The Ever Present Vending Machines in Japan

Japan is and has been a country of innovations and wonderful gadgets. This includes the many vending machines found throughout the country, to the surprise of tourists. Why are there so many vending machines in Japan? In this article you will find everything you need to know about them.

Table of Contents

  1. An Overview of Vending Machines in Japan
  2. How to Use and Pay at These Vending Machines
  3. Why are there so many vending machines in Japan compared to other countries?
  4. In Conclusion

An Overview of Vending Machines in Japan

You might think vending machines are no big deal but wait; Japan has become famous for their vending machines - called 自動販売機 (jidou hanbaiki - automated selling machine) or 自販機 (jihanki) for short - as it seems like they’re found in almost every nook and corner. Yes, you can find everything in these machines, everything!

It is estimated that Japan has roughly one vending machine per around 50 people as per Japan Vending System Manufacturers Association, with about 2.85 million vending machines at the end of 2019, with about 2.38 million of them selling solely beverages. They can be found in both residential and commercial areas, from the busiest city districts to the middle of nowhere in the countryside.

※Japan Vending System Manufacturers Association, Vending Machine Data

Types of Vending Machines

Row of vending machines in Japan

There are a variety of products sold via vending machines covering a range of brands and temperatures (such as hot or cold beverages) - including but not limited to fresh fruits and vegetables, milk, groceries, ice creams, hot ramen, soup, ready to eat meals, rice, eggs, face masks, umbrellas and the list goes on. If you go exploring, sure you will find something very unexpected and new in those machines.

Of course, the more “unique” the item would be in a vending machine, the less of them you will find. Only about 72,000 of the 2.85 million machines sold food items in 2019 - but that’s still 72,000 machines selling things like ice cream, snacks and other foods. And 210,000 sold daily necessities such as newspapers, and the like. And a separate count is kept for ticket vending machines.

Fun fact: They also have a vending machine on Mount Fuji :)

※Japan Vending System Manufacturers Association, Vending Machine Data

How to Use and Pay at these Vending Machines 

Japan vending machines cold drinks

Vending machines in Japan are simple to use - the only problem is that the menu and directions are not available in English, which could be a little inconvenient for foreigners. Luckily, most of the time you can see the object itself and can guess as to the contents. The main words to pay attention to about the beverages, however, is the あたたかい (atatakai - warm/hot) and つめたい (tsumetai - cold) written at the bottom. 

Additionally, to use a vending machine you have to follow the below steps: 

  1. Insert the payment first, after which the lights on the machine glow under each item. If the item is sold out, the light won’t appear on the button under the item, and/or it will say 売り切れ (urikire - sold out).

  2. Choose your item from the vending machine by pushing the button underneath or on the touch screen. (If you’re paying via IC card, then you will push the button for the item you want first and then tap your IC card on the reader)

  3. After selecting, the vending machine takes a few seconds to dispense your purchased item. You need to get your product from the bottom of the machine. Also, don’t forget to take change from the change tray if you will get any.

How to Pay

Japan vending machine money slot

Payment can be made by cash or prepaid IC card (when available). Vending machines take 1,000 yen, 500 yen, 100 yen and 10 yen coins and nothing under.

On the other hand, more and more machines in major cities take IC cards. IC cards are like a debit card which can be purchased at stations all over Japan. It can be recharged and the money in this card is valid for ten years. You can use it for transportation, but recently, you can also use it to pay at convenience stores, some lockers at stations, and at most vending machines at the station. The further you go from a station, the less likely a vending machine will have an IC card reader. 

Are items in vending machines cost friendly?

Products in vending machines are quite cheap or at least reasonable most of the time. For example, the price of coffee is approximately 130 yen, 500 ml of juice, sports drink, soda, tea etc. is available at around 140 to 160 yen which is comparable to buying it at a convenience store. Having said that, the cost of items may vary in places like in train stations where they are in higher demand. You might get lucky and find one that sells everything at 100 yen or less, or you might find yourself paying more. 

Why are there so many vending machines in Japan compared to other countries?

Lady using vending machine

Anyone who visits Japan will definitely notice the abundance of vending machines all over the country. And there are a number of reasons for these vending machines to be present on almost every corner.

Reasons include

  1. Labor costs in Japan are very high. Vending machines ensure no full-time manual support - hence lower cost of manpower. It is fun to see the rare times when people come to collect the money and fill up the machines - otherwise it always seems like they’re magically refilled. 

  2. Low crime rates in Japan contribute to companies being comfortable installing vending machines everywhere with limited security. Robbing vending machines is relatively unheard of compared to people checking around the machines for forgotten or dropped change. It is one of the reasons vending machines are successful. A number of machines 

  3. Japanese people who live in cities are mostly working class with busy schedules, and often work for longer hours. As a result, there is high demand for vending machines since they are faster as opposed to dropping by and lining up at a store. The kinds of products sold in these vending machines support such a lifestyle, covering caffeinated drinks to healthy and energy-boosting snacks and so on.

  4. Like labor costs, real estate costs are very high in cities; hence installing vending machines makes for more convenience and cost-saving for companies. You can often find vending machines inside office buildings, even inside offices.

  5. Lastly, Japan is a technologically advanced country with many automated products and services. Vending machines may be the least surprising of them! 

In Conclusion

Japan alley with row of vending machines

Vending machines are deeply ingrained in people’s lives in Japan. As a visitor, you will surely experience a convenient method of buying products with ease, convenience and speed. On top of this, vending machines in Japan often offer a wide variety of products - sometimes some that you won’t find easily anywhere else! You may want to try one of those as you explore Japan.

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