said. "The vending-machine industry is thinking of convenience as well as social factors."

Environmental issues are another growing influence on Japan's vending-machine culture. When millions of machines are running nonstop day and night, they must clearly consume a huge amount of electricity.

"Unexpectedly, there seems to be some misunderstanding regarding vending machines," Kurosaki said. "People say that the machines are wasting electricity, but in reality, their electricity use has been cut by half in the past 15 years. That took a massive effort, but unfortunately, it hasn't been widely reported."

Even so, the amount of energy consumed by vending machines nationwide is equivalent to the output of a small power station, said freelance journalist Tsutomu Washizu.

Washizu, who wrote "Jido-hanbaiki no Bunkashi (The Cultural History of Vending Machines)," pointed out that with the growing criticism of vending machines, and the ongoing proliferation of 24-hour convenience stores, their biggest rival, means that they now need to be delivering added value to their users.

That is where the test cameras come in -- to prevent crime.

"Vending machines have gone beyond just being machines," Washizu said. "That was the only way for them to survive -- and only Japanese people would come up with something so absurd!"

The crime-prevention measures, presently being tested, include a small video camera and a device that alerts the nearest police box if irregularities occur -- like someone trying to force open the vending machine.

"While the main objective is to prevent crime against vending machines, I heard that the cameras actually cut crime in their whole area," Washizu said.

Another ploy to maintain the machines' presence is for them to incorporate an electronic bulletin board to give information in emergency situations such as natural disasters. Allied to this, a new feature the industry is introducing will allow people to get free drinks from the machines if a disaster strikes.

Worthy as all this may seem, Washizu still worries about the social impact of such convenience-based technology.

"The biggest demerit is that people cannot control their desires any more," he said. "It is not just vending machines, but Japanese society as a whole that is shifting to create a world in which we can fulfill our desires immediately."

But this is nothing new, he acknowledges, citing the machines' popularity here as being to do with the country's relative immunity from vandalism, its cash-based culture -- but especially "Japanese people's fascination with machines."

"Take Atom Boy -- he is a human robot and our hero, the friend of mankind," Washizu said. "There is no other country that has so much automation. The Japanese people have a high regard for, and trust in, automated systems."

Maybe that's why the health minister slipped up recently -- calling us women "child-bearing machines?" Maybe he views us as offspring dispensers offering one lump or two?

To see yet more vending machines, check our Photo Gallery


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