Visitors to Japan are quick to note the polite and friendly customer service offered up by the retail store staff. But in addition to the Japanese human shopkeepers, commerce in Japan is supported by the host of mechanical vendors one can find on the corner of almost any block. As anyone who has walked about Japan can attest there are a plethora of vending machines dispensing all manner of goods. It is most likely possible for one to subsist solely on vending machine goods.
The modern image of a Japanese street certainly doesn’t seem complete without at least one vending machine or jihanki (自販機, the short form of 自動販売機, jidohanbaiki) with its soft light and quiet hum waiting for someone to feed it some coins. According to figures from the Japanese Vending Machine Manufacturer’s Association (http://www.jvma.or.jp) there are approximately 5.6 million machines throughout Japan bringing in nearly 7 trillion yen annually. This rivals the business volume of convenience stores and far surpasses the vending machine sales of any other nation.
The roots of the jihanki in Japan actually go back to 1888 where inventor Takashichi Tawarayashiki created a one that dispensed postage stamps and postcards (pictured to the right). The modern proliferation didn’t really get going until the mid 70s and the push from the soft drink industry. It was at this time that Japan created the world’s first hot and cold beverage dispenser, a relatively simple idea in hindsight but one that allowed for sales to continue unabated throughout the year. Today the omnipresent jihanki offers up drinks (hot and cold), cigarettes, fried foods, train tickets, batteries, disposable cameras, newspapers, beer(!), and, perpetuating the stereotype of the Japanese as sexual deviants, used schoolgirl panties.
In recent times vending machines in Japan have come under close scrutiny by environmental groups. An early estimate claimed that each machine consumes about 60 percent of the electricity used by an average Japanese household. In response to the criticisms the Japanese Vending Machine Manufacturer’s Association has been implementing significant new functions in order to reduce the amount of power consumed by the the machines. Since 1995 all jihankis have within them an “Eco Vendor” mechanism that was developed by the vending machine manufacturers, soft drink makers and the power company, which shuts down the refrigeration, function during the peak hours (1PM to 4PM) of the summer when electricity is the most expensive. During that period in the afternoon the beverages are kept chilled but no further power is used. More and more jihankis are coming equipped with the ability to analyze its sales and heat or cool a limited number of products for peak sales hours.
The hypnotic glow of the jihanki light has also been cut down. Many machines have an internal timer so that they only light up in the evenings and even then the amount of light used has been reduced by 50 percent making the vending machines a dimmer presence compared to the bright spots on the dark roads they were yesteryear. Some vending machines unfortunately do shut down operations completely after a certain hour. One of my fond memories involves stuffing coins into a beer vending machine with my friends, trying to get as many drinks as possible as the clock inched its way towards the closing time when the machine shut down for the evening.
Another frequent complaint that has been lodged against the jihankis is that they mar the landscape and are an eyesore. In response there have been attempts to harmonize them with the local scenery and architecture. Each year the JVMA awards the retailer whom they deem to have best incorporated the vending machine into the surrounding environment so that they do not standout.
From a sales point of view it seems counterproductive to hide away the jihankis from the casual observer. When someone wants an icy cold drink on a hot summer’s day they’re not going to appreciate a vending machine that is camouflaged and hard to find. Retailers have come up with a number of creative solutions integrating the vending machines into the area while making sure that they can be found and accessed by the consumers. Some examples of the JVA award winning vending machine placement accompany this article (click the images to see them in full size).
Of course in my view these jihanki have been so prevalent that they’ve come to characterize the Japanese landscape. After all what could be more Japanese than a quiet Shinto temple with a bright red Coca-Cola machine sitting on the grounds?
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