Japan & The Solitary World Of Vending Machines

The country is famous for sushi, bullet trains, and bonsai trees… but what about their vending machines?

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There is one undeniably interesting thing about Japan that no one ever mentions. The country is famous for sushi, bullet trains, and bonsai trees… but what about their vending machines?

Seriously, you’ve never seen so many vending machines in your life. And their offerings are more diverse than you can imagine. In every corner of the airport, scattered down random alleys, lining bus stops and major landmarks, you can purchase anything from coffee to whiskey, underwear to batteries, and finger puppets to selfies...

Craving an ice cream bar next to a 400-year old castle? No problem.

Thirsty for a Coke on the side of a remote mountain, just down the trail from snow monkeys bounding through a fresh layer of powder? You’re in luck.

Forgot to eat lunch because you were too busy marveling at a temple? Have no fear, because a quick snack is just to your left. Or right. Or across the street.

Like most things Japanese, the vending machines are clean, well maintained, and reliable. And, from an economic standpoint, their proliferation makes perfect sense. Japan’s high real estate costs don’t apply to vending machines in the way they apply to bodegas or convenience stores. The automation also completely cuts labor costs. It’s no wonder these kiosks are a permanent fixture in Japan’s urban and rural scapes.

But the vending machine might also serve as a reflection of Japanese culture. The experience is low maintenance (requiring very little effort or upkeep), automated, and often somewhat solitary. So long as I have yen in my pocket, I can satisfy any want or need. But if I’m looking for a personalized experience (or conversation), it’s a different story.

Grabbing my machinated macchiato, there’s no opportunity to chat up a barista or pick their brain about the best udon joint. There’s no missed connection at the bar while you’re waiting on a Suntory and Coke. Vending machines, which began as an economic supplement, have now become a cultural staple, and, in doing so, seem to double down on the more solitary side of Japan’s social practices.

A scene in Your Name*, a popular anime flick, sums up this experience perfectly. Lamenting the fact that their small town lacks anything resembling culture, the main heroine and her best friend are ecstatic when a male classmate invites them to get coffee at a real cafe. Unfortunately, they come to realize that his version of a cafe is sitting on a bench, drinking BOSS coffee from a vending machine -- because, in fact, the town has no cafes.

It’s an interesting social critique, at the very least. When everything you want is constantly at your fingertips, life’s randomness and its consequential interactions are somewhat lost in the process. So the question is: as a social species, how do we adjust to a world of automation?

*Side note: if you aren’t familiar, you should check out this body-switching teen romance. It’s such a hit that even NPR has covered it.

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