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Saturday, Oct. 13, 2007

WHEN EAST MARRIES WEST

Sentinels of the streets


Three years ago my family moved from within Tokyo to just across the border in Saitama. So close to that border, in fact, that I can open a window and almost spit across the line.

So we still consider ourselves Tokyo-ites and our neighborhood — with its worming streets, castled-up houses and faceless residents — could pass for any neighborhood anywhere inside the metropolis. Or for that matter, for anywhere in Japan.

Yet our new digs do not have some of the amenities of the old. It is an athletic trek to the nearest bus line, for example, let alone the train. The closest post office is a par-five further and the most convenient convenience store is not convenient at all.

But one neighborhood trapping is just the same. Or — who knows? — maybe it has followed us.

Vending machines. Though we reside in an otherwise cut-off pocket of suburbia, the vending machines are here. They hum on various corners or in front of mom-and-pop businesses, like robot sentinels of the Japanese retail trade.

Frankly, they scare me.

Sure, whenever I crave a cold beer and the cupboard is bare, I am glad I can scoot out my front door and in just minutes have one tumble into my hand. Others in the neighborhood might feel the same desperate way about soft drinks, cigarettes, batteries, or condoms. For the machines are out there.

That's what scares me.

They are there standing straight with their eager lights and shiny faces. They are there in rain or shine, dark or light, cold or heat. They are there — always waiting, always watching, always working. They stand forever ready.

Ready for what?

They say some machines turn off at night. But . . . do they really?

I have this cybervision where the machines one day shake themselves free from their concrete moorings and come vending door to door. In the dream, they are part R2D2 and part Terminator. They crash right through the genkan leaving it in splinters — all-in-all a very effective sales pitch.

Their lights blink out a line of text. "Buy from me," it reads. "Buy now!"

I rip through my pockets and shove every coin I have into the hungry mechanical mouth. Yet all items are sold out — except the one drink I can't stand, the one with grape pulp inside.

But I take it. The machine bends its metal frame in a smile and immediately rolls in reverse, the line of text giving the proverbial Schwarzenegger farewell.

A vending machine can kill you if it tips. One second it's clinking out your change and the next second it's a 400 kg sledgehammer.

Vending machines also twist up the heat on global warming. The Japan Vending Machine Manufacturers Association puts the vending machine count at one for every 23 people — roughly 5 million machines. All of them work too, metallic symbols of Japanese efficiency. Five million efficient impacts on our environment.

Yet, neither their weight nor their incessant heat are what fuel my nightmares. It's what they do.

They vend. They vend and vend and vend.

Japan is not an economic animal, as is often claimed. It is an economic machine. It is a machine that sells and keeps selling. The sky-high office buildings of corporate Japan and the maddening consumer rush of the retail districts do not stay behind when I slouch home after a hard day's work in the city. They follow me back. They stand represented on every street, even here in the plainest corner of the Kanto plain. The vending machine is their point man, leading the economic assault.

When I step out my door in the morning and walk past one of the local vending machines, buzzing happily in the new sun, I feel the theme has been set for the day's endeavors. This is Japan and we are to sell.

And I imagine each household stirring awake, everyone eager to order goods on t heir computers and cell phones, the consumerism that barely napped in the night once again ready to seize the day and run with it.

The vending machines stand by the road and gloat. I can almost hear them say, "Life is good. Especially when you're a vending machine in Japan."

No wonder they give me the creeps.

"But what would we do without such machines?" says a voice in my brain.

Maybe spend less, comes one answer. Maybe swill less soda, comes another.

Or maybe plant trees in their places. Five million trees would be quite a trade, I think.



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