Japan has more vending machines per capita than anywhere else in the world – around 23 per person!
They are called 自動販売機 jidō-hanbaiki from jidō, (automatic), hanbai (vending), and ki (machine), sometimes called自販機 jihanki for short.
Vending machines have been around for about 80 years in Japan with the first being made of wood and selling stamps and postcards. They became popular during the Tokyo Olympics in 1964 to supply large numbers of people despite a lack of space and extra work force. Then when the 100 yen coin was introduced in 1967, vending machines became much more widespread. Anyone who owns land can put a vending machines outside their building, whether a business or a home. They can buy their own or for the cost of the electricity companies will set people up with them and maintain them and offer a percentage from the sales. Now there are more than 5.5 million vending machines in Japan and they are one of the most profitable businesses. Environmentalist critics however estimate that vending machines consume electricity equivalent to the output of one nuclear plant.
Vending machines can be found everywhere from shopping areas to the street sides of relatively remote areas and residential areas. Japan has a low rate of vandalism and petty crime making vending machines a safe business. In Japan they can be incredibly convenient, especially for high density living and people who shop on foot or by bicycle. It’s Japan, so you can expect them to be always stocked and always working.
Of course, there are the usual cold and hot drinks and snack machines, but in Japan you can find almost anything in a vending machine! Unexpected food items are available like rice, eggs, milk, fresh meat, hot foods like instant noodles and fried food, and even fresh lobsters you can catch yourself. You can also find vending machines that sell disposable cameras, film, batteries, phone cards, comics, action figurines, stamps, postcards, alcohol, flowers, umbrellas, lingerie, Rhinoceros beetles (popular as pets), omikuji (small slips of paper with fortunes usually sold at shrines & temples), toys, CDs, toilet paper, iPods, magazines, toothbrushes, mobile phone recharging, and many more!
New technology is always being developed. For example, a series of vending machines that use facial recognition technology (determining age and gender) to recommend to customers what they want to drink has been introduced in Japan. It shows recommended beverages that likely suit your taste, estimating your gender and age through analyzing your appearance via a sensor set at the upper part of the machine, and also considering the time of day and temperature. In addition, by recording data of what products consumers – which gender, which age – bought, it is expected to collect more precise, detailed marketing data. It was first installed in 2010 and by the end of 2013 about 500 machines have been placed in Major Stations of JR East.
Japan has strict laws about recycling so machines often have a recycling bin built or one is placed nearby.