Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Random Memories #18

One of the first things Americans are surprised at when it comes to vending machines in Japan is the fact that alcoholic beverages are available in them. The reason this is surprising is that anyone, including underage drinkers, can sneak up to one, buy some booze, and run off and get loaded. Most of these machines are within view of a store, but some of them are not. Even those that can be seen from a store aren't exactly watched with the keenness of a hawk. Most of them are "set and forget".

It was my experience that kids were introduced to alcohol by their parents slowly and few of them viewed imbibing it as taboo. Since drinking is a very strong part of Japanese culture, it is expected that children will grow up to drink alcohol, not that they will abstain nor that it would be considered virtuous to do so. In fact, consumption of alcoholic beverages is so much a part of business culture, that not being a drinker is a disadvantage and definitely makes one the nail that sticks out. So, I don't think anyone was really fretting about kids getting their drunk on as a result of these machines being present.

This machine is a 1987 machine and the main difference between it and current machines is the size and the price. The interesting thing about the price is that it seems to have gone down just a tiny bit. And when I say the "size" is different, I don't mean the cans themselves. There have always been enormous cans and bottles of beer on offer. I am talking about the size of these vending machines. This machine is bigger than most current ones. What is more, they were once much more common than than they are at present in Japan.

The reason for both the minor price reduction and the shrinking size and frequency of machines selling booze was that the law changed at some point during my stay in Japan and convenience stores and markets were allowed to carry it. With "konbini" that are open 24 hours and located on  nearly every corner in Tokyo, anyone wanting to get pie-eyed could just pick up a brew with a pack of dried squid with cheese by popping into a shop. The demand for such machines evaporated when the availability of alcoholic drinks increased. 

It's worth noting that the number of liquor stores also has shrunk, at least it seemed so to me when I was there. This is an interesting change in Japan because it was a rare case of the number of vending machines going down rather than up. The trend has been toward greater mechanization, not less. For example, for much of my 23 years in Tokyo, kiosks were small manned shops on station platforms. By the time I had gone, many of them had been replaced by large vending machines. For beer, the vending machines have been disappearing in favor of manned shops selling them. Of course, this has more to do with the fact that Japan hasn't yet mastered the art of the total self-serve supermarket or convenience store. Give them a few more years and an even more shrunken population and I'm sure they'll get there. 


  1. Your picture is fantastic. I notice several non japanese beers, a bottle of sake, and some non alcoholic options.

    I was suprised when I came across my first beer vending machine. It was only a few nights after I arrived. My roommate stopped to get a "welcome" drink for us. He bought one of the three litre cans. Later on, I was much happier when I came across one selling Ebisu in big bottles (not as common as I would like)

    Thanks for your picture and the pleasant memories it brings back to me.

  2. I never really understood why Japanese society focuses so much of it's business culture on drinking parties. At least 40-50% are genetically incapable of holding down their alcohol. Due to a lack of 1 or both of the vital molecules needed for humans to be able to properly digest it w/o quickly becoming intoxicated or poisoned to death.

  3. I'm glad it brought back a good memory for you, Jack.

    The nonalcoholic options always amused me, especially the canned cold coffee and tea (not to mention the hot beverages that could be bought in cans from machines). Now, the idea of cold coffee or prepared coffee is common, even in the U.S. In 1987, the idea was absolutely bizarre. Starbucks has brought it all into the mainstream, but the Japanese were way ahead of the game.

    Thanks for reading and commenting!

  4. Cold canned/bottled coffee may now be common in the US thanks to Starbucks, but cold canned/bottled BLACK coffee is still virtually impossible to find. It's all loaded with sugar, cream and flavors to the point where it tastes more like a coffee-flavored milkshake than coffee.

    When I was in Japan, the apartment where I was staying had a hot/cold vending machine in the lobby, and I loved the many choices of coffee available, including black. I got at least one can every day.

  5. anonymous: That is an interesting point, but I guess all humans don't necessarily operate rationally. I always believed that alcohol was central to business culture because it lubricated communication and gave people deniability if they said something regrettable. As I've mentioned before, in the Japanese social and legal system, being drunk is an excuse or mitigating factor in bad behavior. If you gain deniability by introducing alcohol into the mix, then it can really assist in getting messages across that are otherwise too rude or confrontational in other settings.

    Dennis: I hadn't thought about the fact that there is no black coffee here for the most part. I don't buy bottled or canned coffee here in the U.S. (and only bought bottled tea occasionally in Japan). I only see it sold in certain shops, but you are correct that most of it is loaded with sugar and milk. That being said, Illy Issimo sells some canned espresso which may or may not be black (it may all have sugar, I haven't checked).

    For the most part, I think coffee is one of those things which doesn't hold up well with canning because of the sensitivity to time/temperature causing it to taste bad. Tea fares a bit better. I usually just make my own coffee unless there is a social reason to meet at a coffee shop. For traveling, I also just make my own espresso, chill it, and go with that in a thermos.

    I never understood the appeal of canned/bottled coffee except under circumstances in which you couldn't make your own. It's always an inferior product compared to homemade and it's really not that hard to make your own coffee (or tea, for that matter).

    Thanks for commenting!

    1. So what about alcohol related public indecency, public disturbance, or DUI situations? is it a good enough excuse to get out if that?

  6. I remember back in '90 I saw a vending machine that dispensed a 5th of scotch....that was a shocker!


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