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Japan: The Vending Machine Wonderland

Everywhere you turn, there's a ‘自動販売機’ (vending machine) waiting to serve. When I first settled here, I spent a summer holiday in Toyama, located in the North-East of Japan. I took on the role of teaching English to children and organizing daily activities. To my surprise, unlike Tokyo, there were no vending machines close to my residence in that village. One evening, as my host drove through the night, the radiant glow of a vending machine caught my eye. Its red hue shimmered in the otherwise dim surroundings. It's fascinating how such memories can imprint themselves so vividly, and for reasons we can't always explain.

During my Japanese studies in Tokyo, vending machines became our delightful little interludes. My friends and I would amble over to the nearest machine, bonding over canned coffees. It was a delightful revelation that these machines offered both cold and hot beverages. In Europe, vending machines seemed mundane by comparison, usually stocked with boring snacks, particularly in universities and hospitals. I wasn't a fan back then, but now that I'm here, I'd say vending machines are a part of my daily life.

Photo taken in Otaru, 2023. These vending machines are limited design.

Did you know there are approximately 4.94 million vending machines scattered all over Japan? Their journey to popularity began around 1962. In that year, Coca-Cola received the first Coca-Cola vending machines in Tokyo, the V-63 (semi-automatic) and V-144 (fully automatic), developed by Mitsubishi Heavy Industries and the American company Vendo. They installed a total of 880 units nationwide.

This marked the introduction of soft drink vending machines in Japan, laying the foundation for the thriving vending machine market we have today.

Here's a brief timeline of key moments in vending machine history:

  • 1970: Introduction of can vending machines.

  • 1975: Hot and cold combination machines were introduced, featuring the now-famous canned coffee "Georgia."

  • 1997: PET bottles started being sold in vending machines.

  • 2002: Nationwide rollout of cashless vending machines.

  • 2003: Introduction of disaster relief vending machines. The first one was installed at City Hall in Ageo City, Saitama Prefecture, equipped to provide products free of charge in the event of a disaster. Reference:

Interestingly, while the United States has the most vending machines in absolute numbers, Japan likely tops the world in terms of vending machine density, considering its population and land area. The overall annual sales amount to a staggering 4,736 billion yen, as reported by the Japan Vending Machine Industry Association.

Japan's vending machines are incredibly versatile, offering a wide array of items for purchase. You can find hot and cold drinks, frozen foods, cakes, cosmetics, ramen, soba, and even Buddhist statues in these handy machines. While drinks are the most common vending machine offerings, these machines play a crucial role during disasters. In times of crisis, some vending machines are equipped with rechargeable batteries and can provide free drinks to disaster victims. They are often strategically placed near elementary schools and community centers, which serve as evacuation sites during emergencies.

The screenshot below displays vending machines from major manufacturers in Japan, all of which are prominent players in the beverage industry.

The popularity of vending machines in Japan can be attributed to several factors:

  1. Safety and Theft Prevention: Vending machines are considered safe and have lower theft risks, making them a secure way to distribute products.

  2. Mass Circulation of 100 Yen Coins: Japan's circulation of 100 yen coins made it convenient for people to use vending machines, as many items are priced at this denomination.

  3. Introduction of Ticket Vending Machines: Vending machines were not limited to selling drinks; they were also used for purchasing tickets, such as train and subway tickets.

  4. Development of Canned Coffee and Hot/Cold Machines: The introduction of canned coffee and hot and cold vending machines added variety and convenience to vending machine offerings.

  5. Security Cameras: Vending machines often have security cameras, which serve various purposes, including disaster response and crime prevention.

Soft drinks are the most popular items, generating sales of 1.7 trillion yen. Tickets are also popular, with sales of 1.4 trillion yen. Although electronic money has impacted ticket sales in recent years, there is still significant demand.

A typical vending machine can hold around 500 cans of beverages, with cold beverages sold at approximately 5°C and hot beverages heated to around 55°C. These machines have become an integral part of daily life in Japan, offering convenience and security to the public.

In response to environmental concerns, modern vending machines are designed with energy-efficient features. They incorporate sensors and timers to monitor ambient brightness, adjusting lighting accordingly. Outdoor vending machines, for instance, automatically turn off lights during the day and switch them on at night. Even when the lights are in use, power consumption is controlled to about 50% using inverters. In indoor beverage vending machines, lights are turned off 24/7, except in situations where it's necessary for purchases. Additionally, the adoption of LED lighting, which consumes less electricity, is growing in popularity among vending machines. These innovations demonstrate Japan's commitment to addressing environmental and energy efficiency concerns in vending machine operations. Reference

Certainly, soft drinks are the primary category for vending machines, but there are some intriguing and emerging use cases gaining popularity in recent years so I would like to share it with you.

One notable example is the rise of cosmetic vending machines, which began to gain traction in Japan in 2020. PRENO Co., Ltd. played a pioneering role in introducing cosmetics vending machines to Japan. A standout use case involved Lancôme, which utilized these vending machines to distribute complimentary cosmetic samples. This initiative took root during the COVID-19 pandemic, allowing Lancôme to effectively distribute more samples than they typically would through conventional means.

Vending machines are often associated with a "cheap" image. To preserve Lancôme's brand reputation and image, the exterior design of these vending machines was carefully crafted, incorporating the brand's primary colors and an aura of luxury. This strategy aimed to ensure that Lancôme's products remained synonymous with quality and elegance even in the vending machine context. Reference:

Another interesting application for vending machines is in the distribution of frozen foods such as seafood, meat, and convenience items such as gyoza, pizza, and curry. For instance, in Shibuya, Tokyo, there's a vending machine at the "Gyoza no Ajiyoshi Dogenzaka store," offering a range of frozen food options. It's a popular choice, especially for those seeking quick and affordable takeout after work. These vending machines provide convenient access to quality frozen meals for at-home enjoyment.

This year brought an exciting innovation to vending machines in the form of a cooking robot called "CHEFFY." Developed by SoftBank Robotics, CHEFFY employs advanced steam technology for high-speed cooking, allowing you to enjoy authentic ramen in just 90 seconds. It's not just any ramen; it partners with renowned Japanese ramen shops to offer their flavors across the country, even in remote areas. You can even savor this robotic culinary experience at the famous "Pepper PARLOR" restaurant in Shibuya's Tokyu Plaza.

Reference: here:

In an ever-changing world, vending machines remain an essential part of our lives. The evolution of Japanese vending machines has garnered global attention. According to the Ministry of Finance, the export of beverage vending machines to 21 countries increased over the years, with Japanese companies enjoying a 70% market share in rapidly growing China. These machines are known for their high quality, incorporating cutting-edge technology not found in other products and are expected to set global trends. Reference:

For those interested in starting a vending machine business in Japan, there are helpful websites available. You can explore options through the following links, though there are other resources as well:

  1. and


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