Japan may be synonymous with sushi and cherry blossoms, but vending machines could as well contend for the title of national symbol. There is hardly a square metre of the archipelago that is unadorned by these boxy machines. Even the remotest roads on desolate mountain slopes inevitably feature one, often half-buried under snow, but always functional, dispensing barley tea at the press of a button.

According to the Japan Vending Machine Manufacturers Association, there were 3,648,600 vending machines across the country at the end of 2016. That’s about one machine for every 35 citizens. And although the majority of these are drink and snack dispensers, as in the rest of the world, there are others that spit out products not typically associated with vending machines.

Some offer up bananas and honey and cartons of milk. There is one in Tokushima prefecture’s Awa city that dispenses curry and rice meals freshly prepared by a local farmer. In Yokohama port, one vending machine installed near a nursery offers harried parents diapers. In the rural town of Uchiko in Ehime prefecture, there is a machine that dispenses beautifully folded origami models. And in the sleazier areas of Tokyo, basement-located dispensers offer up the used underwear of women—although there is some controversy about whether these are in fact used or only advertised thus. It has proved difficult to investigate conclusively.

Despite an evolving plethora of offerings, the machines are easy to operate. Photo: iStockphoto
Despite an evolving plethora of offerings, the machines are easy to operate. Photo: iStockphoto

You can get piping-hot soup, comic books, umbrellas and even saké at the right machines. Or phone chargers. Or surgical masks. Or your future. At some Shinto shrines, vending machines offer omikuji, or random fortunes written on strips of paper for a few hundred yen.

For the most part, despite their smorgasbord of offerings, vending machines remain charmingly old-fashioned, involving coins and buttons. But an increasing number are now equipped to link up to smartphones. Some double as Wi-Fi hot spots and feature QR codes, allowing people to access information on local tourist attractions, get directions, or even buy tickets to shows.

What is it about Japan that makes vending machines so popular? According to the Vending Machine Manufacturers Association, annual sales from these dispensers totalled over $43.1 billion (around Rs2.8 trillion) in 2016.

The reasons are as diverse as the machines themselves. Given the teeming streets and intense work schedules that are the Japanese norm, a quick purchase is understandably appreciated. The low crime rate in Japan is another significant factor. Machines are never vandalized, so owners need invest little in them, save an occasional tune-up.

Moreover, as the country greys—people aged 65 and above account for more than a quarter of Japan’s demographic and this number is likely to shoot up to 40% by 2065—there is a labour crunch. Manning convenience stores is, therefore, increasingly difficult and vending machines are a labour-free alternative. High real estate prices also make the machines more profitable for each square metre of scarce land than a retail store. And the fact that Japanese culture is obsessed with automation and robots helps too (this is the land where toilets play music and robot pets are all the rage).

A less explored explanation is that like smartphones, vending machines provide a shield from personal interactions, something that many Japanese seem to have difficulty with. Up to a million (mostly young) people in Japan are classified as hikikomori, or social recluses.

But there can be something lonely about these machines too. Photographer Eiji Ohashi’s recent book, Roadside Lights, is a collection of images of Japan’s vending machines taken in the deep night, glowing ethereally in empty landscapes where they offer the only guiding light to passers-by who may never materialize. As is so often the case in Japan, there is poetry in the most unexpected of places, even in vending machines.

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