Japan’s vending machines tell you a lot about the country’s culture

japan vending machinesA bank of vending machines outside of a rest stop in Japan.Harrison Jacobs/Business Insider

Earlier this year, I visited Japan to help Business Insider launch its one of its latest international editions, Business Insider Japan.

After spending two weeks in Tokyo, one aspect of the city continued to strike me after I returned: the overwhelming abundance of vending machines.

The proliferation of vending machines is impossible to ignore. They are on nearly every block in Tokyo — down alleyways, in front of convenience stores, in areas both residential and commercial.

At slightly over 5 million nationwide, Japan has the highest density of vending machines worldwide. There is approximately 1 vending machine per every 23 people, according to the Japan Vending Machine Manufacturers Association. Annual sales total more than $60 billion.

And they are marked by an incredible variety. The machines sell any number of types of soft drinks, coffee, tea, cigarettes, candy, soup, hot food, and even sake and beer.

The pervasiveness and variety of Japan’s vending machines isn’t an unexplored topic. If there’s one thing Americans returning from Japan appear to like to write/read about, it’s the wild and strange products sold in vending machines.

Among the first results on a Google search for “Japan vending machines”: “12 Japanese vending machines you won’t believe exist,” “18 things you can buy in Japanese vending machines,” “25 things you’ll only find in vending machines in Japan,” “9 crazy Japanese vending machines,” and “The 7 weirdest Japanese vending machines.”

What interested me, however, was what the vending machines say about Japan’s unique culture. An obvious answer stuck out: Japanese people, and Tokyoites in particular, work a lot and therefore value convenience. But so do New Yorkers, as well as any other number of city-dwellers, and still vending machines are not nearly as popular.

So why are they ubiquitous? Sociologists and economists have offered a few potential answers.

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