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A Few Coins Now Buy Much More Than Soft Drinks

September 5, 2000
A consumer proves his age with a driver's license before buying beer.

When it comes to vending machines, Japan stands head and shoulders above other countries in terms of number and variety. It has even been called the world's leading vending-machine nation. And thanks to progress in manufacturing technology, the functionality of the machines and the variety of products sold through them continue to rise. As a result, unique vending machines offering goods like newspapers of commemorative days and fresh vegetables, and even a vending-machine supermarket--where all items are dispensed through machines--have appeared. What else is new in this hot industry?

Human-Free Supermarket
Foreigners visiting Japan are often surprised by the number and variety of vending machines found on city streets. Among the countless products offered are mainstay items like beverages, bread, candy, cigarettes, newspapers, and magazines, as well as other less commonly dispensed items as cup noodles and box lunches. Some of these machines can add boiling water to the cup noodles or heat up hamburgers.

Recently, computerized terminals that sell theater and concert tickets, boarding passes for airplanes and bullet trains, and package tours have appeared. Areas with several of these machines grouped together are becoming familiar sights. But the ultimate use of these dispensers could be the vending-machine supermarket. Here, customers select items to be purchased just through machines. After making their selections, the receipts are tallied and items paid for at a cash register.

High-Tech Vending
Vital to the growth of vending machines has been technological innovation, such as the ability to distinguish the age of the customer. A dispenser of alcoholic beverages that can read driver's licenses or video-rental ID cards has been developed. Prior to purchasing, the buyer must insert his or her license into an attached device, which reads the card and determines the buyer's age. Those who are underage are denied purchase privileges--even if they put money into the machine.

In response to a decision by a union of approximately 130,000 alcoholic-beverage dealers to remove some 150,000 outdoor vending machines to prevent underage drinking, vending-machine makers discontinued production of conventional machines and switched to the new model that can distinguish the user's age.

Machine-Dispensed Encounters
Novel vending machines are appearing one after another. At several Tokyo department stores, a machine was instated that prints the front and back (TV and radio listings) pages of newspapers of any particular day for 500 yen (approximately 4.5 U.S. dollars at 110 yen to the dollar). The idea was a hit as a Mother's or Father's Day gift, with users taking home copies of editions issued on such commemorative days as birthdays or weddings.

Machines selling music are also being developed. Songs distributed via the Internet is selected from the terminal's touch-panel screen and then recorded on a mini-disk. Though the machines are still in the trial stage, their release, planned for autumn 2000, will offer tunes for 200 yen (1.8 dollars) each.

Even "encounters" are being sold. For 200 yen, users can purchase a capsule containing a personal introduction and message from an individual who has preregistered with a production company. Buyers can then write a response and send it to the company, which then forwards it to the original person. Other unusual vending machines include those selling toys, fresh vegetables, and information on flea markets.

This explosion in vending machines may appear to be strong evidence supporting the myth that Japan is a safe country. Recently, however, theft of change from vending machines using counterfeit or cheap foreign coins has become rampant, and even violent acts, where machines are carried off with a bulldozer, have also increased. With some also criticizing the wasteful way in which the machines consume electricity around the clock, the heyday for vending machines in Japan may be numbered.

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Trends in JapanCopyright (c) 2000 Japan Information Network. Edited by Japan Echo Inc. based on domestic Japanese news sources. Articles presented here are offered for reference purposes and do not necessarily represent the policy or views of the Japanese Government.