A vending machine with wooden exterior at Iwami Ginzan Silver Mine in Ōda, Shimane, Japan. Photo: Wikipedia

Japan, a country with an aging population and declining birthrates, has a well-known affinity to automation. The disciplined lifestyle of the tech-savvy nation is heavily dependent on reliable automation. One of the most elementary but prevalent forms of automation that outside audiences might know from Japanese television shows are vending machines.

Bypassing the need for a brick-and-mortar shop, and a continually attending shopkeeper, these compact dispenser units occupy a fraction of the area of the smallest kiosk or stall. Japan is one of the most densely populated nations in the world, and the geographically isolated country has managed to accommodate one of the world’s most tremendous and robust economies, and one of the finest public systems.

Some 93% of the population inhabits cities and other urban areas, and thus most of the land is not utilized for settlement. Most of the economy is centered, urbanized, localized and clustered. Spacious storage of goods is thus not an option for shops. But the roots of the frequency and ubiquity of these automatons run deeper than mere ergonomics, elderly-convenience, tech-obsession or space-saving.

One of the primary factors, a prerequisite rather, that enable this luxury is that coins are still relevant to a significant range of commodity purchases in Japan. The Japanese government focuses on fostering a competitive export market and thus strives to maintain a low yen value through a trade surplus. The Bank of Japan systematically ensures zero to near-zero policy interest rates, and the Japanese government has previously had a strict anti-inflation policy.

The yen is a diminutive denomination, at 108 per US dollar. Japan mints coins ranging from 1 to 500 yen. Cash is still extensively used in Japan, and e-commerce has not managed to subdue it. While hard currency is predicted to be rendered obsolete in many tech-savvy countries, its importance has persisted in Japan, with little disparity in prevalence between urban downtowns and suburbs. It is the medium of exchange in daily expenditures, not credit or debit cards.

The Japanese adoration of their cash (physical currency) is reflected in the intricate esthetics they put in their bills and coinage, from prominent cultural motifs and symbolisms to beautiful ukiyo-e paintings. Japan has kept its classic 1-yen coin alive, to serve as a bittersweet reminder of the struggles, endeavors and prowess of the Japanese people, a wry souvenir and token acknowledging the fruitfulness of labor and toil. For children, pocket-money is a vital lesson in management pedagogy, a sensibility precociously inculcated in Japan, facilitated primarily by coins.

According to an article in Japan Today, “South Korea is said to be a 98% notes- and coins-free nation. The figure is 60% in China and 55% in the UK. But the equivalent ratio for Japan is a meager 18%.

“The Swedes are experimenting with the e-krona and are thinking about doing away with physical [kronor] altogether. At least their central bank seems to be considering such a course of action. Danish parents send their children their pocket money electronically. But in Japan pocket money is for the most part still transferred physically from the parental purse to the pockets of their offspring.”

Japan has very low interest rates, so stashing your earnings in a bank is not as motivating as it is in other parts of the world.

Steep economic growth, coupled with a lack of immigration and a small youth population, has led to labor costs skyrocketing. But with a vending machine, you do not need a sales clerk or a caretaker, just a weekly visiting operator to replenish the supply, and empty out the deposited cash.

Moreover, most of Japan’s labor force is well educated, qualified and skilled, and there’s an acute scarcity of workers for manual tasks. It is not scarcity, to be honest, as Japan’s system doesn’t need an unskilled workforce because of how it has streamlined and fine-tuned automation and diversified human supervision.

Japanese systematism and emphasis on individual wellness, holistic education and extensive training ensure that passive jobs like that of a shopkeeper are less attractive. Small shops dealing in petty items and everyday commodities, except those dealing in traditional crafts and handmade items, are increasingly being rendered obsolete.

Japan has among the world’s highest land prices, as evident by the growing popularity of capsule hotels and alcove-like residences, and the sky is the limit for burgeoning real estate. Opening a physical shop dealing in trivially sized and priced items is thus often a fool’s errand. Vending machines also help with providing 24/7 accessibility to inaccessible or selectively accessible areas of the diverse island nation. The machines dispense a wide variety of items; the vast miscellany ranges from candies to sake and beer, canned bread to crepes, and hot soups to cigarettes.

According to the online guide Livejapan.com, anyone and everyone can apply to install a vending machine. “After the application is approved by the management company, you’ll pay an installation fee. If the spot you chose for your vending machine is good, however, it’s a lucrative business and quite a few people have done this as a kind of side job.”

Japan’s low crime rate, self-vigilant, disciplined and aware citizens, and competent patrols, along with cameras and police-warning relay systems being installed in many vending machines, is also a factor in their success and omni-prevalence. Tampering, vandalism, sabotage and prying in the machines can potentially send a tip to the police, who can then apprehend the perpetrator. Given the police density in Japan, the miscreant would seldom, if ever, be able to finish the job before he was nabbed.

The nation has more than 5.5 million vending machines, the highest density in the world. There is one for every 23 persons, and their annual sales exceed a staggering $60 billion in total.

Many experts, including the Japanese government, are skeptical of Japan continuing to be a cash-based, cash-intensive or even partially cash-reliant economy, at any scale or order. They reckon this would disable it from plugging in to the ideal matrix of the abstract world trade network, and from participating wholeheartedly in a truly globalized economic system.

However, the dedicated and industrious workforce of Japan has viewed the convenience of vending machines favorably, as have brands, and this seems to have hardly served as a significant deterrent to Japan’s impressive developmental boom. With causatives ranging from the diligent ergonomics of a trashcan being conveniently located next to the machine itself, to prices of commodities rarely rising precipitously vending machines are integral to Japan’s modern cultural character and reflective of its cooperative, mutualistic, community-serving ethos.

Pitamber Kaushik is a journalist, columnist, writer, independent researcher, haiku poet, and verbal ability trainer. His writing has appeared in more than 150 outlets across 50+ countries. He is currently based out of Xavier School of Management (XLRI Jamshedpur).

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